Airmen participate in joint rescue mission

NAVAL AIR STATION NORTH ISLAND, Calif. --

Rescue Airmen from the 23d Wing recently participated in a joint rescue operation alongside other Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps assets, approximately 675 nautical miles off the coast of California.

The 66th Rescue Squadron, a 23d Wing geographically separated unit at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., transported a 54-year-old man suffering from a life-threatening illness aboard the MSC Flavia container ship to San Jose Regional Medical Center in San Jose, California.

“We were just wrapping up a training exercise at Naval Air Station North Island focusing on maritime rescue operations when we were notified that a patient required immediate MEDEVAC from a container ship far from shore,” said Lt. Col. Joshua Shonkwiler, 66th Rescue Squadron commander. “Our crews immediately began contingency planning for the mission, which is a skillset where the rescue community excels.

 “The mission required combat rescue's unique aerial refueling capabilities to cover the more than 1,200 miles round trip over the ocean. In addition, it required an insertion and extraction of highly-skilled pararescueman to retrieve and stabilize the patient.”

 To help facilitate the mission, pararescuemen and a MC-130 Commando II, a tanker capable of providing fuel to aircraft in air, from the 129th Rescue Wing, Moffett Field, Calif., were brought in as well. After several hours of flying and refueling, the two HH-60G Pave Hawks carrying the pararescuemen arrived at the vessel that was approximately 325 feet.

Though the vessel was large there was not an area with sufficient room to land and the crew had an area of about six feet to use. 

“It was challenging and the fact that we were working with a small area made it difficult, but my training took over and we were able to get it done,” described Capt. William Nunalee, 66th Rescue squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk instructor pilot. “This is what we train to do so even though it was a tough process the training and standards we are held to in the rescue community prepared me to accomplish the mission.”

“Once we arrived at the MSC Flavia we had to hover over a catwalk in the middle of the boat about 100 feet above sea-level while the [pararescuemen] were hoisted down,” Nunalee said. “Once they were safely down we entered into the holding pattern above the ship until they radioed they were ready for pick up and hovered back into position.”

Prior to the mission, the unit was participating in water rescue training which Staff Sgt. Joshua Burrow, 66th RQS special mission aviator, attributes to preparing him for what he needed to do complete the mission.

“I was sitting in the left seat monitoring and calling out our position to the pilot so we could hoist as close as we needed to be,” Burrow said. ”There were several antennas and objects that were above the altitude we were hovering at so I was making sure that we didn’t get to close to anything while we were infilling and extracting the patient.”

Burrows recounted what it was like for his first save during the last-minute mission.

“This was my first actual rescue. There were differences but the training we do really prepared me,” said Burrow. “It’s good when you get to see all of the training we do actually used to help save someone’s life. Being able to watch the patient’s status improve from the treatment he received while we traveled was amazing.”

Once the patient was retrieved the pair of Pave Hawks traveled back toward the coast, being supported with fuel from a U.S Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.

The Pave Hawk carrying the injured person flew to the hospital where it landed and pararescuemen transferred care of the patient to the medical care staff.

 “We are extremely proud of the intense coordination and partnership between our aircrew, our maintainers and support personnel, the California Air National Guard, the USMC and the Coast Guard,”

Shonkwiler said. “Collectively, we rapidly built a Personnel Recovery Task Force capable of pulling off such a long and challenging mission. When a call like this comes in, our aircrew will always be the first to raise their hands high and say ‘send me.’ It's another fitting reminder that we live by a creed that underscores the Air Force Rescue's commitment to preserving life at any cost...’these things we do that others may live.’”