News Branch Air Force

Air Force Pararescue teams are looking for a new boat to rescue astronauts

The elite rescue troops are often sent to parachute into the middle of the ocean. They'd like to have a sturdier boat when they do.
Matt White Avatar
pararescue air force boat nasa water jump
103rd Rescue Squadron Pararescuemen and Combat Rescue Officers from the New York Air National Guard jump from a C-17 off Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 7, 2017. Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy/Air National Guard. 103rd Rescue Squadron Pararescuemen and Combat Rescue Officers from the New York Air National Guard jump from a C-17 off Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 7, 2017. (Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy/U.S. Air National Guard).

The Air Force’s elite Pararescue teams are looking for a new boat. Among the features they’d like to get: a rigid-hull craft that can drop by parachute into the middle of the ocean from a C-130 or C-17, can carry a 6-person team up to 300 nautical miles at 35 knots, and has room for at least 2 soaking wet astronauts.

“Pararescue has had smaller boats that we’ve been operating with for, I don’t know, 40 or 50 years,” said Capt. Mike Kennedy, a Combat Rescue Officer who helped compile and draft a Request for Information for the project released by the Air Force in early June. “As we look at the missions we are supporting today, do the systems meet the intent? We’re looking at [a craft that is] a little bit more sustainable, survivable in the open ocean.”

Pararescue operators — or PJs — operate hand-in-hand with Air Force rescue units that fly specially equipped C-130s and helicopters. Together, the units have a long history of long-range, open-ocean rescue missions to reach sick and injured civilians far from shore. PJs also hold alerts for manned space launches by NASA, SpaceX, and other companies.

On nearly all those missions, PJ teams parachute into the ocean with small, inflatable rubber raiding crafts or similar small boats — commonly called Zodiacs, after the company that manufacturers many of them — or modified two-man jet skis, which the Air Force calls an Advanced Rescue Craft.

“When you jump a zodiac you are usually jumping that boat to get on a bigger boat. [In future missions], maybe we don’t have that bigger boat to get into, maybe we have to wait a little bit longer to go to that bigger boat,” Kennedy said. “Being on a Zodiac in open ocean in 4- to 6-foot sea states with 4 dudes, is just not ideal.”

A new boat, which the RFI tentatively dubs the Extended Maritime Mobility Vessel, would be bigger and able to operate far from a support ship. The project is in conceptual development, Kennedy said, far from a prototype. The RFI is meant to collect feedback from boat builders that might be interested in the project.

“We’re simply looking at, does it even make sense at how much money they [cost], and is there something out there that fits the bill,” said Kennedy.

Long range ocean rescues

Mid-ocean rescues are among the rarest and most complicated that Air Force rescue units train for. Between 2010 and 2019, PJ teams performed at least 14 mid-ocean rescue missions to aid sick or injured sailors and civilians, according to a 2020 article published in the Journal of Special Operations Medicine. The missions ranged from 600 to 1700 nautical miles out to sea, reaching patients ranging from a 60-year-old sailor to a 1-year-old girl with salmonella aboard a family sailboat (Air Force rescue teams are generally called for such missions when a life-threatening emergency occurs on a ship many days from the nearest port, beyond the range of Coast Guard helicopters and other shore-based help).

 Of those 14 long-range missions, PJs parachuted in 12 of them, using specially packaged Zodiac-style boats, which PJs call RAMB jumps, short for Rigging Alternate Method Boat.

But PJs have long viewed their small zodiac boats — commonly used by other special operations teams for near-shore raids — as inadequate when far out to sea.

pararescue boat water ops
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Galindo, 38th Rescue Squadron pararescueman, climbs into a boat after conducting a water jump from an HC-130J near Patrick Space Force Base, Florida, Aug. 24, 2021. The training was part of the PJ’s support of SpaceX and Boeing’s manned space launches. (Staff Sgt. Devin Boyer/U.S. Air Force)

 Once in the water, PJs have to unwrap the boat from its parachute rigging, inflate it with a scuba tank and get the outboard motor running, an often tortuous chore of dewatering and pulling a starting rope.

Much can go wrong. A folded boat might not open properly. A broken hose or valve might prevent the scuba tank from inflating the boat. The motor might not start, or the pull rope could fail.

Fixing any of the above might prove impossible on high seas or in darkness.

“Inflatable boats with small outboard motors and [smaller jetski-based systems] provide limited capabilities across capacity, speed, range, and survivability,” according to the RFI, which was released through the Air Force’s Special Warfare Contracting Office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The RFI’s wish list includes room for at least a 4-man team and two patients on litter, a range of up to 300 miles, and the ability to mount weapons systems. The boat will also need to be riggable for parachutes and fit in the back of a C-130 or C-17.

“The Guard and Reserve, in particular, have been looking at something that has a little more legs, particularly up in Alaska,” said Kennedy. “This was just a discussion we had internally as a starting point.”

Kennedy said the specifications weren’t aimed at any specific boat currently in production or use by the US military. An 11-meter rigid inflatable boat used by the Marines and Navy SEALs, he said, appeared at first glance to meet many of the needs. But those crafts are likely too large, mechanically complicated, and expensive to maintain for a mission that a typical Air Force rescue unit might see once per decade. The Navy mans those boats with dedicated crew members, which the Air Force is not considering.

Developed for space shuttle launches

Though open-ocean jump missions are rare, they usually follow a similar story: a crewmember or passenger becomes injured or falls sick, with medical issues — often burns from mechanical accidents — beyond the treatment ability of the crew.

However, rescuing sick sailors was not the original reason the Air Force developed the practice.

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into a launch in 1986, NASA grappled with a grim truth: if a space shuttle suffered an emergency, there were no ejection seats or any other plan for the crew to bail out. But as engineers began devising ways for astronauts to escape a doomed shuttle, they realized a second issue: should a crew parachute back to Earth, likely in the middle of the ocean, there was no plan to retrieve them (the shuttle, like most space flights, launched over the ocean, transiting the Atlantic during its initial ascent).

Before post-Challenger shuttle flights resumed, NASA came up with two fixes: inflight bail-out equipment that gave the crew a chance to escape, and a string of pararescue teams waiting across the globe every time the shuttle went up.

On launch days, dozens of PJs would load several C-130s with air-droppable boat packages and stand alert in Florida and at remote airports in Europe and North Africa, fields dubbed Transatlantic Abort Landing sites, or TALs. If disaster struck, the crews had orders to launch toward stranded astronauts, who were expected to be strung out widely across the Atlantic, and deploy jump teams to any they could locate.

A former enlisted PJ before commissioning as an officer, Kennedy has personal ties to that era.

“I did the last shuttle mission as a PJ so it’s kinda fun to go through the full iteration now,” he said.