CAMP NAVAJO, Ariz. — Still fresh in the career field with only about 100 aircraft hours under his belt, a cross-trained staff sergeant found himself in a heart-pounding situation that he still remembers vividly to this day.
The objective was to rescue an isolated individual in a non-threatening, training scenario. But what seemed to be a routine mission became very frightening as he helped an HH-60G Pave Hawk position to execute a one-wheel hover, leaving its rotor blades only 10 feet away from the side of a cliff.
“That was scary, because I had never seen the aircraft rotors so close to an obstacle that it wouldn’t recover from hitting,” he recalled of the mission from his first Angel Thunder.
That mission and Angel Thunder as a whole left an impression on the former precision measurement equipment laboratory Airman who said he saw and learned a lot of new things during that time.
“It was really eye-opening,” he explained. “[I went] from a really controlled training environment that we get from AETC (Air Education and Training Command) with a regimented training program to a really free-formatted, malleable exercise like Angel Thunder where you can basically expect anything to happen.”
Five years later and now with about 1,500 hours in the HH-60, U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Vincent Hnat, 41st Rescue Squadron (RQS) special missions aviator out of Moody Air Force Base, Ga., recently participated in his fourth Angel Thunder exercise in a row and much has changed since his first.
As a special missions aviator, also referred to as a flight engineer, Hnat’s responsibilities include manning the HH-60’s gun, operating rescue hoists, running emergency procedure checklists and ensuring the safety of passengers and equipment, to name a few. But there are a certain set of skills he’s developed over time that can’t be found in a technical order or an Air Force instruction.
“During my first Angel Thunder, I was just doing my best to take as many notes as I could and ask as many silly questions as I could, while trying to get a grip on the different dynamic situations we were being thrown into,” said the Ann Arbor, Mich., native. “Now it’s my job to instruct other people on where to find answers to the questions they may have or even what questions they should be thinking about, because if you haven’t experienced an exercise like this before, then you don’t even know what questions you need to be asking.”
Mentoring younger Airmen is something Hnat says is important when it comes to getting the job done the right way.
“Training people to have the right mindset for this job is pretty critical,” he stressed. “In many jobs, doing the minimum is acceptable, but in our job, doing the minimum could get people hurt. So you always have to go above and beyond in all the things you do in this job. Teaching people to have that mindset is why I’m here.”
Capt. Eric Schneck, 41st RQS assistant director of operations, first met Hnat in 2010 during a deployment to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. For Hnat, it was only about a year after he had entered the career field, but he had already developed into being a go-to Airman.
“I was a pretty young co-pilot, and Hnat was already one of the more experienced guys,” Schneck said. “He was already well respected in the [HH-60] community. Seeing him go from just a flight engineer then to being an evaluator flight engineer now has been a big jump. He’s easily one of the best leaders in the community, and he’s been a driving force behind the rest of the enlisted [Airmen].
“I’ll take Hnat on my crew any day,” he went on to say. “He’s the guy you count on to get stuff done right the first time, and he’s also the guy you count on to make sure the younger guys know what to do, what to expect and how to employ whenever the time comes. He’s going to let them makes some mistakes, he’s going to correct it and he’s one the humblest and most approachable instructors we have.”
Another aspect of the job Hnat takes pride in is the mission planning process. One mission in particular he helped plan during Angel Thunder lasted nearly 14 consecutive hours and involved two air refuels to a location more than 350 miles from initial take off.
“Thinking about all the different aspects of mission planning, you start out with the survivor,” he said. “First you have to locate that survivor. Once you locate that survivor, you have to start expanding a bubble around him in order to figure out how you’re going to pick that person up. If that survivor is surrounded by a significant amount of enemy presence, then you have to think about other assets and aircraft we can utilize as the recover vehicle in order to pick up [that person] safely.”
Hnat began his journey as a special missions aviator with the 55th RQS at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. He’s since been on four deployments and says Angel Thunder is a great way to catch up with people he’s come across over the years.
“One thing I definitely look forward to during Angel Thunder time is meeting all my friends and colleagues from previous deployments or previous duty stations,” he said. “Pretty much, all of the 23d Wing gets together, and sometimes even rescue assets from outside of our wing such as [Air National] Guard and [Air Force] Reserve units [are present]. These are people I’ve worked with over the course of the last five years … and we’re a really close community.”