Sikorsky CH-54A Tarhe: The Helicopter from Swordfish
The CH-54A in a scene in Swordfish film
As most people unfamiliar with the advances made in aviation, seeing a passenger bus on sling hoist from a flying helicopter would be highly unlikely. Most of us may even doubt if it is possible. But that was how the story goes in the film Swordfish (2001) which stars Hugh Jackman, John Travolta and Halle Berry where the type of helicopter was utilized to hoist a bus full of hostages at the course of the film. This article is addressed to answer speculations whether that particular scene was actually feasible.
Sikorsky built its first crane helicopter in May 1958 as the S-60 for research purposes with funds shared with the US Navy. With positive results and thinking of the potential of such type of helicopter, the US Army immediately placed an order for 6 units based on an upgraded prototype, the S-64A in 1963 following an impressive evaluation at Fort Benning, Georgia. Five of the six S-64A were then assigned with the 478th Aviation Company and gained the military designation CH-54A and saw action with the US Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. Their usability prompted the need for more units and sixty more were added. With its impressive capabilities and more powerful engines, the CH-54A have included the following assortment of loads in its daily operations like trucks, huge containers designed as mobile hospitals equipped with casualty litters, 67 troops equivalent to 10,382 kg in weight, lifting of bulldozers and tanks and a demonstration of the type successfully lifting 87 troops. The world record set by the type was the lifting of a pod with 90 passengers made on 29 April 1965.
CH-54A in action with the Army's detachable pod
At first glance the features of the CH-54A making it different from other helicopters is its central “backbone type” fuselage allowing for the support of its podded engines and main and tail rotor systems. The enclosed cockpit had been reserved for the pilots and crew forward of the fuselage and what should be enclosed cabin on other helicopters had been replaced by empty space for sling-hoisting the US Army's detachable pod or any oversized cargo that would fit in between its fixed main wheels at both sides. It has six bladed fully articulated main rotors and four bladed tail rotors. Power comes from two Pratt & Whitney JFTD12-4A turboshaft engines (CH-54A) with maximum continuous rating of 2,983 kW each. Variants of these engines were used in business jets of early 60s like the Lockheed JetStar and the North American Sabreliner.
While a proven workhorse, the overall count of CH-54A Tarhes delivered to the US Army were only 97 units from 1964 to 1972. Its special task had been taken over by the less capable Boeing CH-47 Chinook. The Nevada Army National Guard was the last to retire its CH-54s in 1993 and the design rights for the S-64 (on its civilian designation) was sold by Sikorsky to Erickson Air-Crane, Co. of Oregon in 1992 which utilized the type in its logging and heavylift operations as early as 1972.