F.S. GABRESKI AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. – New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing flew 1,200 miles east over the North Atlantic May 20, found a 32-foot sailboat heading toward the Azores, and dropped vital medical supplies to the three-person crew.
“I can’t find my sprinkler heads in the summertime till I turn on the system. So, the fact that we could fly out there, 1,200 miles, it’s a needle in a haystack,” said Master Sgt. Joe Sexton, a loadmaster for the mission.
Adding to the challenge: The Colombian crew of the French-registered yacht “Namah” spoke only Spanish, there was no locator beacon on the boat, and the boat’s position was 12 hours old, said Lt. Col. Sean Garell, the commander of the HC-130J aircraft.
But three hours after the crew left Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, near the eastern tip of Long Island, they found the Namah, dropped two packages of medical supplies and turned for home.
The 106th got the mission when a 23-year-old Colombian woman crewing the sailboat scalded herself with boiling water May 19, suffering second- and third-degree burns. The boat was traveling from Panama to St.-Jean-de-Luz, France.
The U.S. Coast Guard received the call and, because they did not have an aircraft available, referred it to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The center turned to the 106th Rescue Wing.
“Although we are primarily concerned with conducting our rescue mission overseas … we have the ability to do it … for domestic operations, or in this case here, in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Col. Shawn P. Fitzgerald, the commander of the 106th.
The mission was to put together the required medical supplies, locate the Namah and drop the package into the ocean where the crew could retrieve it.
Position updates were sent from the boat to the Coast Guard via a handheld device, relayed to the wing, and then to the aircraft.
Once they found the boat, the Airmen also had to communicate with the crew.
With no Spanish speakers on the aircrew, Garell reached out across the unit and tapped Senior Airman Jocelyn Tapia-Puma, an aviation resource manager.
Tapia-Puma, a Colombian-American, speaks Spanish fluently and volunteered to be the interpreter on the flight.
“I never thought in my career I would be part of a rescue mission,” said Tapia-Puma. “At any given time, anybody, any career field, can be put on a rescue mission, and I was ready to go.”
The wing’s 102nd Rescue Squadron, commanded by Garell, flies the HC-130J Combat King II search and rescue aircraft and was responsible for the mission.
The pararescuemen of the wing’s 103rd Rescue Squadron put the required supplies and treatment directions in two sealed ammunition cases.
The 102nd loadmasters prepared the supplies for the drop.
The waterproof packages were attached to a life preserver unit, said Chief Master Sgt. Craig Connor, the senior loadmaster on the mission.
The loadmasters attached beacons and small parachutes to the bundles so the boaters could locate the 20-lb. packages in case of poor visibility.
Three hours into the flight, the plane descended, and everybody on board started looking for the Namah.
Sexton wrote the numbers 3 and 9 on the windows so everyone could reference any Namah sighting according to a clock position, with the nose of the aircraft being 12.
One of the pilots, Capt. William Hall, found a photo of the boat on a social media site to help visually identify the vessel.
Lt. Col. Kevin Lawhon, the combat systems operator, spotted the boat first on his radar scope. Two minutes later, the Namah came into view.
While copilot Capt. Nicholas Napolitano flew the plane, he was guided by Sexton in the back, who had to get the drop on target.
“It’s like throwing a football through a tire. … If you just go out and try to do it, you’re not going to be very good at it. But if you go in the backyard and constantly practice, you’re going to get pretty good,” Connor said.
Sexton laid belly down on the floor of the aircraft and stuck his head out the side door to provide course-correction inputs to the pilot.
“It was a calm sea state. I knew the drop was going to go good as soon as I saw the way it looked,“ Sexton said.
At the same time, Tapia-Puma was on the radio with the boat’s crew, talking them through the procedure.
From 300 feet, the Airmen could see the crew waving below.
“Load clear,” was broadcast over the radio as Connor released the first package.
He dropped the bundles a little away from the sailboat to avoid any potential damage to the boat.
“Great drop loads,” came over the headset from the pilots after the first drop.
Tapia-Puma took to the radio again, telling the sailboat crew to wait for the second drop before paddling out to pick up the medical package in a small boat.
They didn’t want to hit anybody below.
As the HC-130J made the second pass at 300 feet, Sexton signaled loadmaster Master Sgt. Michael Torre to release the second bundle.
The feeling was triumphant in the cabin, with fist bumps all around, as the bundle hit the water.
Master Sgt. Michael Cruz and Airman 1st Class Bryan Valverde, the maintenance crew chiefs on board, watched one of the Namah crew paddle out to recover the supplies.
Tapia-Puma said she was happy to contribute to the mission’s success.
The fact that she speaks Spanish, with the same Colombian dialect as the injured woman, made a difference, Tapia-Puma said.
“I think she began to cry because she was able to get someone who understood her, and she knew that we were there to help,” said Tapia-Puma. “I think it alleviated a lot of stress … and also being a woman, I think it was very meaningful.”
Communicating with the crew directly gave them hope, Garell said.
“Something we learned in survival school is you can go three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without shelter,” Garell said. “For humans, you can go three seconds without hope. Airman Tapia-Puma was able to provide that hope.”