JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii – Members of the Hawaii Air National Guard's 204th Airlift Squadron wrapped up a month-long search and rescue exercise around Oahu Feb. 6, alongside partners from the Alaska ANG.
The training, called Exercise H2O, was tailored to improve the Hawaii Air National Guard's astronaut recovery mission set, spanning across the world's largest area of operation – the Pacific Ocean.
C-17 Globemaster III aircrews from Hawaii and Alaska have been providing contingency recovery capabilities since May when NASA's Commercial Crew Program began transporting personnel to the International Space Station.
Throughout the exercise, cargo-aircraft were reconfigured into effective rescue platforms and loaded with teams of pararescue Airmen from the 144th Rescue Squadron, renowned as 'PJs,' practicing a series of airdrops in a multitude of conditions.
"In all, we have continued to spin up more qualified rescue aircrew and have built on the foundations of the existing crews," said Capt. Evan Kurosu, 204th AS pilot and exercise planner. "We have also identified some improvements to our Con-Op (concept of operations) we use for the NASA mission based on what we learned from this particular PJ team. We also have identified best practices and techniques we will standardize between the 144th and us moving forward because of the fluid nature of rescue procedures."
The CCP was formed to facilitate the development of U.S.-based space travel programs, enabling private agencies to transport crew members into orbit and safely back to Earth. During each staffed voyage, such as SpaceX's launches to the ISS in May and November, airlift Airmen staged rescue packages in Hawaii and South Carolina. In the event of a hard-to-reach water landing, the closer C-17 will locate the capsule, airdrop watercraft and a team of pararescue members who are prepared to egress and treat the astronauts for up to 72 hours.
"If astronauts splash down within 200 miles of the launch site, a rescue triad is on alert to respond," said Maj. Joseph Leman, 144th AS instructor pilot and exercise director. "If the landing is beyond that radius, a C-17 becomes the aircraft of choice for the mission because we can go further and get there faster."
Airlift sorties were conducted during the day and night, using night-vision goggles, airdrops of personnel and rescue equipment, and deployments of smoke markers and flares to help spot downed astronauts in harsh ocean environments.
While most training scenarios focused on developing the CCP rescue mission, exercise planners incorporated additional, complementary tactical proficiencies with partnered units designed to save costs.
The pinnacle of H2O's supplementary training, dubbed 'The Super Sortie,' consisted of a 12-aircraft formation, including all flying squadrons based out of JBPH-H along with a visiting C-17 from Alaska. Following the formation of eight F-22 Raptors, three Globemasters and one KC-135 Stratotanker, airlift members set out to multiple drop zones on the north shore to conduct 12 personnel airdrops and six drops of heavy equipment.
Throughout the Super Sortie, air surveillance and tactical oversight were remotely communicated by air battle managers and command and control personnel from the 169th Air Defense Squadron, which specializes in giving aviators the upper hand in a contested and complex environment.
Additional pararescuemen and HC-130J aircrew, from the active-duty 211th RS, joined their ANG comrades throughout the month to increase their jumpmaster training proficiencies. They practiced static line and high-altitude-low-opening (HALO) jumps.
Kurosu said H20 was designed to increase interoperability with partnered units. After 20 successful sorties, mission planners are now developing strategies to evolve the next iteration of H2O and streamline the integration of aircrew and rescue personnel.