The Air National Guard provides a key part of the USA’s forces in the air with a diverse spread of units undertaking different roles. Few units match the 129th Rescue Wing for the diversity of capability they bring. This capability was recently tested with the biennial Soaring Angel exercise which Rob Edgcumbe witnessed for GAR.
The requirements of the citizen airman who serves in the Air National Guard (ANG) are often summed up by the phrase, “one weekend a month and two weeks a year”. However, there is a lot more to it than that if you are involved with the complex operations of a rescue wing. In the future, GAR will be reporting in more detail on the operations of the 129th Rescue Wing. The focus here is on an exercise that the wing organises every other year.
Soaring Angel is an exercise that brings together all three squadrons within the 129th Operations Group to test the capabilities of the unit as a whole in undertaking all of the tasks the unit trains for. The 129th is unusual in the ANG in carrying out a mission that is complex and involves different asset types. Three squadrons provide the following weapons systems: the MC-130P Combat Shadow, the HH-60G Pave Hawk and the Guardian Angel weapon system, which consists of pararescuemen (PJs) and Combat Rescue Officers (CROs). This combination of equipment and capabilities allows the unit to undertake a range of tasks from assistance to civilian rescue, support to natural disasters through to combat search and rescue (CSAR) and infiltration of Special Forces.
This year the exercise was headquartered at the 129th’s home base of Moffett Federal Airfield, located in Mountain View, California, at the south end of San Francisco Bay. It also made use of land at Fort Hunter Liggett further south along the Pacific coast, as well as San Clemente Island. These locations provided a variety of scenarios in keeping with the operating regions in which the unit may be deployed. Fort Hunter Liggett is a location where the unit will often train, but San Clemente Island is used less frequently, so the exercise brings some different training opportunities. The areas are always treated as new environments with different routes into the locations being tested. Originally it had been anticipated that a number of units would accept invitations to join in the mission execution. However, various operational and budgetary issues meant that these units had to drop out and the exercise consisted of approximately 150 personnel from the 129th and 50 personnel from the 95th Civil Support Team and the Channel Islands 195th Weather Flight.
In previous years, the headquarters for the exercise has been deployed as well with Fort Hunter Liggett having been the location for the last iteration. While the home base was chosen this time, the whole operation was configured exactly as it would have been if it had been somewhere else. A tented encampment was established in an open area of the base, providing all of the capabilities that would have been available in the field. The units’ normal buildings were out of bounds and operations were undertaken as if the unit was deployed. It was even possible to distinguish who was involved in the exercise from who wasn’t by virtue of what they wore. The exercise participants wore a form of camouflage that is apparently more effective than the digital camo usually seen. The digital camo is said to be fairly ineffective in the field.
Within the tented complex is the Rescue Operations Center, or ROC. This is the place where all of the missions are controlled from. It is also the best place to be on a hot day. The Bay Area was experiencing unseasonably warm weather during the exercise and the ROC, being filled with computers and servers, was the place that needed to be air conditioned. The pop-up buildings used are not adequately described by the word ‘tent’. They are modular buildings that can be rapidly assembled by a team of people getting some of the more complex structures up in just over ten minutes each.
In the ROC, the team running the missions has access to everything they need from planning a mission through briefing to tracking the performance. Three big displays provide all of the detail they need, including area charts and live tracking of the assets in use. A communications link is constantly in use, so the crews down range can be contacted as required and updates fed back. The flow of people in and out is constant as the situation continues to develop.
While the ROC is responsible for managing the execution of the missions, it doesn’t control what the missions are. A separate planning cell is responsible for creating the exercise picture. They define the taskings for the exercise and have the ability to update these tasks in real time. Therefore, the crew down range may be instructed to modify the current tasking or could even be completely re-tasked mid-mission to undertake a different role based on the developing scenario.
The MC-130s undertake the roles of transporting the troops and equipment as well as providing refuelling support. They are an aging fleet. However, despite their age and the number of units that they have served in, the aircraft all come from the same batch built in 1966. The maintainers of the unit keep them in great condition, combined with the steady series of upgrades the Combat Shadows have undergone.
The MC-130s undertook missions to insert the PJs and CROs into the field. The team travelled with their own special equipment. These included off road vehicles equipped to cover any number of eventualities in the field. These vehicles were loaded into the ‘130s for the missions ready to roll as soon as they were offloaded. A couple of them could fit in the hold in position to drive straight out on landing. Some of them were configured with specialised equipment, which they did not want to discuss.
Meanwhile, the HH-60s were undertaking a number of missions. These included rescue and insertion missions as well as suppression of opposition forces. The Pave Hawks had a pair of gun installations on the sides of the cabin. The high rate of fire from these weapons allows the crews to keep the enemy’s heads down while completing their mission. The crews took advantage of the range time to perfect their marksmanship – something they seemed to have done well on, judging by some of the comments after landing!
Senior Master Sergeant Sean Moore (Flight Engineer) and Lt Ian Freeman (Co-Pilot) are crew on the MC-130P. They explained some of the features of operating the Combat Shadow during the exercise compared to their normal training missions. “This exercise allows us to hone our skills as a composite unit which is not something we get to do every day. It’s great to practice that operational mode if we were deployed somewhere.” The training scenarios are a lot more dynamic and involved than a traditional training sortie. “Any time you add more personnel and more aircraft, things can change rapidly. A lot of the times when we do our regular training, a lot of it goes as planned. That’s the ideal but that’s not the real world. When we go into any search and rescue mission either here in the US or overseas, it never goes as planned. An exercise like this is very effective because that is how it is for real. When we are airborne doing mission A we get re-tasked to do mission B.”
While the missions get a lot of the focus on an exercise, the purpose is to test all elements of the unit. This includes the services function of the wing. They are tasked with feeding everyone during the exercise. Previous exercises have been based out in the field and everyone has been dependent on the services team to take care of them. With Soaring Angel’s 2014 iteration being held at Moffett Federal Airfield, the participants had a few more options. The team was set up to support everyone but they found that there was a lot less demand. A lot of food outlets are close to Moffett so it wasn’t too difficult to head off base to find food. The services team knows the jokes that are made about the food, and that some people will choose to pay for food off base rather than eat the free food. However, they are happy to show the choices that they offer and, while it might not be the first choice, the perception of the food is perhaps a little unfair.
Over the three main days of the exercise, the 129th carried out many missions with the Pave Hawks and Combat Shadows. One measure of the missions is a vulnerability period or VUL. This is the time in which aircraft are away from the base and are considered to be vulnerable to harm. Six VUL periods were spread over the three days. Each of these periods was approximately four hours long. The planning and execution of these missions kept a total of nearly 200 personnel busy. Three quarters of these were from the 129th with the balance coming from the 95th Civil Support Team and the 195th Weather Flight from the Channel Islands. The debrief process will last longer than the exercise itself. The outcomes will then impact the training regimes for wing. These will get tested again when the next Soaring Angel takes place. Whether that will be in two years time or not will depend on future training requirements and any deployment activity. Hopefully, additional units will be able to join at that point.
In the meantime, the 129th will return to its ongoing mission. With the wide variety of tasks it is called upon to deliver across the state, as well as around the world, the unit’s Citizen Airmen will continue to serve in parallel with leading their normal working lives in the community. Rob Edgcumbe would like to thank Lt Roderick Bersamina and all of the team at the 129th for their help and support in preparing this article.