How Black Hawk Helicopters Work

History and Development

Helicopters entered military combat for the first time during World War II. Since then, their use has transformed from only search-and-rescue and medevac to that of assault weapon (see How Apache Helicopters Work). Tactically, the helicopter evolved during the Vietnam War with the advent of the Bell UH-1 "Huey" Iroquois helicopter, according to Stephen F. Tomajczyk, author of "Black Hawk".

Photo courtesy Department of Defense - Defense Visual Information Center
A U.S. Marine UH-1N Iroquois helicopter surveys an Iraqi military complex West of Diwaniyah, Iraq, during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Tomajczyk credits Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore with developing the battle tactic of sending troops into the battlefield using the Huey, and then quickly transporting soldiers back to safety when the fight was over. Moore and his role in the first major battle of the Vietnam War at Ia Drang was the basis for the book and movie "We Were Soldiers."

Photo courtesy Department of Defense - Defense Visual Information Center

Based on the success of helicopter combat during the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army sought to devise a more advanced helicopter for use in battle. While the Huey showed that it was capable of moving troops to battle, the Army sought a design that was adaptable for different configurations, provided more power, and was quieter and more maneuverable than the Huey. The Army set up the Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System (UTTAS) program to develop this new transport helicopter.

In 1972, both Boeing and Sikorsky were contracted to develop prototypes for this new breed of combat helicopter. Four years later, Sikorsky eventually won the competition to build the Army's new UH-60A helicopter. It is tradition to name Army helicopters in honor of a Native American tribe. In that tradition, the UH-60A was named the Black Hawk.

The Black Hawk entered service in 1978, and it saw its first combat action in 1983, when United States forces invaded Grenada. Since it entered service, the Black Hawk has logged more than 5 million flight hours. It has provided transport for troops in Panama, Southwest Asia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Photo courtesy Department of Defense - Defense Visual Information Center
An air-to-air rear view of a UH-60 Black Hawk air ambulance in use during a training exercise in Egypt in 1983. (Visible in the background are the Great Pyramids and the city of Cairo.)

A new power train was added to the Black Hawk in 1989, and the helicopter's designation changed from UH-60A to UH-60L. Future upgrades are planned that will focus on advanced avionics, enhanced survivability, and improved reliability. These improvements will ensure that the Black Hawk stays in the U.S. arsenal through at least 2025. An upgraded Black Hawk, the UH-60M, should enter production in 2007.

Today, the Black Hawk is adapted to serve varying purposes. In the next section, we will look at some of the variations that are derived from the UH-60L.