When things go wrong, the Air Force's Combat Search and Rescue teams are the first to get the call.
The parajumpers on these teams are real-life Spidermen who parachute from HC-130s, dive with SCUBA gear, and scale mountains. It was a CSAR helicopter that crashed during a dangerous rescue on Mount Hood. PJs braved "The Perfect Storm" in an attempt to rescue the trapped fishermen. And if the Space Shuttle has a problem on liftoff, PJs are trained to rescue ejected astronauts.
The teams consist of HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, big-bellied HC-130 transport and refueling planes, and A-10 attack jets. Pilots and gunners fly the planes and provide cover for the parajumpers, who hit the ground to perform rescues.
While CSAR men pack serious firepower, their motto is: "These things we do that others may live."
"We hope we never have to do our job," said Tech Sergeant "Chino," a member of a CASR team based out of Portland, Ore. and stationed on an air base in Kuwait. "But we're ready when called."
The search and rescue team here got the call yesterday at 4:30 a.m.
The team was called out when a British plane was reported down. (It was later discovered that a US Patriot missile had downed the Tornado. There were no survivors.) While investigating the Tornado crash, the team was diverted deep into Iraq in order to rescue seven Special Operations soldiers. The team took fire from anti-aircraft guns and missiles as they came in low, and cut through smoke and haze rising up from burning oil trenches.
Once, the crew crossed a road at 50 feet and saw a driver bail out of his truck in fear of the aircraft above. When the driver looked up and saw the American flag painted on the helicopter, he started waving and got back into his truck. In southern Iraq, they said many civilians waved from the ground.
"As we got deeper into where we were [going], they didn't wave as much," said Major "T.C." of the 920th Rescue Wing out of Florida. Indeed, today's downing of a helicopter allegedly by Iraqi farmers adds to other evidence that not everyone in Iraq wants to be "liberated."
When he is called on a mission, Chino says he immediately becomes focused. On March 27, 1999, the third night of US bombing over Serbia, Chino and his crew heard a distress signal from a pilot who had been shot down.
"In situations like [that], feelings get put aside," said Chino. "It's like shooting hoops in basketball. Your body knows what it's supposed to do."
In 30 minutes, the rescue team lifted off into a dark foggy night. They were carrying rescue gear but more importantly, they had with them code numbers as well as personal information about the pilot that only he would know. What they didn't know was where the pilot was. Although pilots carry locating devices, they can't pinpoint exact locations.
The night mission was complicated by the weather. Spring in the Balkans meant rain, fog, and low clouds, so it was unlikely they would see the pilot from the air. And their radar systems were being jammed.
The Serbs knew there was a downed pilot, Chino said, and they were just as eager to find him. The crew didn't know if the pilot had been captured. "The feeling was that this was a race," said Chino. "Game on."
As they got close to the crash scene, Chino's helicopter came in "low, low, low," with the deck flying 25 to 50 feet over the ground, just above the treetops of the thick, mountain forests.
The pilot fired his rescue flares when he heard the choppers, signaling to the rescue team that there was no ambush ahead. Several times, the crew and the pilot exchanged an information "handshake" for mutual authentication.
The pilot ran into a field where the helicopter could land. Chino jumped off. The two men exchanged a final "secret handshake."
"He was actually surprisingly calm - someone who looked like he'd been working pretty hard over the last few hours. He was dirty," said Chino. But, most of all, the pilot looked relieved to see friendly faces. Forty-three seconds after the helicopter touched down it was back in the air with the pilot safe.
"Our aim is to get in and get out without firing a shot," said Chino. "If we've done that, we've done [our job] to the best of our ability."
Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).