Mimicking the nighttime rescue of a downed F-35 aircraft pilot, members of NAS Patuxent River’s Search and Rescue (SAR) team underwent rigorous rescue swimmer practical training in the pool at the Aviation Survival Training Center (ASTC), Oct. 1.

The scene was dimly lit and noisy, and a spray machine simulating the rotor wash of a hovering helicopter only added to the chaos as rescue swimmers were lowered into the pool via hoist to retrieve a distressed aviator bobbing in the water below.

“The training is for our survival swimmers’ proficiency,” said Lt. Wendy Zehner, SAR plans and training coordinator. “The ASTC facility has a lot more to offer than just the base swimming pool. It has a mock rescue hoist, water nozzles and jets that simulate both the ocean’s current and spray from a helicopter, nighttime simulation, and can play a recording of actual [spinning] rotors. It makes it much more realistic for the swimmers.”

The mock survivor, played by a SAR medical technician (SMT), was dressed in authentic F-35 flight gear.

“There’s a connection point with the F-35 gear, two straps where the swimmer will connect himself to the survivor and also to the hoist so they can both be hoisted up simultaneously,” Zehner explained. “There was also other gear used, like a rescue strop that goes around the survivor’s torso and legs. It’s called a ‘double lift’ and the rescue swimmer attaches it to themself and the survivor to be lifted up into the helicopter. In this case, the hoist was anchored to a platform above the pool to simulate the action that would happen in an actual SAR event.”

In addition to rescue swimmers, a prospective SMT also participated in the training.

“We simulated some injuries on the survivor and our SMT had to do a medical evaluation,” Zehner noted. “Qualified SMTs evaluated the prospective SMT and we had a qualified swimmer serving on-deck and in the water as a safety observer to make sure all proper procedures were being followed.”

The team ran out of time before they could practice parachute disentanglement.

“We would’ve had a survivor in the water simulating an aviator who had ejected but was not coherent enough to disengage their parachute,” Zehner said. “Our training involves getting them away from the parachute and disconnecting them from it so we can affect a rescue. Since we ran out of time, we’ll probably start with that training next time we’re there.”

Though SAR swimmers must complete annual training requirements, and do conduct regular proficiency training in the Pax River pool, they try to take advantage of the advanced equipment at ASTC whenever they can.

“We currently have a temporary agreement for two times a month,” Zehner added, “but I’m working to get a memorandum of understanding for the foreseeable future to have this training at least monthly.”

With the motto “So others may live,” the mission of the naval aviation rescue swimmer is to execute search and rescue operations from rotary wing aircraft, possibly in treacherous conditions, and they must be mentally and physically able to carry out that mission. Serving at Pax River is considered shore duty for the SAR team, who stand on alert whenever aviation testing takes place over the Atlantic Ocean.