As Tempo Rises, Most Active Reserve Rescue Unit Wants New Aircraft

To ensure the flying safety of Air Force choppers used to save lives in combat, maintenance crews from the 920th Rescue Wing swap out an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter for reconditioning on Jan. 25, 2017. (US Air Force photo/Maj. Cathleen Snow)
To ensure the flying safety of Air Force choppers used to save lives in combat, maintenance crews from the 920th Rescue Wing swap out an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter for reconditioning on Jan. 25, 2017. (US Air Force photo/Maj. Cathleen Snow)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Florida -- Reserve airmen of the 920th Rescue Wing are doing their part to keep aircraft here up to snuff, as they await the arrival of a new combat rescue helicopter and HC-130 recovery planes.

And while leaders at the base are craving more modern planes, they're still years away from formal delivery. For the most active Reserve unit -- and the only Reserve rescue wing in the Air Force -- officials said they need and want the best to be ready for the missions they are already tasked to do.

The 920th overall is responsible for 18 percent of all Air Force rescue missions, and officials here expect that percentage to rise in years to come.

The Air Force "needs to field out" the new helicopters, "and we're towards the end of that fielding," said Col. Kurt Matthews, commander of the 920th Rescue Wing. The commander also said the HC-130J Combat King II model -- intended to replace HC-130P/Ns across the fleet -- is long overdue.

"My concern is, we're already flying an aircraft that's beyond its normal lifespan, and for helicopters it's a lot different than fixed-wing," Matthews said in a follow-up interview. on Feb. 20 toured hangars and facilities used for the combat-search-and-rescue mission and spoke with officials about the 920th's evolving operations.

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The Sikorsky HH-60W, the latest combat rescue helicopter based on the UH-60M Black Hawk, won't replace the whole aging HH-60G Pave Hawk fleet all at once. The 920th anticipates receiving its first "Whiskey" model in eight to ten years.

"When we get a brand-new aircraft off the production line, to us it may be more survivable; it's new, its stronger, it's going to last a lot longer. But the avionics, mission equipment and weapons on it ... may already be surpassed by what we've modified on an older aircraft," Matthews said.

Matthews equated the aircraft to an experienced but older soldier who has the best guns and ammo and knows how to operate the weapons better. The aircraft set to replace it, he said, is more like a new recruit out of basic training who has a younger and agile body, but hasn't got the equipment down pat just yet.

"I fear that, if the focus turns to the new aircraft arriving in other squadrons ahead of the Reserve, that the attention goes away from the effort to maintain the legacy fleet," he said.

Fighting HH-60G Corrosion and a Maintainer Backlog

The Pave Hawk is a frequent flier, not just at the base, but in combat ops in the Middle East where dust storms have battered it to no end.

So each one, unsurprisingly, is due for inspection every 50 hours, said Senior Master Sgt. Dean Peterson, the 920th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron superintendent.

One Pave Hawk sitting in the hangar on Feb. 20 was down for maintenance for eight days because of a corroded wire inside of a cannon plug "somewhere in the aircraft, causing an anomaly in the airplane" Peterson said, which more or less was like finding a needle in a haystack.

The base's location on the water is "great for training missions and ranges," but sea water has taken its toll on the aircraft, added Col. Mike LoForti, commander of the 920th Operations Group.

The 920th has nine G-models that were all built in the 1990s and has roughly 5,800 flying hours.

Capable of flying low, these Pave Hawks have a retractable in-flight refueling probe and internal auxiliary fuel tanks that allow for better range and loiter time during rescue missions.

"Because we're the Reserves, our manning is much lower than it would be somewhere else," Peterson said.

Peterson, who oversees 113 maintainers who work specifically on the HH-60G, said that the Air Force Personnel Center in recent months has struggled to hire more maintainers just for Reserve units.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson last month said that the maintainer shortage has improved, but training must continue to get up-and-coming maintainers more experience.

Perhaps that's true for the active-duty side, Peterson said, but at the 920th Wing, hiring has not caught up to what is needed to properly support the aircraft.

"There's a backlog. If you were working for me and quit today, how long would it take for me to fill that position? Roughly six months to a year," he said.

Peterson said it might be easier to get active-duty maintainers to fill open positions.

"Here, we're civil servants," he said.

When the unit is mobilized, it belongs to Air Combat Command, LoForti said.

All combat search and rescue units aligned under ACC in the mid-2000s from Air Force Special Operations Command.

Leaders have debated moving CSAR back to AFSOC in recent years, which LoForti said wouldn't change their duties. But he said he wondered what that would mean for their aircraft and training.

"My big concern is that, if we ever went under Special Operations Command, they may favor the Osprey over the new [combat rescue helicopter]," LoForti said on the flightline here.

"While we get there faster in an [CV-22] Osprey, I'd rather be an a better armed HH-60 [for] better protection for our folks," he said.

Mix and Match: HC-130

Meanwhile, the 920th is also awaiting an upgrade in HC-130 aircraft.

The wing currently has a mix of HC-130N King and C-130H2 Hercules. It adopted an H2 model from the Pittsburgh Reserve to generate more sorties for pilots and crew.

"It's almost kind of like, two steps forward, one step back," LoForti said, since the Pittsburgh planes are older.

The four Ns remain unmarked because they too are on loan until the 920th can get the Air Force's newest J model. The Air Force chose not to repaint them with the 920th's insignia because of funding reasons, officials here said.

"Because we only have four of these N models right now, we thought we were getting the [HC-130]J model sooner," he said.

The HC-130Ns, acquired from the Alaska Air National Guard, are able to do command and control using modified radio systems. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year, LoForti said the Ns were able to communicate directly and more efficiently with ground control centers while frequencies were scattered or obstructed.

The aircraft also moves the Air Force's "Guardian Angels" personnel recovery and medical care units.

Crews are still preparing for when the base gets the J model, which will require more sorties and manpower because of updated avionics, LoForti said. The 920th, in turn, is pushing to allow for 24-hour maintenance ops just to generate the sorties required, he said.

The wing hopes to acquire six to eight H-C130Js in the early 2020s.

"We're the last unit to receive them," Matthews said.

"If we're going to live up to 'anytime, anywhere,' then we need to make sure that we train to be able to go 'anytime, anywhere,' and that we're resourced adequately with equipment and funding so our reservists are ready," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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