If you have ever watched a rocket or space shuttle launch in person from Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, then you have probably noticed one or two Pave Hawk helicopters flying overhead from time-to-time before and after the launch (or the scrub). Maybe you knew what they were doing, or perhaps you didn’t and just thought it was cool to watch military aircraft patrol the launch site. Whatever your thoughts, their role in the skies above Cape Canaveral is critical to the safety in and around a launch site for every mission.
Based out of Patrick Air Force Base, the 920th Rescue Wing serves as an Air Force Reserve Command combat-search-and-rescue unit – responsible for a variety of demanding missions and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, trained to perform some of the most highly-specialized operations in the Air Force. Their elite team of Pararescuemen, better known as PJ’s, are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. Elite graduates of the so-called “Superman School”, they are capable of performing life-saving missions anywhere in the world, at any time.
In addition to combat search and rescue operations, the 920th also provides search-and-rescue support for civilians at sea who are lost or in distress, as well as providing world-wide humanitarian and disaster-relief operations supporting rescue efforts in the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. When a covert four-man Navy SEAL team was ambushed and surrounded in a Taliban counter attack high in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan in the summer of 2005, the 920th was who Special Ops command called to perform the rescue.
In 1961, the 920th began their relationship with NASA and the U.S. Space Program, providing safety and security surveillance of the Eastern Launch Range during all rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. They were the primary rescue force serving as “guardians of the astronauts” for 50 years, providing contingency response for a variety of emergencies that could potentially come up during a shuttle launch or landing – up until 2011 that is, when NASA retired their space shuttle fleet and left astronauts dependent on Russia to get to and from space.
Recently, I was invited by the 920th to take a flight with them on a range-clearing mission to support the historic launch of the first Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft to journey to the International Space Station – a mission which would turn out to be the first to see a commercial company dock and deliver supplies to the orbiting outpost. Media have never flown with the 920th for any launch, I was the first photojournalist to do so in the 50 years since the 920th began supporting launch operations on Florida’s Space Coast, and I was humbled to have the opportunity.
Although America’s human spaceflight program is practically non-existent since the end of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the 920th’s role supporting unmanned rocket launches from the Cape is still as active and as important as it has ever been. Rescue Wing Airmen continue to work closely with the 45th Space Wing, NASA, the Naval Ordinance Test Unit, and civilian space companies (such as SpaceX) providing safety and security on the Eastern Range for every launch.
HAWKS AND FALCONS
Crews take to the skies in one of the most sophisticated helicopters in the world, a beefed-up version of the famous Black Hawk – the HH-60G Pave Hawk, a “Black Hawk on steroids” according to Captain Cathleen Snow, 920th Rescue Wing Chief of Public Affairs. With the Pave Hawk’s ability to perform mid-air refueling, pilots can fly non-stop for 14 hours. Each Pave Hawk features an upgraded communications and navigation suite that includes integrated inertial navigation/global positioning/Doppler navigation systems, satellite communications, secure voice, and “Have Quick” communications. The Pave Hawk’s of the 920th also feature an automatic flight control system, night vision, and a forward looking infrared system – known as color radar – that greatly enhances night low-level operations and allows them to fly in virtually any weather, day or night. For the Pave Hawk and its crews, searching in the dead of night for either boaters who have wandered too close to a rocket launch or soldiers trapped behind enemy lines – is not a problem. Many of the Pave Hawks flown by the 920th still have bullet holes in them from their tours in Afghanistan and Iraq - a sobering reminder of the reality of their jobs as combat-search-and-rescue airmen.
I arrived at Patrick AFB at 12:30 a.m. on May 19 for our flight to clear the Eastern Range for the first launch attempt. Captain Snow, Chief of Public Affairs at the 920th Rescue Wing, met me at the main gate, at which point we proceeded to go meet the crew and conduct the standard pre-flight briefing. The briefing is incredibly thorough, nothing is missed, everything from contingency plans in case of an emergency to fuel loads to radio frequencies to the positions of both Pave Hawks at launch time is covered. Both Pave Hawk crews were also brought up to speed on the launch itself and the details of the COTS-2 (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) mission, and they were not shy about showing their excitement for a one-second launch window as opposed to a typical two or three hour launch window. Our Pave Hawk would patrol north of the launch site, call sign “Jolly 1″, the other (Jolly 2) would patrol to the south of the launch site.
Once everyone was briefed we headed over to be fitted with our flight gear and life support equipment. The building where we got geared up resembles, at first glance, a locker room at any gym – except instead of football helmets and dirty socks there are night vision goggles, parachutes, flight helmets and headsets as well as inflatable military life preservers… and possibly a few pairs of dirty socks. We geared up and made sure our headsets worked properly, then headed to the flight line, where two of Patrick’s fourteen HH-60G Pave Hawks were being prepared for our flight.
After talking with some of the crew and going over emergency scenarios, such as learning how to safely bail out of a $40 million Pave Hawk, the aircraft’s twin General Electric engines started and the choppers came alive. Our pilot was Colonel Jeffrey “SKINNY” Macrander, who just so happens to be the Commander of the 920th Rescue Wing – responsible for the organization, training and equipping of the wing and providing leadership, management and supervision to the 1,700 citizen airmen under his command. Colonel Macrander is a veteran of Operations Allied Force, Northern Watch, Noble Eagle, Southern Watch and Operation Enduring Freedom, Colonel Macrander is a rated command pilot and has over 4,500 hours of flight time in 5 different military aircraft. He was also on the crew who rescued ambushed Navy SEALS in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005.
VIDEO: Meet the 920th Rescue Wing as they provide launch support and security to the Eastern Range for the SpaceX COTS-2 launch. Video Credit: Mike Killian / ARES Institute and AmericaSpace
“They usually like us to clear the box about 2 hours prior to launch, but since it is 2:00 a.m. we don’t expect a whole lot of small boats out there but we still get the commercial traffic that cruises back and forth,” said Colonel Macrander minutes before our flight. “The big boats are always up on a maritime frequency, so we have a special radio in the Pave Hawk to call and talk to them. We’ll tell them to either speed up, change their course, or slow down so that they are not in the range for the launch window. We’ll call the coordinates into the control office at the Cape and they will plot it, do some math, and let us know what the boaters need to do to stay out of the range. A lot of times the small boats are just fishing and not monitoring their radios, so sometimes we have to come down there and hover pretty close to get their attention and let them know with hand gestures to get on the radio.”
I would find out later that evening just how close they got to boaters who were not paying attention to the radio, hovering maybe 200 feet over a boater who was sound asleep and not paying attention to radio calls to clear the area for the launch. The crew used the noise from the Pave hawk’s rotors and flashed a bright spotlight on his boat to wake him up and get his attention. I can only imagine his reaction to being woken up by an Air Force Pave Hawk circling overhead within throwing distance in the middle of the night.
As for the launch, it scrubbed 0.5 seconds before liftoff due to a high chamber pressure reading in the number five engine at ignition, and we landed back at Patrick with our job done, awaiting word on a date for the next launch attempt. There was a three-day gap between launch attempts and I had another job to do that weekend. So, I immediately left Patrick and boarded a commercial flight from Orlando to Las Vegas to cover the annular solar eclipse. After covering the eclipse I headed back to Florida for my next Pave Hawk flight to cover the second launch attempt in the early (very early) morning hours of May 22.
I returned to Patrick Air Force Base Monday night at 10:30 p.m. to do it all over again, but this time with Lt. Colonel Rob Haston piloting our Pave Hawk, call sign Jolly 1. Lt. Colonel Haston has been supporting rocket launches for nearly twenty years, piloting Pave Hawks and clearing the range for nearly every launch since 1995 – including space shuttle launches and landings. In the time since he has witnessed three rockets explode – a Delta, an Atlas, and a Titan, so Lt. Colonel Haston understands first hand the importance of the 920th’s role in securing the Eastern Range for a launch.
“I liken supporting rocket launches to fishing. There are a lot of nuances to range clearing that I’ve experienced over the years,” said Lt. Colonel Haston. “You get to know the type of boats and generally where they are going. For instance, tug boats try and get in close to the shore if they are traveling south. A lot of different skills are involved depending on the type of boats you are dealing with. You may be dealing with a 1,000-foot freighter with a non-English speaking captain, or a brand new boat owner in a sailboat.” Haston’s unique experience supporting launches is, as he put it, “not the sort of thing you pick up in AF regulations,” but rather tricks of the trade.
We went through the same as we did for the first launch attempt days earlier; pre-flight briefing, gearing up, and back to the flight line where two Pave Hawk’s were being prepared for our flights. This time around the crew gave me a pair of night-vision goggles so I could see what they see and shoot some photos to give viewers their perspective. The night vision goggles help amplify the available light from the moon and stars by up to 5,000 times onto a green phosphorous screen; the human eye can distinguish more shades of green than any other color. There was no moon this night, and even 60 miles out over the ocean in the darkest black I have ever seen, the goggles illuminated everything, even in the pitch black I could see the ripple of waves on the ocean’s surface.
We took to the skies two hours before launch, heading north from Patrick up the coast of Brevard County, eventually making our way over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and SpaceX Launch Complex 40 where the Falcon-9 rocket stood fully fueled. We hovered a short distance away from the rocket for a few minutes, allowing me to shoot some exclusive photos from our unique vantage point before heading out to sea to clear boat traffic from the range – our orders were to clear an area about 20 miles wide and 60 miles long around the launch site. “They (range control) want us to clear 8-10 miles away from the azimuth. With a small rocket like this, it’s a small box, but because it’s brand new, we need to keep it pretty clear,” said Haston. The night was fairly quiet, there was not much boat traffic getting in the way, but it was interesting to come within a couple hundred feet of a Carnival cruise ship and tell them to hurry up and get into Port Canaveral before the launch. I can only imagine the surprise people onboard must have felt when they saw, or heard, an Air Force Pave Hawk circling closely overhead.
Lights go off in the Pave Hawk during night-ops – the fluorescent tubes to reference our emergency exits, the controls in the cockpit, and the LCD screens on our cameras and cell phones were the only lights we had. The pitch black view 60 miles out over the Atlantic was the darkest black I have ever seen. The Milky Way shined brightly in the sky, and the sound of our rotors with no visual of anything was very strange, even eerie – at one point I lost all reference of direction and could not even see the camera gear I had strapped to me. Eventually the lights of Florida’s Space Coast began to shine, and the unmistakeable sight of xenon lights at SpaceX Launch Complex 40 came back into view. Even from 30 miles out, in the dark of night, NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building stands out like a sore thumb – many of my friends and colleagues were on the VAB roof to cover the historic launch.
We arrived at the shoreline north of Kennedy Space Center about 20 minutes before launch, at which point we headed south along the beach, over former shuttle launch pads 39B and 39A before hovering one last time next to the Falcon 9 rocket for some last minute photos. We then proceeded to fly over Kennedy Space Center, at which point Lt. Colonel Haston brought us over to the VAB, circling it from the back and bringing us within throwing distance of the rooftop and press site. I could see some of the press corps flashing lights at us, their way of saying hello – we were close enough that I could see the light from the LCD screens on their cameras as they set up to shoot the launch.
With minutes before lift-off, we positioned just north of the VAB and hovered with a great view out the left side of our Pave Hawk. We listened to the launch commentary on our headsets, and then it went. Falcon-9 roared to life under cover of darkness, the power of its nine Merlin engines turned night into day and the entire landscape of Kennedy Space Center lit up. The rocket was incredibly bright, much more so than any other rocket launched with no Solid Rocket Boosters – probably due to the fact that the Falcon-9 burns rocket grade kerosene instead of the more widely used liquid hydrogen. As the Dragon spacecraft accelerated into the atmosphere on the power of the Falcon-9, it quickly went above the Pave Hawk’s rotors and out of view, at which point Lt. Colonel Haston began tilting the helo up so we could get in a few more shots. We then circled to try and position ourselves for another view, but by that time the rocket was already gone, still visible, but already on the edge of space en route to the International Space Station.
With that, our mission was complete, and we headed south back to Patrick – passing the VAB, NASA press site, and NASA Causeway on our approach to Cape Canaveral AFS. As we approached Port Canaveral, the first stage of the Falcon-9 was already re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, shining as bright as a comet as it plunged back to Earth. Upon reaching the Port, Lt. Colonel Haston decided to show us a little of what the Pave Hawk could do in flight, performing some maneuvers that most would describe as a roller coaster ride over Port Canaveral. I’m sure some of the folks on the ground wondered why a Pave Hawk was going crazy in the sky, but it sure was fun.
“Day launches are my preference as you encounter wildlife from the aircraft. You can see various fish, turtles and dolphins, and the occasional whale while flying over the wide open ocean,” said Haston. “But supporting any landmark launch like this one is always a great thing to be a part of.”
Upon landing, one of the windows on the open door on my side of the Pave Hawk blew out. Fortunately it was found on the flight line near to where we parked, but the reaction from the ground crew was priceless – one of the ground crew kept poking his arm through the empty space where the window should have been with a “what the ….” look of confusion on his face. After lots of handshakes, and a few photos, I returned my flight gear and left Patrick Air Force Base and headed to KSC where I had cameras set up at the launch pad.
Landing at Patrick was the end of my day, or night, depending on how you look at it. But for the crews I flew with, it was just the beginning, as they were getting ready to perform a search-and-rescue operation on a ship 1,200 miles off the coast of Florida in the area of Bermuda. Their motto, “These things we do, that others may live” is a way of life for the men and women of the 920th Rescue Wing, and I am honored to have flown with them, twice, to cover a launch which marked a pivotal turning point for America’s space program.
- For more information on the 920th Rescue Wing, visit their website: www.920rqw.afrc.af.mil
- Follow the 920th Rescue Wing on Facebook: www.facebook.com/920thRescueWing
BELOW: Our photo gallery covering the SpaceX COTS-2 Launch with the 920th Rescue Wing. All Photos Credit: Mike Killian / www.MikeKillianPhotography.com