An Air Force pararescueman walks with his gear during the Angel Thunder exercise Oct. 11, 2011, at Roosevelt Lake, Ariz. The next Angel Thunder exercise begins April 8 in Arizona, including locations at the Grand Canyon and San Clemente Island, Calif. (Airman 1st Class Christine Griffiths / Air Force)
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The largest search and rescue exercise in the world is about to kick off, with the Air Force leading scenarios based on real-life problems the military and civilian agencies are likely to experience.
Exercise Angel Thunder, kicking off April 8 in the Arizona desert, features more than 2,000 personnel from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, civilian agencies and international partners, with 23 ships and 87 aircraft. The Air Force is flying its Pave Hawks, A-10s, tankers and intelligence aircraft for the two-week exercise, which will range from the Grand Canyon to San Clemente Island in California.
“The rescue exercise is crafted and executed by rescue professionals for rescue personnel,” said Col. Jason Hanover, exercise director and the 563rd Rescue Group commander at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. “Each year we take a look at the operating environment, craft scenarios that are relevant to what’s going on in the world.”
Hanover said the planners of the yearly exercise reach out to combatant commands and ask them, “What personnel recovery situations keep you up at night?”
Officials wanted to keep a tight lip on this year’s scenarios, making sure they are an “unpleasant surprise” for those involved, Hanover said. Previous years included combat scenarios and simulated natural disasters.
The training is also for 14 Air Force and Air National Guard rescue squadrons, with the full Guardian Angel Teams and their HH-60 Pave Hawks heavily involved. The Navy’s 3rd Fleet will participate in air-sea battle training at San Clemente, and the Marine Corps will bring reconnaissance and radio battalions.
While the physical action and kicking down doors is an important part of the training, the most important takeaway is for the crews to be able to form a coherent chain of command through multiple agencies, even involving other countries, and be able to respond and save lives, Hanover said.
“It’s going to be thinking, problem solving … not as much the stick-and-rudder skills, which our guys are greatest in the world at,” Hanover said.
Academic training and early planning begins April 8, with flights and exercises lasting until April 21. The previous iteration was held in October 2011, and planners are expecting now it will be yearly every spring, said Brett Hartnett, a retired rescue pilot and technical manager and co-director of the exercise. It started as an exercise for just the Air Force combat search and rescue community, before becoming the Air Combat Command official search and rescue exercise. Eventually, it was certified Air Force- and then Defense Department-wide in 2006.
Planning for this year’s event began 18 months ago, before sequestration became a reality. And since it is included in training for deploying units, it did not face cancellation like other Air Force exercises, such as Red Flag-Alaska. The exercise has a total budget of about $1.75 million, and it will include an increase in simulations as a way to cut costs and flying hours, Hanover said.
“It’s one of our real strengths,” Hartnett said. “With the amount of training we provide, we’re extremely cheap. Which is why we survived.”