A fleet of new helicopters scheduled to start arriving at Kirtland Air Force Base in 2020 ensures the base's continued role as the nation's leading training center for Air Force combat search-and-rescue operations.
Kirtland will be the first Air Force installation in the country to receive the new breed of search-and-rescue helicopter, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said Tuesday during a news conference at the base.
Heinrich, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the new copters will replace KAFB's fleet of aging HH-60G Pave Hawk Helicopters between 2020 and 2028.
"The 58th Special Operations Wing at KAFB is the premier training site for Air Force special operations and combat search and rescue aircrews, currently operating 14 HH-60G's and employing more than 2,570 airmen, civilians and contractors," Heinrich said. "Today's announcement is another example of why New Mexico is, and will continue to be, a leader in national security for years to come."
Heinrich said the new helicopters will ensure the future viability of the base as well as the economic benefit to the Albuquerque community that comes with keeping more than 2,500 people employed.
Although the new helicopters will not arrive for several years, a simulator designed to help train crews will be installed at the base next year, Heinrich said. The old Pave Hawks will be used until they are all replaced.
The Air Force's new combat rescue helicopter is the HH-60W, nicknamed 60-Whiskey until an official name is chosen. It is based on the Army's UH-60M Black Hawk but will have extended range and efficiency, better high-altitude performance and more cabin space. In 2014, Sikorsky won a $1.28 billion contract to develop the new helicopter.
Col. Dagvin Anderson, commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing, said the new aircraft will be a welcome replacement for thevenerable Pave Hawks, twin-turboshaft-engine aircraft that have been in service since the 1980s. He said the U.S. had been using Pave Hawks since the invasion of Panama in 1989.
"And they have been in the desert (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan) since then," Anderson said. "We have worked them hard."
The Air Force had considered terminating the helicopter replacement program. Heinrich was among the senators who more than two years ago sent a letter to the secretary of defense strongly opposing the replacement program's termination and urging the Pentagon to fund the combat-rescue helicopter mission. Heinrich said it is a program worth preserving.
"This rescue mission is about saving lives," Heinrich said. "Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Air Force search and rescue forces have saved over 5,000 U.S., allied and host nation lives in the U.S. Central Command theater (Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia) and saved over 3,300 American lives during rescue operations in the United States."