This past weekend saw the return of the Florida Space Coast’s annual Cocoa Beach Air Show. Tens-of-thousands of people turned out to enjoy the sights and sounds, and also to cheer on their local combat search-and-rescue airmen – the 920th Rescue Wing from nearby Patrick Air Force Base, the “guardian angels” who kept watch over NASA’s astronauts for so many years.
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. They are the world’s most elite personal recovery specialists, and their unique skill sets and rescue assets make them the best for the job of saving astronauts’ lives in case of an emergency.
This weekend’s air show performance over Cocoa Beach demonstrated the 920th’s unique search-and-rescue capabilities. The demo was three-part – one with PJ’s jumping from a C-130 Hercules, another with PJ’s demonstrating helicopter rescue operations, and the third demonstrating their mid-air refueling capabilities – all of which work together to successfully carry out their rescue missions.
Helicopter 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 Hawks 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.
Of the 22 enlisted Air Force Cross recipients, more than half are Pararescuemen. They are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military today, and their expertise – along with their deployment capabilities – allows them to perform life-saving missions anywhere in the world, at any time. Over 1,000 victims were rescued by the 920th in the days and weeks following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and well over 2,000 lives have been saved since the unit was activated in 1956.
“Selfish” is not a part of their vocabulary. The PJ’s and their fellow airmen are able to perform life-saving missions in the world’s most remote areas – by land, sea, and air. Their motto “That Others May Live” is not just a motto to them, it’s a way of life. Without them, our men and women in uniform, including civilians in dire need, would have been unnecessarily lost in past conflicts and natural disasters. These unsung heroes give hope to those who have lost it, to reunite families with loved ones who otherwise would have never been heard from again, to save lives and aid the injured, to leave nobody behind and put their duties before any personal desires and comforts.
When astronauts begin to launch into the heavens again from Florida in the coming years, the men and women of the 920th will be ready to serve as their guardian angels, watching over them vigilantly like they have for more than 50 years, ready for any emergency and prepared to rescue them under any circumstances. They are not called Guardian Angel Airmen for nothing, they earned that title.
These things they do, “that others may live”.
- 920th Rescue Wing: www.920rqw.afrc.af.mil/
- 920th Rescue Wing on Facebook: www.facebook.com/
- 920th Rescue Wing on Twitter: @920thRescueWing
BELOW: Photo Gallery from this past weekend’s 920th Air Show Rescue Demonstrations.
All Photos Credit: Alan Walters / www.AwaltersPhoto.com, Julian Leek, and Mike Killian / Zero-G News