MARCH 2011 – Many wounded soldiers on a battle field in Vietnam were desperate to get urgent medical attention. The US Army designated a special mission for the retrieval of personnel and it was to become famously known as DUST OFF!

This extensively researched article details the missions, development and history and crew flightgear.


The name meant a medical evacuation helicopter “sortie” was flown to move a wounded person/or people out of harms way – eg from a warzone or battle ground.

Dust Off had its origins in the Korean War when Bell 47 helicopters flew wounded soldiers to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals – MASH – as famously made a icon in the MASH Tv series of the 1970-80s.

https://i2.wp.com/www.bell47helicopterassociation.org/me-korea%20refueling%201951.jpg https://i2.wp.com/www.bell47helicopterassociation.org/me-b47d1%20winter%20cowling%201951.jpg

The use of the helicopter as a transport tool to move wounded was off to a limited start….. only 2 patients could fit In each skid side and 1 in the cabin. Neverless along side other helicopters this was the start of aero medical evacuations flights from the battlefield. Between Korea and Vietnam bigger, more powerful and more suitable helicopters came into use. One of these was the new Bell HU-1A Iroquois or as it came to be known to all – HUEY.

The modern Dust Off system which expanded on the Korean MASH operations, originated in the Vietnam War where early UH-1A were flown in medical evac missions moving wounded personnel to hospitals.
In April of 1962, the 57th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) arrived in Vietnam with five UH-1 “Huey” helicopters. They took the call sign


The 57th initially communicated internally on any vacant frequency it could find. In Saigon, the Navy Support Activity, which controlled all call words used in call signs in South Vietnam, allowed the 57th to adopt the callsign “DUSTOFF.” This callsign epitomized the 57th’s medical evacuation missions. Dust Off was created as a codename since the countryside was then dry and dusty, helicopter pickups in the fields often blew dirt, blankets,dust and shelters all around and over the men on the ground.


Though other call signs regularly changed, it became noted that most of the ground and aviation units refused to refer to these evacuation helicopters by any other callsign. By adopting “DUSTOFF”, in those early stages of the Vietnam war, the legend was born. The call sign “DUSTOFF,” is now synonymous with life-saving US military aero medical evacuation.

Throughout Vietnam all evacuation helicopters assumed the call sign “DUSTOFF” followed be a numerical designation xxx (the exception being the air ambulances of the 1st Calvary Division which used the call sign Medevac xxx) and it seems no one ever attempted to change this during the remainder of the war.

As the Vietnam war grew in scale and more and more Huey units came into the many bases across South Vietnam, more and more Dust Off detachments and finally more units were created.
Soon other helicopter units made the Dust Off mission in their operational plans as a last resort.

Dust Off crews generally flew clean ie slick no M60s on sides for defence. Their only defence which the Viet Cong and NVA usually rejected as legitimate was the Red Cross symbol – a red cross on a white background – which was placed on the nose and side doors.

This Red Cross symbol slowed became to be seen as a hindrance as it was a LARGE
target aim point for the VC/NVA soldiers….


A Dustoff crew consisted of four people: two pilots, a medic and a crew chief. Usually, one pilot would fly the helicopter while the other acted as the aircraft commander. Below we see what they wore in their duties.

The flight suits in the early days consisted of standard US Army OG 107 greens fatigue or battle dress uniforms, flight boots and a pistol in a holster on waist.
Early days had high visual names tags, unit markings and other ranks with colour and these stood out.

Flight suits olive drab K-2B types replaced the standard battledress uniforms. In 1969 the US Army started to introduce the Hot Weather Nylon OG 106 first generation Nomex flight suits and 2 piece Nomex flight suits. The sleeves were designed to be not rolled up for protection.

As with this change in suits, by late 1960s most units had crews wearing toned downed name tags and rank as camouflage was a critical element.
High visual markings could mean a crew member might be killed by a observant enemy solider…

APH-5/A flight helmets – white coloured were used initially from 192 until mid 1965.
As the conflict developed white helmets gave way to green painted helmets – some developed artwork raising morale.

Flight helmets by 1969 period had advanced to the new SPH-3/4 series by end of war which was a development of the SPH-2 USN flight helmet. The SPH-4 is a single-visor lighter-weight version of the SPH-3.

The Sound Protective Helmet-4 (SPH-4) was a derivative of the US Navy SPH-3 and was used by the US Army since 1969.
The SPH-4 was introduced in 1969 replacing the two Army aircrew helmets, APH-5 and AFH-1, which had deficiencies in noise attenuation and retention capacity.

The SPH-4 replaced the two Army aircrew helmet then in use: The Navy-developed Aircrew Protective Helmet no 5 (APH-5) and the Army-developed Anti-fragmentation Helmet No. 1 (AFH-1). Both of these helmets were deficient in noise attenuation and retention capability.

The SPH-4, which was specifically designed for sound protection, provided superior sound attenuation but the 1970 version provided no more impact protection than the APH-5A. As the sciences of crash worthiness and head injury prevention developed, it became evident that head injuries could be reduced by modifying the SPH-4.

Two types of head injury that might be prevented continued to occur after the introduction of the SPH-4. One was concussions severe enough to prevent the crew member from saving himself from the crash site, and the other was skull fractures due to blows from the side (lateral). Furthermore, helmet retention proved to be a problem as well. A helmet can only protect a crew member if it stays in place and it turned out that one in five crew members involved in severe crashes lost their helmet.

The SPH- series provided excellent sound attenuating characteristics due to the fact its headset was mounted in 6mm thick plastic earcups, and also featured superior crash protection because of its thick shell made of fiberglass cloth layers bonded by epoxy. The APH-5 and AFH-1 were more likely to injure a person in crash due to their design shape and components.

As the war dragged on, crews were issued body armour. Initially M-1955 US army vest were used then specialised vests were built.

The specialised armor was designed specifically for helicopter crews and introduced by the US Army in 1968. The armor, popularly known as “Chicken Plate”, was a two part cloth carrier with large external pockets containing rigid ceramic plates.

Two versions of the Aircrew Body Armor existed, with either a single frontal plate for pilots and copilots, or with both front and back plates for door gunners. The armor featured quick-release snap fasteners with non-slip buckles on both shoulders, wrap around Velcro waist flaps and a front nylon chest pocket.

These vest were comprised of aluminium oxide ceramic plates inserted into a vest with front and rear section. The vest was worn over the uniform or suit. More can be seen here – http://www.vietnamgear.com/Article.aspx?Art=91


Here we see a late war crew with SPH-4 helmets, 2 piece Nomex flight suits and late war body armour.

Crew on left wear AFH-1 helmets and body armour. Crew on right wear 2 piece Nomex flight suit.

Crew in standard OG-107 uniforms and and nomex flight suits.

Crew wearing SPH-4 and AFH-1 helmets in 1970 during the transition era of flight helmets.

Pilot on left wears AFH-1 flight helmet and on right a APH-5/A flight helmet.

On left green AFH-1 flight helmet and on right , a white and a high visibility APH-5/A flight helmet.

Left – APH-5 and right – AFH-1 flight helmets on these pilots.

The commander would navigate, monitor all of the radio transmissions, talk to the unit requesting the medevac and would take over flying if the pilot were injured.

APH-5/A flight helmet on left. On right a headset and baseball cap. Note body armour and nomex flight suit. Note both helicopters have armour plates on the seat sides.

SPH-4 is worn by this pilot. Note the Nomex shirt.

The medic kept the helicopter stocked with the necessary medical supplies and the crew chief
would maintain the helicopter in top working condition.

Left is a AFH-1 flight helmet and on right possibly a SPH-4.

Left shows a SPH-4 and body armour on medic and right shows a APH-5/A and body armour.

AFH-1 flight helmet

They would both load the patients onto the helicopter and the medic would administer any necessary medical treatment on the way to the hospital, often with the help of the crew chief. The medic and crew chief would stay with a particular helicopter while the pilots were interchangeable between helicopters.

Note early body armour vest M-1955 type and APH-5/A flight helmet with blue cover.

These brave crews saved many lives of the soldiers and others. They were universally respected by all of the soldiers in the war. Medivac flights saved many lives in the Vietnam War – over a period of 13years.

Here we see some film of Dust Offs in action – some of the scenes maybe graphic for some readers to see, tho this is the harsh and sad reality of war and why the Dust Off were used – to save the lives as best as can.

This film shows a restored Huey flying and sounds – showing how it moved and hovered with ease – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0q42WTJdC0&feature=related

Not related to Dust Off but this film shows a mass formation of Hueys in 2008 in New Zealand.. giving some idea of the mass formations that once flew in Vietnam on a daily basis. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEkMxRUtYBk&


DUST – OFF – 2011
The modern day DUST OFF mission is continued on by the UH-60 Blackhawk series helicopter in use with the US Army. Various models have been /are in service deployed all around the world..

Modern era Dust Off crew member in 2008 holding a HGU-56/P US Army flight helmet, tan 2 piece flight suit and CMU-33/P22P-18 AIRSAVE Survival Vest

Modern era Dust Off crew medivac in 2008 wearing a HGU-56/P US Army flight helmet, tan flight suit and CMU-33/P22P-18 AIRSAVE Survival Vest. Note the purple gloves medical type for working on the patient.


Further information on DUST OFF can be found at http://www.dustoff.org

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