Last year I had the pleasure of working with both the 56th Rescue Squadron (RQS) and 57th RQS, an eye opening experience not only for their yanking and banking in the air but watching the pararescuemen (PJs) go at it on the ground – fighting the good fight whilst tending to their ‘casualty’. I had been pushing hard to work with the 56th RQS for a long time to no avail, I kind of happened to be in the right place at the right time and fortunately had Vertical Magazine onboard to support my request as well. My brief to the squadron was fairly broad, I wanted to try and encompass everything that the USAF CSAR community represents in a job that is undeniably heroic – often flying into the face of danger to rescue injured men and women.

So as the deadline was flexible (ish) and we had until July to submit anything we planned in a few opportunities over the course of four months, which would see me flying on Joint Warrior 16-1, getting a ride on a large scale Combat Search and Rescue Task Force (CSARTF) sortie involving A-10s that were deployed to the UK for a short period and finally getting to fire a .50 cal from a HH-60G Pave hawk - probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. Lets start from the top, Joint Warrior 16-1. Most of you will be familiar with this exercise, it runs twice a year and is an aerial, naval and land large-scale multi-national exercise. The Squadron was operating from RAF Lossiemouth, one of the most scenic bases in the UK but a rather long way from home, a seven and a half hour drive away to be precise, a fairly emotional drive after a training weekend in front of PowerPoint.

My week there didn’t get off to the best of starts; I managed to pick up a bout of food poisoning on the weekend which meant I was feeling particularly ropey and the thought of flying wasn’t massively appealing, especially after a night of hot and cold sweats and broken sleep. So much so that I couldn’t make the mornings flight, I was essentially useless as I wouldn’t have been able to take any photos. After managing a few hours sleep I headed in for the afternoon briefing for the next launch, they would be operating out on Tain Range during the week I was there, it’s much more flexible with the angles they are able to fire from meaning that can employ their weapons during some of their more ‘heavy’ maneuvers – which I would soon be experiencing

It’s pretty cold up there in April, especially when you’re flying around with the doors open, luckily very friendly guys and girls who look after the aircraft survival equipment hooked me up with some more warm flying gear to go over my down jacket as it was going to be pretty chilly! As we were flying doors open for the sortie I would be on a gunners belt, essentially a belt that goes around the waist and secures you into the aircraft but enables movement around the cab. So hooked into the aircraft and all ready to go, usually at this point I can’t wait to get up in the air and get flying but I was still feeling pretty ropey and I knew the kind of yanking and banking that was coming..

The flight to Tain from Lossie is a relatively short, albeit cold flight, it took us something like 10-15 minutes to establish with the controllers at Tain, as some of the crews were new to the range time was taken to familiarise themselves with the various targets and as such the sortie would slowly wind up, start small, end big.. I don’t want to talk too much about their tactics, for obvious reasons, but there is a particular maneuver that I have come to hate, despite some very good advice from one of the Majors. The L Attack, more specifically the ‘pop’. If you know, you know, but it is basically a period of zero G that sees you almost floating in the back of the aircraft and your stomach attempting to exit via the mouth.  But it is a particularly useful tactic for the guys and as such it meant that a lot of the sortie would revolve around rolling back into them and replaying. So getting shots was tricky, really tricky. 

Trying to stabilize myself in the back of the aircraft whilst the guys in the front were throwing the helicopter around took some getting use to and in the end I settled with just trying to get some wide perspective shots of the Special Missions Aviators (SMAs) employing the .50 cals – the kind of half in half out cab shots that the fisheye really suits. The half and half works so well because it brings the viewer into the image, a photo of the interior of a helicopter with two SMAs leaning out employing their weapons is nowhere near as dramatic as a shot of a single SMA employing the .50 cal and the spent rounds falling down to earth. I switched between using a flashgun and trying to balance the light naturally, flash has it’s place but I personally think it makes the images look unnatural and too clean, which definitely works but it’s good to experiment. 

So that first sortie was spent mainly getting the ‘wider’ shots as well as a handful of images on the ground as the guys ‘bombed up’ the .50 cals for round 2. It was certainly a productive sortie but I was feeling worse than ever so I opted to cut away and head back to base once we had landed to get my head down.

The following days were much of the same except the sorties gradually become more complex for the crews as they became more familiar with the range, pop up threats, multiple casualties etc and it was a brilliant experience sometimes to just sit back and soak everything in, watching a team of highly skilled and highly trained individuals hone their craft was nothing short of amazing. In reality the jobs demands ultimate commitment but there is no bravado within the ranks, just dedication to being the best they can be.

Over the course of the next few days I managed to nail the rest of the shots I wanted, so as not to disrupt their training on the range we penciled in air-to-air shots on the way back to Lossie from Tain, unfortunately the weather didn’t get the memo and was clouded for the majority of our flying time up there but we managed to get some good air-to-air shots over the ocean and as were at low level the texture of the water also really helped to make the aircraft ‘pop’ out from it. I also tried to shoot some on the fly as they were on the range but that’s easier said than done when you’re trying to predict when the yanking and banking is going to start. And of course, I got to fire a .50 cal from the Pave Hawk whilst we were hovering on the range – not sure if I mentioned that..