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Aircraft Losses

Search, recovery team faces difficult yet crucial task
US Air Force News
Released: 8 Feb 1999
by Katherine Gibson
366th Services Squadron

(Editor's note: Lt. Col. William E. Morel III and Capt. Jeffrey Fahnlander of the 391st Fighter Squadron died Oct. 21 when their F-15E crashed in a remote location in Oregon during a night training mission. The following story is an account of the service performed by the base search and recovery team.)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho (AFPN) -- The shrill ring of the telephone wakes the airman from a deep sleep in the early hours of the morning. Listening to the voice on the other end, he quickly realizes this is not a routine recall but a real-world disaster. An F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Fighter Squadron and its two crewmembers are down in a remote area of the high desert in eastern Oregon.

The airman, a volunteer on the Mountain Home search and recovery team, is told to pack for a possible deployment to the crash site.

With five hours of the night left, the airman lies back to continue his sleep, knowing he needs the rest because tomorrow and the next several days could be long and arduous. But sleep doesn't come easily. This is the moment he has trained for -- and dreaded.

"You know the telephone call probably means someone has lost their life," said Master Sgt. Josh Hatcher of Mountain Home's 366th Services Squadron and a member of the base's SAR team.

Search and recovery comprises two teams. The search team usually has about 20 people on the line, searching the crash site 100 linear feet at a time. Along with the members of the search line are a team chief who commands the line, "stakers" who plant marker flags and a mortuary affairs officer who oversees the whole process.

The recovery team consists of a "mapper" who marks flag positions on a grid map, two "taggers" who mark the finds in numerical order and three or more "baggers" who have the responsibility of placing found remains and personal effects into bags.

The members of the SAR team are volunteers from all squadrons on the base. They receive quarterly training from the services squadron mortuary affairs office and are taught the drills and procedures for effectively and efficiently conducting a search-and-recovery mission.

Long before the sun rises, the mortuary affairs officer and the noncommissioned officer in charge begin the journey to the crash site to map the area and plan for the SAR process. SAR team members fly in by helicopter the following morning, and the mission begins.

Even with thorough training, nothing can prepare the team members mentally or physically for the reality of an aircraft crash. From shortly after sunrise until sunset each day, they form a horizontal line, about an arm's length from each other.

A team leader, positioned behind the line, calls out the commands.

"Step!" -- the line takes one step forward. "Search!" -- the team members bend over and scan two feet of the ground to their left, two feet directly ahead, two feet to their right and then once again, scan the area behind them to make sure nothing was missed.

This procedure continues. Team members, heads down, backs bent and eyes scanning, hear the commands repeated time after time after time. From down the line comes the call of "Find!" and the search line halts -- remains, either human or personal effects, have been found by one of the team members.

A staker comes forward to mark the spot. Flags are color-coded: one color for human remains and another for personal effects. After a few hours, flags litter the field behind the line, echoing in the winter wind, serving as somber reminders of the frailty of life. Following behind the search team is the recovery team. They go to the flags and place each find in a separate bag with extreme care and respect.

The bags are tagged for identification, and the position is plotted on the grid map. The bags are transported back to the camp and placed in refrigerated containers.

The line moves slower now as more remains are located. Finally, after what seems like an eternity packed into only 60 to 90 minutes, a break is called.

Team members have a chance to stretch muscles strained by tension, drink some water or take a bathroom break. They converse about everyday life, exchanging anecdotes.

"We pretend the situation is not real," said Staff Sgt. Earl Pineo, a SAR team member. "We try to maintain a sense of humor. It is not meant to be disrespectful, but it is a way of coping with the enormity of the tragedy."

Other members jog in place or briskly rub their arms and legs, trying to bring back a bit of warmth, for the day is bitterly cold -- winter has come early to this area.

After the break, team members retake their positions, and the procedure picks up where it left off. Another break, more searching, and finally a stop for lunch -- the only hot meal of the day.

Afternoons are filled with the endless litany of "Step!" "Search!" and "Find!" until finally the sun sets and the search is called off for the day.

The evening at camp is long and cold. Dinner is a Meal-Ready-to-Eat. Home is a tent with a cot and sleeping bag. Time is passed playing cards or just sitting and talking.

The most difficult part of the day comes during those quiet moments when reality hits, and team members realize they are performing this service for fellow base members. The only way to make it through, say SAR members, is to disassociate from it and concentrate on the necessity of the job they are doing.

Veteran SAR team members pass on tips to the new airmen, helping them cope with what they have seen while performing their duties on the search-and-recovery mission.

Airman 1st Class Nancy Barnes, 366th SVS, was tasked at the last moment to be a part of the SAR team. Barnes, with no prior training, had no idea what to expect at the site.

"One of the team members who had been on several search-and-recovery missions tried to prepare me for what the crash site would look like and what I would be exposed to, as well as what my duties would be," Barnes said. "The situation was emotional, but because we were so physically drained by the end of the day, sleep came quickly. We didn't have much time for our minds to dwell on the accident."

The search is delayed on the fourth day as the team wakes to four inches of snow. But when the morning sun melts the accumulation, the search resumes.

On the evening of the fifth day, the team is driven to the nearest town where they check into a motel. They finally have a chance for a hot shower and a warm bed. People take advantage of telephone service and call home to their families.

After nine days in the field, the search and recovery is complete and the SAR team members return to their homes, exhausted both physically and emotionally.

"It's a job you don't want to do, but you do it -- you do it as quickly and as efficiently as possible," Hatcher said, "so the family members of the deceased can have closure in their lives."

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