The Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy and attack the enemy at a moment's notice comes with risk for pilots and other service members to become isolated in uncertain or hostile environments. When the worst happens, they rely on personnel recovery professionals to find a way to bring them home.
“I think part of the reason personnel recovery is so important is it keeps the faith with our fellow service members,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Hogan, the 23d Wing director of staff and a qualified A-10C Thunderbolt II combat search and rescue pilot. “Folks know if something happens to them and they need assistance, the U.S. government is going to come for them. We, as a wing, have some very specialized skill sets that allow us to execute that mission from the Air Force perspective.”
At Moody Air Force Base, those skill sets are the combined combat search and rescue capabilities of the A-10, HH-60G Pave Hawk, HC-130J Combat King II, the Airmen who operate and maintain them, and Airmen of the Guardian Angels, a non-aircraft, human weapon system composed of combat rescue officers, pararescuemen, and survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists.
“One of the things that makes the U.S. unique is the amount of value we place on a single person’s life,” said Maj. Keith Craine, the 41st Rescue Squadron assistant director of operations and HH-60 pilot. “The fact we’re willing to risk dozens of other people’s lives to rescue one person … it’s something I’m really proud of. We have a commitment to every person out there on the battlefield.”
Preparation and training are critical elements to a successful rescue, and personnel recovery planning begins well before aircraft are launched and missions are underway. Situation dependent, a highly skilled team of rescue personnel can recover a downed aviator within as little as one hour.
“It starts here every day in the local training sorties we fly, as far as preparing for any environment,” Craine said. “We practice for (situations) like humanitarian relief operations all the way up to highly complex penetration of integrated air-defense systems to retrieve downed Airmen. In addition, there are our (intelligence) briefings we receive every day about potential threats across the globe … again, being prepared for the latest in political developments in any potential contingencies around the world.”
In today’s complex battlespace of non-state players, unconventional warfare and rapidly evolving threats, even the most highly trained aircrew may find themselves in difficult and dangerous situations on the ground in unfriendly territory.
If an aviator does go down, his or her wingman would assume the role of initial “on-scene command” and make immediate notification of the incident, Hogan said. This critical, initial information would be used to alert rescue response activities and move assets in the right direction. Then, the actual rescue operation begins, which can be executed through various methods, depending on time of day and location.
“As far as locating the isolated personnel, there’s a wide gamut of techniques out there that range from electronic to visual means,” Hogan said. “We have a device called a ‘quick draw,’ which with certain survival radios, we can actually send text messages (to an isolated crewmember).”
Some aircraft are equipped with direction finding capabilities that tune to the isolated person’s frequency, further pinpointing the Airman’s exact location.
Aviators have satellite communication radios on hand, which sends their coordinates directly to the combined air and space operations center, but sometimes the most effective method for locating a downed aircrew isn’t technology based at all, Hogan explained.
“The easiest thing during the day is a mirror,” he said. “Because even if you’re isolated, and I get your coordinates from your radio or global positioning system, I still want to be exactly sure what bush you’re sitting behind. So typically, we’ll get to a point where we’ll have a guy flash the aircraft with a mirror.”
Whether old fashioned or cutting-edge, each piece of equipment has its particular use that is tailored to specific circumstances.
“This is their insurance,” said Staff Sgt. Daniel Wiggins, a 347th Operations Group SERE specialist. “If, for some reason, something happens and these people find themselves in a nasty situation, having this equipment available, especially their (communication) devices, is what’s going to get them rescued and get that (person) back.”
Being that no single piece of equipment alone will be an aviator’s saving grace, survival kits are packed with redundancies and multi-use tools for worst-case scenarios. For instance, a kit may be equipped with more than one radio with similar capabilities or multiple flares.
"Part of it is Murphy's Law," Hogan said. "One of the first things I do with a downed pilot when I get them up on the radio is go through an inventory of his or her signaling devices, because not everything you start with may survive the ejection. So sometimes after ejection, the survival kit that's tied to you may be gone. Maybe all they have is what's left in their survival vests. Luckily, we carry a wide variety of signaling devices and survival equipment, and with our training we can usually find people very quickly."
But since personnel recovery doesn’t rest solely in the hands of those conducting the rescue, a downed pilot will have to use his or her knowledge and play his or her part in surviving long enough to be found.
According to Wiggins, surviving means staying healthy and maintaining mental capabilities to limit issues that may arise in a desolate environment. An aviator’s path to survival depends on the location and particular situation he or she is in at the time.
“Different environments are going to drive different priorities as well,” Wiggins said. “If you go down in the Arctic, that’s going to drive a very different response for you as an isolated individual than it would if you were down in the desert. That’s one of the biggest things we teach our people: the first thing you do is prioritize what your needs are.”
Rescue scenarios are often complicated by multiple factors affecting the isolated Airmen and rescue crews, but the responsibility is one that Airmen at Moody AFB understand is part of their mission, Wiggins said.
“These guys have a great deal of faith,” Wiggins said. “A majority of the Air Force aircrews out there are relying on Moody AFB’s (rescue capabilities) specifically.”
Across the rescue community, the sentiment is echoed, and the message was clear.
“If you’re willing to risk your life and you’re willing to fight for your country, we’re going to get you back if anything bad does happen,” Craine said. “That’s a bond we’ve created with all of our Airmen, Marines, Soldiers and Sailors, and that’s important.”