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Trailblazing NMANG pilot returns home from Middle East

  • Published
  • By Douglas Mallary, NMNG Public Affairs Office
  • 150th Special Operations Wing

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- U.S. Air Force Capt. Araceli Saunders, a search and rescue pilot assigned to the 188th Rescue Squadron, 150th Operations Group, 150th Special Operations Wing, New Mexico Air National Guard, returned home April 10th following a busy deployment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The 188th Rescue Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Timothy Skypeck nominated Saunders as the company grade officer honoree for the NMANG Airmen of the Quarter awards.

In his recommendation, Skypeck wrote, “Captain Saunders was a hand-picked member of the Combat Search and Rescue Task Force forward deployed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia providing airborne alert for Operation POSEIDON ARCHER enabling thirty-one coalition strikes on Yemeni bases, reducing the threat to international maritime shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.”

“As deployed rescue pilot, Captain Saunders flew 23 combat sorties for 122 hours, to include 13 helicopter air-refuelings with Task Force HH-60s (Pave Hawk helicopters) and French Special Forces Pumas (SA 330 helicopters), for a total of 44,300 pounds of fuel passed,” Skypeck wrote.

While deployed, Saunders became the first pilot in the 188th to execute an airdrop of the Air Force’s Search and Rescue Tactical Vehicle – Side by Vehicle (SRTV-SXV) and 25 Guardian Angels, a non-aircraft weapon system the Air Force uses for Combat Search and Rescue and Personnel Recovery missions.

Skypeck wrote that the airdrop successfully tested the U.S. Department of Defense “rescue tactics in a high-threat environment.”

Saunders’s deployment also included humanitarian support.

“Captain Saunders conducted nine combat airdrops to U.S. and coalition Forward Operating Bases in Syria and to Gaza, delivering 65 bundles carrying humanitarian supplies, and 51,800 pounds of blood, providing critical aid to thousands of survivors,” Skypeck stated.

Saunders’s impact exceeded beyond her immediate area of operations.

“She enabled 510 hours of rescue alert coverage spanning four million square miles for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, fulfilling the Combined Forces Air Component Commander’s number one priority of Personnel Recovery,” Skypeck wrote.

In keeping with the Air Force’s Whole Airman Concept, Saunders did more than flying.

“While deployed she volunteered 110 hours as the 1st ERQG (Expeditionary Rescue Group) Battle Captain where her diplomacy helped synchronize and enhance communication between operations, intelligence, and maintenance in support of 4,000 ATO (Air Tasking Order) missions,” Skypeck wrote.

“She exercised Agile Combat Employment at ANGELS ENDEAVOR by rapidly deploying on short notice to an alternate operating location, which tested and validated the Personnel Recovery Triad’s full spectrum of capabilities,” he added.

Saunders has been a trailblazer throughout her military career. As Lt. Col. Lonnie Mazuranich, Operations Officer for the 188th Rescue Squadron, put it, she is used to “breaking barriers.”

Calling Bernardo, N.M., her hometown, Saunders was born in Albuquerque to retired NMANG Brig. Gen. Andrew Salas, a former Adjutant General of New Mexico, and his wife Martha, who served in the NMANG as a technical sergeant.

Saunders, who graduated from Belen High School and went on to earn an associate degree from San Juan Community College and a bachelor’s degree from Columbia Southern University.

In 2009, she enlisted in the Guard as an HC-130 Flight Engineer – the “first Hispanic female aviator within the NMANG,” Mazuranich said.

Saunders later became a Supply Technician. Having reached the rank of technical sergeant, she received a commission through the Academy of Military Science in 2017 and became a Logistics Readiness Officer.

Somewhere along the way, Saunders decided that she wanted to become a pilot.

“She was initially told she couldn’t fly due to height restrictions prior to attending Undergraduate Flying Training. She found a way with support from the 150th SOW,” Mazuranich said.

“She then broke another barrier by being the first person within the New Mexico National Guard to qualify, attend and graduate an abbreviated Civilian Path to Wings, which is a highly competitive, accelerated United States Air Force Pilot Training Curriculum,” he said.

Mazuranich added that Saunders is also a licensed commercial pilot serving as a First Officer for FlexJet.