Inside the Gates: Miniguns give Pave Hawks major punch
Although most Alaskans rescued by the Alaska Air National Guard's Pave Hawk helicopters won't see them armed, their wartime role requires them to carry some serious firepower.
In Alaska, the HH-60 coordinates with HC-130 search planes to find missing people and refuel, but its military mission is combat search and rescue.
"There is a lot of things people don't see," said Tech Sgt. Jason Trexler, with the 176th Wing's Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "What we do here is maintain all the weapons systems, as well as do various training with the countermeasures so that our guys here can stay proficient and qualified in case we have to deploy and head to a hostile environment."
When it's flown into battle the HH-60 carries the M134 Minigun: an electrically driven Gatling-style weapon with rotating barrels which can fire up to 4,000 rounds per minute. A gunner aims the weapon, which is mounted along the helicopter's side.
"The Pave Hawk doesn't necessarily have an aggressive mission," said Staff Sgt. George Offenhauser. "These weapons are primarily for defense. If they are doing combat-type search and rescue, these weapons can be used for suppression, for defense against small weapons against the aircraft."
Making sure the weapons work each time they need to be used is the maintenance squadron's job.
"We maintain these weapons systems," Offenhauser said. "Everything from breaking it down to nuts and bolts, screws, springs, micro measurements of moving parts to make sure everything is functioning to the utmost ability of the machine."
Miniguns weigh about 60 pounds each. They can be mounted or removed from the HH-60s in less then five minutes, while the choppers' rotor blades are still turning.
"The ease of install and removal makes life easier," said Tech Sgt. Mike Whelan said. "If they return with a bent gun, we can be waiting out there with a trailer full of guns. We can take it off, put it on and ops-check it in less than five minutes like a NASCAR pit crew."
The Alaska Air National Guard tries to train with the mounted guns at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson every Tuesday and Thursday.
"This is basically [1930s] technology with minimal upgrades," Whelan said. "We have to have trust in our maintenance abilities to give those guys, flying out there in harm's way to pick up these downed pilots and pick up our downed brethren -- we need to be able to entrust in them that we are giving them a good product."
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