Airman Down

Rescue aircraft are different today, but “surrender” is still a dirty word.

Over Vietnam in 1966, a Douglas A-1 flies cover on a rescue mission. (USAF)
Air & Space Magazine

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In Vietnam, the line-drawing was similar. Some A-1 Skyraider pilots, says John Dyer, gravitated to conventional-strike sorties instead of the highly choreographed combat search-and-rescue missions.

The basics established in Southeast Asia still hold. A four-ship Sandy mission is led by Sandy One, the most experienced pilot, who at a rescue assumes the role of on-scene commander. Accompanying the four-ship flight are two helicopters to extract the downed flier. Also utilized is a high-altitude platform to provide a “big picture” overview—a C-130 designated “King” or “Crown” in Vietnam or today a JSTAR (Joint Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar) aircraft. For today’s jet-powered A-10s, refueling tankers orbit nearby.

In Vietnam, Dyer says, the coordinated thrusts into enemy territory tended to be “by far, the most difficult, dangerous missions that [A-1 pilots] flew over there.” In one six-week span, Sandys lost six A-1s, one helicopter, two pilots, and a para-rescue jumper.

Brandt: I couldn’t use my right hand. I couldn’t hold the survival radio or my pistol. I found a dead tree, scooped out some of the vegetation beneath it, and crawled underneath. During the night I heard bad guys looking for us. They seemed to be in a line. They’d take 10 or 15 steps, then stop to listen. Hollywood makes the jungle sound like there’s lots of noise at night. Believe me, it’s dead quiet. About five in the morning I came up on the survival radio and they told me: “Sandy is airborne and he’s bringing what he needs.” I could hear A-1s coming. That Wright engine is a very distinctive sound.

The urgency in combat search-and-rescue has not changed over the years. “You’re the fireman waiting at the firehouse for the phone to ring,” says Baker. On five-minute ground alert, Sandy pilots sit in the A-10 on the end of the runway with the auxiliary power unit running or even with engines started. Fifteen-minute alerts necessitate a “hot-cocked” A-10 and a pilot nearby. “You don’t even do a walk-around,” says Kanning. “Somebody’s already done that for you. You just get in the airplane and go.”

For even faster response times, A-10s can fly on alert closer to the action. Orbiting nearby, sipping fuel from a tanker, Sandys get continual threat updates from JSTARs as well as news on the latest successes of the strikes and which aircraft are still airborne. “The alert status will probably be determined ahead of time based on the nature of the threat,” says Kanning. “A lot of time the SPINS will tell you, ‘I need you to sit five-minute alert or 15-minute alert or 30-minute alert.’ ” SPINS stands for “special instructions,” which are part of the Air Tasking Orders issued for a given mission. Special instructions usually include information on mission routing, no-fly zones, and any special operational constraints or procedures.

In Vietnam, four Sandys arriving above the rescue split into Sandy High and Sandy Low. The helicopters and Sandys Three and Four occupied a holding pattern, while Sandys One and Two dropped down to locate the survivor and evaluate threats. The low, slow strategy of 1960s-era Sandys has been displaced by 21st century technology. “We stay as high and as fast as we can for as long as we can,” says Kanning. One reason is to avoid “burning the target”—circling close to the survivor, which advertises his position to the enemy. Using sensors, including the A-10’s targeting pod camera and forward-looking infrared, “we can stay literally miles away from the guy and monitor him without having to burn his position.”

Dunaway: We got out there before first light. At daybreak both Randy and his backseater came up on the radio. I used my UHF direction finder to locate Randy, but the backseater’s radio was so sorry I couldn’t get a fix on him. All the time I’m doing this, I’m getting read from Randy about his position, his injuries, and so forth. Randy started hearing noises in the jungle. He said, “You’ve gotta do something. They’re getting close.” For a Sandy, this is really an unwanted complication. You can’t dispense any ordnance until you know where everyone is on the ground, and the backseater was still missing. You try to maintain a calm demeanor. You know, “We’re cool fighter jocks; we don’t get excited.”

Vietnam-era pilots ejected with a pair of simple  UHF survival radios capable of transmitting voice and a beacon tone that the A-1’s automatic direction finder could lock on to. The system was not secure: Enemies used captured radios to eavesdrop on the combat search-and-rescue frequencies, and even attempted to impersonate downed fliers, necessitating Sandy crew to pose the survivor an authentication question he had to answer before rescue. Use of the ADF locator often required an A-1 to fly a back-and-forth pattern over the jungle canopy at low altitude, exposed to threats from ground fire.

Air Force pilots shot down today are connected to their rescuers by a robust electronic link. The Combat Survivor Evader Locator (CSEL) in survival vests incorporates a hand-held voice radio with secure digital data transmission capability. With a push of a button, the flier’s GPS coordinates and a choice of macros summarizing his predicament—“injured but can move,” “capture imminent,” etc.—are uplinked in encrypted data bursts over the horizon to satellites, then networked through the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center.

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