Guardian Angels protect astronauts on historic launch
The program will end later this year.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Anna-Marie Wyant)
5/16/2011 - PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Along with estimated crowds of tens of thousands of spectators on Florida's Space Coast, Senator Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz, kept a watchful eye as her husband, Commander Mark Kelly, and his crew as they blasted off from nearby Kennedy Space Center May 16 - marking the second to last time a space shuttle will leave Earth for the International Space Station.
Also keeping a watchful eye were Airmen from the Air Force Reserve's 920th Rescue Wing here, positioned close enough to save the astronauts' lives if they encountered trouble prior to, during, or just after lift off. To view the photo slide show associated with this story, please follow this link.
Their unique combat search-and-rescue skill set and rescue assets make them the most-qualified to perform this task of responding to a mishap of any kind. The worst being one that would cause the astronauts to bailout over the Atlantic ocean during lift off.
Major preparations were underway here after two previous delays spanning nearly a month, and deployment preparations take place simultaneously.
Team Rescue maintenance Airmen set the bar high keeping the aircraft rescue ready: HC-130 King refueling aircraft and HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters are used to transport the Guardian Angel Weapons System - a team of the world's most elite personal recovery specialists in the world. The Airmen are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists, expert parachutists, mountaineers, combat divers and swimmers.
Rescue Reservists 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.
"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 Airmen (PJs and/or combat rescue officers) from the wing on alert during lift offs and landings.
"They are extensively and specially trained for major contingencies to make a rescue during any potential accident - launch through landing," said Colonel Matthews. "This maximizes the chance of saving the astronauts."
Specialized training for NASA's shuttle program is unique to the 920th RQW and includes: dealing with the psychological and physical changes in the astronauts; specialized medical equipment; 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 Airmen, "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.
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 that's where they ended up.
The King is also equipped with a Rigging Alternate Method Zodiac or RAMZ inflatable, motorized boat, which is packaged on the aircraft, and deployed during a response to speed transport of the GAs to the survivor in the water. It can also serve as a staging spot to perform medical treatment if necessary, prior to a litter hoist aboard the Jollys for further transport to a medical facility.
During shuttle lift off, the Kings scan 100 miles off shore and would initiate a search and rescue first for an emergency - PJs would parachute out of backend, then the life raft would follow," 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 have full tanks of gas if a search and rescue was called for.
The Jolly crews clear a 2,000-square-mile area over the Atlantic Ocean east of Kennedy Space Center.
Although Team Rescue trains daily to respond instantly and efficiently to manned spaceflight efforts and are prepared to provide 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.
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