Sunday, December 17, 2006

The View From Above

Viewers of this weekend's rescue drama on Mount Hood heard numerous references to "National Guard C-130s" that are circling the mountain around the clock.

Those aircraft are actually specially-configured C-130s, assigned to the 152nd Airlift Wing of the Navada Air National Guard, and based in Reno. The C-130s are equipped with an advanced surveillance system called Scathe View, which provides real-time electro-optical and infra-red imagery. Images captured by the system are down-linked to stations on the ground, allowing instant analysis of unfolding events. At least one of the ground stations is man-portable, and wieghs less than 10 pounds. It's unclear if one of those devices was being used by Air Force pararescuemen conducting the search on Mount Hood. At a minimum, the Scathe View C-130s can radio information to search personnel and helicopters, helping them target their efforts more efficiently.

Scathe View was developed by Alliant Techsystems, a Minneapolis-based defense contractor. While the systems origins pre-date the War on Terror, the fielding of Scathe View received an added impetus with the advent of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the system's value in search-and-rescue (SAR) operations was demonstrated during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Scathe View helped direct rescue teams in New Orleans and other locations.

Since the conclusion of SAR efforts in the Gulf South, Scathe View assets assigned to the 152nd have been deployed to Iraq, where the sensors have been highly useful in detecting insurgent activity. Participation of the platform in the Mount Hood operation was almost an accident, the product of a low-density/high-demand aircraft and sensor system that was streched thin by a prolonged combat deployment.

With its unique capabilities, the 152nd also serves as its own "school house," training crews in the employment of Scathe View, including the imagery operators who control the on-boad sensors. But the extended stay in Iraq wreaked havoc with unit training programs, aircraft depot maintenance and crew rotations. Making matters worse, some members of the unit were reportedly reaching their deployment "limit" under the regulations that govern ANG assets. Earlier this year, the Guard Bureau and the Air Force decided to bring Scathe View home for a spell, allowing the platform and crews to take a break, and catch-up on required maintenance and training. The Scathe View-equipped C-130s returned from the desert last summer, and they'll probably redeploy sometime in 2007.

Had the powers-that-be not decided to give the 152nd a needed "break," those aircraft would likely still be in Iraq, and unavailable for the Mount Hood rescue mission. Results of that mission have been tragic so far, but the search would have been infinitely more difficult without those Scathe View C-130s.


Addendum: those "parajumpers" the TV anchors kept referring to are Air Force pararescue jumpers (or PJs), assigned to the 304th Rescue Squadron. Members of the 304th (which is part of the Air Force Reserve) have served extensively in Afghanistan, further honing their mountain rescue skills. The PJs and helicopter crews of the 304th deserve tremendous credit for their role in getting rescue teams to the summit, despite the dangers associated with mountain operations. Those dangers were captured by a TV news helicopter in May 2002, when a 304th helicopter crashed on Mount Hood while trying to rescue a stranded climber. Minutes later, a second HH-60 braved swirling winds to rescue the hiker and the first crew, who survived the crash.

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