Spending Saturday as victims in a simulated disaster scene at the Grand Canyon National Park was all in a day’s work for 50 U.S. Air Force personnel as part of the two-week pararescue exercise Angel Thunder 2013. On April 13, almost 200 D-M Airmen, University of Arizona ROTC cadets, Arizona State University ROTC cadets and Northern Arizona University ROTC cadets gathered in the early morning hours to be moulaged with makeup and imitation wounds to prepare them for their roles as victims. They spent the next 15 hours in four Angel Thunder exercise scenarios in which rescuers from national agencies, Arizona and New Mexico state agencies, and the Air Force would come to their aid in a Defense Support to Civil Authorities mission.
“These exercises are designed to hone the skills of our rescue assets who are called to the aid of individuals and nations in a variety of situations, all of them extremely difficult,” said Brett Hartnett, Angel Thunder Exercise Director. “From finding isolated personnel in high-altitude forests, bringing individuals back to safety from falling off the Grand Canyon cliff walls, and rescuing people who have gotten swept away in a rushing river, we used Saturday’s part of the exercise to simulate a very significant aspect of the Department of Defense in support to overwhelmed civil authorities.”
On Saturday, the National Park Service, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Arizona and New Mexico Civil Air Patrol were a few of the many agencies who requested urgent support from the Department of Defense in response to a virtual earthquake that overwhelmed the civil rescue resources.
Air Force personnel and cadets from NAU were flown to the Grand Canyon in a Colombian C-130 to pre-stage the disaster scene that greeted the rescuers.
Upon arriving two and a half hours later, the National Park Service Rangers, local fire departments, paramedics and Air Force rescue personnel discovered a vehicle fire due to a crash of two cars and a Park bus, which resulted in over 60 casualties spread over the picturesque Yaki Point and over the cliff walls of the Grand Canyon.
Meanwhile, about 75 D-M personnel and cadets from UofA and ASU were flown in three U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the 7-158 Aviation Battalion, and one CH-47 from the Singapore Air Force, to locations in the Gila Mountain Range straddling the border of Arizona and New Mexico.
“These personnel simulated a situation in which you have a disaster and you need to find those who are isolated and injured, bringing them to safety in sufficient time so that they do not perish from their wounds,” said Maj. Kenneth Knox, 355th Fighter Wing Plans and Programs and Resolute Angel exercise director. “They do not have the training to survive long in the wilderness, nor the means to call for help other than their own voices, similar to the situations we encountered in Haiti, and after Hurricane Katrina, when we were called to assist civil authorities.”
Additionally, Russ Dodge, the Chief Medic with the Arizona Department of Public Safety Rescue Department, staged a scenario in which individuals were swept away by a rushing river in the Salt River Canyon, Arizona.
“Every year, more people are killed in floods or moving water than any other natural disaster, that’s why it’s so important that rescuers are able to execute their mission as quickly and safely as possible,” he said. “That’s something that this exercise trains them to do.”
Dodge staged simulated victims, and dummies who were victims that had perished and needed to be recovered, throughout one of the most dangerous areas of the Salt River Canyon. His team conducted training with Air Force rescue personnel during the training week of Angel Thunder, this scenario was designed to evaluate the effectiveness of that training and present rescuers with an intense scene that could not be replicated in academic situations.
“Angel Thunder is always our favorite time of year,” said Clare DeLillo, UofA cadet. “It’s an awesome way to get involved in the operational side of the Air Force for a day. Plus putting the rescue guys through the ringer is always fun.”
Angel Thunder is the world’s largest and most realistic training exercise for rescue personnel and assets. This year Angel Thunder is training from off the coast of San Diego to New Mexico, a land area roughly the size of Afghanistan.
“We specifically designed this exercise to stress our units and hone their rescue skills in civil scenarios so that when they are called to assist in defense support to civil authorities they would be able to seamlessly synergize with civil rescuers,” Hartnett said. “Additionally we increased the intensity of our combat scenarios in Combat Search and Rescue missions, because this is the hardest part of what we do and in order to remain the best at what we do, we must push ourselves 110 percent when we train.”