Where eagles scream and dive-bomb with equal fright and delight toward a beast of prey, a breed apart dwells amid the great sky. There is down-to-earth, and there is down to earth – as in, 10,000 feet, or roughly two miles straight down to splat – flat ground. Between heaven and earth, a warrior glides with the night. All the while, like a falconer, their guardians above keep a watchful eye.
On Oct. 19, 2011, an aircrew from Coast Guard Aviation Training Center Mobile, Ala., conducted the first high altitude-low opening and high altitude-high opening joint training exercise with the A-Team. That’s right – the A-Team. No television show or video game here, though. Just the real deal in action: elite joint U.S. Armed Services training operations.
The A-Team, or Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, trained alongside ATC Mobile and the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group for a series of HALO and HAHO joint training operations aboard an HC-144A Ocean Sentry airplane.
HALO techniques are used for missions to prevent detection of the aircraft and the jumpers. Extreme accuracy is required since the parachutes are deployed at a low altitude. Typically, the paratroopers jump at around 25,000 feet and freefall down to 3,500 feet. Plummeting at a terminal velocity of 120-125 miles per hour, parachutists can descend this distance within two minutes. HAHO techniques are used for missions that require minimal detection of the aircraft under conditions that restrict the aircraft from penetrating a certain area, such as the border of a country; HAHO is used for long-range insertion.
“For the jump exercise with the Coast Guard, we exited at 10,000 feet since personnel were not chambered or evaluated to ascend above 9,999 feet without being on supplemental oxygen,” said Chief Warrant Officer John Vergara, 7th Special Forces. “For altitudes above 10,000 feet [mean sea level], the use of oxygen is mandatory for aircrew members.”
As a critical component of the U.S. National Fleet, the Coast Guard regularly conducts defense readiness training operations alongside Department of Defense counterparts. The joint relationships evolved further with an agreement signed between the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security in May 2008. For the military free fall infiltrations later in the training, ATC Mobile requested a waiver from Coast Guard Headquarters to allow parachute jumps from the Ocean Sentry aircraft.
Objective: Preparation for the 7th Group’s Unconventional Warfare exercise, Oct. 26-Nov. 12, 2011.
“The collaboration for jointness is the desired end state or gold standard,” said Vergara. “We usually train for two to three months in advance for such a joint exercise.”
For the daytime validation jump, Coast Guard Cmdr. David Saunders and his crew arrived at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and took up two teams of six Green Berets and delivered them to a drop zone near Meridian, Miss. Green Berets are a trainer force that operate independently and provide premier unconventional war-fighting capabilities to help host nations defend themselves.
At 10,000 feet, the Coast Guard loadmaster, in close coordination with two Army jumpmasters, lowered the ramp. The paratroopers, each with altimeter gauges the size of night-stand alarm clocks on their wrists, approached the edge of the airplane. Just a few feet from the edge and abreast with the clouds, the wind tunnel’s gusts mustered the hairs on the back of the neck into formation high atop taut goose bumps.
When the jumpmaster spotted the drop zone at an Eglin test site, they gave the thumbs up. Each of the six jumped one after another.
When each paratrooper reached the optimal height of 6,000 feet, they pulled their chute and descended to the drop zone.
Then, on Oct. 25-26, the ATC Mobile crew staged at an airfield in Alexandria, La., and conducted aircraft familiarization and load training with the Special Forces jumpers.
“The training helped refine our procedures and terminology prior to conducting two planned night events in support of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group exercise,” said Saunders, pilot for the first parachute operations aboard an HC-144.
For the military freefall infiltrations later in the training, the Special Forces jumped at night, while carrying about 150 pounds of gear and weapons.
“The additional gear doesn’t increase descent unless the jumper positions his body into a head-down configuration,” said Vergara. “Basically, the combined weight of the parachutist, parachute and equipment cannot exceed 360 pounds.”
On both nights, the Ocean Sentry aircrew picked up 12-man teams from Alexandria, La., and transported them to drop zones in the vicinity of Foley, Ala. As they landed, the 144 crew tracked the location of the “operators,” as the Green Berets landed on a blacked-out drop zone. The Ocean Sentry airplane was an ideal platform for the operation.
As a medium surveillance aircraft, it features a mission system pallet that controls communication and sensor systems such as forward-looking infrared, or FLIR. The FLIR enabled the 144 crew to monitor the movements of the insurgents and transmit real-time imagery to operational commanders.
“The versatility and use of the HC-144 as a multi-mission platform is one our greatest strengths,” Saunders said. “This joint training exercise helped maintain proficiency and expanded our crew’s skill sets to prepare them to adapt to a variety of missions on short notice.”
The infiltration of the two A-Teams set the stage for the unconventional warfare exercise that took place between Oct. 27-Nov. 12, 2011. Throughout the training, the Coast Guard garnered the close cooperation and interagency operability with another branch of the Department of Defense.
Across the spectrum, high up, where all is black, white, red and sky blue, Coast Guardsmen and Green Berets stockpiled honor, courage and clarity. For them there is no middle ground. A rarer sense of honor, perhaps, are, vigilant sentinels aiding the defense of a nation under the cloak of night. For the reverence of that nation, their redoubt envelops a purple halo.