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Guardian Angel Airmen Rescue Two After Vessel Catches Fire 500 Miles Off Florida

Maj. Chris Ferrara, HC-130P/N "King" co-pilot, part of a team of 80 airmen who rescued two German men 500m miles off south Florida July 7-8. Photo: USAF

Combat search-and-rescue airmen with the U.S. Air Force Reserve 920th Rescue Wing live by the motto, “These Things We Do, That Others May Live“, and that proved true yet again in the last 24 hours, some 500 miles off the east coast of southern Florida.

On July 7, at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Seventh District in Miami, the 920th was alerted by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (located at Tyndall AFB) to assist in a long-range large-scale search and rescue of two German men (father and son) at sea, after their vessel reportedly caught fire.

A crew of 8 Airmen then launched from Patrick AFB, Florida in an HC-130P/N aircraft (affectionately referred to as “King” by the 920th) at approximately 2:30 p.m. EDT, transporting six “Guardian Angel” Airmen who specialize in all types of rescue.

Responsible for a variety of demanding missions and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, they are trained to perform some of the most highly-specialized operations in the Air Force. Elite Pararescuemen, better known as PJ’s, they are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military.

Graduates of the so-called “Superman School”, they are capable of performing life-saving missions anywhere in the world, at any time, whether for civilians at sea who are in distress, or in providing world-wide humanitarian and disaster-relief operations supporting rescue efforts in the aftermath of disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes.

Citizen “Guardian Angel” Airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing prepare to jump from a C-130 to rescue 2 German men 500 miles off the coast of South Florida July 7-8, 2017. Photo: Master Sgt. Mark Borosch

The specific capability with our Guardian Angel Airmen, combined with our air refueling and extended-range airlift makes us uniquely able to accomplish this mission where few others in the world can,” said Col. Kurt Matthews, 920th RQW Commander. “I’m very humbled and glad to be a part of this noble mission.

A 920th RQW noncommissioned officer fluent in speaking German joined the team too.

The team arrived on scene two hours later and orbited overhead, while Ops (39th Rescue Squadron) back at Patrick AFB communicated with the ship “Nord Nightingale“.

We had the life boat in the water and the freighter was about 2 miles away,” said Captain Dan Morgese, aircraft commander. Finally, five pararescuem plunged into the Ocean.

An HH-60G Pave Hawk refuels from an HC-130P/N King enroute to rescue two German citizens in distress at sea July 7, 2017 and into July 8. Photo: USAF/Master Sgt. Mark Borosch

Anytime you are putting someone out over the Atlantic, it’s concerning,” said Morgese. “We train for this, it all worked out just fine. If there was day to do it, it was today; the weather was perfect.”

The Nightingale motored a small boat toward the victims, which allowed the PJs to hoist the 48-year-old and 66-year-old father-son duo onboard while several of the other Rescue Airmen zoomed over to pick up the parabundles of medical equipment that splashed down just after them.

A pair of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters from Patrick AFB retrieved the PJs and transported the victims to Orlando, which required launch of an additional HC-130 from Patrick AFB to serve as fuel reserve for the helicopter’s return trip.

Kudos to maintenance for getting us airborne,” said Morgese. “They are 93 models; our maintainers work hard.”

The 920th doing what they do best, rescue. Photo: Mike Killian

The pararescuemen treated and stabilized the patients, then transloaded them to the Nightingale to be picked up by the inbound helicopter.

At approximately 8:20 p.m., the two Pave Hawk crews hoisted and recovered all seven from the ship and journeyed back to Central Florida where they landed on an Orlando High School football field at 1:30 a.m. and handed off the patients to the Orlando Fire Department to get the patients to their final destination, the Orlando regional medical center.

When you actually get to do something you train for; it’s really satisfying,” said Morgese. “Excellent communication and planning among all involved, made the mission successful.”

Considering all this, it should come as no surprise to anyone that these airmen also serve as NASA’s astronaut guardian angels too, standing by for shuttle launches in case they were needed. And they will do so again on Florida’s “Space Coast” as soon as NASA, Boeing and SpaceX are ready to begin launching astronauts again.
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Written by Mike Killian

Mike Killian

Killian is an accomplished aerospace photographer and writer, specializing in rocket launch and air-to-air aviation imagery. Over the years his assignments have brought him onboard NASA's space shuttles, in clean rooms with spacecraft destined for other worlds, front row for launches of historic missions and on numerous civilian and military flight assignments, including working as a photographer for Breitling Jet Team in 2016.

When not working the California-native enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, storm chasing, producing time-lapses and shooting landscape and night sky imagery, as well as watching planes of course.