Commercial, Military

Search and Rescue: HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL

By By Shannon Bower | November 1, 2006

Hornet Helicopters"RAZOR TWO-TWO, IT LOOKS LIKE YOU caught a few rounds on your last bomb run. You have some holes in your wing and tail."

"Roger Two-One, it's starting to feel mushy." "Great," you think to yourself, "I am still 20 mi inside bad-guy country and my airplane is falling apart."

Lights. Lots of lights…and warning horns. Not good.



A surreal quiet invades the chaotic cockpit and all you can hear is your own breathing-and it sounds normal in your oxygen mask. Things are moving at about quarter speed, and as the canopy leaves the once sleek fighter jet, you take time to ponder, "I would think things should be moving faster than this." Then the rockets under your Martin-Baker ejection seat light off, and you are out of what has now become quite the fiery, eye-catching event.

Exactly 3 sec and a lot of black smoke later, your trusty steed, which had taken really good care of you up to this point, becomes a $20-million fireworks display.

"Oh good, the locals will really like all that flaming metal falling in their fields," you reflect as you now hang from what can only be described as a really thin piece of silk and a some very small string.

More reflection: "I just laid down 8,000 lb of ordinance not 15 mi from here." Things are going badly, quickly. "Twelve thousand more feet to fall with style, then I need to find some cover."

The service's pararescuemen are the "Leatherman Tool" of combat search and rescue.

Here is the only good part of this day so far: your trusty wing man has already called in your unfortunate turn of events to the radar controller 100 mi to your east. The controller, in turn, has called the combat command center, which sounds the alarm in the ready room, and the combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) crews are now running to their helicopters.

The Machines

Now this is not just any helicopter that these brave men and women are running to fire up (yes sir, I said "women." There are some female gunners in these outfits that will rain down 4,000 rounds of Bad Karma per-minute [BKPM] on the bad guys with ego-busting accuracy-and make no mistake, their heart is in
this fight).

The helicopter is the Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk, which comes from a long, very distinguished line of rescue helicopters that have been flying in harm's way since the Korean War.

The Pave Hawk is an all-muscle, all-weather beast that is blessed with a number of variations that set it apart from the standard Black Hawk. Most uniquely, the Pave Hawk can refuel from a tanker aircraft in flight, thereby making its range almost unlimited. The Pave Hawk can see in the dark-its crew can use night-vision goggles (NVGs) and forward-looking infrared (flir) sensors-and talk to just about anyone on the planet through a dizzying array of radios that are not standard in the basic, "troop mover" Black Hawk.

The Pave Hawk also can fight back and beat down any threat that it finds around a crewman that needs rescuing, by using the General Electric GAU-2 mini-gun. The GAU-2 is a six-barreled, lightning-bolt delivery system of death for any enemy threats in the area. The weapon has now been made even more effective with a gun mount that was designed "in-house" by the folks that use them every day. This new mount allows the guns to always be at the ready and be deployed in several ways that might not be expected.

The more terrifying GAU-19 might also be used; it is a .50-caliber version of the awe-inspiring GAU-2, and the -19 more than doubles the bubble of protection for the pilot and the helicopters. Most threats that find themselves against a pack of GAUs are new to the business, simply because very few threats survive an encounter with the GAU and are able to report back how bad it really was.

The Mission

"Get our guy back, and quick."

U.S. military aviators are unique in that they go into combat knowing that we, as a nation, will come and get them if something goes wrong on the mission and the aviator is not able to aviate home.

The basic idea of the CSAR mission is "we are willing to fight to get our aircrew back and you can't have them." So while the bombs are bursting in air, these heavy, fast, and awesome rescue birds are zipping back across the line with U.S. crewmen, who may have scalded tail feathers, but will fly again.

The Pave Hawk mission is so important that the helicopters almost never travel alone. Not only will each mission have multiple aircraft (two or more) down "in the tree tops," but there will also be a host of fixed-wing assets that will come along to help deal with any trouble met along the way. Once on scene, if the bad guys just keep on coming (some are prone to do just that), the whole world can be called in for large-scale noise-making and earth-moving, which the enemy has very low odds of surviving.

While some parts of the CSAR mission are understandably not discussed in an open forum, suffice to say that there is a wicked bag of tricks in the hands of these brave warriors. By every definition, these people are warriors. "War Fighter" may be the politically correct way to say it, but these men and women have the true warrior spirit. They intentionally fly into a very "hot" area to pick up someone who has been shot down. That means that there has been real, live shooting in the very recent history and very close in proximity to the current event. These people are walking into a gun fight to save someone, and they know it.

The Training

The key to surviving a gun fight is simple: Hit what you aim at, and shoot the other guy before he shoots you. To do this successfully, in a 3D environment, anywhere in the world, and usually at night, you have to train really hard.

Since CSAR personnel are absolutely committed to making a successful pickup and returning home, they are equally committed to diligent training when not on the battlefield.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a guest of the U.S.Air Force's 34th Weapons Sqdn., and enjoy the first-rate hospitality of the U.S. Army at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the White Sands Missile Range, N.M., just to the north of El Paso.

The 34th is the CSAR training squadron for the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, based at Nellis AFB, Nev. The Weapons School is essentially a master's degree-level program that the Air Force has built to teach pilots how to get the absolute most out of the aircraft that they are flying. A pilot who wears the coveted graduate patch from the Weapons School is a highly sought-after commodity for squadron and wing commanders in the field, and is typically the "go to" guy in mission planning that will have the answer or know how to get it in record time.

There are many phases of infiltration and exfiltration performed during a rescue. The phase I was invited to participate in was the Terminal Area Employment.

Terminal Area Employment is the technical, clean name for "in the hot zone with guns blazing," and blaze they do. This is no "pretend training" with paint pistols. This is live fire, with multiple aircraft zigging and zagging-just like real life.

A first-class set up for training CSAR is nestled safely in the restricted area of White Sands. At the direction of some very crafty range operators and training coordinators, platoons and squads of Little Green Men targets (LGMs) and their support vehicles pop up out of the desert floor and provide threats to the sharp-eyed gunners of the Pave Hawks. These LGMs are then dropped back into the dust from whence they came, by a fire-hose like spray of bullets departing the GAU-2 mini-guns at 4,000 rounds/min.

CSAR is not a brash, muscle-your-way-in kind of program. CSAR is a thinking man's game. And brother, they have thought it through. Careful ingress and egress plans are worked up and ready to go. Once the CSAR birds get on the scene, there is not a moment that goes by that at least one set of guns is not pointed at and pouring the heat on the threat. There are plans inside of plans for dealing with each threat that could potentially be in the area. If you are a bad guy, they know about you, and they already have a plan to deal with you swiftly and terribly.

Who does CSAR help? People that need help, anywhere in the world. Air Force fighter pilots are the primary customers, and often the most grateful, once they see from the "ground view" the amount of courage it takes to successfully fly into a hot area to get a fellow airman who is most likely a complete stranger. Special note to all you fast-mover types: remember the rotorheads in your prayers and in your budget meetings. They are the ones that will come to help you or the young pilots that follow you.

CSAR also will assist in other difficult rescue missions when units are close and available. One of the most famous, recent civilian rescue missions was portrayed in the book, "The Perfect Storm." While over the North Atlantic, one of the lionhearted pararescuemen (called PJs) was lost at sea during a noble rescue effort.

The PJs

PJs are the "Leatherman Tool" of CSAR. For starters, PJs are very skilled at just about every type of outdoor sport that can be turned into a rescue technique, as well as all of the "industry-standard rescue procedures." This gives the PJs an "out of the box" operational flexibility not found in the rank and file. The PJs are also trained well beyond the paramedic level for medical services that the customer on the ground may require.

Once boots are on the ground, stealth and general civility are the preferred method of the PJs in a "pick-up" of a downed pilot. However, a broad variety of torment and angst can be viciously dealt to any threat that would keep them from returning with their charge.

Without making light of the topic, you could say that PJs are a ferocious, dedicated, Mountain Dew commercial with really good gear. There is not a better trained group of men on the planet.

Very little is "open source information" on the PJs, and it needs to stay that way, so that they can do their unique job in the secrecy that protects them and the person they are going to get.

There is no one I would rather have coming to get me out of a bad place. Only the bad guys are not happy to see these men. If you have the Stars and Stripes on your sleeve, things just got a whole lot better when you see them running toward you. These guys are top hands, and their motto says it all: "That others may live."


The Pave Hawk's GAU-2 mini-gun is a "six-barreled, lightening-bolt delivery system of death" for enemy threats. The weapon has now been made even more effective with a gun mount designed by CSAR crews.

A big deal, this Combat Search and Rescue-X (CSAR-X) Program (aka the mystery helicopter for the next generation of CSAR). There are several aircraft in the running and a whole lot of money to be allocated.

As of now, there seem to be two front runners.

A variant of the Sikorsky H-92 (related to the H-60 Black Hawk by way of many combat-proven systems), it has a rear drop hatch like an early CSAR bird, the H-3 Jolly Green Giant, and will fit nicely into a C-17 cargo plane that will deliver it to any hot spot around the world.

The US101 is the other aircraft that has a place in the race. The 101 is an international, multi-corporation version of the EH101 that has recently been selected to be the new U.S. presidential helicopter. The 101 is a three-engined aircraft that is closer in size and performance to the heavy-lift H-53 Pave Low.

The third contender is a CSAR variant of Boeing's CH-47.

It is not my place to say which is the right aircraft and which is not-I am not an Air Force CSAR pilot-and a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS)-like program may very well not provide the perfect aircraft for the job. Like most things in aviation, there must be some degree of compromise in order to get off the ground.

However, there are also absolutes in aviation, especially military aviation: If you don't have the right tools, you can not perform highly specialized missions (such as CSAR) with any degree of success.

CSAR aircraft and their highly trained crews are not something that can be shared for other duties in the grand scheme of things. Forcing CSAR to "fit in" would be like having a racehorse pulling a wagon. While it may be the general feeling in the military that "special units" with "special missions" cost too much and are sometimes not convenient from a budget standpoint, if you step back a few steps, you might see that each and every aircraft that the Air Force operates is a "special unit" with a "special mission." Hmmm.

The point is that CSAR is CSAR. It is such a specialized task that it requires intense training and coordination with multiple crews and aircraft, and it is one of the few missions that actually "makes money" for the Air Force (in a cold, unfeeling way) by bringing back very expensive pilots and crews that were lost.

If CSAR is pulled into other tasks or must share aircraft with other missions and is forced to use an aircraft that might work better for some other "shared" mission, CSAR crews will not be effective at doing their job of rescuing downed aviators.

If those who make the decisions are making them for the wrong reasons, such as goofy politics, and floating budget numbers, it could drastically effect the outcome of many a rescue mission-not only for the CSAR crew, but also for the fighter pilot stuck in the mud, with a broken leg, and behind enemy lines. Choose wisely.

Back to the Action

"Razor Two-Two, this is Tosh Four-One," say T.L.C. (Threat, Location and Condition).

"Tosh Four-One, Razor Two-Two. I'm in a field. I found a ditch about 400 m west of the river, and 600 m east of a tree line. I have a bad leg and can't move very fast. This place is crawling with bad guys and trucks. They haven't found me yet, but they are getting a little too close for comfort. There are some big guns in the tree line at my two-seven-zero."

"OK, Razor, get flat on the ground and keep your head down, it is going to get kind of loud."

"Sandy Three-Six, this is Tosh Four-One, we need you to clean up the tree line to the west of Razor's position. Razor is 600 m east of the tree line in a ditch. Other hostiles are in the area."

The dry voice of Sandy 36 comes back with a "Roger," as two, big, so-ugly-they-are-beautiful A-10 Warthogs appear out of nowhere, and roll in with their 30mm cannons growling. After plowing a couple of 3-ft-wide trenches in the tree line (including right through the large truck carrying the quad 12.5mm guns), the Sandies pitch up and go into a wagon-wheel protective orbit.

While the dirt is still falling back from the sky, two Pave Hawk helicopters come streaking across the river at less than 50 ft. More bad news for the bad guys-the GAU-2 mini-guns are locked forward on their custom mounts and streams of red tracers are flowing from their spinning barrels. This makes an impression.

Tosh 41 goes into a tight orbit looking for a fight, guns now unlocked and swiveling around hunting for any threat. Tosh 42 goes to the ground next to the ditch, where a very happy Razor 22 gratefully accepts help from two very fast-moving, heavily armed men that appeared, like phantoms, next to him in the ditch. Later, Razor 22 will swear on a stack of Bibles that he never saw the PJs actually jump out of the helicopter and into the ditch. They were just "there."

As Razor is helped back to the waiting Pave Hawk, the orbiting Tosh 41 lights off its mini-guns again and "beats back the threat" that appears at the edge of the tree line. This is a pleasant way of saying that the female airman on the left gun just dropped a squad of hostiles, who had a rocket-propelled grenade and were looking for trouble, with a couple of 3-sec, "high-rate" bursts from her mini-gun. Bad Karma.

Tosh 42 now has a new passenger and calls, "Coming out, plus one," as the right gunner of Tosh 41 works over the tree line with his GAU-2. It is not a good day to be assigned to the tree line.

Tosh 42 pulls pitch and converts lift to forward speed. Acceleration is instantaneous in the Pave Hawk and 10 sec later the Pave Hawks are gone. All that is left in the field is smoke, thoroughly thrashed bad guys, and an empty ditch.

Six days later, Razor 22 is welcomed home to mainland America by his grateful wife and kids. Razor 22 will recover and be in the cockpit again in six months.

A very wise man once said, "The fight is not going to be what you want it to be, it is going to be what it is. So, train hard, get good gear, and never, ever give up." Thank you to all the CSAR types across the world. You are appreciated and respected for what you do and who you are. Godspeed.

Terrain Avoidance a Key for CSAR-X

Given mission profiles of low, fast flight to reach downed airmen quickly and without alerting enemy stalkers, combat search-and-rescue crews need to constantly be aware of obstacles and threatening terrain. The more they can "see," the lower and faster they can fly as they infiltrate hostile areas for rescues and leave with downed airmen on board.

For that reason, the U.S. Air Force is looking for greater terrain-awareness and obstacle-avoidance capabilities in its next-generation Combat Search and Rescue-X aircraft. That 141-aircraft program, which is to replace the Air Force's 100 or so HH-60G Pave Hawks, was due for selection by the end of October (a Defense Acquisition Board review was set for Oct. 31), with a formal announcement expected by the middle of this month. Those greater situational-awareness capabilities are a key focus of Block 10 of the planned CSAR-X acquisition. Block 10 has been accelerated from the original acquisition plan.

That focus has at least two of the three CSAR-X contenders talking about the terrain-awareness and obstacle-avoidance capabilities of their entrants.
Lockheed Martin, which has the CSAR-X lead for the Team US101 match-up with AgustaWestland and Bell Helicopter that offers a variant of the EH101, has been using a company-owned UH-1 to hone the situational-awareness strengths it hopes to build into the Air Force's next combat search-and-rescue aircraft ("The Flying Edge," October 2006, page 50).

The dedicated R&D platform, known as the Flying Test Bed, is based at Lockheed Martin Systems Integration in Owego, N.Y. and has been used to test terrain-detection-and-avoidance sensors, advanced digital-mapping schemes and automated threat-detection and route-replanning systems.

Among the most recent CSAR-X applications the test bed has flown is the Laser Obstacle and Avoidance Monitoring (LOAM) system developed by Selex Communications, which like AgustaWestland is owned by Finmeccanica.

That system has been selected by the Danish air force, which is putting it into service on its SAR EH101s following completion of a qualification and flight test program last month. Lockheed Martin and Selex are collaborating on marketing the system in the United States and evaluating potential U.S. government and civilian opportunities for the technology.

LOAM is a second-generation laser system, using an eye-safe laser. Usable in day and night conditions, the system is designed to both warn the crew of possible collision with wires (down to a diameter of 5 mm), pylons and other obstacles and to cue the crew with an escape-avoidance maneuver. One version uses a simplified, dedicated display that shows the flight time to the obstacle and up/down and left/right arrows to indicate the recommended avoidance path.
Selex officials said a laser detector is preferable to a radar one because the laser requires less reflected energy from an object to detect its presence. This enables the LOAM system to detect wires at angles of incidence to the aircraft much lower than 90 deg.

Boeing, for its part, is talking about an enhanced-vision system it is offering as part of its HH-47 Chinook bid for CSAR-X-but not much. It is based on sensors developed for special-operations applications.

"We had a demonstrator in work with the Phantom Works that we contributed to the CSAR-X bid," said Rick Spicer, Boeing's deputy program manager for the HH-47.

Boeing officials said there is nothing fundamentally new about the sensor suite being used for the enhanced-vision system. Rather, the company is advancing the use of parallel processors in the system to fuse more sensor outputs into a comprehensive and comprehensible picture of the world outside the cockpit.

"They tweaked the sensor suite to look at some of the parameters" of particular interest to the CSAR-X program," Spicer said. "The processors allow us to take more information and clear up that picture, and to mix and match active and passive sensors."

Sikorsky, which is bidding the HH-92, has not said much publicly about its entrant's capabilities in these areas.

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