One Company Tried to Turn the U.S. Air Force’s Rescue Choppers Into Gunships
None of the proposals panned out
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 5, 1968, U.S. Air Force HH-3E Jolly Green Giants raced to aid a U.S. Army reconnaissance team pinned down somewhere in southeast Asia. One helicopter tried to land and get the troops on board, but guerrillas chased it off with their machine guns. A second chopper took so many hits it crashed and burned.
As more than a dozen A-1 Skyraider ground attack planes and Army gunships pounded the enemy positions, three more HH-3Es arrived on the scene. The Air Force crews ultimately rescued four soldiers and two of the crew from the downed Jolly Green Giant, according to an official contemporary history.
While this incident was not necessarily typical, these missions were always dangerous business. The experience led the Air Force to try and turn its lumbering search and rescue choppers into heavily armed gunships.
One company was happy to offer various options — but none of the proposals panned out.
In 1890, John Emerson, a Union veteran of the American Civil War, founded a small manufacturing company in St. Louis, Missouri. The Emerson Electric Manufacturing Company started out building electric motors, but expanded into fabricating entire pieces of equipment, including fans, sewing machines and power tools.
During World War II, the firm, by then simply known as Emerson Electric, supplied powered gun turrets to companies building attack aircraft, patrol planes and bombers for American and allied forces.
After the war ended, the Pentagon in general and the Army in particular became interested in turning helicopters into fighting machines. As the idea of armed choppers gained traction, Emerson was well positioned to build the weapon systems.
By the late 1950s, the company had designed some of the first standard armament kits for the UH-1 Huey helicopter. And Emerson didn’t stop there.
With the existing experience, the company’s engineers cooked up a whole family of so-called “Tactical Armament Turrets.” Sales literature boasted that customers could order versions that fit all sorts of helicopters armed with almost any machine gun or cannon that would fit inside the chosen model.
When the Air Force went looking to arm its rescue helicopters, Emerson was the logical choice. By the end of the 1960s, the firm’s technicians had at least three different proposals ready, according to documents in the National Air and Space Museum’s archives and online collections.
One of these options envisioned a turret with a fast-firing Minigun bolted underneath the HH-3E’s rear cargo ramp. At the time, the chopper’s basic armament package was gunner with M-60 machine guns on either side of the fuselage and another in the back.
Emerson contended that this arrangement gave the crew very limited options to deal with threats and no way to shoot at targets dead ahead. Instead, its single turret could turn a full 360 degrees to blast enemy troops wherever they were relative to the chopper.
The whole setup included 9,000 rounds of ammunition and four independent sighting stations. Crew members would use this gear to aim the gun remotely.
In 1967, the Air Force acquired eight more powerful HH-53B Super Jolly Green Giant rescue choppers, which could fly much further than the older HH-3Es. These helicopters also had three gunners at the side doors and rear cargo ramp, but manning Miniguns.
Again, this limited where the crew could actually take shots at enemy troops on the ground, according to Emerson. So the company suggested a more flexible, harder-hitting package for the bigger choppers.
As with the HH-3Es, to give rescue crews more time to find and pick up friendly aviators and troops, Sikorsky had added small stubby wings on either side of the HH-53B’s fuselage for drop tanks full of fuel. Emerson’s engineers figured they could install turrets with automatic cannons in the front of these pylons instead.
Each cannon would be able to swivel nearly 180 degrees, providing near complete coverage around the chopper. Emerson said it could supply the kit armed with either 20-millimeter Mark 12 or M-24A1 cannons or the Army’s experimental XM-140 30-millimeter gun.
The final idea was significantly simpler. Emerson had developed a stand-alone gun pod around its Minigun-armed turret, complete with its own ammunition supply.
Crews could hang the same swiveling guns from the armament racks on either the HH-3Es or the HH-53Bs. Technicians would only need to add the sighting and control equipment to the helicopter, along with the associated wiring.
The Air Force apparently decided the first two proposals were too complicated and bulky. The fixed guns would have weighed down the already sluggish choppers, limiting how far they could fly and how many people they could carry.
But the flying branch was interested in the podded weapons. In theory, with these guns, crews could decide whether or not to carry the extra firepower depending on the situation.
Air Force officials purchased a number of the systems for tests and quickly shipped them off to southeast Asia. In practice, pilots weren’t thrilled with the systems.
“Pilots were not happy about having to choose between fuel and weapons,” according to an entry on the U.S. Air Force Helicopter Pilot Association website. “Most of the time they choose the fuel.”
For rescue teams, trading fuel for firepower would mean less time to do their job. While both the the HH-3E and HH-53B could refuel in mid-air, crews might would still have to break off a search to top up their tanks.
If they were in the middle of a rescue, a low fuel situation could be especially dangerous. On top of that, the bulky pods made the choppers harder to maneuver just like Emerson’s proposed fixed gun packs.
So, the Air Force dropped the turrets, returning to the conventional arrangement of three gunners armed with Miniguns. Rescue crews continued to rely heavily on ground attack aircraft and dedicated gunship helicopters to beat back enemy forces.
Emerson did sell a number of turrets and pods to the U.S. Navy for its rescue choppers. Naval aviators came to the same conclusions about the weapons as their Air Force cousins.
The firm continued to develop more weapon systems for helicopters and aircraft, but met with little success and ultimately dropped the Tactical Armament Turret line. Still headquartered in Missouri, Emerson continues to make a wide array of other electrical products.