OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
A-10 Thunderbolt IIs are making low passes over mountaintops, providing covering fire for two HH-60 Pave Hawks carrying Air Force rescue teams as they all coordinate to find pilots down behind enemy lines. A distress call is heard on the radio over the roaring of the rotor blades in the background as one of the Pave Hawks begins descending, 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 the bushes and waits for any signal to board. A thumbs up from aerial gunner is all it takes before the man climbs onboard and they are whisked away, only a few short minutes after first flying into the valley.
This scenario was just one of the many missions flown during Exercise Pacific Thunder 16-2, a two-week long training event that combines U.S. and Republic of Korea 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 rescue training mission, 1st Lt. Sky Lesh, 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 with finding and extracting 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,” said Lesh.
Teams that execute CSAR missions are comprised of far more than the helicopters that pick up the survivors. The mission to find Lesh involved approximately 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, 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 slew of different assets.
“The training and integration [we] get here is some of the best CSAR training in the world,” said Capt. Alexander Sira, 33rd RQS instructor pilot.
CSAR is one of the ways 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, said Sira.
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, quickly extracted him from the area and headed back to base.
“It was phenomenal seeing the A-10s crest over the ridge and the [33rd RQS] Jollys 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… you know you’re being saved by the good guys.”