One-of-a-kind mission, serving a one-of-a-kind force

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jacob R. McCarthy
  • Nellis AFB Public Affairs
Throughout the Air Force's illustrious history, the self-sustained ability to provide recovery and assistance operations to downed aircrew and allies located behind enemy lines has always been an integral element in maintaining a superior air and space power.

The men and women of the 66th Rescue Squadron, a tenant unit assigned at Nellis, make up a small piece of a larger picture with an even bigger mission.

"We're the only component in Department of Defense that trains, equips and mans for combat search and rescue," said Lt. Col. Chad Franks, 66th Rescue Squadron commander.

The capabilities of the 66th RQS are dependant on the inner-operability of three functioning components within the program. The aircraft support of the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter and the HC-130 share the load with the rescue functions of the Guardian Angels to get in and provide rescue wherever it is needed.

"We'll either operate all three together or we'll operate individually; whatever the mission dictates," explained Colonel Franks.

"Our main mission is to go deep into a battle space to rescue any downed servicemember; it doesn't matter what service they're in," said Colonel Franks. "In the midst of a combat operation, when one of our own goes down, we're the 9-1-1 call. We're out there saving lives, not just taking them. To me, that's an awesome mission to have."

While home at Nellis, the 66th RQS spends a majority of its time training and equipping personnel with the skills and tools necessary to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.

"Since Sept. 11, the 66th RQS has been involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. We were the first CSAR unit in Afghanistan," said Colonel Franks.

Currently the focus in theater for the 66th RQS has been shifting from OEF to more concentrated efforts toward Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Inherent to the combat mission is the ability to perform peacetime rescue missions as well, the colonel said. Just 18 months ago, the 66th RQS provided rescue support for a hiker that was stranded in Zion National Park.

The momentum of the mission lies in the power of the people behind it, and the 66th RQS has some of the best the Air Force has to offer.

The 66th RQS is empowered by approximately 90 highly-trained Airmen who are capable of meeting demanding deployment schedules, maintaining continuous upgrade training and supporting stateside rescue operations.

A mix of HH-60 pilots, gunners, flight engineers, aviation resource managers and intelligence Airmen provide the grease that makes the machine of the rescue squadron run fluidly.

Training for combat-search-and-rescue team members runs a gamut of locations and requirements. From basic aircraft qualification and tactical training at Kirkland AFB, to survival training at Fairchild AFB, personnel arrive at the squadron with the skills they need to start saving lives.

Additionally, the 66th RQS runs its people through mission-specific training once boots touch down here. From live alternate insertion/extraction training to ship-board training procedures conducted at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, ensuring Airmen are mission ready is an ongoing process.

This training has proven integral to the success of the 66th RQS's mission capabilities and is represented through the individual accomplishments of its Airmen.

Since 2003 in support of the Global War on Terror, members from the 66th RQS have made 83 saves and have been awarded 39 medals and decorations to include two Silver Stars, 22 Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Bronze Stars and 12 Air Medals as a result of their commitment to service.

"Coming into the rescue community, I was a little skeptical at first," said Colonel Franks "We've got A1Cs that have already been deployed in combat going on their second or third deployments," the colonel added. The combat experience of the 66th RQS's Airmen speaks for itself.

It's the performance of today's Airmen that reflect the rich history of their counterparts from the past. Putting boots on the ground back in the Southeast Asian theater during Vietnam is where CSAR got its start.

"Back then, CSAR and Special Operations Forces were one in the same," Colonel Franks said. "We're very closely tied to our SOF brethren; it goes back to the Jolly Green Giants."

Things have certainly changed since then. The two programs have since separated and CSAR itself has under gone its own changes.

Taking a tour through the CSAR community, three bases comprise the main operations centers for the entire mission throughout the Air Force. Moody AFB in Ga. and Davis-Monthan AFB in Ariz. round-out the trio of locations where CSAR units set up shop stateside.

"It's good they put us all under one wing with one commander," said Colonel Franks. Moving back under Air Combat Command and bringing in A-10s into this new organization puts all the pieces of combat rescue in place.

It was originally slated in past months for rescue units across the Air Force to receive new aircraft designed to increase aircrew capabilities. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the procurement process was put on hold.

So in an effort to balance deployment tasking requirements, effectively equalize mission capabilities and to better round out the CSAR program, two aircraft from Moody AFB will be relocated to the 66th RQS, increasing their fleet size to 12 HH-60s.

"It doesn't matter what we get. It's all about the people who fly them," said Colonel Franks about the new aircraft delays.

At present, the 66th RQS has Airmen located in forward deployed locations in support of the Global War on Terror. But despite the downsizing in personnel, Nellis still has a wide range of CSAR capabilities in reserve around the base.

"Keep in mind it's not just the 66th when it comes to helicopters. There are other CSAR assets here at Nellis contributing to the overall CSAR mission as well," said Colonel Franks.

Qualified CSAR Airmen at the H-60 Combined Test Force and the U.S. Air Force Weapons School have the aircraft and the ability to augment the 66th RQS's stateside search and rescue mission while its members are deployed.

The men and women of the 66th RQS have a very important mission that serves purposes well beyond their own.

Their duties allow Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines to concentrate fully on their jobs, knowing that if they get in a bad spot on the battle field, somebody's going to get them, said Colonel Franks.

"That's why its important that we're always ready to go. We hope that we never have to execute our mission," the colonel added.

Famous instances highlighting CSAR operations include the rescue of Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady who was shot down over Bosnia in 1995, Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, and the Battle of Mogadishu in which the "Black Hawk Down" incident occurred.

All operations fully embody the heart and soul of every combat rescueman: "These things we do, so others may live."