Air Force rescuers just flew hundreds of miles over the Pacific to save a patient on an oil tanker
"We actually train at a level a little bit higher than this, so when we do missions like this, it makes it a little easier.”
The Air Force search and rescue community backed up their motto ‘These things we do so that others may live’ earlier this month when several squadrons, aircraft and airmen scrambled to fly hundreds of miles over the open ocean to save a complete stranger with a life-threatening medical condition. In less than two days, the Air Force and Air National Guard pulled off the complex operation “flawlessly,” according to one statement, despite the challenges of distance and rough seas.
“We actually train at a level a little bit higher than this, so when we do missions like this, it makes it a little easier,” said Capt. Michael Dewein, a helicopter pilot who took part in the operation, according to a California National Guard news release. “It’s rewarding. It doesn’t happen enough to get routine.”
The trouble began somewhere in the vast 2,300 miles of open water between Hawaii and San Francisco, California. Andy Schwenk, a 57 year-old Californian, was guiding his racing sailboat Spindrift V back to the Bay Area after finishing first in the boat’s class alongside his fellow crew members in the 2022 Pacific Cup on July 18, according to the race organizers. The race had stretched from California to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and now Schwenk was returning home victorious. But heavy weather damaged the boat’s mainsail and hurt Schwenk’s ankle, which eventually developed a serious infection. To make matters worse, Spindrift’s communication gear was also damaged in the storm, making it more difficult to call for help.
Luckily the crew used a combination of cell phones and old communication systems from the race to contact the organizers, who dispatched a fellow racer, the Surprise, to drop off antibiotics for the skipper. But the infection kept getting worse, until eventually medical consultants from George Washington University and the U.S. Coast Guard recommended a medical evacuation. That’s when the rescue system began spinning up.
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First, a nearby Liberian-flagged oil and chemical tanker called FPMC35 diverted from its course from Taiwan to Panama to pick up Schwenk late on the night of Aug. 4 and into the early hours of Aug. 5. The tanker had better medical gear and communications equipment, which was important because at the same time Air Force rescuers were preparing to fly out over the vast ocean to meet them. The Coast Guard had requested the Air Force’s help through the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center after the patient’s condition worsened, according to the California National Guard.
On Friday morning, the 129th Rescue Wing, a unit of the California Air National Guard based at Moffett Field just outside San Jose, launched an HC-130J Combat King II multipurpose cargo aircraft. Aboard were four pararescue jumpers, elite specialists in search and rescue and combat medicine who train to rescue downed pilots or special operators cut off behind enemy lines. Also called ‘PJs,’ the airmen were prepared to jump out of the HC-130J, float down to the ocean on parachutes and get picked up by a smaller boat from the tanker, which would then carry them aboard to take care of Schwenk.
However, after a 10.5 hour flight, the airmen realized the situation was a bit more complicated. The seas were rough, and the recovery boat sent to pick them up was in equally rough shape.
“Traditionally we have at least four guys on this,” said Senior Airman Bryan, of the 131st Rescue Squadron, who was one of the PJs on the rescue. The California National Guard withheld his last name for operational security.
“Due to the waves and the ship’s recovery boat breaking down, we were only able to jump two guys,” Bryan said.
Reaching the tanker in the ill-tempered recovery boat was a challenge, but getting from the boat into the tanker was even more daunting.
“It was difficult to connect the ship’s hoist to the tiny recovery boat they had due to the 10 ft. waves and weak engine,” Bryan said. “The hoist was sketchy because we loaded the boat to the max.”
The hoist strained under the boat’s weight and all the medical equipment it carried. At one point all Bryan and his teammate could do was hold on tight while the boat’s nose started pointing down towards the choppy waters 40 feet below them. But the hoist held out, and once aboard the tanker the airmen took shifts stabilizing Schwenk by providing antibiotics, pain management and wound treatment.
Lt. Col. Brough McDonald, an Air Force combat search and rescue helicopter pilot, told Task & Purpose that the decision to send out the HC-130J and have two PJs jump out illustrates the risks and benefits Air Force planners take into account when planning a mission like this. The planners for this mission could have decided to send in Pave Hawk helicopters and have them air-to-air refuel multiple times all the way out to the tanker, then have them drop off the PJs and loiter until an exfil was ready, but that would have meant increased risk to the flight crews on a long 12+ hour flight, possibly at night and without the clearest information on the patient conditions.
“I suspect the HC-130J integration with the extraction force, leveraging the jump infil, allowed the [Combat Air Force] to get on scene faster, make a professional medical assessment on the patient’s actual status, which in turn informed the actions of the Pave Hawks,” McDonald said, “reducing the flight time for the crews and informing how fast or soon (urgency) the Pave Hawks needed get on station.”
The two airmen and their equipment could provide only so much medical care hundreds of miles from shore. To really save Schwenk, someone would have to fly out, pick up the injured sailor, and rush him to a hospital. The safest way to do that would be with a helicopter, which could hover over the tanker and hoist the patient aboard on a litter. The trouble was that the FPMC35 was still too far off the coast for a helicopter to reach the tanker and make it home on one tank of gas. To succeed, the rescuers would need to refuel the helicopter mid-air, but the 129th Wing did not have enough HC-130Js to do the job “due to deployment,” the California National Guard said.
Instead, the 129th Wing turned to their active duty counterparts at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, where the 79th Rescue Squadron had a few HC-130s ready to help. On Friday, the 563rd Rescue Group at Davis-Monthan got the call, and the answer was swift.
“Immediately, our aircrew, maintainers, aircrew flight equipment technicians, aviation resource managers, airfield operators, and weather airmen jumped into action, coordinating and planning well into the evening for a Saturday morning take off,” the base wrote on Facebook.
In a statement sent to Task & Purpose, the public affairs office for the 355th Wing based at Davis-Monthan said that the biggest challenge of this sort of rescue is adapting the plan to the ever-changing risks and conditions involved in long overwater missions.
“Balancing the patient’s condition and need for medical care versus the risks in attempting a mission so far off the coast is always a careful balance,” the office said.
It was a complicated situation as aircraft arrived at Moffett from Arizona and maintainers reconfigured their HC-130J for the next mission. But the airmen had one important factor on their side: timing. That weekend just happened to be the wing’s drill weekend, so the base had plenty of hands to help out.
“The nice thing about it was the timing,” said Senior Master Sgt. Daniel Starner, production superintendent of the 129th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “It just happened to be [unit training assembly] weekend, so we had more people than we normally would have.”
After hours of preparing the aircraft in the early morning on Sunday, two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from the 129th Rescue Squadron took off at 7:40 a.m. and flew 343 nautical miles (about 395 miles) west of San Francisco to meet the tanker. The HC-130 from Davis-Monthan provided the helicopters with air-to-air refueling and overhead command and control, as the three aircraft reached the tanker more than two hours after takeoff.
One of the Pave Hawks hovered over the ship and lowered a 40-foot hoist to pick up Schwenk, followed shortly afterwards by the pararescue jumpers, who were still wearing the bright orange dry suits they had jumped into the ocean with two days earlier. With the patient and PJs aboard, the helicopters headed back to Moffett and were met by one of the Moffett-based HC-130Js for more gas. When they landed, an ambulance from Stanford Hospital was waiting to pick up Schwenk and get him the care he needed. It may not have been a restful weekend for the Air Force crews involved but it was certainly a productive drill weekend.
“The crews from the 79th, in addition to the 130th [Rescue Squadron], were integral to the success of this mission,” said Maj. Coda Brown, a Pave Hawk pilot who hoisted the medical and life-support equipment off the tanker and was the mission commander for the two helicopters.
Brown said the HC-130s also played a seamless role providing fuel and serving as a communications relay, which was even more impressive considering the mission involved National Guard and active duty units working together at short notice.
“This was truly a team effort where mission success was not achievable without all these moving parts,” Brown said.
Coordinating a rescue mission at the drop of a hat over hundreds of miles of open ocean is a feat few organizations can accomplish, and it’s one the U.S. military takes on with some regularity. Earlier this summer, the New York Air National Guard unveiled a painting honoring a 2017 mission where seven of its airmen jumped out of an airplane in the middle of the night over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to rescue foreign sailors suffering from severe burns aboard a cargo ship. It was a complicated mission that the airmen pulled together in less than a day, and after boarding the cargo ship they proceeded to keep the patients alive for three more days before a Portuguese helicopter could pick them up and fly them to a hospital.
Five years later, McDonald said there is always some nail-biting anxiety with missions like these considering all the moving parts involved – but it’s more eagerness than anything else.
“It’s more excitement, like a kid finding out his parents are taking him to Disneyland and not being able to sleep,” he said. “Depending on the weather, if it’s adverse weather, there would be some angst, but in favorable weather you’re just excited to get to work.”
There is a saying in the Air Force search and rescue community that “when others are having their worst day, we show up on our best day,” and it appears that the teams with the 129th Wing and 563rd Rescue Group certainly lived up to that creed. Part of what makes those teams so effective, McDonald explained, is the maturity to do what the Pacific rescue planners did, where they chose not to immediately start the helicopters and fly to the tanker.
“The maturity and risk management is from taking an honest look at the situation and resisting the urge to just jump in the Helo and mid-air refuel multiple times, then figure it all out once you’re on station,” he said. “The Combat Air Force can absolutely just rage out there like city firefighters, but you could end up painting yourself into a corner having to be airborne for more than 14 hours.”
The Pacific Cup race organizers were grateful for the well-executed plan. The organizers noted that after dozens of ocean crossings and over 300,000 ocean miles, this was the first time Schwenk ever had to call for help, but he was thankful when help came.
“We’re incredibly grateful for the actions of Surprise, the FPMC35, the Coast Guard and the Air Force, and our consultants at George Washington University’s Maritime Medical Access team,” said Pacific Cup Commodore Jim Quanci in a press release. “Without the concerted action of all these responders, Andy’s situation could have been much worse.”
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