By Lt Col Robert Haston
920th Rescue Wing Chief of Safety
No space shuttle crew ascends to the Heavens without a few angels on its shoulders. The 920th Rescue Wing, stationed out of Patrick Air Force Base, is always on deck to ensure the astronauts are safe in case of a mishap. In this blog post, Lt Col Haston, an HH-60G Pave Hawk Pilot, provides us with a glimpse of the 920th Rescue Wing’s mission before, during, and after launch.
Our support for the launch starts three hours before launch (L-180 in NASA lingo) when two HH-60s from Patrick AFB arrive at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) to be ready for different types of launch area emergencies (Modes I-IV). At L-120 the first of two more HH-60s is at 6,000 feet over the 20 by 60 mile launch danger zone. They use radar and ship tracking receivers to get a long range picture of boats approaching the area.
Since ships may be closing at up to 30 knots, we initially scan an area a third of the size of Florida. We contact and move the ships, which can be difficult considering the ship may be roughly the size and weight of the Empire State Building, and we are talking to a watch captain who has a limited command of English.
Once we have sorted the big boys out, we have to deal with the professional fishermen who are generally no problem unless they are asleep below decks, which might require pushing their boat around with our rotor wash to wake them up. We also have to deal with sport fishermen and pleasure boaters who run the gamut from competent to clueless. Hopefully there isn’t a swarm of them. In the middle of this (around L-90) we pop up and get gas from a Marine Tanker.
We go land and get ready for our real job, covering for potential post launch mishaps. Modes V-VII (at or near the SLF) are pretty much a helicopter show, so they aren’t too complicated unless the Shuttle winds up in the water or trees, leaking poisonous hydrazine, etc. Mode VIII is overwater rescue which may take place off the Carolinas, and involve three tankers and four helicopters, plus more assets coming down from Cherry Point or New York. From exercises, I can say that the real challenge is if we all arrive on scene to find the astronauts, sort out who gets which, who goes to what hospital, and which tanker goes with which helicopters. Hopefully it isn’t on a moonless night in bad weather.
For more information on Team Rescue, see this story. It was posted toward the end of April to coincide with Endeavour’s original launch window.
PHOTO: Every time a space shuttle takes off, the Rescue Reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, are on hand in case of emergency. The 920th Airmen are charged as guardians of the astronauts during NASA space shuttle missions to and from the Kennedy Space Center. This includes four HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and crew, three HC-130 P/N King aircraft and crew and about 15 pararescuemen, not to mention all of the maintenance support personnel who keep these aged aircraft flying. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Matthew C. Simpson)