AMCTES evaluates tactics for NASA rescues

By Susan G. Gotta | Air Mobility Command Test and Evaluation Squadron | Feb. 20, 2020


On the chilly, overcast morning of Jan. 22, 2020, over the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean about 40 miles southeast of Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, an AMC Test and Evaluation test team from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, assembled on a C-17A aircraft ramp. 

Their purpose - to determine the suitability of procedures for deploying illumination flares and maritime position markers.  Their intent - to aid Pararescue “Guardian Angel” personnel to visually acquire National Aeronautics and Space Administration crewed capsules during astronaut rescue operations over open water.

NASA rescue and recovery involves meticulous planning and close coordination between NASA, and the Department of Defense. At the heart of this test is the requirement to provide expanded search and recovery capabilities to rescue astronauts in emergency and contingency landing scenarios anywhere in the world.

The Tactics Development and Evaluation conducted by the AMCTES test team assessed the suitability of tactics, techniques and procedures used to deploy illumination flares and maritime position markers from a C-17A ramp.  While the Air Force has approved the use of LUU-2 illumination flares and MK25 position markers for flight on HC-130J rescue aircraft, these specific procedures are not authorized for use on the C-17A aircraft.

“C-17s are faster, can stay longer, and provide more options for search and rescue operations,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Adrian Gonzales, AMCTES test director for the C-17A Illumination Flare and Maritime Position Marker test.

At issue was whether the procedures used to deploy the flares and markers would be suitable for use on the C-17A aircraft.  The test team’s central focus was on the documentation, training, human factors, and safety of the ramp deployment TTPs.

The AMCTES test team for this mission was comprised of Maj. Adrian Gonzales, Master Sgt. Thomas Litteer, and Tech. Sgt. Wesley Lankford, both senior test directors, C-17 loadmasters, and Joint Airdrop Inspectors.  AMCTES’s unique staffing includes subject matter experts from over 29 AFSCs bringing a wealth of expertise and experience to test executions.

Visual acquisition of NASA crewed capsules during astronaut SAR operations, and wind drift indications in the open ocean can make SAR OPS very difficult.  MK25 maritime position markers provide an ability to maintain visual acquisition of the capsule during airdrop operations and improve wind drift analysis capabilities.  Use of C-17 aircraft for surface recovery will provide greater rescue capabilities worldwide.

At the request of the AF Directorate of Operations Aircrew Standardization and Evaluations, and Combat Operations, AMCTES Test Directors conducted this TD&E operational test with the support of C-17A aircrews from the 437th Airlift Wing, Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, and members from the 920th Rescue Wing. 

Also on location for the test were crews from the 154th Wing, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii and the 176th Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

The Detachment 3, 45th Operations Group Rescue Squadron loadmaster instructors from Patrick AFB provided guided training onboard the C-17 to test participants to provide flare familiarization and run-through deployment procedures for the flares and the markers.  Test participants deployed a total of 16 flares and 16 markers, with rotation in accordance with AMCTES test evaluation parameters. 

“Personnel and aircraft safety is the utmost consideration in operations like this,” said Litteer, AMCTES test director. “Gravity works, and that is a major factor in what we are evaluating.”

The test team assessed the suitability of the flare and marker deployment methods for use on the C-17 aircraft, measuring successful deployment of the LUU-2, or MK25, as “departing the aircraft without the device impacting the aircraft or encountering noticeable wake turbulence interfering with normal device operation.”

The results of this evaluation will inform a fielding decision for this capability, and will serve to develop and refine C-17A TTPs for SAR operation.

“I suspect the results of this test will lead HQ AMC/A3D to update the TTPs, and HQ AMC/A3T to provide additional training to operators,” said Gonzales, “allowing for full training certifications for users aboard C-17A aircraft.” 

It has been widely reported that NASA is developing a commercially crewed program with The Boeing Company and Space X to make the possibility of manned space flights to the International Space Station a reality.

NASA recently announced a planned test flight of a crewed space mission with a spring 2020 launch timeframe.  Preparations including testing of launch equipment, rescue parachutes, and spacecraft recovery operational procedures will be ongoing leading up to the planned manned mission date. 

This AMCTES test of TTPs enabling the use of C-17 aircrafts expanded capabilities for astronaut search and rescue operations is one among many tests in preparation of the announced launch.

AMCTES’s immediate response to this fast-tracked TD&E request was a shining example of the accelerated testing capability that can be employed when the mission dictates to provide warfighter solutions at the speed of relevance; accomplishing the overarching AMCTES mission - to provide timely and objective test and analysis. 

AMCTES anticipates publishing its findings in a final report in February, supporting the success of NASA’s commercial space program.