JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
The 176th Wing Rescue Triad has provided combat search and rescue to expeditionary air forces worldwide while also granting a lifeline to Alaskans needing rescue throughout the vast state since 1990.
The triad comprises HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crew of 210th Rescue Squadron, HC-130J Combat King II crew of 211th Rescue Squadron, and Guardian Angels of 212th Rescue Squadron. The Guardian Angels further comprise combat rescue officers, pararescue (PJ) specialists, and survival, evasion, resistance and escape specialists.
During civil search and rescue missions, the triad is mission controlled by the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center, which is manned by 176th Wing Guardsmen and overseen by Alaskan Command.
Though the Alaska Air National Guard took on the rescue mission 32 years ago, they gained the heritage of Air Force rescue in Alaska going back to the immediate post-World War II era with the Regular Air Force’s 10th Air Rescue Squadron.
According to Frederick Overly, editor of the Alaska Air National Guard’s official 40th Anniversary volume, the heritage began in 1942 with the oddly named 924th Quartermaster Boat Company (Aviation) and later the 10th U.S. Army Air Forces Emergency Boat Squadron.
“The idea of having rescue boats for downed pilots began at Elmendorf Air Force Base in December of 1940 when Maj. Everett Davis ordered two 22-foot Chris Craft speedboats from California,” Overly wrote in the volume. “In the summer of 1941, Lt. Gordon Donley was put in charge of organizing a search and rescue unit for Alaska. He travelled throughout Southeastern Alaska organizing a boat squadron of Alaskans familiar with boat operations.”
Overly wrote the 924th QBC operated primarily in the Aleutian Islands during the war. They were a unique unit of U.S. Army Air Forces Airmen operating fast boats using Army and Navy supplies, and they mixed and matched uniforms between the services to operate in the challenging Aleutian weather.
“They did a remarkable job as the 10th [USAAF EBS] and are the roots of the Alaska Air National Guard’s newest unit – the 210th Air Rescue Squadron,” Overly wrote.
In 1958, the 10th redesignated as the 71st Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron, and the 71st would take on the rescue mission until the Air Force decided to draw down the unit. Overly wrote the Alaska National Guard was ready to fill the void.
“The Army and Air Guard had made many saves throughout the years in Alaska, and the mission seemed a natural for the Air National Guard,” he wrote. “After all, who knew Alaska better than Alaska pilots? All the ingredients were present to form an outstanding search and rescue organization. The first 10th had been outstanding. There just had to be a second 10th (or the 210th) to serve the people of Alaska.”
Joining the 210th RQS was the 210th Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, a direct support unit dedicated to the maintenance of 210th RQS highly specialized rescue aircraft.
“Initially, the maintenance personnel supported and trained on a UH-60A [Black Hawk] helicopter – a [Army] loaner aircraft – until the arrival of its first MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter on June 22, 1990,” Overly wrote.
Today, rescue maintenance support is performed by the 176th Maintenance Group’s Rescue Maintenance.
As described in the volume, the original mission of the 210th RQS resembles that of today’s Rescue Triad.
“The military mission of the 210th is combat search and rescue – to pick up downed aircrew members during wartime,” Overly wrote. “Additionally, the 210th is one of the few Air Guard units in the nation with a peacetime mission: to stand 24-hour alert ready to rescue [U.S. Air Force] fighter pilots who get into trouble during their training in the harsh Alaska environment.”
The first year of assuming the rescue mission was a busy one for the 210th RQS and included a then-Air Force record-setting rescue at the 14,400-foot level of Denali when a Pave Hawk rescued a stranded climber there, Overly wrote.
The unit rescued 13 Royal Canadian Armed Forces troops, Overly wrote, after their C-130 Hercules crashed Oct. 30, 1991, near the North Pole while flying out of Thule Air Base, Greenland. The mission placed the squadron deep into the Arctic after a C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft moved a 210th RQS Pave Hawk, crew, PJs and support personnel to complete the mission.
As part of an Air National Guard reorganization of rescue units, the 210th RQS was split in 2004 into today’s 210th, 211th, and 212th Rescue Squadrons along functional lines.
On Aug. 9, 2010, the plane carrying former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens crashed near Aleknagik in Western Alaska flying between two fishing lodges. Unfortunately, Stevens and four others died in the crash. The 176th Wing, in partnership with the Coast Guard, rescued four remaining survivors, transporting them to the nearby community of Dillingham.
On July 23, 2006, MV Cougar Ace, a cargo vessel carrying 4,812 cars, according to a Seattle Times article, listed 60 degrees to port and was taking on water. With the Cougar Ace located about 230 miles south of Adak Island in the Aleutians, 176th Wing rescue Airmen partnered with the Coast Guard to deploy two HC-130Ns and two HH-60s carrying PJs in order to rescue 23 of the vessel’s crew members.
Since 9/11, members of the Rescue Triad have consistently deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa in support of overseas contingency operations. Supporting expeditionary rescue squadrons, 176th Wing rescue Airmen have saved hundreds of lives during medical evacuation operations and rescue of isolated personnel.
Out of numerous deployments, there are a few highlights of rescuers’ actions under enemy fire.
According to an article written by Col. (then Maj.) Matthew Komatsu for SOFREP.com, 15 Taliban insurgents infiltrated Camp Bastion wearing U.S. military uniforms Sept. 14, 2012, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In response, Komatsu gathered a team of four Guardian Angels, including himself, and moved toward the gunfire. He called in air support from a Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, killing four with his team and killing a fifth insurgent clutching a hand grenade with carbine fire.
Komatsu recalled how the operation was outside of the Guardian Angels’ usual mission set.
“Tonight, we had marched into a full-on gunfight, risking fratricide along the way,” Komatsu wrote. “We had then joined up with unfamiliar British soldiers and commenced an infantry action into what had become enemy-held territory. The men had met the challenge, and everyone was going home in one piece. It was no small feat.”
On Jan. 8, 2020, Iran fired theater ballistic missiles at Al Asad Airbase, Iraq, where members of 211th Rescue Squadron were deployed. With minimal notice, Col. (then Lt. Col.) Joshua Armstrong ordered the unit to evacuate on two of the squadron’s HC-130s. The rescue Airmen accomplished the mission, making multiple turns and narrowly coming under missile fire that would later devastate parts of the base.
The 211th RQS combat systems officer Maj. Anthony Waliser said, though his crew was waiting for a response from Iran, they were surprised at the nature of the attack.
“We were expecting that at some point we could perhaps launch-to-survive, which was to launch airplanes to get them out of whatever was going to happen because airplanes can be vulnerable whereas people can go into hardened structures,” he said. “I don’t think any of us were expecting direct action from Iran, so something else could have come up that was a lower threat level than what we experienced.”
As of July 2022, the AKRCC has tracked 2,105 missions and 1,851 saves for the wing since taking over the rescue mission.