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The guardians of the astronauts


If everything goes as planned with today's final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour, you'll never see the airmen of the 920th Rescue Wing. But these elite pararescuemen will be on hand just in case anything goes amiss, up to and including the unlikely event that the shuttle makes an early, unscheduled landing back in Florida -- or out at sea.

A timely Air Force announcement describes the unique skill set of the unit that boasts what it calls a "Guardian Angel Weapons System: A team of the world's most elite personal recovery specialists who are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists, expert parachutists, mountaineers, combat divers and swimmers. Rescue Reservists here train extensively for combat and contingencies to rescue survivors of major events, but even with the most extensive training, and the fastest mode of transportation, the nature of the job presents major challenges."

Indeed. As this earlier Defense story explains, the PJs on space shuttle duty must be prepared to drop from a Pave Hawk helicopter in special "pressurized silver suits," carrying their own oxygen supply, to protect them in case a shuttle's crash has released its caustic fuel or other dangerous chemicals. The airmen are trained to get into the shuttles quickly and get the astronauts out, then begin treating them as they wait to be exfiltrated.

The PJs also are prepared for a sea rescue:

Three HC-130P/N King aircraft are also on scene during the launch and landing of the shuttle. ... The aircraft crew compliment, [including] a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, radio operator, flight engineer and two loadmasters, are the standard, however, for shuttle launches, there are six GAs on board. They are suited up with parachutes and mobile medical equipment, to get to an astronaut in the water ...

The King is also equipped with a Rigging Alternate Method Zodiac or RAMZ inflatable, motorized boat, which is packaged on the aircraft ramp, which will also be deployed during a response and used to speed transport of the GAs to the survivor in the water and also as a staging spot to perform medical treatment if necessary, prior to a litter hoist aboard [helicopters] for further transport to a medical facility. During shuttle lift off, the Kings are 100 miles off shore and would initiate a search and rescue first for an emergency -- dropping the PJs and the life raft out of the plane to the rescue, explained Lt. Col. Michael Ammirati, HC-130P/N King pilot and the King assistant operations officer.


Today's launch is the second-to-last space shuttle blastoff; when Atlantis goes into orbit in June, that'll be all she wrote. The Air Force's PJs aren't going anywhere, though; so long as planes keep crashing or people keep getting trapped in avalanches, they'll probably always have a job somewhere in the world.



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