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176th Wing rescuers participate in Hong Kong exercise

Hong Kong Government Flying Service Lt. Vincent Wong (left) and Tech. Sgt. Brandon Stuemke practice seaborne hoisting during preparations for Hong Kong Search and Rescue Exercise 2008 Oct. 22 off the coast of Hong Kong. Sergeant Stuemke is a member of the Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron, based at Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage, Alaska. The annual exercise involved units from the U.S., Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China. (U.S. Navy photo/Petty Officer 1st Class Michael B. Watkins)

Hong Kong Government Flying Service Lt. Vincent Wong (left) and Tech. Sgt. Brandon Stuemke, a pararescueman with the Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron, practice seaborne hoisting Oct. 22 during preparations for Hong Kong Search and Rescue Exercise 2008 off the coast of Hong Kong. The annual exercise involved units from the U.S., Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael B. Watkins.

HONG KONG -- Search and rescue units from the 176th Wing's 210th and 212th rescue squadrons arrived here last week to work with search-and-rescue (SAR) teams from the U.S. Coast Guard's Honolulu-based District 14 and Hong Kong's Government Flying Service (GFS).

As a work-up to this week's scheduled humanitarian Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX) 2008 -- an international exercise involving forces from the United States, Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China -- the Coast Guard and Alaska Air National Guard teams have used this week to get to know their hosts.

A total of 450 U.S. military personnel are participating in the exercise. The SAREX is a routine exercise that focuses on understanding the procedures necessary to search, locate and rescue personnel on vessels requiring assistance or those who have been missing at sea.

"These guys have invited us out on everything that they do," said Lt. Col. Tim O'Brien, commander of the 210th Rescue Squadron. "They've taken us out on familiarization flights on their helicopters. We've landed on islands here in Hong Kong. Today, our pararescuers got a chance to go down the hoist and into the water, and a couple of our guys have even had the chance to go on actual rescue missions. They've just been fabulous hosts."

The mission of the Hong Kong GFS is comparable to the SAR mission practiced by the Coast Guard and the Alaska Air National Guard, according to 2nd Lt. John Romspert, a combat rescue officer with the 212th Rescue Squadron.

"The GFS is really similar to the Coast Guard," Lieutenant Romspert said. "The rescue swimmer and helicopter operations the Coast Guard does, are very similar in all the roles and missions. [The Air Force] is similar in that we do work out of helicopters, but we also have a lot of different mission sets that they don't do."

The chance to work with other organizations that perform the same mission makes everyone better, according to Master Sgt. Peter Alexakis, a crew chief with the 176th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron who is serving as the aircraft maintenance supervisor for the SAREX.
 
"We have a specific mission that we do for the Air Force and for the state of Alaska," said Alexakis. "In doing that -- in sharing our mission with others -- if we can learn how to make a better mousetrap, we will."

"Sitting here with these guys has been fabulous," said O'Brien. "Sitting here and trading pilot talk, if you will on how they do water operations. How do they land on ships? How do we land on ships? What do they do for operational risk management? How is ours different?

"How do they talk a helicopter onto a survivor on a boat? They call it patter. We call it cockpit communications or crew coordination," O'Brien added. "It's tiny little terminology differences, but it's amazing how similar our operations are."

The exercise is designed to facilitate exchange of procedures, techniques and innovations in the annual multi-national civil search and rescue exercise held in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

While the U.S. has participated in the Hong Kong SAREX in previous years, this is the first time a week-long workup has been built into the program, according to Lt. Col. O'Brien.

"Really, where the learning takes place is here in the classroom," he said. "If we were to just come in, get a briefing and then go out and execute, none of this interoperability piece, none of the trading of stories, none of that would have happened. So I think this extra week was well worth it."

The SAR personnel at GFS also recognize the tremendous value in working with other units.

"We don't want to be the frog at the bottom of the well, looking up at our small piece of sky and thinking all is well," said Bowie Fung, acting senior pilot for the Helicopter Search and Rescue at GFS. "We want to look outside to other operators, see how they do it. That's the main reason we want to operate with [the United States]. We want to learn, we always want to improve."

"Everybody gets high value out of working like this because there's not a patent on good ideas," Romspert said. "They do some things different than we do, and it's almost like taking a look at your organization from the outside and seeing how you can improve, what you can do better, or what they can get from us and also do better."
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