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On a Steel Horse I Ride: A History of the MH-53 Pave Low Helicopters in War and Peace

by Darrel D. Whitcomb, Air University Press, Montgomery, Ala., 2012, $81, free PDF download available at

 I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that On a Steel Horse I Ride is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize based on the depth and breadth of its research, the quality of its writing and the importance of its subject. In 769 fact-filled, emotion-charged pages, Darrel Whitcomb presents the 40-plus-year saga of the Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low helicopter. Only someone with his combat flying experience and dedicated research capability could have written this book, and only the Air University Press would have had the good sense to publish it in such polished form.

The MH-53J Pave Low is truly a steel horse of legendary might, assigned to the most difficult tasks in combat, and capable of pulling them off time after time, war after war. The ability to do so rests of course upon the air and ground crews that operated them, and their adaptability to new conditions, climates and equipment.

Fielded by the Air Force Special Operations Command, the Pave Low was used by the famous 1st Special Operations Wing, whose motto is “Any Time, Any Place.” They were also flown by the 58th SOW and the 352nd and 353rd Special Operations groups in actions around the world.

Whitcomb pulls the reader into the cockpit with him while describing the risky missions that made the Pave Low famous. He also manages to detail the origins of the aircraft, its serial development to meet new combat challenges and its operational history. In lesser hands, the intricate and often bureaucratic background to this development might be boring, but Whitcomb makes it as interesting as the combat action.

The author lays out the life story of the Pave Low and its operators in detail. He supplements this with six information-filled appendices, a useful list of abbreviations, a 24-page bibliography of impressive depth and a detailed index. The book is admirably illustrated with photos emphasizing individual personnel, as well as key locations and aircraft, and buttressed with maps of the theaters in which the Pave Lows flew their missions.

You would be hard-pressed to find a more thoroughly researched, all-encompassing work about an aircraft and its military history. Whitcomb’s book ranks with Dennis Jenkins’ masterpiece Space Shuttle: The History of the National Space Transportation System, and definitely sets the bar much higher for aviation authors.


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.