KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --- By signing in to their shift, they know the first mission is theirs. Ready to leave in moments with barely a second to spare, the crew is notified at the last minute to stand down, prolonging the suspense as they attempt to relax. However, relaxation is hardly an option when a simple beep of the paging system could indicate a life on the line, causing them to scramble for a mission.
This is the story of the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, comprised of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter aircrews who support the rescue mission at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. They are referred to as Pedros -- a call sign that started in the Vietnam War and remains in use today for Air Force medical evacuation crews in Afghanistan.
Their mission is easy enough to understand, but the task is challenging: work as a team with the pararescuemen, or PJs, to conduct day and night personnel recovery operations or MEDEVAC missions in hostile environments.
"I was really excited when I found out about this deployment because we're in a very busy area," said 1st Lt. Sky Jensen, a 26th ERQS co-pilot who has been deployed here since June. "I've already been out on more than 250 missions," "We're staying busy with the high operations tempo to support an important mission."
The lieutenant represents one part of a four-person aircrew: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and aerial gunner. The aircrew is supplemented with two or three PJs, or personnel recovery specialists, who are trained to extract, treat and evacuate injured personnel in high-threat environments.
"Our job is to take the PJs to the fight," said Lieutenant Jensen, who is deployed from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., and calls Salt Lake City his hometown. "When we come into work, we hope we don't get called out on a mission. But if someone needs our help, everything else we're doing just stops and we head out; it's kind of like a firehouse."
Because the members of the 26th ERQS are called only when lives are on the line, these Airmen hope they will have little work throughout the day. When duty calls, though, the team is willing and ready to apply their unique rescue skills.
Behind the two pilots sits a flight engineer, whose primary responsibility is to ensure that all systems are performing smoothly on the $26 million HH-60 helicopter.
"It's nice to be called on to save someone's life. It stinks that someone's having a bad day because they're hurt ... but at least we're giving him a chance to continue having bad or good days by helping to save his life," said Senior Airman Franz Workman, 26th ERQS flight engineer, who is also deployed from Moody AFB and hails from Scott Depot, W.Va. "I wouldn't change a thing about my career. I joined the Air Force right out of high school, and I didn't really even know much about the flight engineer career field, and now we're out here saving lives. I never dreamed in a million years that I would be doing something like this."
As a flight engineer, some of the job responsibilities include aircraft systems familiarization and operation, running preflight inspection checklists, communicating with the PJ crew, lowering the hoist and ropes for them, calculating the aircraft's available power to determine if there's enough power to hover, and even being able to operate a gun on the aircraft.
The HH-60 is equipped with two powerful .50 caliber machineguns mounted on either side of the helicopter. These are the domain of the aerial gunner, the fourth and final member of the aircrew.
"We're the weapons system expert on the aircraft," said Tech. Sgt. Dan Sipel, 26th ERQS aerial gunner, who retrained into the career field six years ago because he wanted to fly. "The aircraft is the actual recovery tool, and we're the defensive tool to protect our aircraft and the PJs as we go into a landing zone to recover people, especially when we fly into hostile territory."
Unlike other MEDEVAC assets used in Afghanistan, the HH-60 helicopters of the 26th ERQS are not marked with a red cross. This allows the aircrews and PJs who fly on them to act as legal combatants while engaging in rescue operations.
Airman Workman described a typical mission as "very hectic, very quick, and pretty much like controlled chaos." But, he added, the crew works together as a team to complete the mission of saving lives, while keeping the aircraft and those on board out of harm's way.
"The nature of our job is very grim, especially when it involves injured military members, civilians or, even worse, children," said Sergeant Sipel. "But we're doing our best to get the PJs to them so we can bring them back within the 'golden hour,' and give them a chance to live."
The golden hour refers to the passage of time between when a medical call is received and when the patient is dropped off at a suitable medical facility.
When the mission is complete and they return to their haven to await the next call, this crew knows that they have fulfilled their duty, so "That Others May Live."