Never leave an Airman behind

By Airman 1st Class Ryan Callaghan
23d Wing Public Affairs

I showed up at the 71st Rescue Squadron expecting to tag along on a training flight in an HC-130P Combat King: some Airmen were going to be jumping out of the plane, and I was going to take pictures. Airmen were huddled around the operations desk, but the vibe was different today. I could tell something was amiss. There was a visible tension in the air; it reflected on the faces of the pilots and aircrew scrambling to gather details from someone on the other end of a phone.

A seasoned F-15 pilot was on a solo flight to receive a radar upgrade when the pilot communicated an in-flight emergency. A mere 25 minutes later it was confirmed the aircraft had crashed into the remote Deerfield Valley in Virginia.

I had heard about the accident the day before, and I knew there would be a rescue effort, but hadn’t connected the dots. Now it seemed certain, the hubbub was the planning stages of a search and rescue mission.

Despite the commotion around the squadron, I was still offered a seat on the flight. I had only prepared for a short flight so I was hesitant. Eleven hours on even the cushiest of aircraft is still a questionable decision. But, I was excited to be granted the opportunity to cover such an important mission.

Search and rescue mission
Crewmembers from the 71st Rescue Squadron discuss search patterns in an HC-130P Combat King during the search for a downed Air National Guard F-15C Eagle pilot Aug. 28, 2014, over the Shenandoah Valley, Va. The 14-man crew scanned the valley floor for six hours before returning to Moody Air Force Base, Ga., for refueling and a new aircrew. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Callaghan/Released)

Senior Airman J.T. Treichel, a loadmaster from the 71st RQS, took advantage of the two and a half hour journey to the search area by detailing what exactly we were looking for: obviously something reminiscent of a stranded pilot, but what would be the signs?

“While on scanning duty we try to look for anomalies, stuff that’s different,” Treichel said. “Things like a parachute or bent trees. If the survivor is on the ground, he might’ve set up a ground-to-air signal that we’d be able to see. Or they [could also be] using a signal mirror or a strobe. We’re just trying to see if we can spot anything out of the ordinary.”

After arriving over the search area and checking in with the on-scene command center, our search began. The pilots began flying specialized search patterns, ensuring we didn’t miss any ground. We’re 8,500 feet in the air, and it’s hard to make out houses clearly from this height, let alone a single person. Aided by high-powered binoculars and the standard issue super camera attached to the HC-130P, we scoured swaths of trees roughly 45 degrees out to the right and left of the aircraft. We took half-hour shifts scanning from the four windows in the back of the aircraft so our eyes would stay fresh while inspecting the repetitive tree patterns below.

There were reports of a chute being deployed. Someone thought they had seen it and that gave us hope. With such a large number of both military and civilian search parties around, surely we would find him.

Searching for a downed pilot
Staff Sgt. Rainair Howard, 723d Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion journeyman, scans the valley floor from the window of an HC-130P Combat King in search of a downed Air National Guard F-15C Eagle pilot Aug. 28, 2014, in the skies over the Shenandoah Valley, Va. The pilot was assigned to the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Callaghan/Released)

The next six hours felt surreal. The 30-minute increments spent methodically searching flew by, but each shift felt longer as the time went on without finding anything.

Despite our best efforts, nobody onboard had seen anything that might’ve clued us in to the whereabouts of the pilot. We were running low on fuel and it was time to go home.

When we arrived back at Moody, the next crew was already preparing for departure. It was the mission that the hardworking men and women of the 71st RQS train for every day. When a plane goes down and the call comes in, they go out the door and up in the air.

Capt. Charles Follett, a navigator at the 71st RQS and a fellow Airman with a duty in the air, simply said, “It’s always a good feeling to know that if something bad does happen, there will be someone out there looking for you. It’s good to know there are [people] to help in your time of need.”

Shift change
Senior Airman Edgar Perez, 71st Rescue Squadron loadmaster, rests his eyes after his turn scanning the valley floor in search of a downed Air National Guard F-15C Eagle pilot Aug. 28, 2014, in the skies over the Shenandoah Valley, Va. Crewmembers aboard an HC-130P Combat King scanned the area in 30-minute shifts to keep their eyes fresh. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ryan Callaghan/Released)

The next morning, I heard the devastating news that the pilot’s body had been found among the wreckage. No one expected that his relatively routine flight that day would’ve ended the way it did.

I didn’t think I’d ever be a part of any type of rescue mission when I enlisted, and the thought certainly didn’t cross my mind when I woke up that day.

Although this mission didn’t result in a save, I am proud to have been a part of the search effort. The 71st RQS and the rest of the 347th Rescue Group were credited with 147 saves this year. Additionally, they fly countless sorties in support of rescue operations each year. None were possible without a plethora of Airmen working hard to ensure the aircraft is ready to go and the crew is prepared and equipped.

Every Airman is important to the mission and to ensuring the Air Force remains a self-sufficient air power. Occasionally, working outside the scope of your primary duty helps put this into perspective.