In this Episode of the Hangar Deck Podcast, the team interviews US Navy CMDCM (NAC/AW) Lee Barbrey (ret). and discuss the mission, history and future of the U.S. Navy Helicopter Squadrons HCS-84 and HCS-85. These squadrons have rich histories within the US Navy and are highly regarded due to their close relationships with Special Forces.
Lee explains the history that dates back to the Vietnam War and the significance of these specialized squadrons. In recent weeks, we have noticed news articles discussing the future of these squadrons.
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The History of HSC-84 and HSC-85.
Pre-HA(L)-3 Helicopter Attack (Light) 3 – Aircraft – Bell UH-1
Prior to the Vietnam War, helicopter was a valued tool within the United States Army. Helicopters within the United States Navy were used for Search and Rescue (SAR),
Vertical replenishment (VERTREP), Marine Amphibious operations and experimental ASW and Mine Sweeping. The helicopter was continually ignored as an offensive weapon in favor of the traditional, fixed-wing aircraft.
In 1965, the US Navy began joint operations off the coast southern coast of South Vietnam. In the same year, the Navy began limited river operations in the Mekong Delta to disrupt the lines of communications, locating supply caches, and eliminating tax collecting stations. The “Brown-Water” US Navy’s was committed to river operations on a full scale basis, It was also determined that key to the survival of the boats would be Close Air Support (CAS). Initially, the “Brown Water” Navy was supported by elements of the 145th Army Combat Aviation Battalion due to their experience in helicopter gunship operations and tactics. Operating off the USS Belle Grove (LSD-2), the Army and Navy worked together on Operation Jackstay.
This joint effort was a success, but the US NAVY felt that Naval Aviators and Aircrewman would be more suitable for the mission because it required pilots and aircrew to operate off the flight deck of ships in all weather conditions, day and night. US Army’s pilots and aircrews lacked this type of shipboard training and operations. This identified a need for a dedicated US Navy, helicopter gunship program.
The Birth of the HA(L)-3 from HC-1
In 1966, Naval Special Warfare (NSW) rotary support was originated as part of the response to the Vietnam War. This all started with with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron ONE (HC-1),
which provided a quick reaction, Close Air-Support (CAS) role to the US Navy’s Special Warfare Groups And Riverine “Brown Water” units and the effectiveness was quickly realized.
The US Navy began to widen the mission requirements. This created a need for a specific Squadron in support of the mission requirements. In April 1967, HC-1 was divided into four separate units,
- Helicopter Combat Support Squadron THREE (HC-3) – Navy Vertical Replenishment.
- Helicopter Combat Support Squadron FIVE (HC-5) – Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS).
- Helicopter Combat Support Squadron SEVEN (HC-7) – Navy Combat Search and Rescue
- Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3 HA(L)-(3) – Navy Special Warfare Support
In 1966, the Navy sent a fleet wide message, seeking volunteer Naval Aviators to join HA(L)-3. 80 Naval Aviators responded and were chosen to be the plankowners for the first “Seawolves” squadron which immediately transferred to the Vietnam War. On 1 April 1967, HA(L)-3 was officially commissioned in South Vietnam.
HA(L)-3 POST Vietnam
After Vietnam HA(L)-3 was decommissioned on 16 March 1972. The Seawolves flew over 120,000 combat sorties over Vietnam and Cambodia. Over 200 Seawolves would be wounded in combat and 44 killed in action.
HA(L)-4 (Helicopter Attack Light 4)
4 years from the decommissioning of HA(L)-3 the US Navy identified the need for this type of specialized, special warfare aviation support mission. HA(L)-4 was established on 1 July 1976 at Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia as a US Navy Reserve Unit. They provided aviation support for Naval Special Warfare (NSW, seals) and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams. During October 1989, HA(L)-4 was re-designated Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadron 4 (HCS-4).
HA(L)-5 was established a year later at Naval Air Station Pt. Mugu and later, 2001, moved to Naval Air Station North Island and provided the same aviation support for Naval Special Warfare (NSW) and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team support for west coast units. HA(L)-5 was re-designated Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadron 5 (HCS-5).
HCS-4 and HCS-5 transitioned to the HH-60H Seahawk (special mission configuration) and added Strike Rescue (CSAR) to its primary mission. The squadrons are structured as Expeditionary Units which means they are able to operate independently from remote sites.
December 1990, HCS-4 was mobilized one detachment to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm marking the first use of the HH-60H in combat. 4 helicopters with support personnel were based at RSAF Tabuk, Saudi Arabia and operated from forward bases at Al Jouf and Ar’Ar (an alert strip 10 miles from the Iraqi border).
HCS-4 provided 24-hour Strike Rescue and Special Warfare support to coalition forces. In September 1994, HCS-4 was in support of Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti. In less than 48 hours, two aircraft with support personnel were equipped and ready for combat operations aboard ships of the Atlantic Fleet. The detachment initially deployed aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69).
January 1996, HCS-4 deployed a one helicopter detachment in support of the USS George Washington (CVN-73) during its deployment to the Adriatic Sea for Operation Joint Endeavor.
In September 2001, HCS-4 was winding down a successful mini-detachment to Ft. Belvior, VA when the morning of September 11th, 2001 they received word of a terrorist attack on The Pentagon embarked on Helicopter in support of the Pentagon Rescue efforts.
March 2003, HCS-4 was once again called upon to deploy in support of Operation Noble Eagle and Iraqi Freedom. HCS-4 deployed four helicopters and support personnel to support this mission to Ballad IRAQ.
On 1 October 2006, HCS-4 and HCS-85 were re-designated Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Eight Four (HSC-84) and Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Eight Five (HCS-85).