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CV-22 Osprey flies first search and recovery mission

  • Published
  • By Lia Martin
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
A CV-22 Osprey assigned to the 58th Special Operations Wing here participated in the aircraft's first search and recovery mission Oct. 5, responding to the fatal crash of a medical aircraft in the mountains of southern Colorado. 

Airport officials lost contact with the Arizona-based Beechcraft King airplane at 11:22 p.m. Oct. 4 as the air ambulance headed toward San Luis Regional Medical Center while responding to a medical call.  

At about 9:15 a.m. Oct. 5, the Air Force Rescue Center contacted Kirtland AFB with a call to help at the request of civil authorities.  Initially, the mission was considered search and rescue because the condition of those aboard the downed aircraft was unknown. 

The response team quickly prepared to take off.  Aircraft included the CV-22, a pair of HH-60G helicopters, and a MC-130P -- to provide aerial refueling and serve as air mission control for the operation.  Capt. Scott Gwin, aircraft commander on the Osprey, credits the maintenance crew for preparing the aircraft for the speedy search and rescue effort. 

The Osprey took off between 11:35 and 11:40 a.m.

"We knew our piece of this was to get up there as quickly as we could and find the crash site," Captain Gwin said. 

The captain pointed out that an advantage of the Osprey is that it can take off and land just about anywhere -- saving minutes and hopefully lives. 

The Airmen knew that weather and altitude would be major obstacles in the rescue effort. The last known radar of the air-ambulance placed it near the top of a huge mountain. The altitude of the crash was expected to be higher than 11,000 feet. Helicopters of any kind have challenges in higher altitudes. 

Captain Gwin searched the west and then the east side of the mountain as high as the Osprey could go before clouds made it impossible to see. By then, the MC-130P was orbiting above the site and above the cloud cover and was able to find the crash site with its sensors. 

The MC-130P passed the crash location coordinates to the Osprey crew so they could make visual contact and determine if there was evidence of survivors. 

Seeing no such evidence, Captain Gwin gave the coordinates to the HH-60Gs so they could land at the crash site and search the area.

Capt. James Grigson, also of the 58th Special Operations Wing, was co-pilot for the HH-60G that landed near the crash site.  He said the crew took out some of the fuel tanks from his helicopter to make the aircraft lighter. This would allow the helicopter greater flexibility in landing in a higher altitude. It was a brilliant strategy, but it also meant they would need to refuel in the air at some point during the operation. 

"We were on the ragged edge of performance with minimal fuel," Captain Grigson said. "We had 30 minutes to work with." 

Captain Grigson said they flew to the ranch where civilians were monitoring the rescue operation at a lower elevation.  They picked up a local paramedic to help the crew decide which medical facility was appropriate after seeing the injuries of any survivors. The HH-60G then flew to the crash site. 

The helicopter landed on the mountain at nearly 12,000 feet. The second HH-60G was too heavy to land. The civilian paramedic and a pararescueman searched for survivors but found none. 

The crews called in civilian rescue workers to retrieve the three bodies of the crash victims: a nurse, a paramedic, and the pilot of the fallen aircraft. 

Though the Osprey was primarily built to be an amphibious assault transport of troops, equipment and supplies from assault ships and land bases, it has proved it can be versatile on search and rescue missions. The Osprey incorporates features of a helicopter and a fixed-wing plane. 

The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft which can operate as a helicopter when taking off and landing vertically. Once airborne, the CV-22 converts to a high-speed, fuel-efficient turboprop airplane. 

The Osprey can fly at 316 miles per hour in airplane mode and 115 miles per hour in helicopter mode. The aircraft's ceiling is 26,000 feet and it can hold 60,000 pounds of cargo.

The aircraft is used by the Air Force, Marines and the Navy. 

Kirtland Air Force Base has four CV-22 Ospreys, with plans to add two more by fiscal 2010.