The following is the 3rd post by NavyLive guest blogger, LTJG Jeff Ryan, who is preparing for an upcoming deployment with the 2515th Navy Air Ambulance Detachment.
The downed pilots were located in a desert valley surrounded by rising peaks, and we were called in for the rescue. En-route, night vision goggles helped us peer through the pitch-black sky. The lone silhouette of our wingman was the only object on a dark horizon. As we neared the rescue site, though, we received intel that forced us to scrap our planned approach: the area had been overrun with enemy troops. Instead of heading directly in from the east, we took to the nearby mountains, snaking our way through passes and over peaks as we climbed nearly 4,000 feet.
This last minute change allowed us to approach the survivors from the west, where we would expect little resistance. It worked. We landed, and our aircrewmen jumped out with stretchers in hand to pick up the downed airmen. As soon as they were back in the helicopters, we departed the area quickly and discreetly.
All right, I’m still stateside so I’ll do a little explaining. This all occurred a few days ago, but the mountains I’m talking about are actually in Southern California’s Anza Borrego Desert, the ‘enemy troops’ were just lights from a nearby town, and the downed pilots were played by our extra crewmen. It all seemed pretty real at the time, though, and I think that’s the point—the flight was part of a week of training exercises with my squadron at Naval Air Facility El Centro to gear up for deployment.
For me and the two other pilots deploying for the first time in March, our week in the desert was full of scenarios like the night rescue described above– we were routinely put in extremis to gain experience and confidence. While we all have a good grip of flying the helicopter, using it operationally is an entirely different skill, and one that will take time to master.
In addition, our training often took place in some of the toughest conditions you can put a helicopter in: using NVGs on low-light nights, in formation, and with landings in dusty terrain that causes you to lose sight of the ground just seconds before touchdown. Like any Navy unit preparing for deployment, we train to the worst-case scenario. It was a challenging week in El Centro, but one that will pay dividends every time we fly an Air Ambulance mission. While we three rookies have a ways to go, this past week got us a lot closer to being prepared for whatever we encounter on deployment.
So, until next time, keep your eyes peeled if you find yourself driving through the mountains east of San Diego. You never know when you might come across a daring rescue in progress.
LTJG Ryan flies the MH-60S Knighthawk for HSC-21 in San Diego, CA.