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Airmen come to the rescue

DAVIS-MONTHAN AFB, Ariz. -- Airmen from the 563rd Rescue Group here jumped to action Oct. 17 saving 17 people who became stranded while hiking in a remote area of Mexico. 

Adverse weather trapped an American hiker and 16 Mexican rescue workers on a mountainside 60 miles southeast of San Diego on the Baja peninsula, as they attempted to retrieve the remains of another American hiker. 

“Our mission is all about saving lives,” said Maj. Pedro Ortiz, one of the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter pilots who flew on the recovery mission. 

The primary mission of the rescue group is combat search and rescue, and the pararescuemen in the back of the Pave Hawk are specially trained to find and rescue people wherever and whenever needed. 

Pararescuemen, also known as PJ’s, are trained EMT paramedics. In addition, they have special operations skills such as SCUBA, static and high altitude parachuting, and weapons. 

The initial call for help came during the evening of Oct. 16, said Lt. Col. Douglas Galipeau, 563rd RQG deputy commander. The group notified the squadrons to alert people and start preparations. 

The 48th Rescue Squadron pararescuemen prepared the needed rescue equipment for the expected terrain, the 79th RQS focused on obtaining permissions for taking their HC-130P/Ts into Mexican airspace and the 55th RQS prepared two HH-60s. 

“Each unit did their own level of planning and generated an overall plan covering the requirements for everyone,” said Capt. Michael Gallagher, a 79th RQS navigator who flew with the HC-130 during the mission. 

After being on stand-by for nearly 17 hours, the call to action came late in the morning on Oct. 17 and three aircraft and 18 crewmembers took off for Mexico. 

The five-and-a-half hour round-trip flight from Davis-Monthan to Mexico included a stop at the Mexicali airport to pick up a guide and translator who took them to the stranded individuals. 

 When the team arrived at the rescue site, a team of PJs hoisted down from the Pave Hawk and assessed the situation. 

“We were lucky that the people had put themselves in a position that we could use the hoist,” said Master Sgt. Neil McCready, a Pave Hawk flight engineer who participated in the rescue. 

After three airlifts, the crews rescued the 17 hikers and recovered the deceased hiker. They dropped the people off at a base camp nearby, where a group of vehicles took them to medical care as needed. 

“It was a textbook recovery mission,” Sergeant McCready said. “It’s good to continue what we’ve been doing all over the world.” 

While a call at home on a Sunday evening is not typical for these Airmen, the call to rescue and pull together resources for one mission isn’t uncommon. 

“The planning is typical of what we’d do in Afghanistan or Iraq,” Major Ortiz said. 

Davis-Monthan’s location in the desert and mountainous terrain of Tucson allow Airmen from the 563rd to hone their skills for the hot, dry climate of the southwest and similar areas around the globe. 

In the past year, the same crews have operated in deployed locations rescuing their brothers and sisters in arms, as well as in the Gulf Coast states where they rescued Americans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 

“I think that Monday proves our ability to act on very short notice with very little (information) and still be successful,” Colonel Galipeau said. “Our motto is ‘So others may live,’ and this is a classic example of us living up to that motto.”