Jolly green career aviator leaves giant footprint on rescue mission

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

After 36 years of service in the U.S. Air Force, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 301st Rescue Squadron of the 920th Rescue Wing, retires militarily. Rivera served as a flight engineer, or special mission aviator, on rotor wing aircraft. His career spanned from supporting manned spaceflight missions to many humanitarian and combat personnel rescues. (U.S. Air Force photo)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida --

Upon joining the U.S. Air Force in 1980 at the tender age of 18, Senior Master Sgt. Omar Rivera, 920th Rescue Wing, never thought it would lead to more than 36 years of service to his country; but it did - 36 years and one day.

Persuaded by his brother Hector, Rivera changed his mind from enlisting in the Marine Corps to joining the “big blue” Air Force.  In fact, the two brothers landed in basic military training together, separated by one week. Following, they were both sent to Shepard Air Force Base, Texas, for technical school. This time, separated by two different career paths. Hector went into telecommunications, while Rivera’s love of aviation was born.

Rivera trained to be an aviator flight engineer on rotary aircraft. From there, the two brothers parted ways again. Hector went overseas to Germany and Rivera went on to finish aviator training. In 1981, with his training behind him, he was assigned to the 39th Air Rescue Recovery Wing, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, where his primary mission was flying onboard CH-3E helicopters as a systems expert, among other duties, recovering drones.

At one point during a temporary duty to the east coast of Florida, Rivera found himself on a manned space flight support mission serving as astronaut rescue on the third-ever launch of NASA’s Space Shuttle.

Afterward, in 1984 he transferred to the 301st RQS and made his new home in the Miami area where not only the unit was located at the time, but it was his hometown. 

This move set in motion Rivera’s next 32 years of service from saving drones to saving people, either in combat or as a part of a humanitarian effort. "It was an interesting shift for me,” said Rivera. “I went from grabbing drones mid-air, to learning to work hand-in-hand with pilots and pararescuemen to save human beings - in all sorts of different environments.”

Two years after relocating to south Florida, he made the transition from part-time reservist to full time dual-status federal employee serving in the same aviation position on both sides of the same coin until his military retirement July 28, 2016.

In 1992, the Air Force Reserve switched rescue helicopter platforms from the HH-3E Jolly Green Giant to the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. Rivera remained dual qualified in both aircraft, which is a rarity in the aviation career field, until the transition from one airframe to another was completed. He eventually progressed to being an evaluator and instructor for other crew members. Holding both titles was another rarity in his field.

Later that same year, a category 5 Hurricane named Andrew devastated the reserve base forcing the entire rescue squadron to move north and take permanent residence at Patrick AFB, where it remains today.

Over the decades, Rivera served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and went on hundreds of temporary duty tours worldwide to locations such as Kuwait, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Germany, and covered almost all of South and Central America. “The missions were so diverse and fun,” said Rivera.

Among those trips, he participated in information exchanges with aviators from Uruguay and Brazil, among others, and worked hand-in-hand with the Canadian Air Force’s search and rescue services, often throughout the great white north.

Above all though, one of Rivera’s biggest career achievements was the search and rescue of survivors after the severe impact of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.  “It made me feel good and it was fulfilling to save people from the homeland,” said Rivera. He, along with other rescue reservists from the 920th RQW, worked day and night pulling people off roof tops throughout neighborhoods that were underwater.

“It was satisfying work,” he said. “When we dropped off a family we just pulled out of a flooded house, mothers would come up to me and kiss my helmet; they were that grateful. You don’t get that on the battlefield.”

Appreciation for his contributions is a common thread among his fellow squadron members as well.

“He's the type of person you want to be around and an aircrew member you want to fly with.  He's the definition of work hard, play hard,” said Lt. Col. Mike Stuker, 301st RQS Assistant Director of Operations.   

Another memorable rescue Rivera was took part in was a 500-mile off-shore rescue of a sailor who suffered extreme injuries during a storm. The rescue was performed during treacherous weather conditions, in 10-20 foot seas, from the deck of a ship at night while using night-vision goggles. “Hands-down, it was the most difficult rescue I’ve ever had,” said Rivera.

But he couldn’t deny the one rescue that really plucked his heartstrings, when he helped rescue two pilot whales by placing them back into the ocean for the Miami Seaquarium.

In addition to many life-saving missions over the years, HH-60G helicopter crews are responsible for clearing the Eastern Range before Space Coast rocket launches to make sure mariners within the 500 mile radius are safe during a launch. During several of these range clearing missions, Rivera witnessed three rockets explode from his seat in the rescue chopper.

“I’m going to miss flying and the different 'historical' events I’ve been involved with,” said Rivera. “And I’m going to miss the people here who have become life-long friends.”

Those brothers and sisters in arms will be missing him too.

“We will miss the passion and sincerity he brought to work every day and the experience of a solid flight engineer with over 7,000 flight hours and multiple combat deployments,” said Stuker.

Now retired militarily, but still serving in his civilian capacity for a short while longer, Rivera has time for that ‘honey-do’ list his wife Jenni tasked him with; in addition to an upcoming trip to Cuba to visit extended family; and spending quality time with his son and two daughters, and of course, a lot of fishing.

“If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” said Rivera. “I’m glad I joined the military. I’m glad I was able to make a difference in this world by saving lives.”

The 920th RQW's primary mission is combat search and rescue (CSAR), which includes rescuing servicemembers trapped or wounded behind enemy lines. Additionally, the wing performs civil search and rescue and humanitarian relief.

Since being activated in 1956, the 920th RQW has saved roughly 4,000 lives, including more than 850 combat rescues. It is the only CSAR unit in the Air Force Reserve.