(January 23, 2003) CNN Sean Callebs, who has been shadowing the U.S. Air Force's 347th Rescue Wing, filed this report Thursday from Moody Air Force Base in South Georgia.
MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia (CNN) -- We all really looked forward to coming out on this, and I can say it has exceeded every one of our expectations. These guys are pretty amazing.
They are a very elite group of Air Force troops. There are only about 300 of them in the Air Force. If a pilot is shot down or if a small number of ground troops is on a mission and it goes wrong, their job [the Rescue Wing] is to get in and rescue those people.
I've been here with them for about 72 hours. We went out on a night mission and then a day mission.
On the night mission, we went out on a CH-130 Hercules -- that's the big cargo aircraft -- and we were in the air more than four hours as they went through various missions. They pushed their RAMZ -- that's basically a Zodiac or a big raft-type thing with a motor on it. It weighed 700 pounds. They pushed it out of the back of the cargo plane at 3,500 feet.
After they pushed it out, all five of them parachuted out into the ocean in the middle of the night. Then they had to deploy the raft, unfold it, make sure it was inflated, get all the water out of the engine and then go to a certain place to do a mock rescue.
Once the green light comes on and they have to drop, everybody is out of the plane in 30 seconds -- the Zodiac and all five people. Once they hit the water, within 10 minutes they are all in the Zodiac moving. They have to move that quickly.
I didn't jump. But part of their job is releasing pyrotechnics. If they are going to an area, and they need to light it up, they send up these huge flares. We did get to put some of those out of the back of the aircraft.
They open up the whole back of the aircraft to jump. We were tethered. We had night vision goggles on because all the lights were off. And once they opened it up, it was like dawn outside. It was pitch black, but you could see everything. We could walk right up to the very edge of where the cargo doors were open and look straight off into the expanse. We checked our tethers more than once.
The next day, we were on a daytime training mission. We were in the helicopter, and all the doors were open. You're riding along and kind of enjoying the ride, looking out at South Georgia.
All of a sudden, the pilot would bank into some wicked turn, and you're grabbing the bottom of it real intensely because you're thinking you're going to get tossed out of the side of it. Then you look over, and the para-rescue man is eating a bowl of pasta or taking a nap. It's just amazing how their minds are set.
We could listen to everything they were saying on the [intercom], and periodically they would say, "How are our visitors?" They gave us airsickness bags, but none of us had to use them.
On one of the day mission rescues, they repelled out of a helicopter about 75 feet down to the ground. These guys had rucksacks that weighed about 60 pounds. They were wearing body armor. They had M-4s as well as sidearms, plus they had medical kits. That training mission was designed to secure the area, treat a pilot's wounds and get him to safety.
In another mission called a snatch-and-grab, the rescue of a pilot happens much quicker.
A rescuer dangles from a rope, touches down and throws a harness over the pilot. Within seconds, the helicopter takes off again. It's physically exhausting for these guys.
We worked probably 18 hours a day the last three days. We're all kind of dragging now, and the guy we've flown with the last two days just came out, and he looks great.