The Men Who Make the Saves

Jan. 1, 2007

When the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter lifted off, the temperature was a stifling 97 degrees. Mile after mile of muddy, snake-infested Georgia swamp passed below. Inside the chopper, heat and engine noise reached oppressive levels. It was, in short, an ideal day for combat search and rescue training.

Inside the Pave Hawk’s cabin, two gunners stood ready at their GAU-2/B miniguns. Pararescue jumpers—PJs—swung their legs out each door, M-4 carbines held across their laps. At the proper moment, the pilot brought down the chopper, dropped off two PJs, and got airborne again. It took 20 seconds. The PJs located the target—an abandoned truck—relayed coordinates and waited.

Soon, the helicopter returned and its guns blasted away, raking the target with 7.62 mm rounds. “Enemy destroyed,” said one PJ, as if to say, “That’s a wrap.” He was already packed up and prepared to move on to the next target.

So it went on a routine combat search and rescue—or CSAR—training mission held not long ago at Moody AFB, Ga. In the world of CSAR, “routine” is a relative term. On one day, routine could mean rescuing a family trapped somewhere in the inundated Mississippi River Delta. On another, it could mean treating a wounded patient in a helicopter that’s evading enemy fire.

Whatever the specific conditions, these airmen are in the business of saving lives. And as the exercise at Moody showed, it often goes beyond the pickup. Sometimes, it requires a bit of assertiveness.

For the Air Force, the world of CSAR begins at Moody, the home of the only active duty CSAR wing in the Air Force. (Until October, the unit was called the 347th Rescue Wing. However, after a reorganization and merger with assets that include A-10 attack aircraft, it was given a new name—the 23rd Wing. The latter title is used hereafter.)

The 23rd Wing includes the 347th Rescue Group at Moody, the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., and the 23rd Fighter Goup.

“Saves” and “Assists”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, where the fighting is deadly and unpredictable, the CSAR professionals perform a vital function. They are in high demand. The Air Force credits the wing’s members with carrying out some 720 “saves” and more than 250 “assists” throughout Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.

Now, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, has made the CSAR mission an even higher priority, and with that will come new and improved aircraft.

In early 2006, the Chief elevated combat search and rescue to “primary mission” status. In the process, he transferred the CSAR mission back to Air Combat Command. For two-and-a-half years, CSAR fell under control of Air Force Special Operations Command, where it was a secondary mission. The most recent move gave ACC administrative control of all CSAR assets except for those in Europe and the Pacific. (See “Aerospace World: CSAR Mission Is On the Move—Again,” April 2006, p. 17.)

“There’s nothing higher on an air commander’s list of priorities than the ability to go pick up an airman or someone at risk on the surface,” said Moseley. “It is an ethical and moral imperative. [CSAR] is a big deal for us morally, and it’s a big deal for us doctrinally, and it’s a big deal for us as airmen.”

The change better aligns the CSAR mission with the combat air forces. “We can better present our forces to the combatant commanders through ACC, because that’s their business,” said Col. Kenneth E. Todorov, vice commander of the 23rd Wing.

Todorov says that, because of Moseley’s action, CSAR has regained visibility and attention in the higher echelons of Air Force leadership. “I think the fact that we’ve got advocacy at multiple levels now and multiple [major commands] is an advantage,” Todorov said.

The first tangible sign of this came in November, with the selection of a new helicopter to replace old and worn out HH-60s. The Air Force on Nov. 9 awarded Boeing a contract to build 141 HH-47s to replace the service’s fleet of 101 Pave Hawks. Plans call for Boeing to deliver the first production HH-47 in 2011, with initial operational capability set for late 2012. The Boeing award shocked some defense analysts, and the two competitors—the Lockheed Martin-Agusta Westland team and Sikorsky—have lodged protests. The Air Force maintains that it chose Boeing because the company could meet USAF’s aggressive timetable.

The Air Force also chose to increase the size of its rescue force, which is considered one of its most low-density, high-demand assets. Todorov says that acquiring 141 new helicopters “is required to get us out of LD/HD, to fix rescue, so our airmen can get back, reconstitute, properly train, and be trained.”

CSAR has been around a long time, but it draws much of its legacy from the HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant” rescue operations during the Vietnam War. The traditional CSAR mission—saving of downed pilots in enemy territory—was common and filled with danger. CSAR airmen today still wear the Jolly Green Giant patch as a reminder of this heritage.

“We have a long history of doing this mission, before Vietnam, but we really cut our teeth in Vietnam,” Todorov remarked.

Sky King 61

Even in a very different wartime setting, CSAR is vital. This fact is underscored almost daily in Iraq and Afghanistan but no more so than on April 16, 2004, during a mission called Sky King 61, which unfolded in Iraq.

On that day, a formation of three Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters took off on a mission but soon encountered a massive sandstorm. One of the choppers, paralyzed by the storm, attempted to land near Kharbut, but the right landing gear collapsed. The helicopter rolled over on its side, stranding the five Army crew members. Two Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, Jolly 11 and Jolly 12, picked up the CSAR mission and, because the stormed blotted out all visual references, the crews navigated to the crash site using instruments. The flight out was made under attack from surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Everybody made it back. For this action, the crews of Jolly 11 and Jolly 12 were awarded the Mackay Trophy, which recognizes the most meritorious and noteworthy flight of the year by an Air Force person or organization. (See “Aerospace World: Moody Crews Awarded Mackay Trophy,” February 2006, p. 24.)

Even so, this type of rescue was unusual for Iraq, where insurgents most often do their damage against ground troops, not aircraft crews. CSAR units today pick up very few downed airmen, said Capt. Dave Anderson, 41st Rescue Squadron pilot. CSAR airmen mainly rescue coalition ground forces after vehicle accidents or roadside attacks.

In Iraq, there are more water recoveries than land rescues, according to Lt. Col. Lee J. Pera, deputy commander of the 347th RQG. One such underwater operation took place in October 2005, when a roadside bomb planted near Fallujah badly damaged a Marine Corps humvee. The blast, which instantly killed two marines riding in the vehicle, hurled the humvee into an irrigation canal. Air Force PJs were tasked to recover remains, calling into play the scuba diving skills PJs must learn during a six-week combat diver course.They also practice underwater recovery operations and searches and how to gain covert entry into enemy territory.

Sometimes, the action gets closer to home. When Hurricane Katrina demolished the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the Air Force, the only military service with a dedicated combat search and rescue mission, quickly mobilized its forces and got them flying nearly nonstop rescue missions.

Teams drawn from the entire Air Force rescue community, including Air Force Reserve Command’s 920th RQW at Patrick AFB, Fla., the 106th RQW with the New York Air National Guard, as well as the 20th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., deployed along with Moody and Davis-Monthan forces. Those units are credited with saving more than 4,000 lives during the Katrina operation. They flew 759 sorties, totaling 1,617 hours of flying time. (See “Storm Surge,” December 2005, p. 38.)

Two Out of 101

The demand for CSAR capability is high—a fact amply demonstrated by a quick look at the Moody flight line on a recent day. The Air Force owns a total of 101 Pave Hawk helicopters, most of them assigned to the Georgia military base, yet, on that particular day, only two HH-60s were in sight. The others were all deployed. So was about two-thirds of the wing’s rescue operators.

The reason for this is clear enough: CSAR assets have been constantly deployed since the 1991 Gulf War, after which the Air Force almost immediately took up Operation Southern Watch and Operation Northern Watch enforcement of the no-fly zones in Iraq. And this continuous deployment has put tremendous stress on the HH-60 equipment and the airmen performing the mission. According to Todorov, the rescue force has been low-density, high-demand for 15 years.

Since the Global War on Terror began, the operations tempo in Southwest Asia has markedly increased. Search and rescue air crews typically see multiple 60-day deployments with 120 days spent at home. For maintainers, 120 days are spent deployed and 120 days at home. A wing spokesman estimates that 17 to 20 percent of the wing is deployed at any given time.

The situation is particularly tough for PJs, who have the highest deployment rates of all CSAR troops, according to TSgt. Kenneth Marshall, a 41st RQS PJ. The high pace of operations coupled with a rigorous selection process has left the career field chronically undermanned.

The Pave Hawk platform is no longer well-suited for action in the Global War on Terrorism, which plays out mostly in areas that are rugged, high-altitude, or both. The location of the current conflicts, along with increasing mission requirements and needs, has created serious problems for the small- to medium-lift helicopter, which now sustains only a 62 percent operational readiness rate.

The problem became only too apparent in summer 2005, during a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan. An Air Force CSAR crew was tasked to rescue survivors of a firefight with local insurgents. After reaching 15,000 feet, the crew faced a tough decision: Should they try to save all of the troops and perhaps lose all of them? Or should they save some and make sure they succeeded? The problem was excessive weight, which badly reduced effectiveness at that altitude. They could dump fuel, but that might keep them from reaching friendly territory.

In the end, the airmen removed the heavy Kevlar floor armor that protected them from small- or medium-arms fire. The airmen took off what was protecting their own lives and went “into harm’s way knowing full well that now they’re naked,” said Todorov. “They had to do that because of the limitations in the aircraft.”

Black Hawk Up

The Pave Hawk is an adaption of the Army’s 1980s-era UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter. The Army designed it for a standard gross weight of 16,000 pounds, but today the Air Force routinely flies at the airframe’s maximum weight of 22,000-plus pounds. Problems first started to crop up when the mission and requirements called for the addition of heavy new systems such as the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system, a new gun package, and an air refueling hookup. All added weight.

With the increased weight, performance suffered, and it has become harder and harder to get into certain areas in Southwest Asia. Power is also limited because of extreme temperatures, dust intensity, and related problems. Todorov said, “In today’s environment, it has much less utility.”

Another problem: Limited cabin space. An internal fuel tank was added to the helicopter to increase range, but the tank takes up space—up to one-third of the cabin. This poses problems, given the usual presence of PJs, an engineer, gunners, and wounded, along with litters and medical equipment. “It’s very confining back there,” Todorov said.

Marshall said that, even in a normal configuration, the HH-60 accommodates only two litters. The new CSAR-X platform will be able to transport up to four litter patients. A future version should carry up to six, according to Lt. Col. Dave Morgan, combat search and rescue specialist in Air Force acquisition.

Air crews say they need aircraft with longer legs. USAF anticipates flying missions beyond the Pave Hawk’s flying range, Maj. Gen. Stanley Gorenc said in March, as director for operational capability requirements on the Air Staff. Its combat radius is about 180 miles. USAF expects the new helicopter to have a range of at least 340 miles.

For Moody’s maintenance crew members, keeping the Pave Hawk flying is a big task. They are finding structural cracks and other problems that require extra attention, because of the current harsh operating environments.

Lack of time is also a big problem for the maintainers. CMSgt. Ron McAtee, the 347th Maintenance Group superintendent, says the unit has difficulty finding time to reconstitute an aircraft and put it back in the schedule for local training flights. The HH-60 requires a minimum turn around time of two days.

When the Pave Hawk returns from a deployment, “we have to assume it’s been put down in the worst possible scenarios, and we have to look for everything,” said McAtee.

Think Ahead

Maintainers always have to think one step ahead, finding high-use parts before the Pave Hawks return for repair. It often requires working through the night to keep the helicopter on schedule.

After thoroughly washing the aircraft and pulling the panels off, maintainers first look for “heavy hitting” items, including the power plant. Keeping the Pave Hawk at optimum power is a high priority; it must meet certain power requirements for combat use. The rotor blades require lots of service, especially after they have flown missions in sandstorm conditions.

“The environment we’re operating in, … the dust, the talcum powder, just tears up the turbine blades and we’re having a lot of difficulty with that,” remarked Todorov. “By nature, helicopters are beasts—there are so many moving parts and so much wear and tear on the airframe.”

Another major concern is the current high cost of maintenance, rising year by year. The ratio of flying hours to maintenance man hours has increased by 45 percent since 1999, according to Maj. Brenda Campbell, an Air Force spokeswoman, while the cost per flying hour has also increased by 42 percent.

For all the equipment problems, the CSAR community has no qualms about the mission. It has evolved into a force of men and women who deploy, train, and operate in a different theater, against a different enemy, in a different political environment. Yet the motto—and the spirit—is as it was in Vietnam and in all wars before and since: “That Others May Live.”