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Citizen Airmen saving lives in Texas

  • Published
  • By Maj. Cathleen Snow
  • 920th Rescue Wing Public Affairs

For HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter Pilot, Maj. Jason Tomas, Melbourne, Florida resident who grew up in Houston, rescuing people in his former home state is amazing. “One of the rescues was close to my hometown, within 10 miles. I didn’t’ realize it at the time,” he said, but upon looking at the map after landing he saw the proximity and was thrilled.


Tomas and his crew rescued five people their first day on the job August 29, 2017. From high above in the sky, “I saw a hand wave from a submerged van, it ended up being the local sheriff and two more inside,” said Tomas. He and his crew got them all to safety.


Tomas’s crew is part of a contingent of approximately 91 Citizen Airmen that launched in 5 aircraft from the 920th Rescue Wing to the Lone Star state August 28, 2017 to exercise their disaster relief skills.


The Airmen have joined forces with their northern neighbors at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, the 23rd Rescue Wing, and are operating out of College Station, Texas. Both the 23rd and 920th wings are rescuing people affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in support of Air Force’s Northern search and rescue mission for FEMA disaster relief efforts.


Col. Mike LoForti, 920th Operations Group Commander, is running the 920th Texas Task Force emergency coordination center. “We’re finally starting to get a flow going,” he said after having one day to get there and get settled. “We met all of our objectives so far. Today’s objective was to get into battle rhythm of 24/7 operations.”


With the wing’s three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crews dispatching out for rescues and gassing up in air with a wing HC-130P/N, the rescue effort became 24-hour sustainable, according to LoForti.


“Filling a helo with people, getting them to dry land, off loading, then going back,” is how LoForti described a mass evacuation taking place that started overnight and was handed off to them by the Navy.  


The EOC coordinates with an HC-130P/N King aerial refueling aircraft crew, which in effect relays the rescue needs to the airborne rescue helicopters operating as the 334th Air Expeditionary Group.


The number of rescues started at 5 on August 29, 2017 with Tomas’s crew making the first saves, but the numbers are steadily rising and will likely continue to tally over the coming days. The calls for help are pouring in. According to Chief Master Sgt. Shane Smith, the 1st sergeant for the 920th’s Texas Task Force, there’s an estimated 10 calls per minute are coming in through the Homeland Security Chat, everything from people with medical needs to those who are stranded by floodwaters.


“We train constantly for situations like this. Our Airmen our highly specialized and have the ability to utilize their expert combat life-saving skills and aircraft to provide relief and rescue,’ said Col. Kurt Matthews, 920 RQW commander, who flew disaster relief missions during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which led to 1,043 lives saved.


The rescue team includes an HH-60G Pave Hawk crew, along with rescue specialists, pararescuemen, combat rescue officers and a survival evasion resistance escape specialist, or SERE specialist. Among their proficiencies includes trauma medicine, swiftwater rescue and day and nighttime hoist operations, which will allow the team to operate overnight.  


“As Citizen Airmen, we are an all-volunteer force. Our reservists have full-time civilian jobs. Its times like these we can't thank those civilian employers enough for the sacrifices they make to allow us to support crisis situations. Air Force Reservists and their civilian employers are integral part of our national defense,” said Matthews.


The Wing has a 50-year history of saving lives, and its Airmen have rescued more than 3,000 personnel in peacetime and in combat. They live by the motto, “these things we do that others may live.”