On July 15, 2016, a multiservice, multinational exercise suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a real-world rescue mission when a small civilian aircraft went down off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.
Capt. John Rulien and CMSgt. Jason Arnott were up before dawn, preparing to lead a day of high-altitude, low-opening paratroop training at the Pohakuloa Training Area on the island of Hawaii with the 353rd Special Operations Group. The 353rd had traveled from Kadena AB, Japan, to the RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) exercise—the world’s largest sea-based warfare exercise.
Their pilots, Maj. Rob Bingham and Maj. Richard Bloom, weren’t even off the ground to pick up the Navy SEALs they were scheduled to train with that day when Rulien and Arnott saw on the news ticker that a civil aircraft had gone missing.
“There was a downed aircraft off the Big Island of Hawaii,” Rulien said, referring to the southernmost island in the chain. “The only thing we really knew was that about 25 miles offshore there were two personnel from a general aviation aircraft in the water,” Arnott recalled.
Once Rulien inquired about the crash, “they gave me a coordinate, and the rest is history. [The] chief and I made the decision to cancel that day’s training” and redirect the group to join the search and rescue.
Bingham and Bloom had their MC-130J Commando II, call sign Legit 17, in the air less than 10 minutes after receiving the command from Rulien, and they arrived at the initial search area within 30 minutes.
They were joined on the scene by a New Zealand air force P-3 Orion, a US Coast Guard MH-65, a US Coast Guard cutter, and a US Navy MH-60 flying from USS Chung-Hoon.
Now all they had to do was find the downed aircraft and hopefully rescue the two civilians.
Practice makes perfect
The team that assembled for the search offers a clear picture of the advantages of joint force exercises like RIMPAC. Every two years, RIMPAC—first held in 1971—has brought together air and sea forces from around the world to gain crucial experience in interoperability—in 2016, 26 nations were represented. Practicing missions enables effective joint operations in the real world, and the 353rd SOG took on this search and rescue in coordination with two other branches of the US forces and a foreign partner.
The cooperation was hardly nominal. The New Zealand P-3 had assumed airborne command and control when Legit 17 first arrived on the scene, Bingham said. “Those Kiwis really had their stuff together and were true professionals.”
All the parties were fully aware of the challenge in front of them in a maritime search and rescue operation. “I’ve looked for guys six miles off the shore of South Carolina. One man is very difficult to find in the ocean,” Arnott said. “When you’ve got a limited asset, you start with where you believe the aircraft went down, and you expand that search area, and you look for anything—aircraft wreckage, anything—that indicates there was a person in the water.”
The 353rd team admittedly didn’t have the best tools for the job.
“The MC-130J is an Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft, and search and rescue is not one of the normal mission sets performed by its crews,” Bingham noted. But flexibility is the key to airpower, and “we happened to be in the right spot at the right time to lend a hand to folks in need.”
Though the aircraft and crew were operating outside their core strengths, Legit 17 did have several advantages.
For one, the aircraft is equipped with electro-optical/infrared sensors that can scan the ocean for warm objects, like people. In addition, “we had more people on the crew,” Bingham said, “because of the high-altitude airdrop training we were originally planning to conduct with the Navy SEAL team. Having the extra people on the aircraft ended up being a good thing, since it made more eyes available for scanning outside.” Once Legit 17 arrived, “we effectively doubled the possible search area right off the bat.”
Conditions made the search difficult. “Flying around at 500 feet or even as low as 300 feet, it was difficult to spot something the size of a person in the water, due to the sea state,” Bingham said. “There were lots of white caps.”
The key capability that Legit 17 brought to the mission was communication. “The MC-130J Commando II was uniquely suited to help facilitate communications between all maritime and air assets,” Bloom said. “We took over airborne [command and control],” Bingham added, “providing radio communication and information relay to all players while actively engaged in search operations.” With its range of capabilities—ultrahigh frequency radio, very high frequency (VHF) radio, high frequency radio, maritime VHF, and satellite communications—only Legit 17 could communicate with all of the assets involved.
The pilots and their crew were in the air for four hours searching for the missing persons. “What if that was one of our loved ones in the water?” Bingham asked. “I’d want people to keep looking for them. And we did.”
In the end, the big break came from outside the rescue group. The search area was significantly narrowed when a local tour helicopter pilot spotted debris in the water about 10 miles north of the Kona airport and a mile offshore, Bingham said.
Once the pilot reported what he saw, the Coast Guard sent a helicopter to retrieve the two missing persons, a save that took place a considerable distance from where the plane was reported to have gone down.
As it turned out, the crash survivors had been moving targets. “From the time they had ditched their aircraft, they started swimming towards the shore,” Arnott said.
The survivors had no raft and were relying only on flotation devices from their aircraft.
“I don’t think anyone on the crew was expecting the survivors to be found so close to land,” Bingham said.
Though the team called away from RIMPAC didn’t make the save, the operation was a success, not only because the downed aviators were recovered.
The events of July 15 offer insight into special operations teams’ contributions. According to Rulien, a special operations group “finds seams or gaps where we can enable conventional forces” to be more effective.
Planning and vision are required to identify the seams, and specialized tactics are often necessary to operate effectively in the gaps.
A morally right decision
There is also the leadership needed to make tough calls about the mission. Though the decision to help was in retrospect easy for Rulien and Arnott to make at the time, it was one that pushed them and their group outside of their typical duties.
While troops and assets involved all performed well, the story highlights a different side of special operations. “This is by no means an individual story,” Rulien asserted. “When you get to search and rescue there’s hardly a single heroic act. It’s the overall, general teamwork—where everyone comes together, finding seams to do better, and taking initiative—that results in a save.”
The rescue mission benefitted from the structure of the exercise. The day before the rescue, the teams had been training with a fictitious earthquake scenario, honing their ability to collaborate in the face of calamity. Rulien said, “We went out there to demonstrate the full spectrum of what the special tactics and special operations group here in Kadena has to offer, so the fact that we were prepared to go train to all those contingencies made it that much easier to react to the real-world scenario.”
Just as important was operational flexibility. The decision to postpone the scheduled training and join the search and rescue was a quick judgment call, one the airmen felt could not wait for vetting up the chain of command. Arnott said it was “the morally right decision” and not a hard one for him.
“One of the things [special operations is] good at is trying to find the easy solution to a complex problem,” he said. In this case, the easy solution required cutting through red tape.
“I caught some hell for that,” Rulien said, about “not calling for permission.” But he also said the 353rd was able to complete all its scheduled training by the end of the day, and the repercussions were not serious. Once higher-ups “got the story from us,” Arnott added, “they said, ‘You made the right call.’?”
While Rulien, Arnott, Bingham, Bloom, and their teammates did not find the survivors, they did find the seam. They were willing to take a risk, put aside their assigned duties for the day, and provide urgent assistance. As Bloom said, “Captain Rulien took the initiative to send help when lives were on the line.”