The mission seemed simple enough: Fly over the ocean in a predetermined grid and find a bright orange life raft.
Shortly after the 103rd Airlift Wing C-130H took off from Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal, loadmasters assigned to the 118th Airlift Squadron began to scan the ocean from the rear of the aircraft. Finally, after several passes, a life raft was located. However, finding the raft was only half the battle.
Keeping the life raft in sight while factoring in where the life raft was drifting and the sun glare off the water proved to be more difficult than expected. While attempting to keep the raft in sight, the aircraft commander began relaying information to the Rescue Coordination Center at Lajes Field, which in turn provided the coordinates of the raft to the Portuguese Navy ship patrolling the ocean. The C-130H continued to circle the raft until the ship had eyes on the raft. Mission complete.
The 118th Airlift Squadron recently participated in an international Advance Search and Rescue Exercise in the Azores, Portugal, September 17-20, 2018. The Portuguese Air Force, Portuguese Navy, and Canadian Air Force, along with the Connecticut Air National Guard, were all involved in this exercise. Though the 103rd’s flying mission does not typically extend to search and rescue, the squadron’s ability to exercise this capability may one day require the unit to fulfill a search and rescue mission.
“The C-130 aircraft that we fly are not typically tasked for civil search and rescue or personnel recovery, but we have the capability,” said Capt. Scott Duguay, 118th Airlift Squadron pilot and aircraft commander during the exercise. “That’s pretty much based on the unique characteristics of the C-130, including that it is long range, it has multiple crew members that can look out for life rafts or people, and we have multiple radios so we can work as a communications suite and have the option of being the on-scene commander, which we were.”
The aircrew on a C-130H typically consists of a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, and loadmasters. Though the aircrew didn’t have prior search and rescue experience, they were able to successfully complete the mission.
“Even though we weren’t as familiar with this type of mission, it was pretty straight forward,” said Duguay. “We went out there and were able to execute and find a life raft. We applied the tactics and procedures that are spelled out for us on how to operate in a search and rescue environment, and we were able to do it with no issues.”
Even though this type of exercise was a first for the aircrew on board the C-130, the Connecticut Air National Guard was tasked to take lead in the search and rescue portion of the exercise.
“We were tasked to be the on-scene commander for the search and rescue portion of the exercise,” said Duguay. “As the on-scene commander, some of the responsibilities are getting on scene and coordinating the arrivals of other aircraft to that scene. If the other aircrafts’ crews spot something, they funnel information to us that includes the location of where they have the sighting, and we forward that on to the RCC at Lajes Field. The RCC then reaches out to any ships in the area so they can guide them to where the sighting was so we can confirm that we identified what we are looking for.”
Overall, the exercise was a great experience that provided unprecedented training opportunities for the members of aircrew.
“This exercise gave us exposure to search and rescue, what we may encounter when we do it, the pacing, the type of folks we might have to coordinate with such as civil agencies, other military and international agencies,” said Duguay. “Sometimes the airspace that’s dictated based on all of these RCCs may flow into different areas such as New York airspace versus Canadian airspace. Sometimes you have to work with them so this is a great opportunity to see how we work together and figure out this kind of stuff on an international level. It’s always good for the crew to get this type of exposure. I also feel confident if a real world search and rescue mission came down we could execute.”
Staff Sgt. Andrei Libert, 118th Airlift Squadron loadmaster agreed that this training experience was valuable.
“I think the most beneficial thing is the experience of actually doing [the search and rescue exercise],” Libert said. “I’ve never done this before. It also helps keep your eyes fresh, although we don’t do search and rescue as a loadmaster, we use our eyes a lot to look out for other things besides life rafts. Whether it be threats or something else. Being able to actively scan and know how to scan is important, but the experience itself was most beneficial, knowing that this is what the AC (aircraft commander) is doing, this is how the plane is going to fly so you know where and when to look based on positioning.”
“The best part of this exercise is that we can bring back what we learned and share it with the rest of the squadron,” said Duguay. “Now we’ll have a better knowledge base on search and rescue procedures.”