Story by Dhruv Gopinath.
Wherever U.S. service members may find themselves, Air Force rescue squadrons stand ready to rapidly mobilize, deploy and employ to provide combat and peacetime search and rescue in support of U.S. national security interests. In the Horn of Africa and the 449th Air Expeditionary Group’s area of responsibility, that task falls on members of the 303rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron and their HH-60W Jolly Green IIs.
“Our role in supporting airpower in East Africa includes providing a continuous 24/7 personnel recovery capability for all U.S. and allied air-assets,” says Capt. John Rudy, 303d ERQS director of operations. “If any emergency occurs, we can respond immediately to rescue those downed aircrew members.”
The geography and situation on the ground in the Horn of Africa create challenges that members of the 303d ERQS plan meticulously around to make sure they can complete their missions.
Photo: U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Justin Frawley, center right, is a special missions aviator assigned to the 303rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron in the Horn of Africa. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Dhruv Gopinath).
“East Africa is massive, which creates time, distance, and fuel considerations which impact the mission and require quick coordination to ensure we have what we need to get to the survivor,” says Tech. Sgt. Justin Frawley, an HH-60W Special Mission Aviator with the 303d ERQS. “This forces us to be critical thinkers and come up with sound game plans on the fly.”
When the mission relies on saving lives, it’s critical for members of the 303rd ERQS to maintain not only a high level of readiness but to also be on the same page as their mission partners.
“We work hard to maintain a high level of proficiency with our aircraft and to keep up with current events in our area of responsibility,” says Frawley. “We integrate with multiple units from different services, so every situation we encounter is unique and must be solved differently in order to achieve mission success. Since we deal in lives, our mission cannot fail.”
Working in service of others is a key theme for members of the 303rd, something which is often a family tradition.
Photo: A U.S. Air Force HH-60W Jolly Green II assigned to the 303rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron sits on the flightline at an undisclosed location in the Horn of Africa, Sept. 4, 2023. (Courtesy photo, Tech. Sgt. Dhruv Gopinath)
“My family has been serving in the military since World War II,” says SrA Bryan Estes, an electrical and environmental journeyman assigned to the 303d ERQS. “To carry on that tradition, I chose this job and I felt this position would allow me to contribute the most toward the mission.”
For Estes, whose home station is Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, being deployed to East Africa has been an eye-opening experience and provided him with a different perspective on the job he performs.
“Out here, there is a heightened sense of purpose because we directly witness the impact of our work we’re a much smaller group of maintenance personnel, so every career field gets to see and learn first-hand how everyone else works,” says Estes. “Seeing the results of what we do first-hand is one of the most rewarding things I have ever experienced in my career.”
The 303rd has been kept busy, not only working with joint forces but with local partners as well.
Photo: U.S. Air Force Capt. John Rudy, 303rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron director of operations, pilots an HH-60W Jolly Green II over the Horn of Africa, Sept. 5, 2023. (Courtesy photo by Tech. Sgt. Dhruv Gopinath)
“Along with maintaining our personnel recovery alert, our primary task here has been casualty evacuation for local forces in their fight against violent extremist organizations,” says Rudy. “Our ability to launch immediately following the report of injuries and capability to land directly at the point of injury with our highly-skilled pararescue brethren gives our partner force members the best chances of survival after sustaining life-threatening injuries.”
No matter how far from home the members of the 303d ERQS may find themselves, their unique mission and the close bonds they share make the deployment experience incredibly memorable.
“We get to fly, shoot guns and save lives with our best friends,” says Frawley. “Out here I’m a part of the best community the DOD has to offer!”
This story by Tech. Sgt. Dhruv Gopinath of the 406th Air Expeditionary Wing was first published on September 8, 2023, by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. Image derived from CIA map and photos courtesy of DVIDS (photos by Tech. Sgt. Dhruv Gopinath, Sep 2023).