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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Upstairs in the A-10, the Sandy’s Quickdraw interrogator unit enables digital communication with the flier’s CSEL. The Quickdraw first electronically queries the CSEL to verify that it’s really the downed pilot on the other end—“not some farmer who got his hands on the radio and pushed a few buttons,” says Baker. Once the pilot’s identification has been authenticated, two-way, secure data communication proceeds, without disclosing the survivor’s location.

Voice contact always ensues. “There’s some care and feeding that goes with this,” says Kanning. “If he’s injured, you may need to talk him through addressing some of his wounds.”

Downed fliers may be under the most psychological duress they’ve ever experienced. Sandy pilots endeavor to keep them motivated and positive while the rescue plays out. Stressed survivors may be impatient and blunt: Get me outta here! “Absolutely, they’ll tell us that,” says Kanning.

In Southeast Asia, voice contact also introduced the men in the cockpit to the grim reality on the ground, particularly in areas like Laos, where prisoners were often not taken. “A couple of times I actually heard the guy get killed on the survival radio while he was talking to us,” says John Dyer. “One said, ‘I’ve been hit, I’ve had it.’ Then he went off the air.”

Brandt: I told Don, “I’ve got to get my gun.” One thought was in my mind: Most guys who went down over Laos were never heard from. I wasn’t going to surrender. I could hear leaves crunching as they ran right up to me. I stood up at exactly the same time a large boar looked at me. We both jumped about three feet in the air. He did a 180 and took off. I put my gun back in my survival vest and radioed Don: “It was a wild pig.” Don answered, “Just keep talking, Dipper.”

Today’s technology confers a potential element of surprise unavailable in Vietnam. By linking GPS coordinates uploaded by the survivor’s CSEL to the camera in the Warthog’s targeting pod and zooming in, “I don’t need a mirror flash or any signal from you,” says Baker. “I can already see exactly where you are and what you’re doing.” The A-10 is relatively quiet, and above 10,000 feet it may loiter unobserved. “We may be able to kick in the door and come get you without the enemy even knowing we were there,” says Baker.

Until the Sandys arrive, other eyes in the sky can watch over a downed flier. A remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) such as a Predator drone can loiter overhead for a lengthy period, observing with its cameras. While the RPA operator maintains contact with the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, the operator can also talk directly to the survivor via radio. If necessary, an armed drone could provide cover against approaching enemy forces.

All of this assumes suspension of Murphy’s Law. “You have all these toys, but you have to go out the door assuming none of this stuff is going to work,” says Baker. Sandy pilots still train to do it the old-fashioned way: “the survivor popping smoke, and us flying down and taking a look at him,” says Baker.

In Vietnam, taking a look required daylight. Sandys operated only from dawn to dusk. If rescue couldn’t be achieved by sundown, the survivor was “put to bed”: issued advice on overnighting in the jungle. Today, “we prefer to do everything at night,” says Kanning. The advent of night-vision goggles and forward-looking infrared cameras has made darkness a powerful ally of combat search-and-rescue operations. While night-vision capability is still uncommon among enemy forces, Baker has flown with night-vision goggles for 15 years. Aviator survival kits include infrared strobe beacons visible to rescue pilots wearing night-vision goggles; the strobe beacons are also visible to most of the infrared sensors on U.S. aircraft, so most of the supporting rescue aircraft can see the strobe. The A-10, like most U.S warplanes, has been modified for night vision by making cockpit instrumentation NVG-compatible.

Dunaway: Everyone involved in the effort was listening when Randy came up on the survival radio and said, “Disregard about those last noises in the jungle.” The sigh of relief must have registered about a five on the Richter scale. As a Sandy, ground search parties were always in the back of your mind. It might be only small arms, but once you pinpoint your survivor and talk to him, you have to suppress that resistance before you even think helicopters.

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