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Multinational team of wingmen rescues downed pilot from Pacific Ocean

by Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

11/21/2012 - JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR HICKAM, Hawaii (AFNS) -- On July 22, a U.S. Air Force pilot assigned to Misawa Air Base, Japan, had to eject from an F-16 Fighting Falcon over the turbulent and cold waters of the North Pacific.

Over the next six hours, the pilot, JEST 73, focused on surviving in his small life raft - constantly using his helmet to bail water out to keep afloat.

While ejecting from an aircraft and landing in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean would probably not qualify as the man's best day, the pilot was fortunate in that an improbable, varied mix of different people and agencies were seamlessly partnering up to help out.

The traditional military definition of a "Wingman" refers to the flight pattern in which there is a lead aircraft and another which flies off the wing of and behind the lead. This second pilot is called the wingman because he or she primarily watches the lead's back. It turned out there were a lot of wingmen watching the downed Airman's back.

"While bailing water from my life raft, I was in constant communication with airborne rescue forces which helped ease my mind, but with each passing hour, I was growing more concerned that I would end up spending the night in my life raft," said JEST 73.

A KC-135 Stratotanker belonging to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, and two others belonging to the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan, were among the first on scene in the wake of the late morning incident. The aircraft's pilots relayed news to the 618th Air and Space Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center), Air Mobility Command's operational nerve center.

"When the call first came in from one of the KC-135 commanders we only knew that we had an F-16 pilot who had just ejected, thankfully wasn't injured, and was busy bailing out his raft," said Col. David Smith, TACC Director of Operations during the incident. "We told the aircraft to stay in radio contact and let the pilot know that help was on the way and that we were immediately commencing rescue operations. Our commitment was not to let him down."

That call put into motion the race to quickly recover the pilot. TACC immediately provided air traffic controllers at Fukuoka, Japan, and Anchorage, Alaska, with the incident's location. Those controllers quickly passed the information to the Japanese Rescue Coordination Center to begin search and rescue operations. Those efforts were bolstered by the rapid passing of information to the Rescue Coordination Center in Alameda, Calif., which shared it with ships in the area.

"We were about a day out of Japan, and I was on watch when a call came in from the Coast Guard on the satellite phone," said Jim Dowling, 2nd Mate and navigation officer for the Matson commercial container ship Manukai, which was on the return leg of a long journey from Long Beach, Calif., to China, Japan, and points between. "The call said a military aircraft went down about 100 miles behind (West of) our position."

Dowling called up the ship's captain, who confirmed the position. Then they called the Manukai's engine room to get more power (RPMs), turned the ship around, and headed back to help. The Manukai's crew maintained a constant dialogue with the air crews overhead as they raced to help.

As the minutes passed, TACC officials ensured regular communication with the pilot, with the KC-135 crews closely monitoring his condition and continuing to provide him reassurance that help was enroute.

A Japanese fishing vessel, the Hokko Maru, also responded to the call for help and was heading toward the pilot's position. As the Manukai and Hokku Maru approached at nearly the same time, the U.S. and Japanese crews worked together to develop a plan.

"As we talked to the Japanese fishing boat, we determined they had a more ideal life boat so they agreed to pick him up," Dowling explained. "Then they brought him alongside us - and we were lucky in that there was some light remaining and fairly calm seas at that time. We lowered the gangway to the life boat and he was able to climb up. It was an all-hands event, with all 21 of our crew lining the rails."

Perhaps one of the biggest highlights of a day full of ups and downs was waiting for the pilot as soon as he was safely on the Manukai. "They had patched his wife through to him by phone on our ship," Dowling said.

For approximately the next two days, the pilot was a guest of the Manukai's crew - Dowling said he was a "shipboard celebrity" to the sailors. The ship swung north of its normal intended course to meet up with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Munro, which transported the pilot to Alaska, where he would eventually be taken to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, near Anchorage.

"The entire shipboard combat information center was instrumental in coordinating the rendezvous, from over 800 nautical miles, to occur exactly on schedule," wrote U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Jacob Hauser, underway as the Munro's public affairs officer. Hauser also served as ship's deck and conning officer for the rendezvous. "Both ships were able to find one another in thick fog and maneuver safely to within 500 yards aboard. The (pilot) had to climb down a 20-30 foot ladder (from the Manukai) to reach the small boat, which was expertly maneuvered for a safe passenger transfer."

Hauser explained that the entire crew was piped topside as the pilot approached in the small boat, in order to render appropriate honors -- a way of welcoming him home. Once aboard, the pilot was received by applause before debriefing with the commanding officer and department heads.

"While the circumstances of losing an aircraft are certainly not ideal, we were absolutely thrilled to successfully recover our Airman - our most important asset," said Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, Pacific Air Forces commander. "Additionally, it was truly heartwarming to see the dedicated teamwork and vigorous coordination between elements of the U.S. and Japanese military, search and rescue teams, and Japanese and U.S. civilian mariners - whose willingness to help was instrumental in our pilot eventually returning home to his family. We deeply appreciate this incredible partnership!"

On Nov. 19, Carlisle and Col. Stephen Williams, 35th Fighter Wing commander, presented a plaque shaped like an F-16's tail section, to the Manukai crew on behalf of the men and women of PACAF and the 35th FW.

The pilot also expressed his gratitude to the multiple rescue crews as his written thank-you note was read during the presentation.

"Had it not been for the selfless efforts of the Manukai crew, this story may have had a much different ending," said JEST 73. "My wife and two daughters join me in my heartfelt thanks to everyone who assisted in my rescue and subsequently reunited me with my family. Getting to hold my wife in my arms again and getting to read bedtime stories to my girls were made possible thanks to [their] heroic actions."

The cause of the incident remains under investigation.

Air Mobility Command public affairs contributed to this report.

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