BEAUFORT, S.C. — Elements from Marine Aircraft Group 31 coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard for a search and rescue exercise off the coast of Charleston Nov. 3. The exercise simulated the water rescue of two Marine pilots from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
The Marines and Coast Guard work together on similar operations during real world crises so rehearsal is critical in preparation for such events.
“The whole purpose of this exercise is to put our capabilities to the test,” said Maj. Dennis Dalton, the SAREX mission commander and operations officer for Marine Aircraft Group 31. “We need to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses and test our response time for this type of incident.”
The two branches train separately most of the time and rarely get the chance to collaborate on this scale.
“The last time we did an exercise like this was in 2010 so it became apparent that we needed to run another one to see what we can improve upon,” said Dalton.
The exercise revolves around simulating events that could happen in the real world and relies on many different elements working together to rescue the pilots.
“The scenario is that two jets from Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533 had a mid-air collision and both the pilots safely ejected into the water,” said Dalton. “For the simulation, the pilots will ride out into the water in a USCG cutter then wait for rescue aboard a smaller vessel.”
Although the pilots are not actually in the water for this exercise, in a real-life situation they would need to stay afloat and survive until help arrives.
“Once a pilot ejects from his plane after a crash the protocol is to activate his handheld radio and wait for rescue,” said Dalton.
All pilots are equipped with basic survival gear such as a radio and a small amount of water. After the pilots land safely in the water, they drop a sea dye marker to make their position known. Sea dye markers contain a fluorescent green dye that spreads over the surface of the water to signal rescue personnel.
“One of the variables that we are testing is how long a pilot should wait before deploying the marker,” said Dalton. “It is possible that they will be in the water for over an hour and the dye does not stay visible forever.”
If a pilot needs to eject over water it is crucial that they keep their radio operational for as long as possible.
“Once the radio is activated, a signal is sent to the 7th Coast Guard district in Panama City, Fla.” said Dalton. “The Coast Guard then notifies the nearest base that can send a rescue helicopter.”
After the local detachment has been notified, an HH-65 Dolphin helicopter flies out from USCG Savannah, Charleston Detachment to the pilots and picks them up with rescue swimmers or a basket.
“While the Coast Guard is working on getting a helicopter out there, two F-18s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 115 will serve as the first ones on the scene,” said Dalton. “Their job is to arrive in the area, locate the pilots, and keep an eye on the situation until rescue arrives.”
Executing an exercise of this level requires many components to work in conjunction with each other in almost perfect synchronization to effectively accomplish the mission. Marines and Coast Guardsmen can learn a lot from this type of joint operation.
“We need to determine how long this whole process takes from start to finish. We will evaluate each step to see if there are areas we can improve on,” said Dalton. “Once we have gained all the knowledge we can, we will distribute the information around the Department of Defense.”
Pulling off SAREX requires all personnel involved to work together. In a real life emergency, responders will use the lessons learned in training to bring the pilots home safely.