By Rip Prine
MOODY AIR FORCE BASE -- An F-16 pilot descends by parachute after a lucky hit by one of Saddam Hussein's surface-to-air missiles. It's night time in the Iraqi desert. He's alone, and yes, he's scared.
He listens for two things. The roar of Iraqi military vehicles, meaning his capture, or the WHOP-WHOP sound of a helicopter's rotary blades beating the air signaling FREEDOM.
In the darkness of the Southwest Asia sky, an HH-60 helicopter from the 41st Rescue Squadron is flying to the downed pilot's location with two pararescuemen (PJs) from the 38th Pararescue Squadron. The helicopter's flight range is limited because of fuel. An HC-130 aircraft from the the 71st Rescue Squadron links with the helicopter, performing an in-flight refueling. The refueling, which lasts about 10 minutes, ensures the helicopter will arrive at the downed pilot's location. For the pilot, minutes seem like hours.
Both military and civilians become accustomed to the sound of helicopters flying over head. However, there have been complaints registered with the 347th Rescue Wing Public Affairs about the noise during the late night hours. Complaints have dwindled since the F-16s and A-10s left Moody Air Force Base. The PA notifies the 41st and 71st of the complaints. These squadrons aren't exempt from the Federal Aviation Administration regulations and restrictions -- they must follow the same rules as civilian pilots.
"We've been doing night operations since the squadron opened here four years ago," said Lt. Col. David Duke, assistant director of operations, 41st RQS. "We try to fly friendly. It's one of our special interest items."
The 41st HH-60 helicopters use river beds and non-populated areas during their flight routes. They also have to fly at a minimum altitude of 700 feet within a seven-mile radius around the Moody AFB and surrounding area.
The minimum altitude for flying over populated areas is 500 feet, according to the FAA. It's only in designated training areas that helicopters fly at 50-200 feet, training for their mission -- combat search and rescue.
The CSAR missions training is divided equally between day and night. Training involves practice insertions by the 38th PJs on landing zones (LZs) in the Moody military operations area. Insertions involve fast-roping and rappelling and the use of rope ladders and the hoist device.
"We fly during the day to practice for night," Duke said. "Our real-life missions are probably at night and probably in a hostile environment. It's the hardest part of the mission to train for."
Night flying with the two units requires their pilots to wear night vision goggles (NVGs). Whenever the aircraft take off from Moody, pilots will be wearing NVGs enabling them to see on the darkest night. Pilots must rely on visual cues like shadows, relative motion and the size of objects during the flight. "The only way you can do that is through practice," Duke said
The rationalization for flying at night is if the enemy can't see the aircraft, they can't shoot them, Duke said.
Night flights normally begin an hour after official sunset and range from three to four hours with three or four helicopter split into two flights. Operations run from Monday to Thursday. There are no nights operations scheduled for Friday or the weekend, but day operations may take place during those days.
The 71st RQS flying missions take place in another area. The C-130s fly modified contour and terrain mapping in the mountainous areas of Tennessee and Kentucky. The flight time to the mountains takes about an hour at an altitude between 14,000-16,000 feet.
Once the C-130 arrives in the mountainous terrain, it will fly low through the ravines in the dark for about two hours. Like the HH-60 pilots, the C-130 pilots wear NVGs during their flights. "We have an advantage over the helicopters," said Capt. Andy Shields, pilot flight commander with the 71st RQS. "We have aircraft radar which allows us to use the terrain."
The navigator compares the radar picture to his charts
and relays the information to the pilots wearing NVGs looking outside the aircraft. The navigator gives recommended altitudes and headings to the pilots. To appreciate the pilots' circumstances, it must be mentioned that the plane is flying at a speed between 210-250 knots at low level. There is no margin for error.
"Terrain following is challenging for the navigators," Shields said.
"We try to avoid populated areas," said Marcus Morris, operations officer with the 71st RQS. "It's not good tactics to fly over towns. We wouldn't fly over towns in Iraq."
After the contour and the terrain mapping, the C-130 returns to Moody, where it links up with the helicopters for refueling operations. Wednesday evening, the C-130 piloted by Morris and co-piloted by Shields refueled two of the 41st helicopters -- at the same time. The normal flight time for the 71st during this training is five hours, and the NVGs are worn during the duration of the flight.
The 71st also works with PJs using different infiltration techniques. This includes dropping PJs by static line parachute from no higher than 1,500 feet to freefall parachuting from an altitude of 3,500 feet, Shield said.
Two other areas of training involve dropping inflatable boats used by PJs for maritime rescue operations. One method called the "Rubber Duck" involves dropping a combat rubber raiding craft loaded with PJs' equipment and mounted on a platform. A cargo parachute is attached to the boat and platform that roll off the C-130 ramp. When the cargo parachute deploys, PJs follow with static line parachutes.
Another maritime operation called RAMZ (rigging alternate method zodiac) involves dropping a non-inflated zodiac boat in a bundle. Once jumpers parachute into the water, they swim to the bundle and inflate the zodiac.
This type of training requires plenty of practice on the part of all three squadrons in the 347th Rescue Wing, especially night operations. "We assume our missions will be under the cover of darkness," Shields said.
"Flying under the radar and at night equals being undetected", Morris said. "We fail if we get shot down."
In the Iraqi desert, the downed F-16 pilot is depending on the training of these night flyers with his life. In the distance, he hears the beating of the air by helicopter rotary blades. For some people, the sound is a nuisance in the late evening hours. To the pilot, the sound of the rotary blades beats out a sweet rhythm known as FREEDOM.
To contact reporter Rip Prine, please call 244-3400, ext. 237.
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