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News > Team Rescue counts down for historic space shuttle launch
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 U.S. President Barack Obama and Senator Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., attend the launch of Endeavour.
 920th Rescue Wing takes part in historic space shuttle launch.
 Rescue Reservists stand-by as an emergency medical platform for the astronauts.
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Team Rescue supports historic shuttle launch
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Every time a space shuttle takes off, the Rescue Reservists from the 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, are on hand in case of emergency. The 920th Airmen are charged as guardians of the astronauts during NASA space shuttle missions to and from Kennedy Space Center. This includes four HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and crew, three HC-130 P/N King aircraft and crew and about 15 pararescuemen, not to mention all of the maintenance support personnel who keep these aged aircraft flying. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Matthew C. Simpson)
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Team Rescue counts down for historic space shuttle launch

Posted 4/28/2011   Updated 4/28/2011 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt Leslie Forshaw
920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

4/28/2011 - PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- U.S. President Barack Obama and Senator Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., are among the spectators who will be at the historic launch of Endeavour April 29, marking the second to last time a space shuttle will leave Earth for space at nearby Kennedy Space Center.

Airmen from the Air Force Reserve's 920th Rescue Wing here will also be among the spectators, as they have been throughout history, charged as guardians of the astronauts during shuttle launches to save the astronauts' lives if they encounter trouble prior to, during, or just after lift off.

Their unique combat search-and-rescue skill set and rescue assets make them the most-qualified to perform this tasking if a Mode I through VIII contingency occurred, the latter being the worst-case scenario - an open-water bailout over the ocean during lift off.

Major preparations are underway here as Team Rescue prepares for such a disaster via their HC-130 King refueling aircraft and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to utilize their Guardian Angel Weapons System (GAWS) - a team of the world's most elite personal recovery specialist who are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists, expert parachutists, mountaineers, combat divers and swimmers.

Rescue Reservists here train extensively for combat and contingencies to rescue survivors of major events, but even with the most extensive training, and the fastest mode of transportation, the nature of the job presents major challenges: Like on January 28, 1986 when Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight over the Atlantic Ocean, off Florida's Space Coast shortly after lift off.

"I was blown away. It was a combination of shock, grief and adrenaline," said Senior Master Sgt. Craig Kennedy, a pararescuemen (PJ) who was part of the GAWS on scene at the time. "Initially I thought it was a weird rocket boost separation and less than a minute later the pilot was banging on the side of the helicopter yelling we were about to take off."

"Debris was falling out of the sky like firecrackers and the helicopter crew had to perform combat evasive maneuvers to avoid the fallout," said Sergeant Kennedy, but when they arrived on scene, the orbiter had already sunk.

They prepared to jump into the ocean to rescue survivors, but there were none.

"The goal is to be on hand to get a victim out of the water. We can't control the mechanics, but if an astronaut was to survive a bailout, we'll be there as fast as we can to get them to safety," said Lt. Col. Kurt Matthews, 308th Rescue Squadron commander and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter pilot.

There are 15 GAWS (PJs and/or combat rescue officers [CROs]) from the wing on alert during lift offs and landings.

"They are extensively and specially trained for such contingencies by being able to make a rescue during any potential accident - launch through landing," said Colonel Matthews. "This maximizes the chance of saving the astronauts."

Specialized training NASA's shuttle program is unique to the 920th RQW and includes: dealing with the psychological and physical changes in the astronauts; different medical equipment that is used for the special requirements of the astronauts; the uniqueness of the orbiter upon its re-entry to Earth and dealing the gasses and pressure that may be present.

In addition to the GAWS, "we have four HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters (Jollys) on scene for every manned launch and landing," said Lt. Col. Robert Haston, Pave Hawk helicopter pilot and wing chief of safety.

Prior to the launch, two of the helos are used to clear the launch danger zone of boaters and ships, said Colonel Haston.

On each Jolly is the standard crew of four - the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and aerial gunner - with the addition of two GAs and one flight doctor equipped to take care of two critically injured astronauts and get them to the nearest hospital, Colonel Haston explains.

The Pave Hawks aren't the only 920th RQW asset supporting space shuttle contingency response efforts.

Three HC-130P/N King aircraft are also on scene during the launch and landing of the shuttle.

Like the Jollys, there is one designated HC-130 pilot who acts as the "air boss" managing the King assets from the air during the launch. The aircraft crew compliment; a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer and two loadmasters, are the standard, however, for shuttle launches, there are six GAs on board. They are suited up with parachutes and mobile medical equipment, to get to an astronaut in the water if there were a Mode VIII.

The King is also equipped with a Rigging Alternate Method Zodiac or RAMZ inflatable, motorized boat, which is packaged on the aircraft ramp, which will also be deployed during a response and used to speed transport of the GAs to the survivor in the water and also as a staging spot to perform medical treatment if necessary, prior to a litter hoist aboard the Jollies for further transport to a medical facility.

During shuttle lift off, the Kings are 100 miles off shore and would initiate a search and rescue first for an emergency - dropping the PJs and the life raft out of the plane to the rescue, explained Lt. Col. Michael Ammirati, HC-130P/N King pilot and the King assistant operations officer.

The other two Kings are there to provide mid-air refueling during pre launch operations to the helicopters ensuring they are gassed up and ready to go for an emergency, and also if additional fuel is needed during a search and rescue.

The Jolly crews clear a 2,000-square-mile area over the ocean east of Kennedy Space Center.

While the Challenger disaster is unforgettable and heartbreaking, Team Rescue trains daily to respond instantly and efficiently providing the best care in the world  to the astronauts in case of a shuttle emergency - but hope they never have to put that training to use.

For more information on the 920th RQW, please visit the web site and follow us on Facebook and twitter.

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