It all started in 1978-1979, when the H-3s and UH-1Ns of the 20th SOS were invited to fly in an exercise called J-CATCH (Joint Countering Attack Helicopters). This two-year program pitted the US Army Cobra/Scout teams against the Soviet Hind/Hip team. Someone had to represent the Soviet teams so the 20th SOS was chosen. They studied Soviet helicopter tactics and flew like them and even played Russian music over the load speaker in the Commando Hangar.
Hind experts (CIA) from Washington D.C. briefed the crews on everything they knew about this helicopter. The helicopters were painted with different paint patterns and each H-1 and H-3 had a Mini-TATS (Tactical Armament Turret System, a gun camera) installed. Some of these mods were done in St Louis and some at Fort Rucker. This program initially started at Fort Rucker training area and finally completed its evaluation on the Eglin complex with the H-3/H-1s going against the Cobra/Scout helicopters and the A-7s, A-10s, F-4s, and F-15s.
By the end of the first week, the 20th guys had scored an impressive kill ratio over their fixed wing opponents. The second week of the exercise, the rules were expanded to require the 20th crews to broadcast over the radio “guns, guns, guns” to alert the fighter pilots that they were being engaged. The kill ratio the second week was even more impressive.
The maintenance troops were under the leadership of MSgt McKee. Under his direction, they hung a red tablecloth to a pole on the back of the “follow me” truck to welcome the “communist” crews back after the victories. The maintenance troops thought the operators needed a scarf. They had a barrel of red rags that they used to clean the helicopters and since the 20th crews were the Soviet threat (the Red Threat), in true special ops style, a boot knife was used to cut up the red rags to make red scarves for the aircrews.
Many of the aircrew there, remember being on the ramp at Fort Rucker and MSgt McKee handing one to all the fliers. Returning to Hurlburt Field the victors, the 20th SOS crews showcased their scarves for the 1st SOW commander. He begrudgingly accepted the red scarves after seeing the esprit de corps of the helicopter crews and directed each 1st SOW weapon system to choose a scarf as part of their uniform.
The 20th SOS transitioned to the HH-53s and later to MH-53s and the tradition of the scarf to identify the member as part of the brotherhood continued. They are also worn at the 21st SOS in England and at the 551st SOS at Kirtland, also known as the schoolhouse, where today all Pave Low crewmembers receive their red scarves once they are qualified to fly…any time…anyplace.
Most often forgotten in the J-CATCH program is the air-to-air missile (Stinger) simulator mounted were the left Aux fuel tank normally hung. The red rag thing really got started when Ssgt Al Truesdale had his wife sew a red star or hammer and sickle on the back of his field jacket.