MOFFETT AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Calif. --
September 11, 2017: Hurlburt Field, Florida
Launching promptly at 6am - before the sun had risen - two HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and an MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft assigned to the 129th Rescue Wing, California Air National Guard, launched from Hurlburt Airfield, Florida.
Hurricane Irma had made landfall on Florida. And for the past two days, the storm was snaking its way up the Florida peninsula. Irma's initial contact with Florida was as a category five hurricane with sustained winds as fast as 185 mph. Irma's ascent inland was approaching the northern panhandle of Florida where the 129th Rescue Wing aircraft and personnel had been pre-staged for relief operations since September 9th.
Two days prior to the September 11th launch, members of the 212th Rescue Squadron from Alaska were flown by the 129th Rescue Wing into Miami with only one hour left of flyable time, right before the full strength of the storm passed over the “Magic City.” The PJs pre-staged in Miami, able to wait it out in a category five shelter so they could begin ground rescue efforts eight hours before FEMA could arrive in Miami.
“Good to Go”
Loaded with Guardian Angel pararescuemen (PJs) from the 129th Rescue Wing and two other units, all three aircraft took off and headed for the Florida Keys. The mission was to provide sustained and effective rescue operations, and preposition personnel and equipment in the areas not yet hit by Irma’s destructive force.
The role of the helicopters was to fly low and insert PJs from the 129th Rescue Wing and the 212th Rescue Squadron from Alaska, onto the ground by hoist, ladder or fast rope down into the water from the side doors of the helicopter. The three aircraft had to fly around the storm to get to their destination. So they kept just outside the range of the storm’s rings, arriving behind it at the Florida Keys to begin air to ground rescue operations of Florida residents impacted by the storm’s destructive force.
Flying above the Keys to provide command and control support, the MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft would give the helicopters direction on where to find and recover individuals in need of help. A radio operator inside the MC-130P would receive calls and text messages from 9-1-1 and other emergency dispatchers to give them a brief description of the location and condition of potential individuals in need of rescue. Once an individual had been located, they would either be brought back onto the Pave Hawk helicopter where medically trained PJs would administer care until they could be delivered to a casualty collection point, or they would be transported by vehicle or boat to a higher echelon of care.
To the credit of the residents of Marathon and the Florida Keys, no one required rescue.
"We were the right crew at the right time, in place in that region before anyone else,” said Master Sgt. Joe Robles, pararescueman with the 129th Rescue Wing. “It's fortunate when we don't get put to work. It means people respected the storm warnings.”
The MC-130P Combat Shadow provides aerial refueling capabilities to the Pave Hawk helicopters, allowing it to remain airborne in the area of operation for extended periods of time. On this day, both helicopters performed three air refueling operations. This offered longer aerial reconnaissance capabilities and allowed highly trained PJs to continue to be available for invaluable lifesaving rescues and treatment if required. The helicopters flew up and followed the Combat Shadow in a large flight pattern called an orbit to sustain flight operations.
The assessment of the area showed a need for the 129th Rescue Wing to land the rescue personnel and equipment to civilian airports in Marathon and the Keys to provide instant search and rescue capabilities. By pre-staging and launching from Hurlburt Airfield, rescuers and support personnel were able to execute this next task almost immediately.
The group of special operations professionals from the Alaska and California Air National Guards and the Special Tactics Squadron from Oregon were first on the ground in Marathon.
Irma did not cause as much civilian suffering as originally anticipated. This is credited to the proactive steps of the Florida residents who either evacuated or hunkered down in appropriately rated shelters. Also, the area assigned to this task force had minimal flooding.
With the Florida residents in the area of operation not requiring immediate evacuation, the rescue task force quickly adapted its mission set. By using the capabilities of combat controllers from the 125th Special Tactics Squadron – combat air ground communications specialists – the task force got the airport on the island of Marathon up and running within 4 hours. The task force had similar results are other civilian airports in the Keys.
“We assessed and opened the Marathon and Key West International Airports and were able to provide air traffic control and airfield management at noon eastern time on Sept 11th,” said Senior Master Sgt. Nick Seibel, combat controller, 125th Special Tactics Squadron.
An Honest Day’s Work
The 129th Rescue Wing headed back up to Hurlburt Airfield to hold their ready position as Irma journeyed up the peninsula. Standing ready for the next two days, it gave the women and men of the 129th Rescue Wing some time to reflect on the accomplishments of the day, working side-by-side with other units and setting the local first-responders for success in the coordinated relief efforts.
“The biggest mission accomplishment was the opening up of the Marathon flight,” said Col. Fredrick Foote, commander, 129th Operations Group. “That was accomplished with the Oregon Air National Guard’s 125th Special Tactics Squadron.
This one-day effort set up the local first responders for success, paving the way for their relief efforts for the weeks to follow. For the 129th Rescue Wing, September 11th, 2017 was an honest day’s work.