Sikorsky built the CH-54 helicopter to meet the U.S. Army’s need for a heavy lift helicopter. The S-64 Skycrane first flew on May 9, 1962. The U.S. Army designated the helicopter the CH-54 Tarhe, named after a Wyandotte leader whose nickname was “The Crane”. The initial order was for 66 CH-54As. Sikorsky made delivery in 1964. The U.S. Army ordered 36 CH-54Bs. Sikorsky delivered the first two CH-54Bs in 1969. The West German Bundesluftwaffe purchased 2 of the 5 S-64 prototypes for evaluation.[i] The Bundesluftwaffe decided they preferred helicopters with an internal cabin.[ii] The Tarhe served in the U.S. Army Reserves until 1991. The Skycrane was the last helicopter designed by legendary helicopter designer Igor Sikorsky. A CH-54 set an altitude record for level flight of 36,000 feet (11,000 meters) in 1971.[iii] CH-54s also set climb records to 10,000[iv], 20,000[v], and 30,000[vi] feet (3,000, 6,000, and 9,000 meters).
[i] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman © 1977, P. 233.
[ii] Sikorsky Archives, https://www.sikorskyarchives.com/S-64_Product_History%20modX.php, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[iii] FAI Record ID #9918 – Altitude in horizontal flight, Class E-1 (Helicopters) turbine.
[iv] FAI Record ID #9942 – Altitude in horizontal flight, Class E-1 (Helicopters) turbine.
[v] FAI Record ID #9957 – Altitude in horizontal flight, Class E-1 (Helicopters) turbine.
[vi] FAI Record ID #9960 – Altitude in horizontal flight, Class E-1 (Helicopters) turbine.
Tarhe’s could carry bulldozers and other heavy equipment. They could also carry 155mm howitzers. They also dropped 10-ton bombs, called “daisy cutters”. These bombs were used primarily to quickly make helicopter landing zones by clearing patches of rainforest. CH-54s sometimes dropped daisy cutters to collapse enemy tunnels.[i]
A CH-54, serial number 64-14204, had its cable or sling gear wrap around it tail rotor on January 5, 1966. The crash killed Chief Warrant Officer 3 (CW3) Alton L. Gajan, Chief Warrant Officer 2 (CW2) Robert C. Lane, Specialist 5 Joseph E. Hetzer Jr., Specialist 5 (SP5) Carver J. English Jr., and Specialist 4 (SP4) Lionel J. Bryan Jr.[ii]
On April 1, 1968 a joint U.S. Marine and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) garrison had been under siege at Khe Sanh since January 21. Two Marine battalions were moving up Route 9 toward Khe Sanh. CH-54s delivered bulldozers and 155mm howitzers and the Marines established hilltop firebases. Tarhe’s delivered other heavy equipment so Marine engineers could rebuild the roads. The battalions reached Kae Sanh on April 8. Three days later Route 9 was declared open. [iii] The siege was broken.
The one Tarhe lost to enemy fire occurred on April 19, 1968. CH-54A, serial number 64-14205, was carrying a bulldozer into Landing Zone Tiger when it was shot down by 37 mm cannon fire, killing Major Arthur J. Lord, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles W. Millard, Master Sergeant Michael R. Werdehoff, and Specialist 6 Philip R. Shafer.[iv]
On April 24, 1972 a CH-54A, serial number 68-18442, crashed in Laos while delivering a D-4 dozer. The crash killed Specialist 4 Michael D. Cleaves. CW3 Hart, CW2 Hokanson, and SP4 Stritesky were injured. [v] Eight CH-54s were lost to accidents in the Southeast Asia warzone.[vi]
CH-54Bs began service in Vietnam in 1969. The Tarhe’s lacked armament and maneuverability. The CH-54s were moved to rear area missions as improved CH-47 Chinook helicopters became available. The CH-54 served almost until the end of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In Vietnam CH-54s retrieved 380 crashed aircraft.[vii] This includes an Air America C-7 Caribou recovered in Laos on May 21, 1969.[viii] There were two that got away. On May 5, 1966 a CH-54 was transporting a downed Marine Corps A-4C Skyhawk. The crew had to jettison the Skyhawk.[ix] On June 9, 1970 a CH-54 was airlifting a C-7B Caribou when the sling snapped. The Caribou was damaged beyond repair in the fall.[x]
The Combat Air Museum in Topeka, Kansas got a CH-54A on loan from U.S. Army surplus. Unlike most museum pieces, the museum put this Tarhe to work. This CH-54A brought a F11F-1, a F-84F, and a F-86H to the museum.[xi]
The Skycrane is still in commercial service especially in the energy and forest industries in the American Northwest, Alaska, and Canada.[xii] Germany sold their S-64s to Erickson Air Crane. Erickson Inc. uses their S-64s for firefighting, logging, powerline and infrastructure construction.[xiii]
[i] History.net, https://www.historynet.com/skycrane-the-wars-heavy-hauler.htm, last accessed 7/8/2020.
[ii] Army Aircrews, Other Heli Crews, http://armyaircrews.com/other_nam.html, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[iii] History.net, https://www.historynet.com/skycrane-the-wars-heavy-hauler.htm, last accessed 7/8/2020.
[iv] Army Aircrews, Other Heli Crews, http://armyaircrews.com/other_nam.html, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[v] The Wall of Faces, Michael D. Cleaves, https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/9412/MICHAEL-D-CLEAVES/#:~:text=Final%20Mission%20of%20SP4%20Michael%20D.%20Cleaves%20On,departed%20the%20Udorn%20hotel%20at%20approximately%200730%20hours, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[vi] History.net, https://www.historynet.com/skycrane-the-wars-heavy-hauler.htm, last accessed 7/8/2020.
[vii] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman © 1977, P. 233.
[viii] Air America: Sikorsky CH-54 Skycrane by Dr. Joe F. Leeker, August 15, 2003, https://utdallas.edu/library/specialcollections/hac/cataam/Leeker/aircraft/ch54.pdf, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[ix] Vietnam Air Losses, https://www.vietnamairlosses.com/index.php/statistics/accidents, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[x] Vietnam Air Losses, https://www.vietnamairlosses.com/index.php/statistics/accidents, last accessed 7/9/2020.
[xi] Combat Air Museum, http://www.combatairmuseum.org/aircraft/sikorskyskycrane.html, last accessed 7/8/2020.
[xii] History.net, https://www.historynet.com/skycrane-the-wars-heavy-hauler.htm, last accessed 7/8/2020.
[xiii] Erickson, https://ericksoninc.com/, last accessed 7/9/2020.
CH-54 Tarhe Stats
19,234 lbs.(8,724 kg)
Max Load Weight
42,000 lbs (19,000 kg)
47,000 lbs (21,000 kg)
Max Cargo Load
22,766 lbs (10,326 kg)
27,766 lbs (12,594 kg)
126 mph (203 km)
230 miles (370 km)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Robert Sacchi
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 14, 2020:
I can understand that. Both the CH47 and CH53 can also be used as troop transports.
The Chinook was used extensively in the Falklands war and in Afghanistan. They're used by the RAF as flying hospitals flying the wounded from a firefight.
I've seen YouTube clips where the CH47 was flying so fast with wounded soldiers they outran their Apache escorts!
Robert Sacchi (author) on August 14, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. The U.S. Army decided they wanted helicopters that had cabins. The only one I've seen was a civilian one flying over Staten Island many years ago.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on August 13, 2020:
Thank you for the information here, the CH54 was one of a few helicopters I didn't meet during my time in the Forces, though I was very familiar with the CH47 and the CH53.
Robert Sacchi (author) on July 13, 2020:
Thank you both for reading and commenting.
MG Singh - Thanks for the information.
FlourishAnyway - Yes, it is an amazing vehicle. It's a real workhorse.
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 13, 2020:
This is quite an amazing vehicle with its altitude and weight capacities. Both are surprising.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on July 12, 2020:
Robert. the overhaul could take upward of 15 months.
Robert Sacchi (author) on July 11, 2020:
Thank you both for reading and commenting.
Peggy Woods - I'm out of my league with helicopters but power to weight ratio may be at least part of the reason why it can achieve such altitudes.
MG Singh - the Mi-26 is huge. The Mi-10 has the long landing gear like the CH-54. We don't see much in the way of Russian hardware over here. About how long will the overhaul take?
MG Singh emge from Singapore on July 10, 2020:
It was interesting reading about this machine and I was reminded of the MI-26 on which I had converted. It was a brute of a machine and the largest chopper in the world. It could carry a Bofors gun. Presently the machines are going to Russia for an overhaul to extend their life by 15 years.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 10, 2020:
That helicopter carries weighty loads. I am amazed that it can fly up to 36,000 feet!
Robert Sacchi (author) on July 10, 2020:
Thank you for reading and commenting. Part of the reason for it lifting ability is that it doesn't have a passenger compartment. The shape gave it the unofficial nickname, "the insect". The Luftwaffe and eventually the U.S. Army decided they favored a passenger compartment. So they turned to other helicopter types.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 10, 2020:
This is a very interesting article about the CH-54 Tarhe. It is amazing to me how this helicopter can pick up so much weight. Thanks for sharing the excellent information, Robert.
Robert Sacchi (author) on July 10, 2020:
Thank you very much for reading, commenting, and sharing. Thank you for your service.
Dan W Miller from the beaches of Southern California now living in Phoenix since 2000 on July 09, 2020:
I Saved A Life In A Sikorsky Helicopter Group on Facebook.
NAS WHIDBEY ISLAND, WA. Med Corps USN Nav Hosp SAR HM2 D.W. Miller
"So that others may live."