The helicopter. First among flying machines. Once just a gleam in the eye of Hamilton Howze, these chariots of the damned have evolved to become the backbone of modern military power. From aerial attacks, to evacuating the wounded, to delivering a fresh supply of lickies and chewies, the entire diabolical machine of American military power relies on rotary wing flight—a concept barely distinguishable from pure magic.
Most anyone who spent more than a few days in Uncle Sam’s gun club got hauled around like a sack of imperial meat in a big ol’ whirlyflopper (usually to someplace they weren’t really keen on to begin with). So in honor of veterans, let us pay homage to the helicopter—that gaggle of lowest-bidder parts flying in tight formation around an oil leak waiting for metal fatigue to set in.
#1 Ohio State - Bell UH-1 Iroquois
(High:1 Low:1 First Place Votes:14)
The OG. The King. The greatest there ever was or ever will be. The source of every stock helicopter sound in movies around the world and—above all—the enduring symbol of the Vietnam War. Though all US Army helicopters (except one) are named for Native American tribes in a fit of almost galling irony, the UH-1 is known to all simply as the Huey. From its humble beginnings as a short-body, single-engine transport ship, the Huey became the most versatile and feared weapon in the low skies. Whether kitted out as a “slick” assault ship, a “Gun” bird for fire support, or a “Dustoff” air ambulance, the Huey was a standout in every dimension. It’s the Justin Fields of helicopters. One notable negative is that early models were quite slow when outfitted as gunships. So you could say it’s also the Tuf Borland of helicopters.
#2 Indiana - Bell AH-1 Huey Cobra
(High:1 Low:1 First Place Votes:8)
Dubbed the Snake by pilots, the narrow-bodied Huey Cobra is the only turbine-powered US Army helicopter not named for a Native people. Bell developed the Cobra as a dedicated aerial attack platform to replace to the Huey gunships that struggled to keep up with lighter troop carriers. The Snake was perfectly suited to the attack role, with great visibility from the tandem cockpit. Air attacks seem to be the secret for Indiana, too, with 50 attempts in their upending of Michigan.
#3 Northwestern - Vertol ACH-47A “Guns-a-Go-Go”
(High:2 Low:3 First Place Votes:0)
A technical marvel in many respects, the CH-47 Chinook was originally conceived to transport nuclear missiles. It would go on to become one of the most successful cargo helicopters in history. In 1965, the US Army modified four Chinooks to into “Attack Cargo Helicopters” with the addition of a number of organic and crew-served weapons, plus significant armor plating. A suite of 20mm cannons, rocket pods, .50 cal machine guns and the M5 grenade launcher system gave the Chinook new and frightening offensive capability. Sort of like adding a Peyton Ramsey.
#4 Purdue - Boeing AH-64E Apache
(High:2 Low:4 First Place Votes:0)
The mainstay of the Cold War battlefield and the last great engineering effort by McDonnell-Douglas, the Apache is a fearsome, modernized killing machine. Few things say “because f*** you, that’s why” as effectively as a 30mm cannon slave to the pilot’s head. Some might be surprised to see the Apache behind the Cobra in this list. For all its air attack prowess, the Apache is just too fragile. It’s always on the verge of true, lasting greatness. But then it breaks down and spends a month in the hangar having half the avionics and one engine replaced. The engine, of course, is the ACL of the helicopter.
#5 Maryland - Piasecki H-21 Shawnee/”Flying Banana”
(High:3 Low:6 First Place Votes:0)
Ugly, but it has its moments. So it’s rather like somebody stuck two rotors on Maryland. Developed in the 1950s as an arctic rescue helicopter, the CH-21 was designed for cold weather operations and thus fared poorly in the jungles of southeast Asia. Swap “cold weather” for “lacrosse” and the B1G looks a whole lot like another Vietnam from Maryland’s perspective. And yet they keep plugging away, unaware of their own hideousness.
#6 Iowa - Sikorsky CH-54 Tarhe
(High:5 Low:9 First Place Votes:0)
Known far and wide as the Skycrane in civil livery, the Tarhe was a no-frills heavy lifter. And we do mean no-frills, to the point that engine cowlings seem an unwarranted extravagance. The Tarhe was a titan of lifting, able to hoist more than its own way off terra firma. Its unique design meant that cargo could be tucked up against the aircraft’s spine, reducing swaying and drag. In a pinch, the Tarhe could also drop daisy cutter bombs to create landing zones. It’s a fitting match, since Iowa can use some really rudimentary concepts to blow up your season (Greg Schiano is still reeling from the Power-I formation debacle of 2017).
#7 Wisconsin - Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior
(High:4 Low:13 First Place Votes:0)
America’s greatest single-engine, most-weather, day/night freedom fighter! The Kiowa Warrior, or simply KW, was the last of the true stick-and-rudder helicopters. Whereas once flying was a constant battle of man vs. machine, the rise of computers and other such crutches for the weak and incapable has made pilots into food-powered button-pushers. The KW should be number two on this list, but it has gone the way of the dodo—flown into ruin during the GWOT and then sold to foreign armies for pennies on the dollar. So like Wisconsin, it would be a lot higher it wasn’t out of the game.
#8 Rutgers - Airbus UH-72B Lakota
(High:6 Low:9 First Place Votes:0)
The Lakota—actually an Airbus EC145—has been a thorn in the side of the US Army since it replaced the UH-60. But that was mostly because the Army bought the wrong one. The bean counters forced the Army to buy the older, simpler version with a conventional tail rotor and less powerful engines. This year, things turned around with the announcement of the UH-72B. Based on the upgraded EC145T2, the new model features more powerful engines, enhanced avionics, and a fenestron (ducted tail fan). Quite a marked improvement. It’s not great, but it’s a big step up. No word yet on whether it can throw laterals.
#9 Michigan - Sikorsky HR2S-1 “Deuce”
(High:6 Low:11 First Place Votes:0)
Big, blue, and pretty good for the 1950s. The Deuce answered a Navy/Marine Corps desire for a heavy lift/assault helicopter suitable for shipboard ops. The first US helicopter with a 6-bladed folding rotor head, the Mojave was an incredible machine for its day. The Deuce was powered by two 2,100 Wasp radial engines mounted on short, high wings. The unique design yielded both the biggest and fastest helicopter in the world at the time. The Army later integrated a successor model as the CH-37B Mojave, but it soon became clear that piston power was going out of fashion faster than hornrim glasses. Some things just peak in the distant past, never recapturing their glory.
#10 Minnesota - Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King
(High:6 Low:10 First Place Votes:0)
It’s big. It’s slow. It’s mostly harmless. It’s also boat. My god, it’s like Minnesota sprouted a rotor. Built for the US Navy in 1961, the Sea King’s boat hull made it ideal for its role as an anti-submarine helicopter. Replaced by the SH-60 Seahawk, the S-3 lives on in offshore service around the world, because it all else fails you can row it.
#11 Michigan State - MH-53E Sea Dragon
(High:8 Low:13 First Place Votes:0)
Big, green, and problematic. The Sea Dragon has a terrible maintenance record, a worse safety record, and costs a frightful amount for the capability it provides. But sometimes you just need something to do one great, big job and then crash down to earth a week later.
#12 Penn State - Mil Mi-17
(High:9 Low:12 First Place Votes:0)
The Mi-17 is a export version of the Mi-8 Hip—arguably the world’s most successful helicopter bloodline. A product of the Mil design bureau in the Soviet Union, the Mi-17 was adopted by unconventional US forces to bolster medium lift capability and to train foreign forces. A powerful and resilient aircraft in its own right, the Mi-17 never quite lived up to its billing despite a massive following. It looks natural in blue and white, though.
#13 Nebraska - Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low
(High:12 Low:14 Last Place Votes:2)
The search & rescue variant of the H-53, the Pave Low descended from a long line of great rescue aircraft. Beginning with the HH-3 Jolly Green Giant the USAF fielded several generations of large, long-range helicopters for pilot recovery. At the outset of the Gulf War GPS units were few and far between. As a result, it was actually a pair of USAF Pave Lows that led the Apaches into Iraq for the deep strike that crippled Iraq’s radars to allow for widespread bombing. The Pave Low retired in 2008, but it will always have a golden moment in the 1990s to its name. Nebraska knows that feeling well.
#14 Illinois - CV/MV-22 Osprey
(High:12 Low:14 Last Place Votes:6)
What a turd. The worst of all worlds in one expensive, shambling embarrassment of a program. Illinois football is pretty bad, too.