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Sun, Jan 25, 2004

Preparing For The Unthinkable

Air Force Base Tests Shuttle Rescue Capabilities

Lajes Field's capabilities to save a downed space shuttle crew will be put to the test during a daylong exercise here January 30. The exercise involves American and Portuguese forces and a Defense Department agency for space flight.

The combined event joins 65th Air Base Wing and Portuguese Air Base 4 emergency forces at this base in the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Joint fire, medical, search and rescue, as well as other forces here will take part testing a wealth of capabilities, according to Portuguese air force Maj. Albano Coutinho, chief of the air operations center here.

The DoD Manned Spaceflight Support Office at Patrick Air Force Base (FL), is overseeing the exercise. NASA workers from the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, will also participate, giving the exercise worldwide scope.

"It's a good opportunity for our American counterparts to realize the scope of our mission in the Azores," said Coutinho, who is responsible for managing all Lajes Field air activity, and serves as the human link between the rescue coordination center and the search-and-rescue squadron. "It also provides a good opportunity to improve coordination procedures with Portuguese air force agencies on base," he said.

The exercise tests the Lajes Field Space Shuttle Support Plan, which carries out duties outlined in DoD's manned space flight support operations procedures document. More than 30 other locations across the globe also serve as launch- abort and emergency landing sites.

In addition to testing American and Portuguese military units, Coutinho said the exercise would involve the Portuguese Navy, the Azorean disaster control service, Angra hospital and others in the community.

Exercise tasks are generated by a number of base and DoD agencies. Tech. Sgt. Mark Martinez, noncommissioned in charge of wing exercises and evaluations, said the simulation will include a number of facets, including:

  • A shuttle with six astronauts launching from Kennedy Space Center at noon.
  • The crew declaring an emergency and announcing a landing at Lajes.
  • Determination that the shuttle lacks the energy to reach the island, forcing the crew to bail out over the water.

Martinez said following the simulated launch and shuttle accident, hundreds of airmen and civilians will begin work to rescue the crew and recover the shuttle.

As part of the exercise, Portuguese air force search-and-rescue airmen from the 711th Squadron "Albatrosses" will pull the simulated astronauts from the water.

It's an effort coordinated through the base's rescue coordination center and is familiar territory to the Portuguese air crews, Coutinho said.

"The role the Portuguese air force will play in this exercise will be the usual role we play every day," he said, adding that the Albatrosses provide search- and-rescue service over an area one quarter the size of the North Atlantic. The squadron flies the Casa 212-100 Aviocar and the Aerospatiale SA-330 Puma helicopter.

Meanwhile, rescue and crash crews won't be the only ones tested. Were this exercise the "real thing," 400 NASA workers plus their equipment would come to Lajes. That would mean readying lodging rooms and other spaces needed for the agency's rapid response team to do its job.

With its 10,870 feet of runway, the Azorean landing spot offers NASA another important emergency alternative, Martinez said.

"Lajes Field is one of only a few overseas locations (where) the space shuttle can land in an emergency. Because of our extensive runway and the Portuguese search-and-rescue capabilities, it makes us a viable location for such an emergency," he said.

Making all the pieces come together is pivotal to making the exercise successful, Martinez said. "Flawless execution of this response is very important, not only to the emergency response personnel involved, but ultimately (to) the astronauts that they one day may have to save," he said.

Airman 1st Class Peter Saad is a Lajes firefighter assigned to the 65th Civil Engineer Squadron. As a new airmen "learning the ropes" about these sorts of things, Saad said he looks forward to the challenge of the exercise, but said he knows the "real thing" can be daunting.

"It's scary more than anything," he said. "However, it's a great feeling knowing that the space shuttle crew has the confidence to let Lajes be the rescue crew in that situation."

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jason Tudor is assigned to 65th Air Base Wing public affairs. Courtesy of US Air Forces in Europe.)



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