By Jim Dunn
Their territory is vast with extremes in both terrain and conditions. From the high snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the barren Salt Flats of Utah, a dedicated team of rescue experts are on call to assist those in distress. It may be an airman who has just ejected from a military jet, or a young hiker injured in a fall, the Longhorn Search and Rescue (SAR) Team of NAS Fallon, Nevada will be there to answer the call “24/7”.
The location of NAS Fallon in the high desert of western Nevada is both a blessing and a curse to those that train there. On the one hand it provides the good flying weather and wide open spaces needed to allow an air wing to train for combat, while at the same time it can present a formidable adversary to any aircrew who are forced down in its surroundings.
In the late 1960s while Navy aircrew trained on the ranges of Naval Auxiliary Air Station Fallon prior to their deployments off of the coast of Vietnam, a study was conducted that showed that a pilot had a lower rate of survival after ejecting over the mountains of the Sierra Nevada than that same pilot would have if he had ejected over Southeast Asia. While combat search and rescue (CSAR) was of growing importance in the war zone, back home it often came down to whatever was available at the time.
This situation would change significantly at the now upgraded NAS Fallon in 1972 with the establishment of a full time SAR capability. The Desert Angels Search and Rescue Team was stood up at this time with a primary mission to provide SAR service to the military in the vast Fallon Range Training Complex; the USMC operated Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California; and the Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada.
At this same time the aircraft needed by the Desert Angels to fulfill this mission was also being introduced into the Navy inventory that year. The new twin-engined Bell UH-1N Iroquois represented a major improvement in the Huey that now gave the Navy a utility helicopter capable of effectively performing the wide range of missions conducted by their base flights. For the next 37 years the Huey and SAR aircrew from NAS Fallon would be on-call around-the-clock to both military and civilian agencies
in need of their assistance.
Hueys To The Rescue
“The Huey fuselage and airframe itself is optimal for what we do,” said Lt. Andrew Byrne, one of six pilots currently assigned to the unit at Fallon. “Having the big doors on each side, a lot of visibility both out the front and back, and for maneuvering in the mountains. We never had a problem physically with the airframe.”
Renamed the Longhorn Search and Rescue Team in 1986 the unit continuously operated anywhere from two to four UH/HH-1N Hueys from 1972 until their final retirement from US Navy service on April 3, 2009. Over this time period they responded to requests for assistance 647 times, and were credited with making 368 rescues.
Requests from civilian agencies make-up from 80 to 90 percent of all calls for SAR service. The Longhorns are authorized to provide support to civilian agencies if that organization, or one from the state such as the Air National Guard, is unable to make an immediate response or perform the type of mission called for by the emergency.
The final two years of Longhorn operations with the Huey proved to be one of the most interesting and challenging periods in their history. From a search for a famous adventurer; to numerous rescues in a local flood; and a daring high altitude night extraction, the Huey could still be relied upon when called to service.
On Monday, Sept. 3, 2007 record-setting pilot Steve Fossett departed from a ranch near Hawthorn, Nevada in a single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon on a flight to survey nearby dry lakebeds. After being reported missing that afternoon one of the largest searches in US history began with the Longhorns flying the first mission of the search at 6 pm that evening.
The Longhorns would fly another three sorties the following day from Minden, Nevada before the Civil Air Patrol had enough assets on hand to relieve them. Steve Fossett’s remains would finally be found just over a year later in an area far outside the search area covered by the Longhorns.
Response time is always a critical factor in an emergency. The Longhorn SAR Team has a half-hour response time when the airfield at NAS Fallon is open, and a response time of one hour when it is closed. This is the case 24 hrs a day every day of the year, and it is a rare occurrence when they are not airborne within a half-hour.
Four months after the Fossett search the Longhorns used the Huey on their largest single rescue to date. At 4:19 am on Saturday January 5, 2008 an earthen canal broke sending water racing into the nearby community of Fernley, Nevada. A single HH-1N from the Longhorns was dispatched at 6:45 am and over the next few hours the crew would extract 18 residents from roofs throughout the area.
While just being rescued is enough for most people in an emergency there is another matter that is important after the fact. With the Longhorns being a Federal unit, all services to the public are free of charge.
It’s All About The Flying
“Its been clear from day one that flying, flying well in the mountains when the weather is crappy and its dark out and you have to save someone’s life, that is your primary job here,” said Longhorn pilot Lt. Andrew Byrne.
Both the HH-1N and now the SH-60F being operated by the Longhorns work with a standard crew of four that consists of pilot, co-pilot, crew chief, and inland rescue aircrewman. In many situations a SAR medical technician will also be assigned to the flight. All except the SAR medical technician must have at least 1,000 hrs plus flying hours prior to joining the SAR unit.
Once on the scene of a rescue the crew responsibilities during a SAR mission are for the Pilot/SAR Mission Commander to maintain a hover over the selected site while the co-pilot monitors performance instruments and the clearances in the surrounding area. The crew chief is in charge of rescue operations in the rear cabin and makes all of the movement calls to the pilot as well as operates the hoist. The inland rescue aircrewman is a qualified rescue swimmer and is skilled at rope work/rappelling, hoist operation, and first aid. Both the crew chief and inland rescue aircrewman are rated in the specialty of Aviation Warfare Systems Operator - Helicopter.
“Our crew coordination is very intense in this job, the most intense you will ever find in the Navy,” said AW2 William Joe Burns a Longhorn crew chief. “How the crewmen, crew chief, and pilots interact I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the fleet.” That coordination often extends to crew chiefs giving pilots calls to move the helicopter a foot up or down, or coming left or right a foot in confined spaces. Clearances can be as little as ten feet for the main rotor arc, and five feet for the tail rotor.
That coordination is no more critical than when the mission calls for a high altitude rescue at night. For Lt. Jim Smith, one of two SAR Mission Commanders with the Longhorns, this was the situation on October 7, 2008 when his crew was alerted at 3:12 am for a rescue in the rugged Ansel Adams Wilderness near Yosemite National Park.
“A climber fell and broke his ribs 25 miles from the nearest road. We went in in the Huey on night vision goggles (NVGs) and all of our gyros and instruments decided to go bad on the way there,” said Lt. Smith. After being lowered to the victim HM3 Sarah Tait, the only female SAR medical technician in the Navy, made the determination that a litter would be the best way to make the rescue. “We pulled the guy off of a cliff on a 120 ft rope on NVGs up at 10,000 ft. Our power margin on the Huey was zero.”
After landing to transfer the victim there wasn’t enough fuel aboard to take back off.
What makes it possible to perform at this level whenever called upon is the continuous training regimen that allows aircrew to fly nearly on a daily basis. “I’ve done more technical training than any rescue that I’ve heard of since I’ve been here. That’s what makes us good at our jobs, because we do this everyday,” said AW2 Burns.
The Longhorns will now also have the opportunity to pass on some of their knowledge of high altitude flying by assisting the Navy’s Program Manager For Mountain Flying who is assigned to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) also located at NAS Fallon. As helicopter squadrons from the fleet rotate through NSAWC prior to their deployments they will receive additional instruction in this skill from both NSAWC and Longhorn aircrew who have years of experience in this demanding type of flying.
What Squadron Is That
“The base skipper owns us,” said Lt. Andrew Byrne. “It is sometimes hard to explain to a lot of people who are at squadrons.
What squadron are you in? NAS Fallon. Will what squadron? The CO of the base owns me.”
The Longhorn SAR Team is just one component of Base Flight NAS Fallon, which is the only aviation asset under the direct authority of the Commander of NAS Fallon. All of the SAR Team officers are assigned to Base Operations NAS Fallon, with the SAR Team Leader also serving has the Base Operations Officer.
Next in priority for the base flight after the SAR mission is fire fighting on the range complex, which is also 90 percent owned by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The unit is not certified by any state agency to fight fires on any state or private lands and can only make water drops on federally owned land.
For these firefighting missions the unit uses an externally slung Bambi bucket to scoop water from lakes, rivers, or other sources of water. On the Huey this was a 324-gallon bucket, but with the SH-60 this can be increased to 660 gallons.
Other missions for the base flight might include support of range maintenance and safety, assisting tenet or other units using the range, or the transportation of personnel and visitors. These missions are all at the discretion of the base commander.
Enter The 60
“Definitely a difference, but nothing that’s going to stop us,” said SAR Team Leader Cdr. Shane ’Rowdy’ Yates. “In a perfect world I’d have two Hueys and two 60s.” Unfortunately it is not a perfect world and the final Huey in US Navy service was flown from NAS Fallon to an honorable retirement at Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama.
The transition to the Sikorsky SH-60F Seahawk was not a difficult one for most members of the unit as many had served in Seahawk squadrons prior to their tour at NAS Fallon. It was also easy on the logistical side as the first two Seahawks were transferred just across the base from the NSAWC ramp when that organization received their first two brand-new SH-60S models.
Crew size and responsibilities remain the same in the Seahawk with the exception that the SAR medical technician, who is a Navy corpsman as well as a qualified inland rescue aircrewman, is now eligible to become a crew chief in the Seahawk. It is believed that few will take that step as the tasking on the SAR medical technician is already so demanding.
“Things don’t run as smoothly as they do in the Huey,“ said AW2 Burns. There are always some plusses and minuses whenever a unit transitions from one airframe to another, and in this transition it was a matter of adapting a more powerful helicopter designed for the antisubmarine mission into one that would be fully capable to perform in the SAR role.
“Big plus with the 60 is we can fly almost twice as fast and go four times as far, and we can carry three times as much gas and cover greater distances when we do go on a rescue,” said Lt. Smith. With nearly three times the horsepower of the Huey the 60 has a greater payload capacity as well, though the rescue hoist still has the same 600 lb. lift capability.
The minuses with that power increase comes in the form of a much stronger buildup of static electricity in the rescue cable and hook, as well as a much more powerful downwash for the crews to cope with both on the ground and in the air. The downwash is now causing brownouts and whiteouts for the pilots, while the crews on the ground must deal with much more debris being thrown about.
In high altitude operations the increase in power with the 60 did not equate to an increase in performance over the Huey. The Naval Air Training and Operating Standardization (NATOPS) instructions limit operations of the 60 to below 13,000 ft., while the Huey had a limit of 15,000 ft. on its operations. Also, the 60 is more temperature sensitive than the Huey and performance at higher altitudes may be degraded in hot weather.
It is in the area of rescue operations where the differences in the two airframes has the most impact. “The big thing I miss going from the Huey to the 60 is skids. Skids are a huge asset up here doing mountain rescues,” said Lt. Smith. Not only for the pilots but also for the rescue crewmen the skids provided a perfect platform from which to operate from. To improve the situation in the 60 the unit is awaiting final approval on a platform it has designed to be placed over the rails of the doorframe to extend the rescue crewman and ropes out from the cabin.
Two other items that affect operations at the site of a rescue are the much larger stabilator at the rear of the 60 that requires a larger area to maneuver in, and the fact that the SH-60F has a door on only one side from which to work out of.
Pros and cons aside the Longhorn SAR Team will get the job done. “Being the professionals that my guys are they have managed to make the 60 work as well as the Huey did,” said Cdr Yates. In time many of the issues with the 60 will be solved with the arrival of later models such as the SH-60S.
For now this small Navy unit located in the high desert of Nevada will continue to provide an extra level of protection to other military members who train in this region, as well as to those civilians in peril in its rugged environs.
The authors would like to thank SAR Team Leader Cdr. Shane Yates and all the members of Base Flight NAS Fallon for their support in the preparation of this article. Thanks also to NAS Fallon Public Affairs Officer Mr. Zip Upham for his continued assistance to the authors.
SAR Panel 1
NAS Fallon Desert Oasis
The origins of NAS Fallon date back to the early years of World War II. In 1942 the Civil Aeronautics Administration and the Army Air Corps constructed four airfields in Nevada as part of the Western Defense Program.
With two 5,200 foot runways at Fallon, along with the open ranges in the area, the Navy took over the new airfield in 1943. After construction of hangars, barracks, and target ranges, Naval Auxiliary Air Station Fallon was commissioned on June 10, 1944.
By the summer of 1945 an average of 21,000 take-offs and landings were occurring on the field. Construction of supporting facilities was just being completed when Japan surrendered, and by June 1946 NAAS Fallon was closed.
War in Korea led to the reestablishment of NAAS Fallon on October 1, 1953, along with the creation that same year of the Bravo 16, 17, and 18 bombing ranges that are still in use today.
On Nov. 1, 1959 the airfield at Fallon was dedicated to Lt. Commander Bruce A. Van Voorhis, a native of Fallon who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal Of Honor for actions in the South Pacific in World War II.
With the conflict in Vietnam causing another increase in training requirements an electronic warfare range was established at Fallon in 1967. With its three runways of 7,003 ft, 11,077 ft, and 14,003 ft, the latter of which is the longest in the Navy, the base was upgraded and commissioned as NAS Fallon on January 1, 1972.
Today under the command of a two-star admiral the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) combines the functions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN); the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School (TOP DOME); and the Naval Strike Warfare Center.