By Joshua Stewart
Two F/A-18E Super Hornets collided during a March 2010 training mission when one plane turned left instead of right. One of the Hornets was able to hobble back to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev.
The other pilot wasn’t so lucky. He ejected at 16,000 feet, landed and huddled in his parachute for 90 minutes before rescue. He was treated at a local hospital for hypothermia, compression fractures in his spine and a knee injury.
After a series of crashes like this one in the West, the Navy has added a new search-and-rescue helicopter unit to Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif. It will provide faster and better coverage for distressed aircrews.
The detachment will provide service to Lemoore — home of the Navy’s 15 West Coast strike fighter squadrons — as well as aircrews operating over the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada and naval air weapons stations China Lake and Fallon.
“Every day, we send our strike fighters across this vast area of operations, and we have done so for the past eight years without the local capability of search and rescue,” said Capt. Eric Venema, Lemoore’s installation commander.
The last of three MH-60S Seahawks arrived at Lemoore on Nov. 13. They are accompanied by 30 Navy personnel, including aircrew, but will be maintained by a contractor. The detachment is going by “The Wranglers” and is slated for an evaluation on medical capabilities and search-and-rescue operations in December.
The detachment’s helos were pulled from Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons 4, 6 and 15, all from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif. HSC-15 transitioned from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 15 on Nov. 15.
Besides providing additional coverage in California and Nevada, an agreement with a municipal airport in Monterey, Calif., will allow squadrons to train farther out in the Pacific, in areas previously off-limits due to cold water and longer rescue times.
“Before the establishment of this SAR unit, the time to rescue exceeded the survival time of the aircrew in the water,” Venema said. “Now we have the capability to pre-stage our SAR helicopters at Marina Municipal Airport and our squadron commanding officer has the knowledge that, in the event of a catastrophe, our SAR aircrews can respond quickly and saves the lives of our downed aircrew.”
Lemoore has trained with local emergency services in preparation for any sort of aviation mishap. In one October exercise, a search team looked for a downed pilot. The new helicopters participated and brought mishap investigators to the scene to evaluate the crash.
According to Naval Safety Center reports, there have been at least seven Class A mishaps in this SAR unit’s range since 2007. Eight Hornets were involved in those crashes, and three aviators died.
A Class A mishap is the most serious of three types of mishaps, and include incidents where there is at least $2 million in combined aircraft and property damage, a fatality or a destroyed aircraft. Before October 2009, the Navy used a $1 million threshold.