Pararescuemen from the 48th Rescue Squadron (RQS) off-load patients from a 55th RQS HH-60G Pavehawk helicopter May 5 and transport them to 79th RQS HC-130J Combat King II that flew them to Naval Air Station North Island, Calif. (Staff Sgt. Adam Grant / Air Force)
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Two days before thousands of airmen were join the 563rd Rescue Group for Angel Thunder, the largest combat search and rescue exercise of the year, the team at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., faced a real-life test of their skills.
At 5 p.m. Friday, just as the teams were preparing for the training scenario — a rescue mission at sea — the U.S. Coast Guard called the 563rd for help rescuing Chinese sailors whose fishing vessel had exploded and sunk off the coast of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
“We were ironically preparing for this exact mission,” said Master Sgt. Chris Young, a pararescueman with the 48th Rescue Squadron who was part of the rescue.
“We went into mission planning, determining the initial courses of action,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Smith, commander of the 55th Rescue Squadron. “We came up with the initial game plan.”
Five hours later, the first HC-130J Combat King left Davis-Monthan with six pararescuemen aboard. After refueling, the HC-130J completed the 1,100-mile flight to the scene, and the six PJs parachuted into the sea with an inflatable Zodiac boat. They sped toward a Venezuelan-flagged tuna fishing boat that had picked up some of the sailors.
At the boat, the pararescuemen were directed to an “infirmary” — about the size of a walk-in closet — to treat nine survivors. Two sailors died before the airmen arrived. Six are missing.
For two more days, the pararescuemen treated the survivors in the makeshift infirmary, until they could get within range for Pave Hawks to fly out and retrieve the patients. Two of the surviving sailors sustained serious burns.
“On a tuna fishing vessel, the environment was not as sanitary as we’d like,” said 1st Lt. Benjamin Schmidt, combat rescue officer with the 48th Rescue Squadron.
Luckily, the ship's captain was American and one pararescuemen was fluent in Spanish, so the PJs could communicate with the ship's crew. But none of the injured sailors could speak English, and relied on hand gestures and facial expressions to help direct treatment, Schmidt said.
“The only two words they could say to us were ‘thank you,’” he said.
The HC-130J stayed on scene to make sure everyone’s equipment was working before heading back and landing 10½ hours after taking off.
The Pave Hawks arrived Monday, and the PJs needed to figure out a way to get the two most critical sailors to treatment.
“Our primary concern was the patients, with the rotor wash and the salt water, we didn’t want them to get soaked,” Schmidt said.
The pararescuemen loaded the burn patients into a 15-foot by 25-foot schiff that was on board and hoisted them to the Pave Hawks, using a steel cable and metal baskets. Then, they were taken to Cabo San Lucas where an HC-130J was waiting. They were transferred while engines were still running, and flown immediately to the University of California San Diego Regional Burn Center. They arrived at about 7:30 p.m. Monday. Another HC-130J with the less-critical patients was set to arrive today.
All told, 38 airmen with the 563rd Rescue Group took part in the three-day rescue, inlcuding 11 pararescuemen from the 48th Rescue Squadron, two HC-130J Combat King IIs from the 79th Rescue Squadron and three HH-60G Pave Hawks from the 55th Rescue Squadron.
It is not yet known what caused the explosion on the Chinese ship.
Back at Davis-Monthan, Angel Thunder goes on.
The crews involved with the rescue received one day of crew rest, and are back to the two-week training exercise with about 3,000 other personnel from across the U.S. military and around the world.
“For my team’s Angel Thunder tasking, we were told we were going to do an over water jump to a ship to treat patients,” Young said. “And when we wanted more elaboration on what to be ready for, they said just be ready for anything to happen ounce aboard a ship. So for the last month, my team has been preparing to do this mission.”
The team is now putting together their “lessons learned” from the real-world mission to improve their training.
“This mission, in peacetime or war time, is a viable mission,” Smith said. “This concept is something we need to be able to do.”