Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mission Scanner Training - SAREX at RHV

By 1st Lt Karin Hollerbach, photos by 2d Lt Roudnev, except as noted

Squadron 80's home at RHV airport.
This past weekend, I participated in the Group 2 SAREX (Search and Rescue Exercise) that was hosted by Squadron 80 at Reid-Hillview airport (RHV).  The primary purpose of the SAREX was to complete the initial training for our most recent batch of Mission Scanner Trainees (MS-Ts). Since a SAREX always takes the coordinated effort of many volunteers, base staff, other aircrew, and ground teams were also able to work on their training and, in some cases, gain new ratings.

For the aircrew, the idea was to conduct several different visual search patterns, and to enable the MS-Ts to practice their search techniques in each. The weather had other plans and threw in some challenges on both Saturday and Sunday!

General briefing from the "briefers" perspective. 
General briefing from the "brief-ees" perspective. 
Maj Brown, having just flown one of the aircraft from LVK. 
I flew our OAK-based aircraft down to RHV, along with two of the MS-Ts, SM Vazquez Gonzales and SM Binninger. Meeting at 6:30 AM at the airplane, we just made it to the 8:00 general briefing!  It’s not that the flight is so long – it only took about 15-20 minutes – but we weren’t quite sure about the weather, including whether we should launch, until after we got out to the run-up area and could see more clearly the clouds to the south.  Launch we did, and ended up having to do a fair amount of flying around clouds to remain safe and legal.

Maj Ironfield (L), Lt Hollerbach (2d L), Lt Col Luneau (2d R) and Capt Heldt (R), talking about the weather...
waiting for the cell to clear out before launching. 

Waiting for that dark grey thing on the left to pass. 
We did make it safely to RHV and joined the briefing.  Not long thereafter, we were ready for our first training sortie and headed out to the ramp – only to decide to wait, when we saw a rather un-forecast cell headed our way from the west.  After waiting for most of it to pass or dissipate somewhat, we started off on our route search.  It’s a good thing we were flying low, since the ceiling wasn’t all that high. However, even successfully avoiding flying into clouds, we found ourselves in visibility down to minimums – and quickly flew toward open sunlight close by. My MS-Ts in the plane may have wondered why I seemed a little stressed.

During that same time, we heard that the ground team, which was out overnight on Saturday, was being sleeted on.  That might have been good training for them, but it did mean that the aircraft assigned to practice air-to-ground communications was unable to fly in that search area.

SM Vazquez Gonzalez ready for her first sortie!
One way or another, all sorties were conducted safely, with no incidents, and we went home exhausted but feeling like excellent training had been accomplished.

They had the right idea: Lt Pierce (L) and Lt Col Luneau (R)
(no longer Maj, despite what his safety vest says). 

Sunday’s weather looked better, and everyone was excited about the possibilities.  Two sorties later, I concluded we definitely had fewer clouds and rain to deal with but still challenging conditions.  By the afternoon, everyone was relieved at the continued improvement and clearing and figured the flights home would be a lot easier.

Proof that we really did fly this weekend!
For us, flying the OAK-based aircraft back to its home, the weather had another surprise: As we got closer to OAK airport, we saw one more cell sitting very close to the airport.  It was a beautiful sight, with clearly defined virga “hanging” in the sky – but not something I wanted to fly into or under!  To avoid it, we flew a little closer to HWD airport than we otherwise would have, causing the controller to describe our approach as a “modified dogleg” and a pilot coming in for landing at another one of OAK’s runways to query suspiciously, “modified how?!”  Where exactly was that little Cessna flying?  Just trying to get safely on the ground, preferably in one piece!
Yep, low ceilings. 

While landing, we were treated to a gorgeous double rainbow!   Moments after we refueled and put the plane in the hangar, the rain and microburst began.  Shortly thereafter we heard it had been hailing in the hills nearby. I was very happy to be warm, dry and safe in the hangar by that time.

The trainees did great – as did everyone organizing the SAREX.  Many thanks to Incident Commander Lt Col Luneau, and his team for all their hard work!

Participating from Squadron 188 were:
SM Towns is ready to go flying. 

  • Maj Ironfield – Planning Section Chief 
  • Maj Brown – Air Operations Branch Director 
  • 1st Lt Hollerbach – Mission Pilot 
  • 2d Lt Roudnev - Mission Radio Operator 
  • 2d Lt Sharma – Mission Observer Trainee 
  • SM Vazquez Gonazalez – MS-T
  • SM Binninger – MS-T
  • SM Ferland – MS-T
  • SM Folger – MS-T
  • SM Towns – MS-T
  • SM Mello – MS-T 

SM Vazquez Gonzalez and Lt Hollerbach back at OAK. The second (outer) rainbow had faded,
but the inner one was still largely visible. Photo by SM Binninger.