129th Rescue Wing Successfully Completes 'Soaring Angel'

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif -- The California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing hosted more than 200 Guard, Reserve and active-duty servicemembers who converged for the aptly named Soaring Angel 2014 personnel recovery exercise here at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View. 

The collaborative tactical-training exercise, held from Oct. 2-5 provided participants with real-world, personnel recovery scenarios to prepare for future deployments.
"This exercise is taking us back to our roots of broad spectrum personnel recovery," said Capt. Ben Copley, an HH-60G Pave Hawk flight lead who delivered the pre-mission briefing.  "So that means more mission planning factors to consider--a larger, more complex mission than we've had to focus on in recent times."

During Soaring Angel, the joint operations took airmen through live scenarios as part of day-and-night missions in simulated deployment environments that ranged from Fort Hunter Liggett to San Clemente Island, both in California. The multiday training scenarios included combat search and rescue by Guardian Angel pararescue teams, infiltration and exfiltration maneuvers and aerial refueling of the unit's HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters with its MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft. 

Unlike previous years, in which the 129th conducted Soaring Angel from a remote location such as a dirt strip or unimproved area, 2014 saw Soaring Angel keep its base of operations-- a makeshift tent city designed to replicate a Forward Operation Base--right in its backyard at Moffett Federal Airfield. Doing so enabled the 129th to exercise other areas of training with more fidelity and deftly handle any communications or administrative issues that might have arisen by keeping base resources a quick walk or phone call away, according to Lt. Col Jose Agredano, Soaring Angel project officer and a pilot instructor/evaluator.

"What we hope our airmen take away from this training is that when they do prepare themselves to deploy, they've seen it and been there before," said Lt. Col. Agredano. "A lot of the crews are veterans who have been overseas many times, but we also have a lot of folks new to the unit since our last deployment, so we hope they get a feel for what it's like overseas."

The primary mission of the 129th RQW is to perform its wartime personnel recovery capabilities anywhere in the world. Equipped with MC-130Ps and HH-60Gs, the 129th RQW performs a wide variety of civilian personnel recovery missions as well, including the rescue of distressed persons aboard ships and lost or injured hikers, and disaster response.  The 129th RQW is credited with saving the lives of 1,007 people since 1977.

"A lot of times our normal, regular training goes as planned, which is the ideal but it's not the real world. On any type of search and rescue mission, be it in the U.S. or overseas, the missions that we do never go as planned," said MC-130P flight engineer Senior Master Sgt Sean Moore, whose crew completed resupply, refueling, and infiltration and exfiltration missions during the exercise. "Soaring Angel is very effective because that's how it is for real. We go out there and as we're airborne, we think we're doing 'A,' then something happens and we get re-tasked to go do 'B.' As a crew and as a unit, you have to figure out how to make that happen. That definitely keeps it fresh and unexpected."

Given the sudden and unexpected nature of crisis response and personnel recovery, the 129th often works with other branches of the military, from Army to Marines to Navy to Coast Guard, as well as  international governments, local authorities and sheriff's offices.

Of the nearly 200 servicemembers who took part in Soaring Angel, approximately 150 are airmen from the 129th RQW. The remaining participants belong to the 95th Civil Support Team and the Channel Islands 195th Weather Flight.
First Lt. Ian Freeman, an MC-130P co-pilot, said that Soaring Angel reinforces the importance of inter-service operability by allowing airmen to hone their skills while working together as a composite unit.

"Anytime you add more personnel and more aircraft to an operation, things can change rapidly. During peacetime operations, things are just as dynamic as they would be in a wartime environment as far as what's going to be required," said First Lt. Freeman. "It's easy to fly [pararescuemen] out a long way and airdrop them, but then we have to figure it out logistically. How do we get helicopters that far out to pick them up? Where can we get fuel? Where do we land? How long can they be out in the field to sustain that operation until we can get them?"

As with all Air National Guard operations, relying on traditional airmen to pull off a training exercise within only three to four days before they return to their civilian jobs remains a challenge--but never a problem.

"The airmen at the 129th are consummate professionals.  They're the quiet warriors that get their job done and they don't look for accolades," said Lt. Col. Agredano. "They just want to do the best they can, do it safely and bring people home."