The Ironman Airmen of Tucson, Arizona.

An HH-60G Pave Hawk from Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona. Photo: Tom Demerly.

 Future, 2012:

18:52 Hr.s Local, 14:52 Hr.s GMT: NATO No Fly Zone, Eastern Mediterranean.

Major Dave Morris reached between his legs, grabbed the yellow handle and pulled. There was an explosion, an elephant jumped on his shoulders, another on his chest and everything went black.

Morris’ F-16 suffered a bird-strike, a pelican slammed into his intake causing the turbine fan to disintegrate. The explosion tore through his F-16’s quad redundant fly-by-wire flight control system. He pulled the handle on his ACES II ejector seat; the canopy blasted upward, rockets under his seat firing.  His F-16 Viper “departed”, leaving controlled flight as it pitched up past its maximum angle of attack, stalled and dropped like the eleven tons of junk it had instantly become.

Morris broke two vertebrae from the awkward angle of ejection. He floated to the ground under his parachute in sudden silence following the chaos of ejecting. There was an explosion a mile and a half away where his crippled aircraft rammed into the ground. He was alone. The sun was setting. He was injured in territory controlled by insurgents.  A live NATO pilot, a U.S. pilot, was a powerful bargaining tool.

21:19 Hr.s Local, 17:19 Hr.s GMT: Incirlik Hava Ussu (Incirlik Air Base), Incirlik, Turkey.

Two hundred ten statute miles away five super athletes from the 48th Rescue Squadron of Davis-Monthan AFB next door to us in Tucson, Arizona, pull on their Multicam uniforms, tactical rigs, Ops-Core ballistic helmets and grab their suppressed M4 rifles. They run to a waiting HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from Davis-Monthan’s elite 55th Rescue Squadron, rotors already turning.  The Air Force rescue pilot pulls pitch on his collective, offsetting with his left pedal as the big grey Pave Hawk helicopter leaps into the air to its insertion altitude of 100 feet AGL. It’s the same helicopter I wave to at lunch time when it flies over on training sorties. The helicopter wears a big, grinning shark mouth painted on its nose.

Pararescue operators from the 48th Rescue Squadron begin a training sortie in an HH-60 Pavehawk from the 305th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona.

The helicopter flies a zigzag pattern toward the downed pilot’s beacon from his AN/PRQ-7 survival radio. The rescue pilots use the Raytheon AN-AAQ-29A forward looking infra-red (FLIR) system to watch the terrain in front of them in total darkness. The system was developed by engineers at Raytheon here in Tucson, Arizona.

 An unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drone has already diverted from its surveillance orbit to Major Morris’ last known position. The Reaper finds Morris with its gimbal mounted infra-red camera, his IR strobe flashing brightly with a light frequency invisible to the naked eye. At the same time the drone’s RWR (radar warning receiver) goes off so does the one in Pedro 86, the HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter. A deadly SA-7 surface to air missile (SAM) search radar has illuminated the sky, searching for targets. The pilot of Pedro 86 edges his stick forward, falling to 30 feet AGL altitude at over 150 M.P.H. to get under the radar. The ground becomes a glowing green blur through his FLIR display.

“Scalpel 31, I’ve got loud music on the RWR from a SAM site gone active.” The pilot tells the PJ (Pararescue Jumper) team leader on the intercom. “We need to insert about 8 clicks from the objective to avoid targeting. Can you hump it from there?”

In the back of Pedro 86 the elite Pararescue Team, call sign “Scalpel 31”, consults a map and their GPS units. “Roger that Pedro, we can run in. Confirm BEMT (beginning early morning twilight).”

“Ahhh, I have my BEMT as 06:11 local.” The Pararescue team has to run five miles across mixed terrain in the dark with a full combat load to rescue the downed pilot, treat his injuries, and then carry him back in less than 6 hours. If the sun comes up before they can be extracted they must dig a lay-up position and hide until the following night. They aren’t sure the pilot can survive his injuries until then. Despite millions of dollars of technology this has become a foot race for Major Morris’ life.

Pararescue units next door to at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are among the most elite rescue units- and athletes- in the world. They are a combination of Special Operations soldier, advanced paramedic and endurance athlete unmatched anywhere among first responders. They rescue downed pilots, hurricane disaster victims, lost hikers and accident victims no other rescue team can reach.

Pararescue candidates do PT in the "gig pit" during their indoctrination phase.

 02:40 Hr.s Local, 22:40 Hr.s GMT: Grid Zone 37 Sierra, Easting 370327.01 m East, Northing 3873511.8 m North: Syrian Desert East of Salamiyah.

Scalpel 31, the five man Pararescue team running through the night to reach downed pilot Major Dave Morris have run 9 minute miles carrying 45 pound loads, their weapons and their folding extraction litter. Using advanced land navigation and terrain association skills along with GPS, they locate Major Morris, calling him on his survival radio. After a classified verification process to assure Major Morris’ identity and that he hasn’t fallen into insurgent hands the rescue team moves in. A final verification of Major Morris’ identity and four of the PJ’s establish a defensive perimeter while the fifth stabilizes Major Morris and attaches him to the folding litter.

After an hour long jog carrying Major Morris through the desert night Pararescue team Scalpel 31 is at their extraction point. Two A-10 Thunderbolt II’s also from Davis-Monthan orbit over head providing security for the extraction helicopter. Before the sun comes up Major Morris is in the Pave Hawk helicopter on his way home.

+ 24 hours, 09:35 Hr.s Local, 14:35 Hr.s GMT. Undisclosed Location, CONUS (Continental United States).

Half a world away when Major Morris’ wife gets a visit from two Air Force officers they tell her, to her relief, “Your husband’s aircraft went down, but he has been rescued and is going to be OK.” She asks the officers, “How did he get out?” They tell her, “Some of our guys were out for a run and picked him up.”

An HH-60G Pavehawk from Davis-Monthan AFB photographed over my workplace,, here in Tucson, Arizona this past week.

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