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Travis Aircrews Assist in Rare Search and Rescue Mission

  • Published
  • By Rossi D. Pedroza

It’s not every day that tanker aircrews get asked to take part in a search-and-rescue mission, but that’s just what happened to a pair of KC-10A Extender aircrews assigned to the Air Force Reserve’s 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force, California, during the October unit training assembly weekend.

The aircrews, from the 70th and 79th Air Refueling Squadrons, were participating in tanker and receiver training with three Air National Guard F-15s when they got the call for help.

The Travis Command Post reached out to the KC-10 crews to see if they could investigate an active distress beacon the Coast Guard picked up near the Oregon-California border.

“Both aircraft received phone calls from the command post to see if either of us could proceed to a global positioning satellite fix,” said Capt. Judah Anolick, ORCA-70 aircraft commander. “The Coast Guard wanted to know if we could investigate and, if able, help facilitate a rescue.”

After burning all available fuel during the training mission, TORA-79 headed back to Travis. The crew passed off the latest coordinates, a thorough weather report since the weather conditions were poor and a report of having heard the emergency locator transmitter over the aircraft’s radio.

The crew of ORCA-70 headed directly to the area of the distress signal and coordinated a non-standard descent over the ocean with San Francisco Radio Control via high-frequency radios.

The crew first descended to 6,500 feet, but remained in dense cloud cover. ORCA-70 descended to 3,500 feet and then to 2,500 feet, but still found itself in dense clouds. The aircraft commander prepared to lower the altitude to 1,500 feet.

“At this altitude, we were still in and out of dense clouds, but we were able to see the ocean for brief periods of time,” Anolick said. “It was raining and very windy with large and plentiful white caps on the surface. The crew’s strategy was to plot all the previous points received from the Coast Guard and scan the areas of interest for the distressed ship. Despite the continuous rain, dense clouds and barely discernible surface conditions, crew members took up positions at nearly every available window in the jet to see anything out of the ordinary.”

The first five to six passes over the area yielded nothing. Then, during one of the final passes, Staff Sgt. Taylor Dickson, a boom operator, called from the back of the jet that he had seen the boat out of the air refueling operations window.

The aircrew radioed in and provided detailed information on the current state of the boat, location of the sighting and other information to the Coast Guard before leaving the area. With fuel running low, ORCA-70 had to return to Travis.

“We were grateful to hear that a nearby passenger vessel was enroute to our most recent location,” Anolick said. “We briefly talked with them directly over our high-frequency radios, but quickly lost connection. We believed the passenger ship was able to get the rest of our information from the Coast Guard after we lost contact.”

After touching down at Travis, the crew learned that the passenger ship arrived at the scene and found a single male aboard the distressed ship, which was taking on water. He was safely recovered.

“I am very proud to have such an exceptional crew despite the day and long odds,” Anolick said. “Everyone was willing to make the long drive out over the ocean to do our best to assist in this search-and-rescue mission. We had eyes looking out every window.”

Lt. Col. Jill Sliger, 349th Operations Group commander, expressed gratitude to the Travis Command Post. “We got word that a life was saved today because of your effective communication to the aircraft in the air and to the U.S. Coast Guard … incredible.”

In a message relayed to the flight crews, the Coast Guard said, “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

(Pedroza is assigned to the 349th AMW public affairs office.)