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Within two hours of the call, Airmen with the 920th Rescue Wing took to the skies bound for a cruise ship roughly 500 miles off the Florida coastline carrying an elderly passenger suffering an acute condition and in need of medical evacuation Nov. 7, 2017.
The long-range mission, requiring two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, Guardian Angel pararescue teams, and an HC-130N King fixed-wing combat aerial refueler, lasted roughly eight hours and ended with the patient and his spouse being safely transported to Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne, Florida.
The initial call went out to the Coast Guard District 5 who then reached out to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, late that morning.
“The RCC had already reached a conclusion before calling the 920th RQW that no other assets could reach the cruise ship in time due to the distance,” said Col Michael LoForti, 920th Operations Group commander. “It wasn’t a matter if we would help, but could we assist in the rescue effort.”
A meeting was called with the squadron commanders and maintenance to determine if the manpower and assets were available to accept the mission.
“It took less than a minute to make the call,” LoForti said. “We generated the aircrew, aircraft, pararescue teams, and a mission plan, and were able to launch in a matter of hours.”
The plan entailed travelling hundreds of miles to the ship bound for Baltimore, lowering two pararescuemen onto the ship, hoisting the patient and his spouse onto the helicopter, and transporting them to the hospital.
“It was great seeing everyone come together from maintenance to the aircrew and Guardian Angel rescue teams to make this thing happen,” said 1st Lt. Courtney McCallan, 301st Rescue Squadron HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter pilot. “I’m glad we could help.”
McCallan piloted the lead aircraft during the mission, watching overhead in an offset position as the second helicopter team conducted the rescue. It was shortly after sunset when the special missions aviation specialist aboard the second hovering Pave Hawk lowered two pararescuemen about 35 feet down onto the ship’s top deck, which sat about 100 feet above the water. After making contact with the patient’s doctor on the ship, the rescue specialists loaded the man into a Stokes basket, a litter made of metal, and hoisted him into the aircraft.
“Even with obstacles like limited visibility with our night vision goggles and having to hover over a moving vessel, they executed the mission flawlessly,” said McCallan.
Shortly after heading back to Florida, the 39th Rescue Squadron’s HC-130N crew lowered the fuel lines for one last air-to-air refueling before the crews dropped off their passengers and headed back to Patrick AFB. The HC-130N crew conducted a total of three air-to-air refuelings during the mission, supplying approximately 15,400 pounds of gas to the helicopters.
“We train for these types of missions often, but when you actually get to put those skills to work and save someone’s life, it’s a pretty fulfilling thing,” said LCol Bob Seitz, 39th RQS director of operations.
Both the HC-130N and HH-60 crews emphasized the key role maintenance played in the success of the mission, being able to generate all the aircraft necessary so quickly.
“When we hear real-world search and rescue then everything kicks into high gear, and everyone pulls together to make it happen,” said Senior MSgt Dennis Grant, 920th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Helicopter Maintenance Unit superintendent. “We have extremely talented and dedicated individuals in our maintenance complex all with the same goal, and that is to provide the safest, most reliable aircraft for our operators we can. The advantage the Citizen Airmen bring is the experience on the various aircraft. We have individuals that have over 20 years on the airframes.”
LoForti said he is proud of the hard work put forth by the wing’s Citizen Airmen in yet another successful rescue. The 920th RQW has saved 238 people and 26 pets in the last five months to include two German boaters stranded at sea after their sailboat caught fire and sank as well as victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“The men and women of the 920th Rescue Wing continue to amaze me in their ability to execute challenging short-notice missions,” said Loforti. “I’m proud to be a small part of such a motivated wing.”