Airmen from the US Air Force 563rd Rescue Group engaged in a rescue mission after being notified of a Venezuelan fishing boat 1,100 nautical miles off the Pacific coast of Mexico with two critically injured Chinese sailors onboard on 2 May.
According to rescue team reports, the Chinese vessel came under distress after a fire injured four sailors and left six missing. The remaining sailors boarded a life raft as their vessel sank, and were later recovered by a Venezuelan fishing vessel. Seven of the Chinese fishermen were in good condition and were transferred, along with two of their fellow sailors who had succumbed to their injuries, to a Chinese-flagged ship in the area, returning to China.
563rd Rescue Group airmen flew in a 79th Rescue Squadron HC-130J Combat King II plane for nearly 11 hours in order to reach the ship. Six Guardian Angel pararescuemen were then dropped, along with medical equipment and two inflatable boat packages. They then boarded the vessel and stabilised the injured sailors.
“We were preparing for the [Angel Thunder] training exercise when we were notified of what was going on,” said 1st Lt Ben Schmidt, 48th Rescue Squadron combat rescue officer. “As a Guardian Angel, this is what we are trained and equipped to do, so there is no better way to show our capabilities.”
Schmidt explained that upon landing in the water, the rescue team ensured that each member who jumped was alright, then checked over their gear before proceeding to the ship to assess and treat the patients.
On 5 May at around 11:30 hrs, the pararescuemen and two injured fishermen they were stabilising were hoisted from the Venezuelan skiff, still more than 600 nautical miles off Mexico. Two HH-60G Pavehawk helicopters from the 55th Rescue Squadron and a HC-130J Combat King II from the 79th Rescue Squadron flew for nine hours over the Pacific Ocean to recover the personnel and patients, and conducted four refuelling operations on the round-trip flight from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The helicopters arrived back at Cabo San Lucas at approximately 16:00 hrs and transferred the patients to a 79th Rescue Squadron HC-130J for transport to Naval Air Station North Island, California, US, with an estimated time of arrival of 19:30 hrs, for onward transport to the University of California Regional Burn Unit in San Diego.
A rescue group commander described Guardian Angel as the Air Force’s human-centric and equipment-based weapon system that executes all five tasks of personnel recovery: report, locate, support, recover and reintegrate. Guardian Angel teams consist of combat rescue officers, pararescuemen, and survival, evasion, resistance, and escape specialists.
Col Sean Choquette, 563rd Rescue Group commander, commented: “Our airmen train diligently to execute difficult missions like this one. We have three factors that are in our favour for this particular mission: the 563rd Rescue Group was ready for exercise Angel Thunder, which trains rescue personnel for situations very similar to this mission. The 79th Rescue Squadron has the HC-130J Combat King IIs, the newest C-130 models in the Air Force, which are capable of aerial refuelling, enabling them to travel further and deliver lifesaving care faster. Finally, the 161st Air Refueling Wing was already part of the Angel Thunder team, and with a telephone call from the exercise director, Brett Hartnett, immediately supported our need for refuelling over the Pacific Ocean.”
Maj. Scott Rein, a 563rd RQG operations center planner, said during the mission: “Water rescues are highly complex and the distance, which required multiple aerial refuelling operations, [presents] more challenges in this rescue. Everyone has complicated tasks in this mission; from the Guardian Angels treating injured sailors with equipment they had to parachute in with, to aviators who are flying very long missions and support personnel who are executing their roles at a remote airfield in Mexico. Everyone is rising to the occasion.”