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Fri, Jun 11, 2004

Riding The Storm Out

Amid Change, Navy SAR Team Finishes Eval Top Of Pack

The annual search and rescue evaluation at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (MD) is a little like a tax audit -– if, that is, after reviewing your returns the auditors make you do pull-ups or jump out of a helicopter into a river.

In late May evaluators from Naval Force Atlantic spent three days examining all aspects of the NAS Patuxent River Search and Rescue team’s operations, and left declaring the SAR team here the best on the East Coast for the fourth year in a row.

"Like anything else, it’s a lot easier to get there than to stay there," said Chief Hospital Corpsman Frank Bowersox (above) of earning top honors again. "It takes constant effort by everybody to maintain a program in the shape ours is in."

Bowersox is lead chief petty officer for the SAR team, and in January 2005 will himself take over as SAR corpsman evaluator for the West Coast. He leads a group that’s in flux; within the next six months, the team will have 100 percent turnover in people, with all the experienced program managers leaving Pax while a new group steps up to carry on the legacy. This year’s SAR evaluation was a chance to show the newer members how things are done at Pax River, and what the payoffs are for the work.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Mike Helvey came to Pax last June, just after the 2003 SAR evaluation. The 25-year-old Helvey had served in other SAR commands, and saw the differences immediately.

"We’re a lot more by-the-book than anywhere I’ve ever seen, and we train a whole lot harder," he said. "I wasn’t used to training this much, but I enjoy it."

The Pax SAR mission is unique; the team exists to support the test and evaluation flights performed by NAVAIR test pilots in ranges over the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, providing assurances to the aircrews that should anything go wrong at the edge of the envelope, someone will be there to help get them home safely.

Whereas many Navy commands treat SAR as something of a collateral duty, the rescue swimmers and corpsmen that crew flights here are dedicated almost exclusively to their life-saving mission. That means nothing to get in the way, and no excuses for being less than the best.

The four evaluators show up early in the morning on May 18, and begin with a rigorous inspection of the administrative details of the SAR program here. Like everything in the Navy, life in SAR is built around instructions, standards, records and documentation. The evaluators tear apart the team’s books with a harsh scrutiny, looking for the uncrossed t’s and undotted i’s, the little discrepancies that might reveal a shortcut taken or a detail missed.

They come away satisfied, if robbed of the opportunity to draw blood.

"Pax River has always set the standard as far as how these programs are supposed to be run," said Lt. Ken Ward, who assessed the administration of the program.

Next come the written tests, one for the rescue swimmers and another for the corpsmen, covering abstract but critical details of their respective professions.

"What’s the rated test strength of the Stubai Model 85 Carabineer? If a survivor is wearing an LPU-32 floatation device, what must be done before inflating it?"

No one is stumped. The team has practiced for this portion of the evaluation. A lot.

"We constantly beat on that stuff every day," said Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Ralphy Akery, SAR standardization petty officer for the team.

Akery was responsible for making sure the swimmers were duly prepared for the week long test of skills and knowledge.

"We probably handed out hundreds of practice tests," he said. "A month before the evaluators got here, nobody was allowed to go home until they had gotten a perfect score on the subject knowledge part of it."

On the following day the team members are allowed to come out of their cages a little, setting aside books and records for ropes and dumbbells. In the morning, Akery leads evaluators to the team’s rappelling practice site, an 80-foot tower crowned by a now-defunct weather radar.

Standing on the steel grillwork of the platform, looking down on the roof of the Air Operations tower across the parking lot, Akery shows how the team rigs their ropes for the rappels. Then he and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Toby Climer step out into space and take the quick way down.

"We’re looking for standardization and safety," said Chief Aviation Warfare Systems Operator Jim Britton, one of the swimmer evaluators. "Especially safety."

After lunch everyone heads to the drill hall for the SAR fitness test. First come the pull-ups, with the team circled round urging each other on as they take their turns at the bar. The minimum is four; a couple of the swimmers hit the 20 mark before dropping to the ground.

Next comes the dumbbell haul, 50 pounds carried in each hand over a 150-foot course, which includes four low obstacles that must be cleared. Last is a timed one-mile march with a 40-pound rescue litter strapped on the back. In the 80-something degree gym, basketball players are walking the ball down the court in shorts and tank-tops, while the SAR team members soak their flight suits through with sweat, circling the perimeter of the drill hall seven times with the orange litter bags chafing at their backs.

After the march, the rescue swimmers jump in the pool for a 500-meter solo swim, followed immediately by another 400 meters towing a person. For most of the swimmers, touching the wall at the end of the last lap means a well-earned break. Not so for Akery and Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Angel Gracia, who are both chosen to demonstrate various water rescue techniques for the evaluators.

Other team members get in the pool to play the role of ejected aviators – some without floatation, some attached to parachutes, some in good shape, some with broken backs. The evaluators watch above and below the surface as the rest of the team mills around at poolside, hoping Akery and Gracia will make them look good. They aren’t disappointed.

On the following day it’s time to fly. Around nine in the morning, one the SAR UH-3H Sea King helicopters lifts off from the pad, with Lt. James Meadows at the controls and Ward in the copilot seat. In back are Akery as rescue swimmer, Climer as corpsman and Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class Adam Shiffer as crew chief. Different evaluators will also ride along on different portions of the flight. The crew begins a fictional rescue scenario with a minimum of information.

"We got word that somebody saw two chutes go into the woods over by Harpers Creek, so we went to our search and saw red smoke coming up from the woods," Akery recalled. Another victim could be seen in a nearby clearing.

Climer and Akery rappel 130 feet from the aircraft to the victim in the open, and find he is "dead." They carry their gear – medical bags, oxygen tank, litter – into the woods toward where the signal smoke came from. A teammate plays the victim, and an evaluator on the ground tells Climer what he finds as he assesses injuries and administers aid. Then he and Akery put the victim on a litter and hike him out through trees and brambles to a suitable area for a hoist recovery.

Akery changes into a wetsuit and a new evaluator comes aboard, then a new scenario begins: two "victims" are in the river off Fishing Point. The helicopter passes over and the crew quickly settles on the best strategy, based on both doctrine and experience. Akery "direct deploys," lowering into the water on a hoist line and staying on the line as he puts a rescue strop around the first victim. It is a relatively new method, and Pax River was the first command in the Navy to become certified in it.

On the next pass, Akery demonstrates a different technique, jumping from the helo as it hovers 20 feet off the water, then calling for a hoist recovery. Then the evaluators want to see a rescue using the large, basket-shaped net. Before all is done, Akery has performed six rescues, as the helicopter overhead churns up the water with its rotorwash, creating hurricane-like conditions.

"It would probably be like sticking your head out of a car window in pouring rain while going 80 miles an hour," Akery said, describing the environment. "You can’t see anything. You have to know what to do, because there’s no way to figure it out when you’re under the helicopter."

For this reason they sometimes train at night, without lights, to make sure hands know the way when eyes are defeated.

Before Akery’s wetsuit has had time to dry, the evaluators are giving their out-brief to Pax River Commanding Officer Capt. Dane Swanson.

"All in all the Pax River SAR team is second to none in my opinion," says Senior Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate Steve Barger, one of the evaluators. "They set the standard."
Swanson nods, thanks them, and tells them it’s nice to hear what he already knew.
 
(ANN salutes James Darcy, NAWCAD Public Affairs Department)

FMI: www.navy.mil

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