NY Air Guard's 106th Rescue Wing conducts mid-ocean medical supply drop

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Daniel Farrell and Maj. Michael O'Hagan

F.S. GABRESKI AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Westhampton Beach, New York -- An aircrew from New York Air Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing flew an HC-130J 1,200 miles east into the North Atlantic on Friday, May 20, found a 32-foot-long sailboat heading toward the Azores, and dropped vitally needed medical supplies to the three-person crew.

“I can’t find my sprinkler heads in the summertime, till I turn on the system. So, the fact that we could fly out there, 1,200 miles, it’s a needle in a haystack,” said Master Sgt. Joe Sexton, one of the loadmasters for the mission.

Making things more challenging; the Colombian crew of the French-registered yacht “Namah” spoke only Spanish; there was no locator beacon on the boat, and the boat’s position was 12 hours old, according to Lt. Col. Sean Garell, the aircraft commander.

But three hours after the crew left Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, near the eastern tip of Long Island, they had found the Namah, dropped two packages of medical supplies, saw the crew successfully retrieve them, and turned for home.

The 106th got the mission when a 23-year-old Colombian woman who was crewing the sailboat, scalded herself with boiling water on May 19. The boat was traveling from Panama to St. Jean de Luz, France, but the young woman suffered second- and third-degree burns, and the crew needed more medical supplies sooner.

The U.S. Coast Guard received the call and, because they did not have an aircraft available, referred it to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. The coordination center turned to the 106th Rescue Wing because of their capabilities.

“Although we are primarily concerned with conducting our rescue mission overseas… we have the ability to do it… for domestic operations, or in this case here, in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Col. Shawn P. Fitzgerald, the commander of the 106th.

The mission was to put together a package of required medical supplies, locate the Namah , and drop the package into the ocean where the crew could retrieve it.

Position updates were sent from the boat, to the Coast Guard via a handheld device and then had to be relayed to the wing and then to the aircraft.

They also had to communicate with the boat once they found it.

With no Spanish-speakers on the aircrew, Garell reached out across the unit and tapped Senior Airman Jocelyn Tapia-Puma, an aviation resource manager he works with.

Tapia-Puma, who is Colo mbian -American, speaks Spanish fluently and volunteered to be the interpreter on the flight.

“I never thought in my career I would be part of a rescue mission,” said Tapia-Puma. “At any given time, anybody, any career field can be put on a rescue mission, and I was ready to go.”

The wing’s 102nd Rescue Squadron, which is commanded by Garell, flies the HC-130J Combat King II search and rescue aircraft, and was responsible for the mission.

The pararescuemen of the wing’s 103rd Rescue Squadron, who are trained as emergency medical commandos, along with a host of other specialties, put together two sealed ammunition cases with the required supplies and treatment directions.

The 102nd loadmasters prepared the supplies for the drop.

The waterproof packages were wrapped in, and attached to a life preserver unit, said Chief Master Sgt. Craig Connor, the senior loadmaster on the mission.

The loadmasters attached beacons to the bundles while on the aircraft, so the packages could be found if visibility was poor when they dropped, Connor added.

The final packages weighed about 20 lbs. and had small parachutes attached to slow their descent and to lessen or avoid damage to the contents.

As the aircraft took off into the mist, the mood on board was like a pre-game locker room: focused, ready and waiting.

Three hours into the flight, the plane descended down towards the ocean and everybody on board started looking for the Namah.

Sexton wrote the numbers 3 and 9 on the windows so everyone could reference any Namah sighting according to a clock position with the nose of the aircraft being 12.

Capt William Hall, one of the pilots had found a photo of the boat on a social media site, to help visually identify the vessel.

Lt Col Kevin Lawhon, the combat systems officer spotted the boat first on his radar scope and two minutes later the Namah came into view.

While copilot Capt. Nicholas Napolitano flew the plane, he was being directed by Sexton in the back, who had to get the drop on target.

“It’s like throwing a football through a tire… if you just go out and try to do it, you’re not going to be very good at it. But if you go in the backyard and constantly practice, you’re going to get pretty good,” Conor said.

“You have the responsibility of trying to steer this thing in, by giving commands to the pilot and then seeing your site picture and releasing this thing,” he added.
Sexton laid belly down on the floor of the aircraft and stuck his head out the side door to provide course-correction inputs to the pilot to achieve the correct “sight picture”.

“It was a calm sea state. I knew the drop was going to go good as soon as I saw the way it looked, “Sexton said.

At the same time, Tapia-Puma was on the radio with the boat’s crew, talking them through the procedure.

From 300 feet the Airmen could see the crew waving below.

“Load clear,” was broadcast over the radio as Connor released the first package.

He intentionally dropped the bundles a little away from the sailboat to avoid any potential damage to the boat.

“Great drop loads,” came over the headset from the pilots after the first drop.

Tapia-Puma took to the radio again, telling the sailboat to wait for the second drop before paddling out to pick up the medical package in a small boat.

They didn’t want to hit anybody below.

As the HC-130J made the second pass at 300 feet, Sexton signaled loadmaster Master Sgt. Michael Torre to release the second bundle.

The feeling was triumphant in the cabin—with fist bumps all around-- as the bundle hit the water.

Master Sgt. Michael Cruz and Airman 1st Class Bryan Valverde, the maintenance crew chiefs on board, watched one of the Namah crew paddle out to recover the drops.

Tapia -Puma said she was happy to contribute to the mission’s success.

The fact that she speaks Spanish, with the same Columbian dialect as the injured woman, did make a difference, Tapia-Puma said.

Communicating with the crew directly gave them hope, Garell said.

“Something we learned in survival school is you can go three weeks without food, three days without water, three hours without shelter,” Garell said. “For humans, you can go three seconds without hope. Airman Tapia-Puma was able to provide that hope,” he added.

“I think she began to cry because she was able to get someone who understood her, and she knew that we were there to help,” said Tapia-Puma. “I think it alleviated a lot of stress…and also being a woman, I think it was very meaningful.”

The entire mission was a “team effort,” Fitzgerald said.

A lot of people worked to back up the crew and make the mission a success, especially the maintenance teams that keep the aircraft flying, he emphasized.

 

The 106th Rescue Wing, based in F.S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, New York, operates and maintains the HC-130J Combat King II search and rescue aircraft, and the HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter. The 106th Rescue Wing is home to a special warfare squadron with pararescuemen and combat rescue officers, specializing in rescue and recovery, and deploys for domestic and overseas operations. Currently, the wing also supports statewide COVID-19 missions.

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