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Air Rescue Service Emblem

The Air Rescue Service (ARS) is a disestablished organization in the United States Air Force. Previously a subcommand of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), a USAF major command (MAJCOM), ARS was redesignated as the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) on 1 Jan 1966 when MATS was redesignated as the Military Airlift Command (MAC). As ARRS, it retained the same subcommand status with MAC.

The Air Rescue Service was initially established in 1946 under the Air Transport Command, just prior to the U.S. Air Force's designation as a separate service in 1947, and it continued to serve the U.S. Air Force proudly as both ARS and ARRS during the Korean War and Vietnam War, as well as during the Cold War. Rescue's worth was proven time and again: 996 combat saves in Korea and 2,780 in Southeast Asia. The crews, both fixed-wing and helicopter, had but one motto: "These things we do that others may live."

ARRS returned to its former name of ARS in 1989 and was disestablished in 1993, following the disestablishment of Military Airlift Command and the dispersal of legacy USAF search and rescue (SAR) forces among the Air Combat Command (ACC), the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), to include those Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and Air National Guard (ANG) rescue units operationally-gained by these MAJCOMs. The current structure and strength of search and rescue in today's U.S. Air Force is focused primarily on combat search and rescue (CSAR) and Personnel Recovery (PR) and is greatly reduced from the air rescue force structure that served from 1946 through the end of the Vietnam Era.


There is always a first. In the case of the helicopter, the mainstay of the post-World War II USAF rescue structure, it was Lieutenant Carter Harmon who made the first U.S. Army Air Forces helicopter rescue, in Burma behind Japanese lines on 25-26 Apr 1944. First Air Commando Sergeant Pilot Ed “Murphy” Hladovcak had crash-landed his L-1 aircraft with three wounded British soldiers on board. Taxing his YR-4 helicopter to its performance limits, Harmon made four flights to the site, making the final hasty liftoff just as shouting soldiers burst from the jungle. He learned later the soldiers were not Japanese, but an Allied land rescue party.

In March 1946, the Air Rescue Service was established under the Air Transport Command to provide rescue coverage for the continental United States. By 1949, ARS aircraft covered all the world’s transport routes.

Korea and the Cold War

During the Korean War, the increased use of helicopters on rescue missions became a dominant factor in saving lives. By the time of the Korean Armistice, ARS crews were credited with the rescue of 9,898 United Nations personnel of which 996 were combat saves.

After the Korean War, the USAF Air Rescue Service resumed worldwide operations for rescue coverage and ARS squadrons flew hundreds of humanitarian relief and rescue missions, primarily utilizing the HU-16 Albatross fixed-wing amphibious aircraft and the UH-19 and HH-19 versions of the H-19 Chickasaw helicopter. In 1954, ARS relocated its headquarters to Orlando Air Force Base, Florida.[1]

In the late 1950s, the H-43 Huskie helicopter entered the USAF inventory for use on or in the immediate vicinity of air force bases and air bases, followed by the CH-3E Sea King/HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter and the HC-130 Hercules, a modified version of the C-130 Hercules tactical airlift aircraft, in the mid-1960s.

On 1 January 1966, concurrent with the redesignation of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) as the Military Airlift Command (MAC), the Air Rescue Service was redesignated as the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) to reflect its additional role of worldwide rescue and recovery support for manned U.S. space flights conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Vietnam War

The Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service peacetime force was not equipped, trained, nor structured to meet the demands of war in Southeast Asia in the early 1960s. As lessons were learned, the service's rescue capability continued to increase. During the Vietnam War, ARRS crews would save 4,120 people, with 2,780 of them in combat situations.

At the outset of the Vietnam War, the primary rescue helicopter in the USAF inventory was the HH-43B "Huskie" manufactured by Kaman Aircraft. A fire fighting and enhanced crash rescue capability was added by Kaman as an incentive for selection of the HH-43 by USAF acquisition officials. But the HH-43 was slow, short-ranged and unarmed, having been procured primarily for the local base recovery (LBR) mission at air force bases in the United States and at other U.S. air bases overseas. The LBR concept also included a fire suppression role, with an external AFFF foam bottle and firefighters as part of the flight crew.

During June 1961, the HH-43 helicopters, crews, and support personnel of the various major commands were reassigned from their respective home bases and host wings to the Air Rescue Service in an attempt to unify their command structure. Standardized training and mission concepts were also implemented.

As the Vietnam War escalated, HH-43 rescue detachments from bases in the continental United States (CONUS) were deployed to air bases in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia (SEA) with the new nickname and callsign of “Pedro.” The HH-43B's combat radius of only 75 miles was increased with added fuel drums strapped in the cabin. The HH-43B was eventually replaced with the armored HH-43F model for use in an Area Crew Recovery (ACR) mission role, the HH-43F also possessing additional internal fuel tanks for extended range. The HH-43F units were staffed with USAF Pararescue personnel as part of the combat recovery team and throughout the war, both HH-43B and HH-43F helicopters flew deep into North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. HH-43s accounted for more lives saved than any other rescue helicopter in the Vietnam War.

USAF air rescue team

In July 1965, ARS received its first CH-3C, an aircraft considered an adequate aircrew rescue vehicle. The HH-3E "Jolly Green Giant" and subsequent HH-53B/C "Super Jolly Green Giant" helicopters were manufactured by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. With the introduction of the Lockheed HC-130N and HC-130P, an air-refuelable HH-3E in June 1967, and the delivery of the air-refuelable HH-53B (the first helicopter specifically designed for CSAR operations) later that year (the latter two aircraft both being dual-engined helicopters), the now-renamed Military Airlift Command (MAC) and ARRS considered that they finally had the right force structure for combat rescue operations in Vietnam.[2]

Other aircraft that were on the rescue mission team included the low and slow-flying forward air controllers (FACs) of the Tactical Air Command (TAC), call sign “Nail,” a frequent rescue force component flying the O-1E Bird Dog, and later the O-2A Skymaster.

"Nail" would initially serve as the on-scene commander during a rescue operation until the arrival of USAF HC-130 Hercules aircraft utilizing the call sign of "King," augmented by USAF A-1 Skyraider aircraft utilizing the call sign of "Sandy." The "Nail" aircraft helped locate the downed crewman or crewmen, marking his/their location with smoke for the "Sandys" and pickup helicopter(s) utilizing the callsign of "Pedro" or "Jolly," and directing close air support (CAS) against enemy ground troops.

In 1968, concurrent with the turnover of Orlando AFB to the U.S. Navy and redesignation as Naval Training Center Orlando, ARRS stateside headquarters relocated to Scott AFB, Illinois and embedded in MAC headquarters.

In 1970, TAC-operated OV-10A Bronco aircraft began working with search and rescue forces, replacing the slower unarmed O-1 Bird Dogs and O-2 Skymasters as FAC aircraft. OV-10s equipped with PAVE NAIL night observation equipment could locate survivors at night or in bad weather and helped development of rescue operations relying more on advanced technology than merely courage, firepower and tactics.

One Department of Defense report said that one Air Force search and rescue crewman and two aircraft were lost for every 9.2 recoveries in Vietnam, while the Navy lost a crewman for every 1.8 recoveries.[3]

ARRS had begun to build its reputation as the world's finest combat rescue force. However, the ARRS continued to be plagued by its own shortsightedness, even as new tactics and doctrine for combined rescue operations were developed. As late as October 1970, Colonel Frederick V. Sohle, commander of the 3rd Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Group, would say, "Our development . . . has been a history of relearning lessons already learned by someone else, but who unfortunately could not or did not document it for others to profit by."

This lack of documentation and the inability to integrate an institutional memory among ARRS forces (with the possible exception of the pararescue force) would detrimentally affect Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) units well into the 1980s. Consequently, the CSAR mission became subordinate to daily support and auxiliary mission roles. If one lesson could be drawn from the Vietnam War, it was that an effective CSAR force was needed. Unfortunately, the institutional Air Force failed to learn this lesson well and ARRS assets experienced the same neglect and lack of funding which plagued its ARS predecessor.[4][5]

Post-Vietnam, Cold War, Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Desert Storm

In addition to overseas taskings, stateside taskings for ARRS also continued. Prior to 1974, the Air Force had divided the continental United States into three regions, each with a separate Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. In addition to ARRS aircraft, these AFRCCs also coordinated the use of Civil Air Patrol volunteers and their CAP aircraft and ground support units in their role as the civilian USAF Auxiliary, primarily in searches for missing US civilian general aviation aircraft in the United States, leaving stateside ARRS aircraft and units to concentrate on training, stateside military aircraft mishaps, NASA support, or complex SAR or disaster evolutions that were outside the capability of the air and ground assets of local civilian authorities or the CAP.

In May 1974, the Air Force consolidated the three centers into one facility at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. This single site Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) allowed colocation with Headquarters, Military Airlift Command, provided better coordination of activities, improved communications and economy of operations, and standardized procedures. The newly formed AFRCC also permitted operations with fewer people while creating a more experienced staff.

The withdrawal of US combat forces from the Vietnam War was reminiscent of the massive drawdown of CSAR assets that occurred following the Korean War. After Vietnam, a few notable rescue operations took place, such as the deployment of ARRS helicopters aboard the USS Saipan (LHA 2) in June and August 1979 in support of a possible emergency evacuation of US personnel in Nicaragua following the Communist Sandinista takeover. However, such missions occurred infrequently.

Ironically, a classic contingency/rescue operation proved to be the death knell of the ARRS and, even more ironically, no ARRS helicopter units participated in the operation.

The aborted mission to rescue the American Embassy hostages in Teheran, Iran in the spring of 1980 dramatically demonstrated the need for close, realistic coordination and planning of joint-service operations. While it is easy to speculate after the fact about what we could have done differently to make the mission successful, there was little doubt that the ARRS MH-53E Pave Low III aircraft was better suited to the operation. However, modified U.S. Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion mine sweeping aircraft with U.S. Marine Corps flight crews were used instead.

In multiple analyses of the aborted rescue attempt, two possible reasons for the use of the RH-53D have been postulated: (1) either the Pave Low system was not yet ready for this type of mission because it had just finished lengthy operational testing or, (2) the RH-53D was used to placate the U.S. Marine Corps so they could participate with an aircraft that more closely approximated their own USMC CH-53D Sea Stallions. Certainly, one must concede that Pave Low aircrews, who were trained in the CSAR arena and routinely relied on HC-130s and MC-130s in their daily operations, were the logical choice for this type of mission and had a better aircraft with which to conduct it. Whatever the case, one point is clear: the entire operation was critically dependent on helicopters. As a result of the botched operation, the U.S. Air Force transferred all ARRS HH-53Es (MH-53E Pave Low III aircraft) to the 1st Special Operations Wing (SOW) and what was then Tactical Air Command control in May 1980. This transfer signaled the end of the ARRS's role in CSAR and precipitated the present distinctions between "rescue drivers" and "special operators."

Thus, the ARRS was left with an aging fleet of UH-1/HH-1 Iroquois or "Huey" (various series), CH-3E and HH-3E Jolly Green Giant aircraft, augmented by HC-130N and HC-130P/N Hercules aircraft converted from C-130E airframes. In effect, the ARRS had no means to accomplish the CSAR mission in the threat environment of the 1980s and 1990s. Just as the Polish cavalry of 1939 was all effective force within its own borders, but completely inadequate when confronted by German tanks, so too had the ARRS become an anachronism in a world where contingency and combat rescue operations relied on high-tech avionics and split-second timing. A 20-plus year old aircraft like the UH-1, with 1960s and 1970s avionics, was no longer useful. Nevertheless, the HH-3E continued to provide a measure of effectiveness because of its air-refueling capability and the use of night vision goggles (NVGs). The latter allowed aircrews to operate under the cover of darkness, thus decreasing their vulnerability in low-to-medium threat environments.

Although ARRS no longer had the proper mix of aircraft to conduct modern CSAR operations, it did at least have the foresight to continue to train crews in the CSAR environment, with emphasis on NVG operations. However, the inactivation of the HH-1 CSAR units in September 1987 closed a valuable pipeline of CSAR-trained aircrew members and limited the combat rescue role to a total of four overseas HH-3E Jolly Green Giant units and a stateside MH-60G special operations-capable Pave Hawk squadron. Furthermore, developments in the mid-1980s called into questions whether the MH-60G would continue to be affiliated with ARRS or with Military Airlift Command's newly formed 23rd Air Force for special operations following the divestiture of all USAF special operations forces from Tactical Air Command (TAC).

In August 1989, ARRS was reorganized and reestablished as the Air Rescue Service (ARS) at McClellan AFB, California, again as a subcommand to Military Airlift Command (MAC). However, following Operation DESERT STORM in 1991, subsequent major USAF reorganizations resulted in the disestablishment of Military Airlift Command, the divestment of its C-130* tactical/theater airlift assets to U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and the newly created Air Combat Command (ACC), and the integration of its C-141 and C-5 strategic airlift assets with the KC-135 and KC-10 air refueling aircraft assets of the former Strategic Air Command (SAC) in order to create the new Air Mobility Command.

  • NOTE: ACC C-130 assets would later be transferred back to AMC, while USAFE and PACAF C-130 assets remained under their respective control.

Meanwhile, MAC's former 23rd Air Force became the nucleus for the new Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Subsequent Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions in the 1990s also resulted in McClellan AFB being marked for closure under the BRAC process. Shortly thereafter in 1993, ARS was again disestablished, with most of its CSAR assets transferred to the newly established Air Combat Command (ACC) that had been created by the merger of SAC bomber and strategic reconnaissance forces with the fighter and AWACS assets of the former Tactical Air Command (TAC). Concurrently, a smaller number of forward based CSAR assets in Europe and the Pacific were transferred to USAFE and PACAF, respectively.

In 1993, concurrent with the disestablishment of MAC and the transfer of peacetime and combat search and rescue responsibilities to ACC, the AFRCC relocated from Scott AFB to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. In October 2003, CSAR was temporarily realigned under AFSOC, resulting in what was thought would be a merger of Regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard HC-130P/N assets with MC-130P Combat Shadow assets and integration of HH-60G Pave Hawk assets with MH-53J/M Pave Low IV assets. However, this merger proved to be short-lived and the HC-130P/N and HH-60G CSAR assets were ultimately transferred back to ACC claimancy in 2005.

During the temporary assignment of the CSAR mission to AFSOC, the AFRCC remained at Langley AFB. However, on 1 Mar 2006, following the transfer of CSAR assets back to ACC, the AFRCC was realigned under 1st Air Force/Air Forces North (AFNORTH), the Air Force component command to the newly established U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the ACC's Numbered Air Force for the air defense fighter assets of the Air National Guard. As a result, the AFRCC relocated to Tyndall AFB, Florida, where it is now consolidated with the 601st Air Operations Center (601 AOC), giving it greater ability to leverage Air Force air and space capabilities that can be applied to search and rescue operations in the continental United States.

The AFNORTH/1AF AOC also gained the responsibility for executing aerial search rescue, and associated personnel recovery operations, for civilian and military aircraft overland in the NORAD-USNORTHCOM area of operations. This resulted in greater efficiencies and capabilities for military personnel and civilians alike.

Current Rescue & Guardian Angel Unit Designations

The bulk of today's USAF air rescue mission continues to come under the cognizance of the Air Combat Command (ACC). Guardian Angel squadrons are the Air Force's human/equipment-based weapon system that executes all five tasks of personnel recovery - report, locate, support, recover and reintegrate, and consists of pararescuemen, survival specialists, and combat rescue officers. Enlisted Pararescuemen and commissioned Combat Rescue Officers (CROs) in Guardian Angel recovery teams deploy into uncertain or hostile environments independently or in conjunction with rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, watercraft, and overland vehicles in order to locate, authenticate, and recover isolated personnel for return to friendly lines.[6]

Regular Air Force

As of 1 October 2011, operational ACC rescue units are as follows:

The 347 RQG has one HC-130P/N squadron, the 71st Rescue Squadron (71 RQS), one HH-60G squadron, the 41 RQS, and one Guardian Angel Pararescue squadron, the 38 RQS.

The 563 RQG has one HC-130P/N squadron, the 79 RQS, two HH-60G squadrons, the 55 RQS at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona and the 66 RQS at Nellis AFB, Nevada, and two Guardian Angel Pararescue squadrons, the 48 RQS at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona and the 58 RQS at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

Air-sea rescue and CSAR assets are also assigned to Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), and United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), specifically:

In this arrangement, the 31 RQS (Pararescue) and 33 RQS (HH-60G) typically provide support throughout the Western Pacific region, while the 56 RQS provides support in Great Britain and Western Europe.

Current CSAR aircraft assets in the Active Air Force include the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, the HC-130P/N Hercules "Combat King" aircraft, and the A-10 Thunderbolt II (also known as the "Warthog") close air support attack aircraft. In FY 2008, the A-10s of the 23rd Fighter Group previously based at Pope AFB, North Carolina, relocated back to their previous base of Moody AFB, Georgia where they joined their parent 23rd Wing.

In a similar arrangement, the 563 RQG relies on the colocated A-10s of the 355th Fighter Wing at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. Like their A-1 Skyraider and A-7 Corsair II predecessors, the A-10s, designed for close-air support, continue to use the "Sandy" call sign and are woven tightly into CSAR operations. When involved in the CSAR mission, A-10s can neutralize enemy threats to friendly survivors on the ground and engage hostile forces with GAU-8 30 mm Gatling gun unique to the A-10. The GAU-8 allows the A-10 to fire on enemy targets with precision in close proximity to friendly forces. A-10s also escort HH-60 helicopters and HC-130s during rescue operations. In addition to the aforemntioned A-10 units, other fighter wings and composite wings operating the A-10 in USAFE, PACAF, the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and the Air National Guard (ANG) also routinely exercise and operate with rescue units in the CSAR mission.

Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard

Additional CSAR forces also exist in the Air Reserve Component (ARC), composed of both the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) and the Air National Guard (ANG).

In the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), the ACC-gained 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick AFB, Florida is structured for both CSAR and peacetime SAR, to include principal DoD responsibility for manned spaceflight rescue support to NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center, as well as Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA), such as those the wing provided in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The 920 RQW's operational capability is centered around the following units at Patrick AFB:

The 920 RQW also contains additional Geographically Separated Units (GSUs) consisting of the:

In the Air National Guard, the ACC-gained New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base (former Suffolk County AFB), New York is structured similar to the Air Force Reserve's 920 RQW. The major difference between these two wings is that in the 106 RQW, all operational capability is centered on a single composite-organized rescue squadron, the 102nd Rescue Squadron (102 RQS), merging HC-130P/N, HH-60G and Pararescue assets into a single squadron. The 102 RQS is also the oldest Air National Guard unit in the United States, tracing its roots back to the 1st Aero Squadron which was formed in New York in 1908.

Two additional "hybrid" rescue units are also present in the Air National Guard. The California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing (129 RQW) is based at Moffett Federal Airfield (former Naval Air Station Moffett Field), California with operational capability centered in the 129 RQS (HH-60G), 130 RQS (MC-130P) and 131 RQS (Pararescue). Although the 129 RQW is still considered a "Rescue" wing, the 130 RQS is actually equipped with the MC-130P Hercules "Combat Shadow" variant, an AFSOC asset.

The Alaska Air National Guard's 176th Wing, a PACAF-gained composite wing formerly located at Kulis Air National Guard Base and now located at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, also contains both a conventional air-sea rescue and CSAR capability resident in the 210 RQS (HH-60G), 211 RQS (HC-130P/N) and 212 RQS (Pararescue).

Among these various remaining CSAR forces, the 23rd Wing is now considered the principal CSAR organization for the U.S. Air Force and carries the heritage and banner of the renowned Flying Tigers, which fought against the Japanese in World War II and earned fame by advancing tactically against Japan's multiple successes early in the war. But while the banner and shield of the old "Air Rescue Angel" has been committed to Air Force history, the banner is still near and dear in the hearts of all Air Force CSAR personnel, committed to the credo of "These things we do, that others may live."


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