KULIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Alaska, - The rescue squadrons here participate in training missions five days a week, day or night and in temperatures often below freezing.
"Our primary rescue mission is to rescue a fighter pilot if he ever had to eject from his aircraft," explained Lt. Col. Rick Watson, an HH-60G Pavehawk evaluator pilot with the 210th Rescue Squadron. "However, because we also belong to the governor of Alaska, our second mission is to provide services to any civil aircraft accident."
Kulis is home to three rescue squadrons. Each supports and relies on the others to carry out their respective missions. The 210th Rescue Squadron fields six HH-60G Pavehawk helicopters, a highly specialized search-and-rescue variant of the more well-known Blackhawk. The 211th Rescue Squadron flies four HC-130 Hercules, a variant of the normal C-130 tactical airlift plane that has been modified for search-and-rescue operations and aerial refueling. Rounding out the trio is the 212th Rescue Squadron, which supplies pararescuemen and combat rescue officers for the missions.
The rescue squadrons remain on alert around the clock, every day of the year. In the course of a typical year, the squadrons conduct about 160 rescue missions. Of these, 75 percent are injury reports and 25 percent are missing person reports.
Before picking up the patient and making the save, most missions start with a phone call for help. The 11th Rescue Coordination Center - another 176th Wing unit, this one located on Elmendorf Air Force Base - then makes a call to the search-and-rescue director of operations who organizes the rescue.
Once the decision is made that the Pavehawk is the best rescue platform for the mission, and coordination is made with pararescuemen, combat rescue officers, pilots and aircraft maintainers, then the rescue mission is launched.
The versatility of the Pavehawk allows it to adapt to a wide range of rescue missions, from those involving typical hikers and hunters to those involving civil aircraft accidents.
"Due to our air-refueling capabilities we are called on by other military branches to help out," said Lt. Col. William Sullivan, the chief of standardization/evaluation from Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) Headquarters. Located at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, PACAF is the 176th Wing's parent unit.
Sullivan recalled a mission for which the U.S. Coast Guard asked for support because their aircraft could not travel as far out to sea as could the Air Guard's Pavehawks, which completed the mission by refueling in mid-air six times along the way.
The refueling capability also had a major impact on a mission to rescue the crew of the Cougar Ace, a Singaporean freighter that began taking on water south of Adak Island. Traveling more than 1,200 miles from Anchorage down the Aleutian Chain, the search-and-rescue helicopters completed several in-flight refuelings.
The Pavehawk can operate up to an altitude of 14,000 feet without oxygen assistance, and its crews routinely use night vision goggles to extend their mission capabilities to nighttime operations.
The Pavehawk normally carries a six-man crew, comprising two pilots, a gunner, the flight engineer and two pararescuemen. While deployed, Pavehawk crews carry out missions that include helping Army Special Forces who've been injured and cannot continue on with their units.
Overseas rotations usually last three to six months. Rescue crews from Kulis also deploy to assist with search-and-rescue operations in the aftermath of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
"All of us are in the Air Force for different reasons. For me, it has always been about the job satisfaction of being part of a team that is in some way making a difference," said Sullivan. "Regardless of the nature of the conflict or the situation at hand, participating in both combat and civil rescue missions offers me the sense of fulfillment on a routine basis.
"I feel extremely humbled and honored to have this opportunity to perform this mission with the men and women of the Alaska Air National Guard."