Just another day in rescue community

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Sonny Cohrs
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs
I've been hunting plenty of times, but never as the prey.

"We're here. Get out," said the survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialist as he slammed the 4x4 pickup into park alongside a desert road at the Nevada Test and Training Range. He seemed like such a nice guy when we had met a few days earlier, but that was then and this was now. We were going to be hunted down.

As the pilot I was shadowing took off sprinting into the desert, I knew I had my work cut out for me. But before I tell you about my adventure, I need to set the scene for you. The NTTR is out there. No, seriously, it's WAY out there. In fact, when you get to the "middle of nowhere," you make a left-hand turn, and drive another 100 miles.

I passed dozens of antelope, free-range cattle, one coyote, and a small spacecraft sitting alongside the "Extraterrestrial Highway" in Rachel, Nev. You can Google that last part if you don't believe me.

The range is nearly 200 miles away from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and at least 100 miles from a reliable cell phone signal. It doesn't matter though, because mobile phones aren't allowed at the range. In fact, cameras aren't allowed either, but I was given "exclusive access" for this story. OK, that's not really true - the camera gear was approved by NTTR security. It was just a small matter of a security clearance check, camera equipment inventory, a special badge, a special pass, and a photo review once I was all done. For the purposes of this story though, "exclusive access" sounds a lot better.

Anyway, back to the pilot and his trek through the desert. His mission? Survive. Oh, and reach a destination nearly two miles away, make radio contact with aircraft overhead and stay concealed until help arrives. Easy enough, right? Wrong.

The Nevada desert is an unforgiving terrain covered in sand, cacti, and rocks. And mountains. At our highest point, we were nearing 6,300 feet. Since my living room back home is around 200 feet above sea level (not to mention climate controlled) I was finding it hard to breathe. Still, I pressed on as I tried to put myself in the shoes of this "downed pilot."

This lone pilot had enemy troops (more SERE guys) hot on his heels as he made his way through the valley for this training scenario. He was on foot; they were in sand buggies. He had little water, little food, and only the essentials in his survival vest - a compass, GPS, signaling mirror, smoke signals, and a few other items. His only allies were a SERE safety observer and a very sweaty public affairs guy. Take note: if you're ever lost in the desert, you want a SERE guy with you. Sweaty PA guy? Not so much.

After about an hour and a half, we made our way to the LZ - that's landing zone for you non military types. I was hot, tired, and thirsty. As a child I was a huge fan of "hide and seek" but this was getting ridiculous. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. Then we heard the the faint whirl of an aircraft overhead. It was too high to see, but when the radio chirped to life we knew help was on the way. The pilot on the ground and the pilot overhead made contact and exchanged a few authentication statements.

I was elated to hear: "Sit tight. I'm sending my friends in to get you." Literal goosebumps washed over my skin. It was the greatest thing in the world knowing that help was on the way. The thing is, we weren't really injured, lost or behind enemy lines. But to experience this rescue effort firsthand was awe-inspiring to say the least.

Once I heard the signal to "pop smoke" I knew things were about to get very exciting and very loud. The pilot pressed the trigger of his smoke flare and a cloud of red engulfed us. Seconds later - literally seconds - an HH-60 Pave Hawk was overhead, then landing within 50 feet of us. I snapped photos until the rotor wash forced me to look away while the pilot landed. I slid down the embankment a bit to get a better angle, but before I knew it two armed pararescuemen were assessing the pilot's medical condition and whisking him away to the safety of the waiting chopper. Moments later, the downed pilot was on board the helo and it was lifting off. All the while, A-10s patrolled the area; an aerial sentry keeping a constant over-watch of the situation.

As a public affairs guy, my typical day back home includes copious amounts of email and coffee, meetings and planning. For me, this exercise was one of the most awesome experiences of my military career. But to the SERE guys and rescue crews, it's just another day at the office. More than 50 aircraft were in the skies that day looking for two aircrew members lost in the Nevada desert. And I know without a doubt that in a real-world situation, they would do the same thing.