Last year, the U.S. Air Force retired the last six (of 72 built) MH-53J Pave Low helicopters it used for supporting special (now SOCOM) operations. The MH-53s had served in this capacity since the 1960s. During that time, the aircrew of these aircraft had earned a record 140 Silver Stars for valor (and a commensurate number of other awards). Despite heavy use, in often hazardous missions, the crews had suffered only 41 major accidents, costing 87 lives. Never have so few aircraft collected so many decorations.
The U.S. Air Force component of SOCOM in now receiving CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft to replace the retired MH-53Js. The CV-22, unlike the U.S. Marine Corps version, the MV-22, will have lots more expensive electronics on board. This will help the CV-22 when traveling into hostile territory. The CV-22 also carries a terrain avoidance radar, an additional 900 gallons of fuel and more gadgets in general. The 25 ton CV-22 is a major improvement on the 21 ton MH-53, with three times the range, and a higher cruising speed (at 410 kilometers an hour, nearly twice that of the helicopter). The CV-22 can travel about nearly a thousand kilometers, in any weather, and land or pick up 18 fully equipped commandoes.
The MH-53 had a six man crew (two pilots, two flight engineers and two gunners). Normally, it carried 37 troops, but could cram in over fifty if need be. Before the MH-53 joined SOCOM in the 1980s, they performed the riskiest air force mission; retrieving pilots who bailed out in enemy territory.