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Winter's end showcases U.S., Canadian rescue games

  • Published
  • By Capt. Cathleen Snow and Senior Airman Natasha Dowridge
  • By 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs
The Florida Straits served as maritime battlefields this winter for U.S. and Canadian rescue forces to sharpen their life-saving skills in a series of competitions designed to defeat a common enemy - the perils of rescue.

To view a slideshow of the exercise, click here.

While human and mechanical errors can cost those who specialize in rescue their lives, the forces of nature which are factored into each rescue equation, can be the deadliest. Controlling these forces is like surfing a tsunami on a broken ski. At times, even extraordinary skill and courage fall short.

The annual Conch Republic competitions not only heighten training by pitting the two allies against one another in various exercise scenarios, but allow them to pool resources, according to the exercise planner U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Dan Byers, 39th Rescue Squadron, 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

Not only do the warm breezes and scattered islands in and around the United States' southernmost point offer a new environment for both countries' winter training, but they allow Canadian SAR forces reprieve from the frigid grip of the Great White North to exercise their water rescue skills.

"Your maritime training ceases at a certain point when winter sets in," said Canadian Capt. Gary Hartzenberg, C-130 pilot, 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 17 Wing, Winnipeg. "Up near us we have a large lake that is frozen this time of year. It's nice to be here in Key West when it's 30 below at home right now."

In the Keys, "we are doing jumps and are being forced to use equipment that we don't normally use because of our terrain and climate," said Air Force Reserve Capt. Jim Sluder, combat rescue officer, 308th Rescue Squadron.

Comparing rescue notes in an idyllic setting where tourists clamor strengthens their rescue alliance by synergizing their differences in rescue procedures, techniques and equipment.

One of the biggest differences is the end user. While U.S. SAR teams specialize in battlefield rescue, their northern counterparts solely practice civil SAR.

U.S. SAR Airmen constantly deploy overseas in support of war efforts to pull wounded coalition combatants from battle zones, while their Canadian counterparts deploy throughout Canada to save civilians battling the elements.

The towering hazards presented by both types require constant fine tuning to overcome.

Case in point

Last fall Fellow Canadian search and rescue technician Sgt. Janick Gilbert, of the 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron, 8 Wing, Ontario, Canada, lost his life battling for another's in Canada's arctic region.

Gilbert and other members of his squadron were called north to Canada's most remote, and one of the most sparsely settled regions in the world, Nunavut, to rescue a young man and his father whose small open boat was jammed in pack ice.

Numb from the cold and unable to use the rescue supplies dropped by another rescue crew before Gilbert's SAR team arrived, the stranded men held onto life and the boat as it was battered by rough seas. Freezing and believed to be hypothermic and dehydrated, the men needed more than supplies. Nearing sunset, the SAR team had to make a call--allow the SAR techs to parachute to the men to provide medical assistance or hold off until daylight and the seas calmed.

The situation below was grim, but the three SAR techs on board the aircraft were prepared to risk their necks to save another's. Finally, they were approved to jump. The SAR tech that landed the closest to the raft was able to swim to it and help the ailing hunters.

However, the second SAR tech swam until he realized he couldn't make it to the raft then deployed his own personal one-man life raft. Landing farthest from the raft was Gilbert, also the SAR team leader, who had trouble with his personal life raft. Eventually, the six-foot icy waves and the complete darkness that followed, marred Gilbert's efforts, and he perished during the episode.

While the exact chain of events is still being investigated, ultimately the team accomplished its mission, and the victim's were spared from the elements.

Canadian and U.S. Rescue Airmen live, and sometimes die, by their rescue mottos, "determined to deliver" and "these things we do that others may live" respectively. While sometimes broken skis and nature's curveballs cause death, constant training is armor against rescue's mountains and molehills.

Key West proving grounds

While blue lagoons frame the training arena, the Key West SAREX has become an established proving ground for rescue's joint training checklist.

Both countries' procedures vary, "so it's a good opportunity to go out and do something different and learn from our brothers at the 39th and how they conduct business, "said Hartzenberg.

Integrating their C-130 transport aircraft into heavy air traffic flow along with Navy fighter jets at Key West Naval Air Station was like merging a station wagon onto an active speedway with drivers full of road rage. A nearby international airport also dealt flyers an influx of incoming civilian airliners brimming with tourists almost hourly to factor into their exercise scenarios.

"It gets really busy, so it's a little different dealing with stuff that's going on outside of your training scenario," said Hartzenberg.

Landing the aircraft and dropping its cargo on a coin means getting supplies and rescue specialists to those hanging on to life. Failing to precisely hit the mark could mean minutes or seconds longer for a person immersed in deadly conditions.

Job specialization carved each exercise scenario. In addition to testing aircraft operators flying skills, both countries' exercised their aircraft maintenance crews and personal rescue specialists.

The aircraft operators

While opening up the aircraft's hatch in flight is a little more than toggling a switch; it takes the combined skills of the six- to seven-person crew for all moving parts to gel for a precision drop of supplies or personnel.

"We are trying to simulate short-field ops, so the whole idea is you want to get in as close to the end of the runway as possible and get down as quick as you can," said Lt. Col. Richard Pamplin, 435 TRS commanding officer.

As a competition judge along with colleague Lt. Col. Jeff Hannold, commander, 39th RQS, the two jetted from one end of the runway to another in vehicles loaded down with fellow Airmen ready to measure the distance and condition of each aircraft's dropped bundles after they've smacked onto Marathon Key's rough cement island airfield.

Each dropped load of cargo was thoroughly inspected and inches and feet to a red-duct tape X were jotted down for final aircrew judging.

Community support

Standing next to the Canadian commander on the airfield is an unlikely visitor - Canadian music icon, Ms. Loreena McKennit. Like her presence, the award-winning entertainer's strawberry blonde hair is a striking contrast against the drab green Canadian Air Force uniform she wears, which bears the rank of colonel. The 435 TRS granted her the honorary rank, and when her global touring schedule allows McKennit shines a spotlight on the Maple Leaf country's need for rescue, a commitment and honor she takes to heart according to a well-documented page on her web site dedicated to expounding on her military role.

U.S., Canadian's area of responsibility

The 435 TRS provides SAR response for the largest region in Canada. The squadron keeps an aircraft on constant readiness to deploy with airborne search and rescue technicians (SAR Techs) standing by to respond within 30 minutes of notification. Their region extends from Quebec City to the Rocky Mountains and from the Canada-U.S. border to the North Pole, covering most of Central, Western and Northern Canada.

To be ready, "we have an airplane and a crew on call all the time," said Pamplin. "It's fairly resource intensive therefore the most we can spare when we come here is one airplane and crew. When we exercise in the Spring in Canada, we are holding our standby posture simultaneously, so we are able to take more aircraft and crews."

Similarly, a portion of the U.S. rescue forces' aircraft are deployed anywhere needed overseas at any given time, therefore the minimal rescue transportation resources that both countries have to work with must be kept in ready-to-rescue working order.

The maintainers

While in-depth knowledge is a key ingredient to maintaining rescue's worn aircraft fleet, there's more to it. Between exercises and overseas deployments, yo-yoing the U.S.'s 50-year-old HC-130s and 20-year-old HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters in and out of desert and arctic weather keeps maintainers active.

"We couldn't do anything we do if it wasn't for teamwork," said U.S. Air Force Reserve Chief Master Sgt. Tracy Winton, 920th RQW Maintenance Group quality assurance. "Teamwork's nowhere in your training, but it is something that has to happen. It's very important whether we're at home station or on a deployment like this."

Maintenance teams competed in the "lost tool" and the "in-the-box" competitions. The first was a needle-in-a-haystack search for a hidden tool aboard each of the three C-130s. To level the playing field, helicopter maintainers were briefed on the layout of the nearly 100-foot long fixed-wing aircraft, which is three times the size of the Pave Hawks they maintain. Each team formulated a strategy to search and rescue the hidden tool.

The "in-the-box" competition measured how close to center each team crew chief could marshal in their teams' aircraft nose-wheel tire into a taped off three-foot-by-three-foot square.

"The more we get together like this, the more opportunity there is to make missions better because we're working on our communication skills the whole time," said Winton.

To show their esprit de corps, two U.S. maintenance Airmen volunteered to get soaked as overboard survival victims for the next training scenario -- U.S. pararescumen vs. the Canadian SAR Techs water-rescue competition.

Wet and wading, U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. David Cooksey, aircraft maintenance commander, and Senior Airman Anton Levin, communication navigation journeyman, witnessed the rescue scene unfold overhead.

The rescue specialists

Among the conch clouds and blue sky, the C-130's props buzz the exercise actor's attention. Rescue specialists below witness the aircraft's ramp jaws mechanically open then spit out two inflatable boat packages, known as Rigged Alternate Method Zodiacs.

Perfectly timed tailwinds yanked the desk-sized bundles out over the Gulf of Mexico drop zone by two parachutes like giant airborne jellyfish slowed the cargo's descent. When the bundles splashed down, the U.S. and Canadian rescue specialists race to assemble their transportation mode which was used to speed to the "survivors" waiting to be rescued nearby.

While a portion of the rescuers tended to the "survivors," aircrew members piloting a 920th RQW HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter nearby zipped over the drop zone and performed several water rescue maneuvers with the U.S. PR specialists. The Pave Hawk crew cast their rescue hoist cable into the water and reeled in a finned U.S. pararescueman like a fish, as it towed him and a medical litter to the rotor-winged aircraft.

Below, the rescuers practiced basic medical procedures on the survivors and ultimately they were rescued several times over. "It was a great experience, except for the getting the I.V. needle in my arm," said Cooksey.

The adrenaline and the thrill of winning works the Airmen up, but they all know this is more than a competition.

"It's an opportunity for us to preform search and rescue exercises and information sharing with our Canadian counterparts," said Sluder.

In addition to the water training, the rescuers held daily jump camps to refine their static-line and free-fall parachute skills, and they spent the last day practicing SCUBA-dive recovery of personnel with life-sized mannequins.

Their final test was one of physical endurance. This fitness test not only exercised their bodies but their memories for using various SAR equipment.

A ceremonial close

As the SAREX games closed, Chief Master Sgt. Doug Kestranek, senior enlisted manager, 308th RQS, reminded the U.S. and Canadian rescue teams of Airmen who've recently made the ultimate sacrifice. In a memorial ceremony held at a Navy annex, a dozen Airmen spoke out loud the name of a fallen service member who perished, "that others may live." Sergeant Gilbert was among them.

"This is a serious business we're in," said Col. Jeffrey Macrander, 920th RQW commander. "We all know people --some of us know a lot of people -- who have given their lives doing this job."

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This story is the first part in a three-part series on seasonal joint rescue training.