Military, Public Service

The Unsung Heroes: The Pilot’s Partners: Backseaters

By Steve "Elroy" Colby | May 1, 2009

These men and women are doing everything in that helicopter except flying it.

From the military perspective backseaters, GIB’s, spoons, whatever you may call them, these people bring a myriad of talent to helicopter missions. In CSAR, medevac, and maritime missions they bring aircraft technical skills, medical skills and gunnery expertise. All the services including the U.S. Coast Guard employ and name these positions differently, but as mentioned in my September 2007 R&W article (The Military Spin: Joint Service Medevac Capabilities), the selection, training, qualification, continuation training and operational employment of these individuals, are very similar.

I recently polled the military community I’m most familiar with to gain some insight to the following questions: 1. What is my job? 2. Why did I choose this job? 3. What are the fun things about this job? 4. What are the irritating things about the job? 5. What was your greatest experience in the job? 6. What were the greatest obstacles to the job? 7. Do you have any exciting anecdotal experiences to share?


With the backender perspective firmly in your mind from the sidebar song (page 43), I’d like to share with you the responses from some of the backseaters kind enough to respond to the query.

Master Sgt. William "Radio" Godwin replied that he’s an aerial gunner stationed at RAF Lakenheath in the U.K. He chose the AG job because he always wanted to fly. He contemplated the job for four years until his wife finally convinced him. "She would rather I would do it and hate or love it, than not do it, and always wonder what might or could have been. And I’ve loved it ever since."

The fun things about the job are: "Flying. Getting a rescue. Shooting the GAU-2 and the.50 caliber machine gun. Knowing that after that rescue, that you have affected more than that one person’s life that you saved. Their mom, dad, wife, children will get to see them again." His thoughts on the irritating things about the job... "Pre-flighting and mission planning". His greatest experience: "August 2002, I was called to search for three Americans that were playing on a banana canoe off the east side of the Island of Okinawa. There was a Typhoon 600 miles off the coast, and the three Americans had been missing for over an hour. When we got the call and heard that they were missing for over an hour, I was thinking it was going to be a recovery and not a rescue. After establishing a search pattern along the coast line, we found them three miles south of where they were originally playing in the water and about a mile off coast clinging to the banana canoe for dear life in 10-15 foot swells. I was the first to spot the survivors and we "low and slowed" (10 feet/10 knots) two pararescuemen in the water and hoisted all three out [with the Parajumpers]. One of the teenagers was about to give up on life and let go of the canoe, but we made it there in time to pluck each one of them out of danger. That rescue meant more than all the awards I had ever received. Knowing that I helped saved the lives of two teenagers and a chaplain assistant, and knowing that they will get to go home and see mom again, that made it all worth the training."

Another rearcrew acquaintance from the Army responded with his perspectives: "I am currently the battalion medical operations NCO for 3rd BN (GSAB) 82nd Combat AVN Brigade, 82nd Airborne DIV. Until recently I was a flight medic, and had been one since 2003. I have deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom twice and Operation Enduring Freedom once. As a flight medic, I was the sole medical provider on a U.S. Army UH-60 medevac aircraft. My responsibilities included being a qualified aircraft crewmember who has undergone the adequate training in being a non-rated crewmember (backseater). The training to be a NRCM includes becoming competent in aircraft systems, limitations, loading and unloading, and emergency procedures. As a flight medic, I was also responsible for patient care in the back of the aircraft, and that training includes advanced medical procedures. In my current job, I am responsible at the battalion level for ensuring the medevac mission flows appropriately." Why he chose his job? "I chose to become a flight medic because the medical training is not only more advancement, but it is usually more used. This type of job for a medic shows instant gratification." "Obviously this job is fun because of the flying. The camaraderie I have found in this job cannot be found anywhere else, and that makes it fun." The irritating parts? "The flying. After long flights, just sitting in the back performing crew member duties, it can get boring." His greatest experience? "I would have to say that my greatest experience in this job was my deployment to Afghanistan in 2007. Although it was also very hard, very nerve racking, and almost cost me and some dear friends our lives, it was well worth it. The lives we saved made it all worth it." What was his greatest obstacle? "Because I have a medical background, it was hard for me to learn the aircraft systems." Any anecdotes? "It’s hard work, but it is always, always worth it!"

Lastly, Senior Airman LU.K.e Nesladek wrote from England: "My job is a pararescueman in the United States Air Force. I chose pararescue because I wanted a job that was both physically and mentally demanding. Also, a pararescueman is essentially a "jack of all trades," meaning that there are so many different skills that a PJ must be proficient at to be able to conduct any type of rescue in any type of situation. I wanted to be trained and operate at the highest caliber the military has to offer and be able to put these skills to the test. There are so many fun aspects to this job that it’s hard to only list a few. The best way to describe the fun parts is we get paid for doing things that others pay to do. Some examples of this are sky diving, scuba diving, rock climbing, cross country skiing, practicing medicine, and flying/fast roping/rappelling from the HH-60G Pave Hawk. I think the most irritating thing about being a pararescueman is if we’re doing our job it means it’s the worst day of the persons’ life we’re rescuing. It really is a double-sided sword because as a pararescueman we want to do our job more than anything, but if we’re not, it means that everyone is safe. My greatest experience as a pararescueman was my deployment to Iraq. I felt that the five month deployment was a time for me to put everything I learned for five years to the test. Thus, being able do my part in the War on Terror.

"My greatest obstacle in this job was getting into this job. It took approximately three years of the most rigorous training the Department of Defense has to offer to be able to call myself a PJ.

"An experience that I’ve had during this job that might persuade an applicant into this career is a two-week training exercise I participated in that was conducted in the Alps. We were conducting high altitude training which entailed avalanche rescue, glacier rescue, cross country skiing, high altitude medical training, ice climbing and general mountaineering. Throughout this two weeks we cross- country skied from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. The sights and experiences we had during that trip were once in a lifetime."

While there are mission based "military families" and close-knit, small-unit organizations, few rival the tight-knit bonds in a rescue or medevac unit. While military customs and courtesies are maintained, and performance professionalism are the hallmark and standard, friendships and bonds of trust are forged during these missions that stay with these crews forever.

So despite the backender’s perennial lament about the "mandraulics" on the sticks, and the vacuum between those pilot’s helmet earcups, what stands out from all the backseaters is a tremendous love of the mission, personal satisfaction, a strong sense of teamwork, friendship and brotherhood in the pursuit of "...these things we do that others may live."

Cabin Blues

By Steven "Elroy" Colby

I woke up this mornin’, and found this big bruise

From fighting with litters...those cabin black and blues.

Went down to the chow hall, with both of our teams

Dissin’ arrogant pilots, with "out of reach" dreams.

That there’s other viewpoints, never crosses their mind

We can make ‘em or break ‘em, and leave ‘em behind.

Working hard for the mission, combat rescue pursues

The missing and stranded, gimme those cabin blues.

On final I said your descent and closure’s too fast.

He didn’t believe me, as the touchdown he passed

Pranged the tailwheel in boulders, dragged the mains thru some rocks

Broke the FLIR on a furrow, now our bird’s up on blocks

But now who’s to blame for the travails of the night?

The lowly backender, whose flightsuit’s a fright.

Working hard for the mission, combat rescue pursues

The injured and helpless, got those bad cabin blues

But sometimes just sometimes, the mission’s a blast

My minigun’s blazin’ and the target’s harassed

His timing and point-outs are spot-on for tally

This bad guy’s bunker just became his death valley

Lead went into the zone, with two in the spooky

No joy on the target this clown is just kooky

Working hard for the mission, combat rescue pursues

STS teams in a firefight, got those bad cabin blues.

Now headed to the tanker, with time to review

The sequence of events in his briefing that blew

Never talked to his wingman, ‘bout the two-ship commit

Spinning clueless to the zone, which he’ll never admit.

Missed the hose next three tries, finally let the co’ plug

"contact-refueling checklist," I could give him a hug.

Working hard for the mission, combat rescue pursues

Gas anywhere we can get it, got those bad cabin blues.

Back home in the hooch, jotting thoughts of the day

In my little memory jogger, so they won’t get away

I write that if one day, I’m king for a night

I’ll blackball that moron, ‘cause he’s just not that bright

But I remember the mantra, my mentor did impart

"Wisely season the rookies, make them better and smart."

Working hard for the mission, combat rescue pursues

Better flight leads and pilots, got those bad cabin blues.

I’m not just a whinin’ or blowing mad smoke

It’s a frustratin’ business with frustratin’ blokes

But no nobler a mission is there in this mess

Than rescuing comrades in ardent distress.

So tell me your stories of woe and despair

And I’ll remind you that rescue is here and beware.

We’re workin’ hard for the mission, combat rescue pursues

The righteous and courageous, got those bad cabin blues.

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