By Land & By 'Sea,' Selfridge Tanker Crews Practice Emergency Rescue Operations

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
With an assist from local Coast Guard specialists, Airmen from the 171st Air Refueling Squadron conducted two major emergency preparedness exercises Oct. 13-14.

The Airmen - pilots and refueling boom operators who fly the KC-135 Stratotanker at Selfridge Air National Guard Base - conducted the exercises to allow them to know how to survive and assist any rescue operation in the event of a downed aircraft. On the first day, the Airmen reviewed a variety of signaling procedures, including the use of flare and smoke signals, in the event that their aircraft would gone down in a friendly land environment. On the second day, the Airmen spent much of the morning in the swimming pool at nearby L'Anse Creuse High School North, working on water survival skills.

"This is all to simulate how to survive if a KC-135 should go down," said Senior Master Sgt. Jesse James, superintendent of the life support element for the 171st. "Because we work in a variety of environments, we need to prepare for a variety of situations."

James said that while all aircrew personnel are required to go through the survival and rescue training at least once every three years, the 171st generally conducts such training about once per year, to ensure that all personnel are able to stay current. Typically, such training takes place in a location where the air crews are able to conduct the training in the open water of an ocean or lake. The current operations tempo of the 171st ARS made arranging such an operation difficult this year, so the squadron arranged for local training. A member of the squadron works at the high school in his civilian capacity and helped make the arrangements. The high school's pool has also served as a water fitness testing center for both Air Force and Navy special operations personnel in the past.

In the water training, the squadron created a scenario where 18 personnel were aboard the aircraft and then had all of the personnel jump in the deep portion of the pool, fully clothed. Once in the water, they had to inflate a large emergency raft, tended to some simulated "wounded" fellow Airmen and begin signaling for a rescue. While aboard the raft, a few members of the crew bailed out water from the raft as needed, while others pulled aboard an "unconscious" fellow flyer.

"There's a big difference between talking about this when everyone is dry and once you get in the water and you have a wet flight suit," James said. "We try to make the training as realistic as possible."

After the Airmen mastered operations in the raft, two rescue swimmers from Coast Guard Air Station Detroit - located on the opposite side of the base at Selfridge from the 171st ARS - instructed the Airmen on rescue operations and used various harnesses to show the Airmen how they might be extracted from the water in an actual emergency. Using a pulley system normally used to help with the instruction of high school dive team members, one of the pilots and a rescue swimmer was pulled from the water, to simulate an extraction via a helicopter.

"The goal is to allow the crew to be familiar with how we operate and to gain confidence in their ability to survive not only for themselves, but so that they can share that confidence with any passengers who may have been on board," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Robin Pietschmann, a rescue swimmer from Air Station Detroit.

Stepping dripping from the water, one of the pilots who participated in the training said the key to survival in such a situation is teamwork.

"You have to work together, not only with the people in the water with you, but you have to have trust and confidence in the people who are coming to get you," said Capt. Daniel Totsch, a KC-135 pilot. "That's particularly important after you have been in the water for a while and you start getting cold and tired, you have to rely on your team."

Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marked its 95th year of continuous military air operations in 2012.