What is now the USAF Para Rescue concept was born in the Army Air Force during WWII out of the need to drop rescue personnel in remote locations to assist downed air crews. Their mission has evolved over the years. In the late 1940’s and 1950’s the cold war mission of the Air Force placed aircraft over areas where the only practical extraction was via ground, and the PJ’s (para jumpers) we survival experts who dropped to downed crews with the skills to keep them alive till help arrived. During the Viet Nam conflict the mission evolved into combat search and rescue, with the HH-3 and HH-53 helicopters becoming famous as “Jolly Green Giants.” With the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the mission was again modified to support special operations.
|Yours truly providing a familiarization briefing to US and Columbian Special Forces troops. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Airman 1st Class Chris Massey/Released)|
Angel Thunder is an annual Personnel Recovery exercise where US and foreign forces can practice their combat search and rescue skills. This year our unit was involved in several supporting missions. In the video above, the Blackhawks without the refueling probes were ours. The grey ones with the probes are the Air Force Pavehawks. Those special forces troops and the Columbian special forces guys shown were some of our customers. We did several air assaults with them, and I was lucky enough to crew on three of them.
As part of this years exercise, we started by transporting the “White Cell” staff around for their various planning and coordination sessions. The White Cell are kind of like the umpires of the exercise. Other activities we were involved in were unconventional recoveries and a downed aircrew exercise. For the downed aircrew exercise we flew a mission that was supposed to put a Navy/Marine remote air control tower at a local airport. The scenario had two ships shot down and a third damaged, with hostile ground activity requiring the downed crews and passengers to navigate cross country to the pick up point. While we knew there would be a downed crew scenario, none of us knew when or how it was to come down. The remote tower people were completely taken by surprise, and were not happy campers having to hike through mountainous desert with all their gear. With them were a couple SERE (survival school) instructors evaluating the exercise. After a strenuous 4 hour hike they made the PZ (pickup zone) in time for our Apache gunship escort to clear the area for us while we went in for a night recovery using night vision goggles. This is pretty much how we make our money in Army aviation. Fortunately for those on the ground one of the crew chiefs who was shot down with them gave them a brief on what to expect when we showed up. A night helicopter pickup is not like you see in the movies – it’s loud, blinding and painful, particularly in the desert where the debris kicked up by the rotor wash all seems to head for your face. It’s also disorienting being dark and dusty. Being an exercise, we took our time picking them up to make sure we had everyone strapped in safely before picking up. In a hostile area we would make sure we had the right number of people, close the doors and go.
For our air assault missions we would fly to Tuscon, pick up our troops and fly to the exercise area in Florence for the insertion. The scenario was four friendlies had been captured and were being held by the bad guys. Our ODA (Operational Detachment A) Team and the Columbian Special Forces soldiers would assault the target buildings and either gather intelligence, capture a high value target, rescue the hostages, or all of the above. Being an exercise, of course the first couple of raids came up empty. The first two raids were night operations, so there isn’t much video of them. The final raid was done during the day, with the troops rescuing the hostages, and capturing the “high value target,” who regrettably succumbed to his injuries (simulated!).
This was an excellent two weeks of training – we flew 180 hours plus another 130 hours of simulator training for some of our new crew members. We got to work with other services, federal and local agencies, foreign military and the special operations community, which is always a good time. We also made some connections with people we can hopefully train with in the future.