SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Shortly after an Air Force pilot ejected from his F-16 Fighting Falcon into the North Pacific July 22, he found himself under the watchful eyes of mobility Airmen. These Airmen worked as part of a coordinated behind-the-scenes "ballet" to ensure his dramatic recovery less than six hours later.
A KC-135 Stratotanker belonging to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and two others belonging to the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan, were among the first on scene in the wake of the late morning incident. They, in turn, relayed the news to the 618th Air and Space Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center), Air Mobility Command's operational nerve center here.
"When the call first came in from one of the KC-135 commanders we found out that we had an F-16 pilot who had just ejected. The pilot wasn't injured, but he was busy bailing out his raft," said Col. David Smith, the TACC director of operations during the incident. "We told the aircraft to stay in radio contact and let the pilot know that help was on the way and that we were immediately commencing rescue operations. Our commitment was not to let him down."
That call put into motion the race to quickly recover the pilot. TACC Airmen immediately provided air traffic controllers at Fukuoka, Japan, and Anchorage, Alaska, with the incident's location. That information was quickly passed to the Japanese Rescue Coordination Center to begin search and rescue operations. Those efforts were bolstered by the rapid passing of information to the U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center in Alameda, Calif., which shared it with ships closest to the area.
"We were convinced that the quicker the rescue, the higher the probability of survival," said Benjamin Nevin, the TACC flight manager. He noted that although the situation was unexpected, the team was prepared.
"I flew refueling missions for F-4s as a second lieutenant in 1979," Nevin recalled. "The crews did the same things in this case that we did then: they quickly reviewed procedures for changing their refueling mission to a rescue mission and got to work."
Capt. Gabe Arrington, the commander of the McConnell KC-135, agreed.
"In pilot training, they prepare you to act under pressure and keep a level head so you can think through situations and act correctly during an emergency," he said. "Overall, I think the aircrews were just glad that we were able to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right training to help a fellow Airman."
As the minutes passed, TACC officials ensured regular communication with the pilot and with the KC-135 crews closely monitoring his condition and continuing to provide him reassurance that help was enroute. At the same time, TACC flight managers began planning for the possible launch of additional KC-135s out of Kadena AB to relieve the ones on scene.
Weather experts were also on-hand providing continuous updates on conditions.
"After we were notified of the search and rescue operation, we had to quickly evaluate surface and enroute weather conditions and hazards for a data sparse region," said Tech. Sgt. Timothy Launius, the initial shift lead for weather operations. "Fortunately, conditions favored recovery, with the greatest concern from lower ceilings across the area."
While all these actions went on behind the scenes, Japanese and U.S. military, coast guard, commercial and research vessels worked together to ultimately rescue the pilot and return him to his home station of Misawa Air Base, Japan.
"It was an outstanding team effort, everyone was participating and making a positive impact, asking if there was anything they could do to help," said Maj. Mark Ladwig, the TACC's assistant tanker deputy director of operations. "It was a great feeling when I heard the pilot had been picked up and was safe and healthy."
"This is what our team does...and nobody does it better," said Maj. Gen. David Allvin, the TACC commander. "It happens again and again all over the world, whether it be Haiti, Japan or Libya. In this case, working as part of a multinational effort with many agencies, including Japanese air traffic control, naval and air assets, the Japanese and U.S. Coast Guards, the Joint Personnel Recovery Center, 5th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces, and U.S. Forces, Japan, we once again answered the call to save a life. They made the extraordinary look mundane, a hallmark of our tremendous mobility Airmen.