by by Staff Sgt. Adam Grant
5/7/2014 - DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Airmen
from the 563rd Rescue Group responded to a real world rescue mission,
while preparing for the world's largest Combat Search and Rescue
Exercise, ANGEL THUNDER, May 2.
After being notified of a Venezuelan fishing boat 1,100 nautical miles
off the Pacific Coast of Mexico with two critically injured Chinese
sailors, Airmen from the 563rd RQG were tasked to execute a real world
"We were preparing for the training exercise when we were notified of
what was going on. As a Guardian Angel, this is what we are trained and
equipped to do, so there is no better way to show our capabilities,"
said 1st Lt. Ben Schmidt, 48th Rescue Squadron Combat Rescue Officer.
The Chinese vessel came under distress after a fire injured four
personnel and left six sailors missing. The remaining sailors boarded a
life raft as their vessel sank and were later recovered by a Venezuelan
fishing vessel. Seven of the Chinese fishermen were in good condition.
They were transferred with two of their fellow sailors, who succumbed to
their injuries, to a Chinese-flagged ship in the area, returning to
"We are prepared to rescue anyone, anytime, anywhere, when tasked by the
Air Force," said Col. Sean Choquette, 563rd RQG Commander. "Our Airmen
train diligently to execute difficult missions like this one."
Airmen from the 563rd RQG flew in a 79th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat
King II for nearly 11 hours, to parachute Guardian Angel teams near the
ship. The GA teams parachuted with two inflatable zodiac boat packages
and medical equipment, so that they could board the vessel and stabilize
the injured sailors.
"At first glance before I parachuted down into the Pacific Ocean my only
thought was 'That others may live,'" said Staff Sgt. Chris Peters, a
48th RQS Pararescueman.
After ensuring all of the jumpers landed safely in the water and had
accounted for their gear, the GA team used their inflatable vessels to
reach the patients, Schmidt said.
On May 5, the 48th RQS Pararescuemen and the two injured fishermen were
hoisted off the Venezuelan skiff into two 55th RQS HH-60G Pavehawk
helicopters. The HH-60G Pavehawks and a HC-130J Combat King II flew nine
hours over the Pacific Ocean to recover the GA personnel and patients,
and conducted four refueling operations on the roundtrip flight from
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. After returning to Cabo San Lucas that evening,
the patients were transferred to a 79th RQS HC-130J Combat King II for
transport to Naval Air Station North Island, California.
"The amount of personnel involved in this rescue mission is standard, in
terms of deploying a package capable of maintaining operations in a
non-military location, and performing maintenance and logistics
operations for the Airmen and aircraft involved," said Lt. Col. Peter
White, an HC-130J Combat King II pilot with the 563rd RQG. "The real
challenge of this rescue is in the communication realm, in which
critical medical and country coordination information needs are
complicated with the language barriers."
The Pararescuemen were aboard the Venezuelan fishing boat for two days while the boat traveled to toward land, Schmidt said.
"We tried to get within the 600 mile mark, at least for safety [of the
aircraft], so that just gave us more time to stabilize them on the
ship," Schmidt said.
The Pararescuemen provided life-saving medical care to the patients and
stabilized them for transport to NAS North Island, then on to the
University of California, San Diego, Regional Burn Unit.
While missions like this are multifaceted, the GA team is trained to
handle them. The GA is the U.S. Air Force's human-centric and
equipment-based weapon system that executes all five tasks of personnel
recovery: report, locate, support, recover and reintegrate. The GA team
consists of Combat Rescue Officers, Pararescuemen, and Survival,
Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Specialists.
"Water rescues are highly complex and the distance, which required
multiple aerial refueling operations, present more challenges in this
rescue," said Maj. Scott Rein, 563rd RQG Operations Center planner.
"Everyone has complicated tasks in this mission; from the Guardian
Angels treating injured sailors with equipment they had to parachute in
with, aviators who are flying very long missions and support personnel
who are executing their roles at a remote airfield in Mexico, everyone
is rising to the occasion."
The GA is considered the ground component within the USAF rescue triad,
with the other two components comprising the HC-130J Combat King II and
the HH-60G Pavehawk. As such, CROs and PJs deploy as teams into
uncertain or hostile environments. They are trained to operate
independently, or in conjunction with rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft,
watercraft and overland vehicles, in order to locate, authenticate, and
recover isolated personnel for return to friendly control. In addition
to preparing personnel at risk of isolation, SERE Specialists conduct
planning and execution operations across the full spectrum of personnel
"We have three factors that are in our favor, for this particular
mission," Choquette said. "The 563rd RQG was ready for Exercise ANGEL
THUNDER, which trains Rescue personnel for situations very similar to
this mission. The 79th RQS has the HC-130J Combat King IIs, the newest
C-130 models in the Air Force, that are capable of aerial refueling,
enabling them to travel farther and deliver lifesaving care faster.
Finally, the 161st Air Refueling Wing was already part of the ANGEL
THUNDER team, and with a telephone call from the exercise director, Mr.
Brett Hartnett, immediately supported our need for refueling over the
Airmen from intelligence, communications, maintenance, logistics,
operations and special mission aviators from the 563rd RQG executed this
civil rescue mission due to an AFRCC tasking received May 2. The Rescue
Group is part of the 23rd Wing, out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.
"It was amazing to see the value of life and despite different
nationalities or the language barriers, when human beings were in
distress, everyone worked together to save lives," Schmidt said.
(Airman 1st Class Betty R. Chevalier and Maj. Sarah Schwennesen contributed to this story)