Rescued by Angels
By Dialogo May 10, 2013
The night is pitch-black in New Mexico. At 13,000 feet, the desert’s cold winds sharpen the senses and give you goose bumps. The Colombian jungle is a very different scenario: hot and humid, like a sauna.
Minutes before dawn, Colombian pararescuemen jump off a Singapore Air Force Chinook helicopter. On the ground, coyotes howl, even though there is no full moon.
During the next few hours, they will move forward towards the remote village of Playas, in the heart of New Mexico, in order to rescue prisoners from the adversary. Tortured by the doubt of whether they will be able to escape their captors, the hostages cannot imagine a troop of “angels” will come to their rescue.
This is just one of the 30 fictitious scenarios designed by the U.S. Air Force for the largest, most complex, and realistic search and rescue exercise in the world: Angel Thunder.
From April 8-20, over 3,000 pilots, commandos and search and rescue experts from 20 countries met at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, to hone techniques to save lives on the battlefield, in villages flooded by rain, or sites where unwary tourists are captured by terrorists.
This year’s edition of Angel Thunder, which was conducted in locations from the coast of California to Arizona and New Mexico, included the participation of Colombian, Brazilian and Chilean militaries who trained with their counterparts from the United States, Denmark, Singapore, and other countries.
For two weeks, these men and women watched each other’s backs during fictitious terrorist attacks in New Mexico; swam against the current on Arizona’s Salt River; rapelled down the cliffs of Colorado’s Grand Canyon, and at night, when time allowed it, they were neighbors in a “tent city” improvised by the U.S. Air Force at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
“Working with aircraft, pararescuemen, combat rescue officers and pilots from other countries was a unique experience,” Lt. Col. Edgar Francisco Sánchez Canosa, head of the Colombian Air Force delegation stated. “We learned that multinational operations can be conducted using air security measures and applying training principles, discipline, and doctrine from each country,” he added during a recess.
The Colombian Air Force team was made up of personnel specialized in rescuing civilians and military hostages from criminal groups. However, Sánchez recognized that the intensity of activities and the desert weather were a challenge. “Most of the Colombian territory is a humid jungle, while here days are very hot and nights are very cold. The other factor is the wind, which affects the way pararescuers jump, the cargo drops, and aircraft operation,” Lt. Col. Sánchez Canosa stated.
Intrigue and Suspense
In order to recreate a realistic environment, Angel Thunder – founded in 2006 –, was conceived as a big theater production enacted by individuals whose jobs are to save lives.
The goal is that recovery personnel units from each branch of the U.S. Military and other countries prepare to respond to potential situations before facing them in real life, Brett Hartnett, exercise founder and director, said.
Along with a group of “scriptwriters,” Hartnett creates scenarios that cover a wide range of situations, from combat and hostage rescues, to natural disasters. Some of these derive from imagining the nightmarish situations that the U.S. troops might find in Iraq or Afghanistan.
For the Brazilian Military, to practice combat scenarios was a valuable opportunity. “The last time we took part in a war conflict was during World War II. Therefore, training with militaries that have been fighting in the Middle East was a very important experience,” Lt. Col. Potiguaro Campos, Brazilian delegation lead, stated.
Composed of Air Force personnel from the South American nation, the team flew to Arizona on a C-130 Hercules, which was used to transport wounded patients during the exercise, rehearse in-flight refueling and conduct infiltration and exfiltration missions.
Lt. Col. Campos admits that the two-week adventure also allowed them to learn about aircraft employed by other countries in these missions: the twin-engine A-10 Thunderbolt II, the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, the search-and-rescue and combat search and rescue HC-130J Combat King II, the Chinook CH-47 helicopter and the UH-1Y Huey aircraft, among others.
However, according to Chilean Air Force lead, Major Sergio Valencia Burgos, the experience taken from the Playas Training and Research Center is unforgettable.
Nothing like a Day at the Playas
Playas was a New Mexico mining village that was abandoned late last century. Today, the site lodges one of the most realistic counter terrorist training facilities in the world.
The old miners’ houses, the gloomy bar, the post office, and the maze-like streets served in playing host to a simulated explosion in a market, hostage rescues and combats with paintball bullets.
Playas pretended to be a village in the fictitious country of Diyeme, explains Charles Ray, one of the main advocates of the exercise. It was also where Ray witnessed the participation of Brazilian, Colombian, Chilean, Danish and American military service members. “They arrived on a Singaporean Chinook CH-47 in order to secure the village, provide first aid to the victims and prepare them for evacuation,” he says.
In the previous edition of Angel Thunder, Ray played the role of a U.S. ambassador in charge of a mission assisting Valsura, a nation shaken by an earthquake. This time, however, he focused on sharing his experience as former ambassador to Zimbabwe and Cambodia, as well as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoners of War/Missing Personnel Affairs.
“In the current security environment, a country cannot do everything on its own. The more we work with our partners in the world to increase global capacity for assistance in natural or man-made disasters, the better prepared we are to provide the level of security required by citizens,” Ray explained.
After more than 1,749 flight hours and 30 different exercises, Angel Thunder tested the capacity of participants to fulfill this objective.
And it was a trial by fire, Chilean Maj. Sergio Valencia Burgos said. “We have worked day and night, going from one mission to another, without knowing what might come next. But it was worth it, because we validated our capabilities and procedures, and we also proved that we can collaborate as a great multinational force,” he said.