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By Staff Sgt. Bailee A. Darbasie
628th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Four Joint Base Charleston Airmen were involved in a successful search-and-rescue operation off the coast of Rota, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, July 10.
French, Canadian and U.S. Forces participating in Mobility Guardian 2023 were conducting exercise operations when a real-world distress signal came through, prompting their assistance to save the lives of 11 civilians onboard a disabled fishing vessel adrift in dangerous waters.
The first aircraft to respond was a French Air and Space Force A400M Atlas. The crew included Maj. Emily Smith, from the 628th Force Support Squadron, and Tech. Sgt. Michael Cossaboom, Staff Sgt. Taylor Crul and Senior Airman Anthony Walker, from the 1st Combat Camera Squadron.
“We were searching at 1,000 feet, conducting a snaking pattern, and everyone on the aircraft was looking out of some sort of window or door,” Smith said. “We knew how serious the situation was, and we knew we needed to do what we could to help.”
The dark ocean and starry night made it difficult for crew members to locate the vessel. Smith stood on the flight deck, scanning the water without night vision binoculars when she noticed a faint light on the ocean’s surface. After alerting the pilots, they immediately maneuvered the aircraft to gain visuals of the location.
The crew decided to circle the boat while flashing the aircraft landing gear lights to get the passengers' attention. The A400M pilots called back to the U.S. Coast Guard, asking if the vessel could see their flashing lights circling around them. The entire A400M crew waited in suspense for the response on whether or not they had finally located the distressed boat.
“When they said ‘yes’ we all started cheering,” Smith said. “The sense of relief was phenomenal. We found them.”
Utilizing their night vision capabilities and safety harnesses at the parachute doors, the A400M crew remained on scene maintaining visual contact with the disabled vessel while working alongside the USCG and Department of Public Safety.
Meanwhile, Cossaboom, Crul and Walker captured vital imagery of the successful rescue mission.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work alongside our allies as they saved lives,” Crul said. “I feel honored that I was a part of the operation and was able to support it through documentation.”
The crew maintained visual contact with the troubled vessel for more than five hours as the sea conditions continued to decline. Eventually, a Royal Canadian Air Force C-130J Super Hercules aircraft and crew were dispatched to replace the French A400M as it began to run out of fuel.
While the RCAF crew kept their eyes on the boat, a U.S. Navy MH-60 Nighthawk helicopter crew launched to aid the rescue efforts. Arriving at 1 a.m., the crew immediately began hoisting the passengers from the vessel to safety, marking the end of the mission.
“Smith was able to spot the vessel and alert the pilots, while our Combat Camera team was able to capture everything in real time, truly making this a multinational team effort to save souls,” said Col. Carlos Berdecia, 437th Air Expeditionary Wing commander. “This goes to show the agility and flexibility of our team when we work with our Allies and partners, promoting true interoperability.”
According to a USCG press release, nine of the 11 people rescued are reportedly citizens of the People’s Republic of China.
"Aircraft crews play a crucial role in our efforts to save lives in challenging maritime situations,” said Capt. Nick Simmons, USCG Forces Micronesia, Sector Guam, commander. “Using aerial assets, combined with our local partnerships, ensures a swift and effective response to distress calls, ultimately increasing the chances of a successful rescue."