My trip to the 129th Rescue Wing was filled with a lot of exciting and awe inspiring moments. Not the least of which was my flight with the 130th Rescue Squadron. The purpose of the flight was general training and to practice infil./exfil. of a Pararescue Jumper on a 4-wheeler. I was pretty excited that I was going to be able to witness all of this first hand. This was going to be a night flight with night vision goggles. It included a number of low level (500ft AGL), lights out 10 mile approaches and I can say with complete certainty, that without the NVG, you would not have been able to make the field, let alone land on it.
One of the reasons I was so excited about this portion of my trip, besides another opportunity to fly in a C-130 (this was my first time in a “P” model) was this slide from the wing briefing I received earlier in the day:
“The Combat Shadow flies clandestine, or low visibility, single or multi-ship low-level air refueling missions for rescue or special operations helicopters, and infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of rescue or special operations forces by airdrop or airland including politically sensitive or hostile territories”
In other words, these guys are some of the most bad-ass Hercules drivers there are. Think: low, fast, in the dark and potentially hostile. Those are the kinds of missions they fly in support of CSAR (Personnel Recovery) operations.
My flight began, as most of my experiences have with the Air Force, with a briefing. Now, I feel comfortable saying that I’ve seen my share of briefings. Between my trip to fly with the Hurricane Hunters and all of my time in the Civil Air Patrol, I’ve seen all kinds. I have never been more impressed or interested in a briefing in my life – these guys are 100% professional and probably the most buttoned up I’ve ever had the “pleasure” of experiencing. There clearly was an agenda, and the entire thing had a flow and pace that I hadn’t experienced before. Each section of the flight crew gave their portion of the brief and everything had been written out on the white board before we got started. They briefed on every aspect of the flight, who should be where when and any additional safety considerations. The Lt Col who ran the briefing conducted it as if he was conducting a major symphony orchestra. Needless to say I was so impressed, that the briefing has been the one story I have told everyone that I’ve talked to about this trip.
That’s not to say that the flight wasn’t exciting – quite the contrary – it was one of the most exciting flights I’ve ever been on and that’s saying a lot after my limited acro experience with the Lima Lima Flight Demonstration Team this summer. Like I said: low, fast and in the dark.
We launched after dark, the in aircraft safety briefing included some talk about air sickness and distribution of sick sacks. I’ve never been air sick before and I didn’t get sick this time, but it always give me pause. Anyway, we were briefed on where we should be when and who would give us the thumbs up when we were cleared to move around the aircraft. I was issued a set of training NVG to use for myself and I was actually able to get some interesting iPhone shots using them.
After our first take off, we circled out over the bay for a while to let some inbound traffic headed into Moffett Field land. Once they were on the ground, we began our fist low level 10 mile final. I was given the chance to experience this first landing from the flight deck. This was pretty exciting, I got to experience the landing via the FLiR display that was immediately to my right. It was one of the most flawlessly executed C-130 landings I’ve ever experienced – and it was lights out via NVG. Once we were on the ground, the flight crew in the cargo area did the first of a few infiltrations of the Pararescue Jumper on the 4-wheeler. I didn’t get to see this one as I was still on the flight deck waiting for the takeoff. One thing I noticed about the takeoff compared to my flight with the Hurricane Hunters was, with the HH’s I felt like we took off in a lot shorter time and with a more significant climb rate than this particular flight, but I could be wrong based on the fact that it was night and not as easy to see the angles – it just didn’t feel like the “bat out of hell” take off I had experienced before.
Once we were in flight again, I made my way back to the cargo area. We were already inbound for a landing to pick up our PJ. I got to see the entire process in reverse basically. We landed, one of the loadmasters made his way down the ramp to signal to the PJ that we were ready for him. This whole process was a lot less exciting than I had anticipated – in fact it was better that way – methodical and well thought out, not “movie action” style like I had imagined. The PJ approached the ramp in reverse and was guided in by the loadmaster – slowly. Somehow in my head I imagined him racing in and coming to a screeching halt as we rolled down the runway just about ready to lift off. Thanks for that Hollywood. I guess what I learned from this is that safety is king in everything these guys do – everything is done with a sense of urgency and importance, but never at the expense of safety, I’m assuming this is even more so in a training environment.
Once we had loaded the PJ and 4-wheeler and it was secured, we began our take off roll again. We climbed out, circled around, and did the whole dance again – we land, the loadmasters lower the ramps, the PJ rolls out of the cargo area, he signals when he’s clear, the loadmasters stow the ramps and we take off again. We did this a couple more times and finally we left the PJ behind for some general night flight training. This included a number of additional approaches and some general low and fast nap-of-the-earth flying.
Unfortunately our flight was cut somewhat short due to an equipment issue, but overall, I have never had the opportunity to fly with a more professional group of pilots and crew.
One interesting side note: we had a bird strike in flight (I’ve added the picture below), I didn’t knwo this at the time, but the take a sample of the “material” and send it to the Smithsonian for analysis. Very cool.
Next week I’m going to tell you all about my time with the 131st Rescue Squadron – the Pararescuemen of the 129th Rescue Wing.