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Saving the high-fliers

Gary Parsons reports from RAF Lakenheath on USAFE's newest operational squadron

20 June 2006, and the first two HH-60G 'Pave Hawk' Combat Search and Rescue helicopters from the 56th Rescue Squadron arrive at RAF Lakenheath from Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland, carried in C-17A transporters, as the 56th Rescue Squadron (RQS) is transferred to become a fully integrated part of the 48th Operating Group (OG) under USAFE command.

“We’re thrilled to welcome the Airmen from the 56th RQS to RAF Lakenheath,” said Brigadier General Robert Steel, 48th Fighter Wing Commander. “Although they’ve been a part of our wing for about a year as a geographically separated unit up at Iceland, having the 56th RQS continue its mission from here only increases our wing’s ability to meet our nation’s warfighting mission,” he added.

Now, in April 2007, five Pave Hawks have now brought the squadron to full operational strength. Lt Colonel Steve Huss, 56th RQS director of operations, said “The 48th FW has made our transition to RAF Lakenheath extremely smooth - the 'Jolly Green Giants' look forward to the outstanding opportunities this move creates.”

Going grey
Like most modern-day military aircraft, the HH-60s of the 56th RQS are going grey - compare the new colour scheme (top) with the old camo scheme of the Keflavik-based machines (bottom)

The mission of the 56th RQS is to provide Combat Search & Rescue and reaction force response services for USAFE. The 56th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron activated on 1 May 1988 with HH-3 'Jolly Green Giants' at NAS Keflavik, Iceland, assigned to the 39th Special Operations Wing, Eglin AFB, Florida. It was redesignated as the 56th Air Rescue Squadron on 1 June 1989 and more recently as the 56th Rescue Squadron on 1 July 1995, when it was reassigned to the 85th Group.

Extraction in action
One 56th RQS PJ that has experience of a real-life extraction is Staff Sergeant Marshall Jordan, who was involved in the rescue of the pilot of the first plane lost in the Kosovo campaign,also the first F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter to be lost in combat.

On 27 March 1999, Lt Colonel Darrell Zelko from the 49th Fighter Wing was shot down in F-117A 82-0806 near the village of Budjanovci, 40 km north-west of Belgrade. Zelko ejected safely, making a mayday call with his radio beacon. Once the signal was picked up by a patrolling AWACS, voice contact was established. Zelko then passed on his position, a pre-arranged fixed grid reference and a rendezvous arranged. The downed pilot was equipped with several items to help facilitate his rescue - besides his radio, he had GPS location equipment, signalling devices, and a 9mm pistol.

American joint service CSAR teams were based at a US Special Forces headquarters at Brindisi, in southern Italy, and Tuzla, in northern Bosnia. Tuzla is situated less than thirty minutes flying time from the crash site. All were attached to Joint Special Operations Task Force 2 - their helicopters could be called on to perform combat recoveries under the tactical control of the Combined Air Operations Center at Vicenza, in northern Italy.

The task force consisted of a lead MH-53M piloted by Captains James Cardoso and John Glass, an MH-53J flown by Captains Shawn Cameron and Mark Daley, and an HH-60G piloted by Captains Chad Franks and Matt Glover. Lt Colonel Stephan Laushine, commander of the 55th SOS, flew in the lead aircraft as rescue mission commander. Jordan was one of the PJs on the HH-60G. Also two A-10As from the 81st Fighter Squadron were on rescue alert and would join the mission - one of these pilots was Captain John Cherrey, who led the 2005 deployment to Lakenheath (see accompanying feature).

Zelko's vital isolated personnel report (ISOPREP) information was available - this data, known only by the downed pilot, gave the ability to authenticate the survivor and avoid the rescue team being drawn into a trap. Information indicated that Zelko was somewhere north-west of Novi Sad, along the aircraft's planned egress route.

The A-10s departed half an hour of the helicopters, and after more than an hour flying, Cherrey and his wingman entered Serbia northwest of Novi Sad. Cherrey made voice contact with Zelko, and authenticated him using the ISOPREP data. He then received a call from the AWACS, with an updated position passed by Zelko, much nearer to Belgrade than first thought. Cherrey called Laushine and gave him the survivor's updated location - the new coordinates voided the first recovery plan. Laushine had to quickly develop a new one, but refuelling was urgently necessary.

Time ebbed away with refueling, and Serbian forces were closing in on Zelko. Low cloud was also forming, obscuring the extraction area from the circling A-10s. But, I was now or never - the helicopters descended to treetop level and in toward Zelko's position. As they crossed into Serbian airspace, a SAM site activated, but was quickly extinguished by an F-16CJ with a High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile. Now aware that a rescue operation was going on, more Serbian missile became active.

In the pitch black, Zelko's position wasn't clear - in desperation, he lit a flare, and the HH-60G dived in while the MH-53s provided cover. Landing just a hundred feet from Zelko, Jordan and the other PJ, Staff Sergeant Eric Giacchino, jumped out, rifles at the ready. Zelko raised his hands in a submissive pose - the PJs immediately identified him - "How ya doin', Sir?" Jordan said - "We are here to take you home." Forty seconds later, the HH-60G was airborne. The rescue itself had taken just over six hours.

After the rescue, President Bill Clinton said he was "Tremendously proud of the skills of the pilots and the courageous individuals who participated in the recovery".

At Keflavik the helicopter crews were on alert twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year, constantly training in the latest rescue procedures. On 14 February 1992, the 56th started converting from the HH-3 to the HH-60G, but still maintain a continuous SAR alert status. The HH-60G brought enhanced avionics, a greater range and speed, and improved all weather capabilities, including more recently Forward Looking Infa-Red (FLIR), further enhancing the rescue capabilities of this aircraft.

The HH-60G also provides infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces in day, night or marginal weather conditions in combat areas up to and including medium-threat environments. Because of the illustrious history of saving lives in and around Iceland, the 56th RQS was the first non-Icelandic organisation to be recognized for its outstanding rescue efforts by the Icelandic Seaman's Day Committee on 11 Jun 1995.

Operations at Lakenheath commenced on 24 July 2006 - "We are very excited to get our local flying started," said Lt. Colonel Thomas Greetan, 56th RQS commander. "It's a tribute to all the various groups and squadrons within the wing who have played a significant part in bringing the squadron to its current operational capability since we arrived and maintaining our alert up at Iceland." The constant alert status in Iceland finished on 1 October 2006 when the last two Pave Hawks were withdrawn to Lakenheath, bringing a change in tempo for the 56th.

Captain Sean Boldt, a new arrival to the 56th, described its revised mission in more detail: "It was recognised there were no CSAR assets in the USAFE command, so they decided Lakenheath was a good fit and here we are. We do most of our training around here, particularly over the STANTA range, and out in the Wash area on the gunnery ranges - that's where we do our shooting quals, but most of our practice missions are out over Stanford. We'll eventually move further afield - Spadeadam, Wales, for example, but we're new to the area and still 'moving into the new house'."

"The HH-60G is designed to go after a two-man fighter crew - but, in more recent years it's evolved into more of a personnel recovery role - Special Forces, anything like that behind enemy lines. I have a co-pilot, flight engineer, an aerial gunner and typically two pararescue jumpers for mission status. We have a secondary role as Special Ops support, backing up the MH-53s that are the primary helicopter. We work with the guys from Mildenhall, especially the tankers for aerial refuelling."

"We have big auxiliary fuel tanks at the rear of the cabin that extend our range out to four hours, but it takes up a bit of room. Pilot fatigue is the only limitation - twelve hours is our normal flying duty maximum, but that can be extended if the circumstances demand it."

"The 50 calibre gun is used for self-defence, going into a landing area or something like that - we typically fly with a SARTAF package - A-10s will go in first, make it safe and we'll follow them in. We're looking forward to working with those guys in the summer."

"We still have the General-Electric GE700 motors producing 1,560 shp - some of the newer Pave Hawks use the GE701 motor that produces 1,940 shp, giving a lot more lift and performance, especially useful in hot 'n high theatres such as Afghanistan. The top limit speed is 198 knots in a shallow dive - we typically cruise between 110 and 120 knots ground speed. Our motors should be modded in the next six months - we'll soon start the process to get up to speed on that. We won't be deployed as a squadron to Iraq or Afghanistan until we get the new motors, but we do send personnel to support those units currently out there if needed."

Pararescuers – or 'PJ's - are an elite subset of the overall United States Air Force. There are just over three hundred PJs in the Air Force, compared to the Navy’s one thousand SEALS and the Army’s ten thousand Special Forces personnel. The PJ is responsible for personnel recovery with emergency medical response capabilities, providing trauma medical care for injured personnel on both fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

“If you like a physical and mental challenge, this is the job for you,” said Staff Sergeant Kipran 'Kip' Wise, a PJ referring to the constant physical training in extreme conditions PJs conduct on a regular basis. To become a PJ, only the fittest survive - the drop-out rate during the initial twelve-week pararescue indoctrination course at Lackland AFB, Texas is ninety percent, ensuring only the committed progress to basic training, a two-year course involving scuba diving, jump school, mountain rescue and arctic climate experience. Becoming a qualified paramedic is also essential, and once qualified the PJ isn't restricted to one type of aircraft - he can quickly move between the HH-60, C-130 and MH-53 if required, and soon the CV-22 when it becomes fully integrated into the CSAR arena. A PJ may need to jump from heights as high as 25,000 feet if required - "Finding new training locations within the United Kingdom for jumping has proven to be a challenge with the transition”, said PJ Senior Airman Kristofer Abel, as the skies in the UK are much more crowded than that of Iceland.

The 56th RQS will soon be fully operational, and is set to become a regular sight in the skies of East Anglia, although there aren't many mountains on which to practice!

 

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