Huron County search and rescue drill ensures lifesaving readiness during Northern Strike 19

  • Published
  • 101st Rescue Squadron, New York ANG

UBLY, Mich. – A unique scene was set July 31 near Ubly, Mich., as two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters assigned to the 101st Rescue Squadron, New York Air National Guard, descended outside of town in a simulated combat search and rescue (CSAR) recovery conducted as part of exercise Northern Strike 19.

The drill tested the precision recovery of downed aviators in a simulated hostile environment, teaming the Pave Hawks with A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft assigned to the 163d Fighter Squadron, Indiana Air National Guard, and a U.S. Navy MH-60 Seahawk assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Four, Coronado, Calif. The scenario was conducted on private property with the landowner’s full consent.

“It’s important in the American ethos to recover our own and make sure they get home to their families,” said Capt. Michael Tosi, HH-60G search and rescue pilot, 101st RSQ. “The training we’re getting here during Northern Strike ensures we’re ready to expend any efforts we can to recover someone who’s isolated behind enemy lines and bring them home safely.”

Northern Strike 19 is the Department of Defense’s largest annual joint, reserve component readiness exercise, held at Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, and other locations across Northern Michigan. This year, Northern Strike brought together approximately 6,000 military personnel representing more than 20 U.S. states and seven partner countries from July 22 – Aug. 2. The search and rescue drill was one of 430 aircraft sorties launched from Alpena CRTC during those two weeks.

“We are always looking for opportunities to integrate with the Army, Navy, Marines, and other services so we can become more familiar with their capabilities and know what to plan for when we need to work together in a real-world situation,” said Maj. Rod Metzler, A-10 flight commander, 163 FS. “Northern Strike provides many opportunities for that – it’s the best of a lot of worlds coming together.”

On the Ubly mission, Metzler piloted one of four A-10 aircraft simulating top-cover as the Pave Hawks went in low over the “rescue” site. The U.S. Navy Seahawk also simulated close air support from a rotary-wing platform. On the ground was an actual team of two “downed” Airman who arrived on-scene by auto earlier in the day.

According to Tosi, the mission was planned on short notice to give aircrews the greatest sense of realism. Arrangements were made with the landowner only a day prior to the event. From there, search and rescue crews had to determine the location of the aviators on the ground and assemble a Combat Search and Rescue Task Force (CSARTF) to respond accordingly.

“Most of the people involved in the mission don’t know where the ‘downed’ Airmen are, so they’re actually trying to go locate the individuals,” he said. “We step out the door in any particular scenario not
actually knowing the mission; the challenge is locating the individuals, their coordinates, and then penetrating the threat environment to go recover that downed aircrew.”

While the A-10’s made a single pass overhead, the helicopters were able to execute the rescue within ten minutes of arriving at their objective point.

“For us, training-wise, it was a success,” Tosi said.

Metzler also emphasizes the training value of the Ubly mission, acknowledging that town's location near the coastal landscape of Michigan’s thumb area makes it an ideal location for this type of scenario to be exercised.

“Utilizing Michigan’s shoreline area made it even better – being based in the Midwest, that’s not something we typically get to do without flying to the U.S’s east or west coast,” he said. “Having that opportunity near a large body of water allowed us to use some tactical solutions we could actually feel and brief to that we don’t get in a lot of other areas.”

Presently, airspace above Michigan’s thumb region is part of the Steelhead Military Operating Area, a military aviation training zone that currently prohibits tactical maneuvers under 6,000 feet. The Michigan Air National Guard has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration on a proposal to add airspace for maneuvers at 500 to 5,999 feet. While the Ubly mission was executed within the Low-Altitude Tactical Navigation area, which allows low-altitude flight with maneuvering and speed restrictions, the proposed airspace addition over Michigan’s thumb will allow for enhanced training in the low-altitude environment with approximately 30 missions per month.

“The airspace expansion would offer our armed forces the flexibility they need to train for the threats we could see in the future, from a search and rescue perspective as well as any other mission that we’re out there supporting.” said Metzler. “It still is a large airspace now, but lowering that floor would be a game changer in allowing us to do our mission.”

It is, as Metzler asserts, all in the name of saving lives.

“We need to be prepared to do this to save a life when it’s someone’s unlucky day – it is our job to get them a ride home to their families,” he said. “It’s a very important mission and we want to be ready for it when the time comes.”