How the Vietnam War transformed combat air rescue

Huge advances in helicopter technology saved countless lives 

In the early years of aviation, air rescue tactics were rudimentary at best. Throughout World War II, the United States in particular had made it their mission to ensure that ditching in the sea did not have to be the death sentence it once had been. Prior to this period, there had simply been no need to develop search and rescue missions. In 1944, the first combat air rescue by helicopter took place in Northern Burma. The helicopter, a YR-4, and its crew had rescued three men after their aircraft had gone down behind enemy lines. After this, the sophistication of air rescue would only improve and one of the main reasons for this would be the beginning of the Vietnam War. 

Over the three-year course of the Korean War, the United States rescued a total of over 1,000 personnel who had gone down over hostile territory. In particular, the sophistication of helicopter technology meant that search and rescue missions were far more feasible and much less risky than previously. Then in 1961, the United States Air Force began offering training to Vietnamese pilots. It had only been a short time since the crews of United States Air Rescue Service had stopped training for combat and had instead focussed on support missions. With the United States now teaching the Vietnamese, it was difficult to comprehend that the country would in fact be their next major adversaries – namely the Viet Cong. 

At the time when proposals were made to station Search and Rescue crew in Vietnam, many were reluctant. Equipment was still hugely inadequate for the job that needed doing. Many with experience of fighting in World War II were aware of how difficult search and rescue missions could be amongst dense jungle terrain. However, as much of a disadvantage as this terrain could be, it also provided the search and rescue teams with a major advantage as well: cover. Ground attacks could only be launched if the crews on the ground knew where the enemy aircraft were. Often, the canopy provided by the trees meant that the location of search and rescue crews flying above were difficult to pinpoint, and therefore the enemy couldn’t successfully shoot them down.  

In November 1965, one crew received a commendation and award when they successfully rescued the downed pilot of an F-101 Voodoo whilst under enemy fire. Flying in a Grumman HU-16 Albatross, the crew were able to manoeuvre their amphibious seaplane and it was able to land in the water, pulling the pilot of the Voodoo to safety. Throughout the duration of the Vietnam War, rescue missions continued to gain in sophistication, mostly thanks to the advancing technology and improved equipment.  

Often the aircraft used for search and rescue missions would be helicopters. In total, Air Force rescue crews are credited with saving 3,883 lives in South East Asia between 1964 and 1963. Of these, 2,807 were US military: 1,201 Air Force, 926 Army, and 680 Navy. The others were allied military members and civilians. The effort has been said to have been ‘the greatest combat aircrew recovery force in the history of aerial warfare,’ and with good reason. What would once have resulted in death now gave downed combat air crews a fighting chance at survival. Had it not been for the advancement of such an important area of warfare during the Vietnam War, who knows how long the process would have taken to develop and how many more lives would have been lost along the way.