Wednesday, May 07, 2014

563d RQG rescues, flies injured sailors to California

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 rescue mission.

"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 China.

"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 recovery.

"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 Pacific Ocean."

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)

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