JULY 22, 2016, OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) – A-10 Thunderbolt IIs make low passes over mountaintops, providing cover fire for two HH-60 Pave Hawks carrying Air Force rescue teams as they all coordinate to find downed pilots behind enemy lines. A distress call is heard on the radio over the roar of rotor blades as a Pave Hawk begins to descend, blasting dust and debris in all directions.
Just as the helicopter is about to touch down, a young man in a flight suit jumps out of nearby bushes and waits for a signal to board. An aerial gunner gives a thumbs-up and the man quickly climbs on board before the helicopter flees the scene, only a few minutes after first flying into the valley.
This scenario was one of the many missions flown during exercise Pacific Thunder 16-2, a two-week training event that combines U.S. and South Korean forces to enhance interoperability for combat search and rescue missions across the Korean Peninsula.
To accurately train for CSAR operations, this exercise made scenarios as realistic as possible and placed pilots to “rescue” on the ground.
During one mission, 1st Lt. Sky Lesh, a 25th Fighter Squadron pilot, was dropped off in a remote area while the rescue team, comprised of HH-60s from the 33rd Rescue Squadron and A-10s from the 25th FS, was tasked to find and extract him. The only communication equipment Lesh had was a combat survivor evader locator, which provides secure two-way, over-the-horizon data communications.
“I got to play the ‘objective’ today: an F-15 Eagle (pilot) that had to eject,” Lesh said.
CSAR teams do far more than pick up survivors in helicopters. The mission to find Lesh involved about 30 assets, ranging from the survival, evasion, resistance and escape personnel on the ground to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft thousands of feet in the air.
“It’s the entire rescue package’s job to locate and authenticate the survivor, and then we go and fight our way in and out in order to effectively pick up a downed fighter pilot who is behind enemy lines,” said Master Sgt. Vincent, a 33rd RQS evaluator special mission aviator. “CSAR is one of the most complicated and dynamic tasks we can be called to do in the Air Force. We’re not trying to take out one or two targets; we’re going to an unknown area with an unknown amount of enemy threats to pick up a survivor.”
These exercises give rescue personnel the chance to train in a different type of environment and utilize a range of assets.
“The training and integration (we) get here is some of the best CSAR training in the world,” said Capt. Alexander Sira, a 33rd RQS instructor pilot.
CSAR is one way the U.S. government fulfills its promise that if the worst happens during a mission, every effort will be made to find and bring personnel home. The trust in this promise is crucial in allowing military operators to execute dangerous missions, Sira said.
For Lesh, this exercise gave a new sense of appreciation for the effort and coordination necessary for a successful save. The rescue party circled overhead and located Lesh near a river before they swiftly extracted him.
“It was phenomenal seeing the A-10s crest over the ridge and the (HH-60s) rounding the bend at 50 feet,” he said. “They had no idea where I was today, but were able to work together to find me and get me out.”