VAQ 139 Flyers get surprise search and rescue training

By LTJG Brandon Hill-Rogers, VAQ-139 Public Affairs Officer

On Feb. 28, Lt. Austin Howard and Lt. Ronald Novak thought they were going to be the first flight event of the day for Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 139. However, once fully dressed in their flight gear, they were met by Lt. James Salassi, assistant director of the Aviation Survival Training Center (ASTC) on board Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, and members of NASWI Search and Rescue, who informed them that they would be participants in a SAR exercise.

“We were only allowed to have what was currently on us and in our helmet bags, as it would be if we had ejected,” Howard said.

This exercise allowed aircrew from VAQ-139 to assess their readiness for a cold weather ejection scenario, practice using issued survival gear, and simulate coordinating with ground and/or air-based SAR units in a controlled environment.

During this exercise, members of NASWI SAR flew Howard and Novak to a remote location in one of their MH-60S SAR helicopters. Once there, they practiced skills all naval aircrewmen must continually hone for use in a search and rescue situation. These exercises included navigation, communication, first aid, fire building and shelter construction.

“We encourage aircrew to put hands on all their gear and really dig through it to see what they have and all the different uses each piece can be utilized for,” said Salassi. “At the Aviation Survival Training Center, we go through survival gear as best as possible, but aircrew never really gets to use it in a practical kind of way. In a way in which their life depended on it. Blow air in your g-suit for extra insulation. Sleep inside your raft and use your parachute on your shelter to keep rain or snow off you. All of these little tips were driven home during this exercise, and the two aircrew involved were open minded and had great positive mental attitude, which are two things that increase survival odds like you wouldn’t believe. LTJG Tristan Alston also played an important role in coordinating this exercise.”

Whidbey Island is an environment with variables that can make rescue, communication and survival quite difficult, such as cold water and mountainous terrain. At the conclusion of the exercise, Lt. Howard and Lt. Novak remarked on the value of the training and how they can continue to improve the realism and applicability of these exercises.

Howard added “it was an incredible opportunity to exercise atrophied survival muscles with the help and guidance of SAR and the physiology team.”

“Exercises like these are an opportunity for aircrew to assess their readiness for the unthinkable” said Lt. Cmdr. Cheryl Griswold, aeromedical safety officer (AMSO) for Commander, Electronic Attack Wing Pacific (CVWP). “No one wants to think about ejecting, but if you did, are you prepared? These exercises are a reality check, an opportunity to promulgate lessons observed and build bridges between local units. Without the support of NASWI SAR, the Aviation Survival Training Center, and a forward leaning squadron like the Cougars of [Electronic Attack Squadron] VAQ-139, these events would not be successful.”

“It was an awesome opportunity to use the gear we would have in a real-life scenario,” said Novak. “The SAR team was fantastic and I would definitely do it again!”

“It is always fun when we get to work with the people we are here to support, particularly when it involves putting them in the snow to highlight the importance of being prepared!” said Lt. Erin Hittle of NAS Whidbey Island SAR.

So far this year, the NASWI SAR unit has conducted 13 Medical Evacuations (MEDEVACs), two rescues, and one search, totaling 15 lives delivered to a higher level of care. In 2016, the unit conducted 51 missions including 14 MEDEVACS, 24 rescues, and 13 searches totaling 53 lives delivered to a higher level of care.

The Cougars of VAQ-139 are a carrier based Electronic Attack squadron, tasked with providing support to strike fighters and ground assets to deny and degrade the adversary’s ability to use radar and communications. The Cougars are currently preparing for an upcoming deployment on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).