The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the Air Force Rescue Squadrons (RQs) will soon receive their new search and rescue (SAR) workhorse, the Sikorsky HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter. The HH-60W recently completed its maiden flight and will soon replace the aging HH-60G Pave Hawk.

According to Lockheed Martin, the parent company of Sikorsky, the new helicopter is designed and built to fulfill long-range search and rescue operations in high-threat environments. The new version of the venerable Black Hawk helicopter has double the internal fuel capacity without the need to carry additional external fuel tanks, which would make the helicopter more vulnerable to ground fire. Additionally, the helicopter can be outfitted with a variety of weapons systems, including .50 caliber GAU-18/A or GAU-21/A machine guns and 7.62 Gatling M134 miniguns. It sports a formidable combination of defensive systems and sensors that enhance its survivability in combat conditions. Lockheed Martin’s description states that the helicopter retains “100 percent commonality with all UH-60M engine and dynamic systems,” thereby making the aircraft easier to maintain.

Dana Fiatarone, the vice president of Sikorsky Army and Air Force systems, said in a statement that “this achievement is yet another vital step toward a low rate initial production decision and getting this much-needed aircraft and its advanced capabilities to the warfighter. We are very pleased with the results of today’s flight and look forward to a productive and informative flight test programme.”

The search for the HH-60G’s replacement began in the early 2000s with the Combat Search and Rescue-X (CSAR-X) program. It had almost ended in 2006 with the choice of Boeing’s HH-47, a SAR version of the Chinook helicopter, but lobbying by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky successfully torpedoed the deal.

The Sikorsky combat rescue helicopter program director, Greg Hames, said, “The HH-60W’s first flight is the culmination of significant development and design advances. We are excited to now move forward to begin full aircraft system qualification via the flight test programme. Together with the airforce [sic], our team is motivated and committed to advancing this programme and delivering this superior aircraft to our airmen and women.”

On the Air Force’s behalf, Edward Stanhouse, the chief of the Helicopter Program Office, said, “With the Combat Rescue Helicopter’s successful first flight now behind us, we look forward to completion of Sikorsky’s flight test program, operational testing, and production of this aircraft to support the Air Force’s critical rescue mission. Increased survivability is key and we greatly anticipate the added capabilities this aircraft will provide.”

The HH-60W has an effective combat radius of 195 nautical miles (which amounts to approximately 225 regular miles). The Air Force plans to procure 113 helicopters.