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Plucked from a cruise ship: Reserve mission commander details daring ocean rescue

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner


Editor’s note: Reserve Citizen Airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, made headlines in February when they airlifted a critically injured person from a cruise ship 600 miles off the coast of Florida and delivered him safely to a hospital in Melbourne. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the lifesaving mission.

February 15 started like any other Tuesday for Lt. Col. Chadd Bloomstine. The seasoned helicopter pilot and commander of the 301st Rescue Squadron arrived for work at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, at about 7:30 a.m. and began planning for a day of routine training flights.

At 8:30, he received a phone call from the 920th Rescue Wing executive officer telling him that the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center was going to be calling about a real-world mission. That call came at about 9:00 and put the wheels in motion for an all‑day operation to potentially save a man’s life.

“I was told that the Royal Caribbean Enchantment of the Sea cruise ship was about 600 miles east of Patrick out in the Atlantic,” Bloomstine, who goes by the call sign “Rabbi”, said. “My team and I quickly conducted some detailed planning to see if we had the right people and aircraft mixture to accept the mission. We determined that we did.”

Bloomstine and his team figured they would need two HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters and two HC‑130J Combat King IIs to conduct the mission. The Combat Kings would provide critical aerial refueling to the Pave Hawks during the eight-hour round trip over the Atlantic. All four aircraft would have highly trained pararescuemen on board to provide sufficient self-rescue capability in case any of the rescue aircraft went down.

“The 920th Operations Group commander approved my plan and I contacted the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at 10:20 to accept the mission,” Bloomstine said. “We launched the Personnel Recovery Task Force at noon, three and a half hours after our initial notification. And let me say that the 920th Maintenance Squadron knocked it out of the park. I gave the required configuration for the HH‑60Gs and the HC-130Js during the brief and we had crew-ready aircraft less than an hour after the brief.”

As the mission commander, Bloomstine piloted the second HH-60 helicopter. He made his assistant director of operations, Lt. Col. Paul Carpenter, the flight lead in the first HH-60.

“Then it was time to select our co-pilots,” Bloomstine said. “We had two lieutenants and one captain available who were all qualified for the mission, so we literally drew straws to see who would go. The two lieutenants were the winners.”

Flying about 1,000 feet over the ocean at 120 knots (about 140 miles per hour) into a 20 to 25-knot headwind/crosswind, it took the helicopters four hours to reach the cruise ship. They had to be refueled twice on the way out and once on the way back home.

“Flying over the ocean that far out is a humbling experience,” Bloomstine said. “I was looking for anything to land on and only saw one cargo ship the entire time. It puts it in perspective just how vast our oceans are. We were so far off the coast that our map data ran out on our multi-function displays. It showed our helicopters flying over a black void.”

The helicopter pilot said he spent the majority of his time during the long flight monitoring his aircraft’s fuel situation.

“The lieutenant I was flying with thought this was the coolest thing ever, but I was focused on not having to go for a swim in the Atlantic,” he said. “We reached a point about 200 miles out where we did not have enough fuel to return to dry land, so I was constantly doing a fuel check to determine the next refuel with the HC-130 and trying to estimate our time of arrival with max loiter time.”

Bloomstine said he planned to do the first refueling one hour after takeoff.

“I wanted to make sure that both HH-60s were able to take on fuel before we passed the 200-mile no-return threshold,” he said. “We do checks on the ground prior to departing, but I wanted to be absolutely sure that all aircraft were capable before I committed us to blue water ops.”

Aerial refueling is difficult in perfect conditions. Trying to “get on the hose” over the ocean with high winds requires intense coordination and cooperation.

“The HAAR (helicopter air-to-air refueling) was challenging for both the HH-60s and the HC-130s due to the weather,” Bloomstine said. “The first HAAR was conducted at 1,000 feet and we tried our standard 110-knot refueling airspeed. But the HC‑130 was so heavy due to all of the extra fuel it was carrying and the rescue team on board, it was unable to maintain 110 knots without possibly stalling. We increased the airspeed to 115 to 120 knots, which gave us a greater safety margin from a stall warning.

“The hose was constantly moving during the rescue due to the high winds, but we practice HAARs on a weekly basis,” he said. “The idea is to ‘aim small … miss small.’ We get the tip of our probe real close to the drogue (refueling basket) and watch what the HC‑130’s wing does. Since the hose on the HC-130J is about 93 feet long, we can’t stare at the drogue because it is constantly moving and you will just end up chasing it. Especially during challenging times, we will watch the wing while the probe is a few feet away from where the drogue should be, and when the wing of the HC-130 stabilizes for a few seconds, you know 93 feet later the drogue is going to be stable and you make your run in to a 27-inch wide hole in the drogue.”

About 100 miles away from the cruise ship, Bloomstine pushed one of the HC-130s forward to ensure the ship was prepped for the extraction.

“I had one of the HH-60 weapons officers, Maj. Conrad “Chocks” Lochocki, on the HC-130 reconnoiter the landing zone so I had high situational awareness prior to my arrival,” Bloomstine said. “We all arrived at 1605 local time and I had my lead HH-60 climb to about 300 feet and I proceeded to the ship and did a 360-degree flight around the cruise ship to confirm the data I received from Chocks.”

Once he determined the area was clear and safe, Bloomstine made his approach from the port side of the ship and came to a stable hover about 70 feet above the intended hoist area.

“Typically, we hover off of cues on our multi-function displays, but since the cruise ship was moving at 10 knots, the winds were 25 knots and we had six to nine‑foot seas, I was forced to hover at a 45-degree angle,” he explained. “This enabled me to get a good point of reference off the ship to hover off of and keep the aircraft stable as the ship rocked and rolled.”

Bloomstine inserted the pararescuemen first and returned to a perch position about 150 feet up so he could keep line of sight with the PJs for communications and situational awareness.

“The PJs packaged the patient in a Stokes litter and informed me on the radio that they were ready for pickup,” the lieutenant colonel said. “We conducted three extractions. The first hoist was the patient and a PJ, the second was a nurse and the PJ and the third was a PJ who went back down the hoist and grabbed baggage.”

The rescue team arrived at the cruise ship at 4:05 p.m. and was heading back to the mainland at 4:19.

“My flight lead timed the hoists on extraction and they took less than four minutes total,” Bloomstine said.

With the patient safely onboard, Bloomstine and his crew delivered him to the landing zone on the roof of the hospital in Melbourne, and then returned to Patrick.

From the time they got the original call about the mission until they returned to their base, 11 hours and 15 minutes had elapsed – most of that time spent flying perilously over the ocean.

“The cruise ship rescue showcased the flexibility of the 920th Rescue Wing,” Bloomstine said. “We shifted from a normal training day to an actual long-range open ocean rescue on an unfamiliar ship within a few hours. I can’t say enough how well the 920th Maintenance Squadron got all the aircraft ready expeditiously and safely.

“The motto in the rescue world is ‘These things we do, so others may live.’ The cruise ship rescue on Feb. 15 is proof that our motto is not just words. Our Airmen in the rescue community understand that our sacrifices and the risk we place ourselves in impacts not only the individual who is having the worst day of his life, but the families as well. Saving a life is special, and in the rescue world, we understand that.”

The mission of the 920th Rescue Wing is to plan, lead and conduct military rescue operations and missions to deny competitors and adversaries exploitation of isolated personnel, but the wing has a long history of civilian humanitarian relief as well. The wing rescued 137 South Florida residents during the 18 days following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, rescued more than 200 people after Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and pulled 1,049 people from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.