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Cantwell, Washington Delegation Fight to Keep Rescue Helicopters at Fairchild

Fairchild's Air Force helicopters support critical training opportunities, search and rescue capabilities for entire Northwest, but the president has eliminated them in next year's budget

Thursday, March 15,2007


WASHINGTON, DC - Thursday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-WA), led the rest of the Washington state Congressional delegation, and Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR) in calling on Congress to keep four critical search and rescue helicopters stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. The president's budget next year contains no funding for the four Fairchild helicopters operated by the 36th Rescue Flight. The 36th Rescue Flight, part of Fairchild's Air Force Survival School, provides hands-on training to Air Force personnel and assists search and rescue operations through the entire Northwest. This is the main Air Force survival training school in the nation.

"Eliminating these four helicopters would not only put lives at risk by slashing search and rescue capabilities, but would also take away irreplaceable training opportunities from our men and women in uniform," said Cantwell. "The 36th Rescue Flight trains thousands of soldiers how to survive real combat situations in helicopters and in over 35 years, has rescued more than 600 people in the Northwest. This is a tough budget year, but removing these life-saving helicopters is not an option that should be on the table."

In a letter sent Thursday, Cantwell and her colleagues urged leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to restore funding for the helicopters in the 2008 budget. In their letter, the delegation outlined the helicopters' value to the region.

"This January, the 36th [Rescue Flight] made three saves in four days," the members wrote. "First, they located and rescued a father and son snowmobiling pair who had become stranded in deep snow. After the pair survived one night in subfreezing temperatures, ground rescuers' efforts stalled when their vehicles were disabled. The 36th [Rescue Flight] sent two helicopters and, after finding the lost father and son, transported them directly to a hospital. Three days later, a woman broke her leg while snowmobiling in rough terrain. Though ground crews were able to reach her and provide medical care, a ground evacuation was impossible. The airmen used night vision goggles to locate the victim and flew her to medical care as temperatures dipped below zero."

The 336th Training Group, which includes the 36th Rescue Flight and its four UH-1N Huey helicopters, operates the U.S. Air Force Survival School out of Fairchild Air Force Base. The Air Force survival school trains 6,500 Air Force students each year in survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. The 36th Rescue Flight includes 18 Air Force personnel and employs approximately 23 contract workers. In its role as part the survival school, the unit helps train airmen at Fairchild and the school's field locations in the Colville and Kanisku National Forests. Students receive training in helicopter operations, live rescue hoists, parachute drops, and combat rescue procedures. The unit aids civilian rescue operations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. It also provides 24-hour extraction and evacuation for Air Force personnel injured in remote training areas and locates students lost after being dropped off for survival missions.

[The text of the letter follows below]

March 15, 2007

Carl Levin, Chairman, Senate Armed Service Committee John McCain, Ranking Member Senate Armed Services Committee Ike Skelton, Chairman, House Armed Services Committee Duncan Hunter, Ranking Member, House Armed Services Committee

Dear Chairmen and Ranking Members,

We are writing you to request that you restore funding to maintain the 36th Rescue Flight (RQF) and its assigned helicopters stationed at Fairchild AFB and the search-and-rescue (SAR) capacity it provides to our region. We are concerned that the President's Budget did not include funding for the 36th RQF in the FY 08 Budget. We are committed to seeing the funding restored.

The primary mission of the 36th RQF is to support the 336th Training Group and the Air Force Survival School. In addition, it plays a critical role providing support to civilian SAR missions, and has since 1972. They have made over 500 civilian saves and rescued dozens of Survival School students injured in the wilderness training area to bring total saves to over 600.

The 36th RQF heroic track record is due in large part to its unique and unmatched capabilities. They are on standby 24 hours a day, six days a week. The 36th RQF crews are equipped with night vision goggles and the platforms are outfitted with Forward Looking Infra Red to facilitate extremely effective search operations. The helicopters are also equipped with 250-foot hoists and forest penetrators and are crewed by fully trained paramedics. These unique features allow the 36th RQF to conduct emergency medical evacuation of the injured from remote locations and provide immediate treatment. The pilots of the 36th RQF are full time and highly trained to fly in adverse weather conditions—not uncommon in the region.

The 36th RQF is critical because no similar SAR assets are available in our region. MedStar, the regional air ambulance, has neither search nor rescue capabilities. The Spokane County Sheriff's helicopter has limited search capabilities and no rescue capabilities and relies on volunteer pilots. The Army National Guard located at Fairchild AFB operates between one and three Blackhawk UH-60s depending on exercise schedule, but neither have SAR trained crews, vertical hoists, medics or night vision goggles, and the Blackhawks are currently being prepared for deployment.

The nearest Air Force unit with similar capability is the 40th Helicopter Squadron at Malmstrom Air Force Base. The 40th has a primary mission of security for the 23,500 square mile missile complex. When all ground-crew efforts have been exhausted, Malmstrom helicopters will respond to requests from the Joint Rescue Center to assist in search and rescue missions, as a limited secondary mission. Malmstrom responds to search and rescue requests in Montana and in portions of Idaho and Wyoming. They are the nearest Air Force helicopters but are not available for SAR missions in Washington or Oregon.

This January, the 36th RQF made three saves in four days. First, they located and rescued a father and son snowmobiling pair who had become stranded in deep snow. After the pair survived one night in subfreezing temperatures, ground rescuers' efforts stalled when their vehicles were disabled. The 36th RQF sent two helicopters and, after finding the lost father and son, transported them directly to a hospital. Three days later, a woman broke her leg while snowmobiling in rough terrain. Though ground crews were able to reach her and provide medical care, a ground evacuation was impossible. The airmen used night vision goggles to locate the victim and flew her to medical care as temperatures dipped below zero.

The only means of search and rescue for hunters, hikers, skiers and even the students at the Survival School would be ground teams. Last month, a snowmobiler fell over a 30-foot cliff and broke his leg, pelvis, and suffered serious internal injuries. The helicopters were grounded due to extreme weather. Ground teams from the Survival School deployed. The rescue took over 13 hours. This would be the norm if the 36th RQF is deactivated. The slower response time could increase the risk to lost or injured individuals.

The preservation of the 36th RQF would sustain compliance with Section 1085 of the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 108-375) which requires certification of equivalent search and rescue capabilities will be provided, without interruption in the case of reduction or elimination of search and rescue assets. None of the alternative regional assets are equivalent.

Deactivating the 36th RQF would leave an alarming void in the SAR coverage in the Northwest. We encourage you to protect the 36th RQF and maintain the lifesaving capabilities it provides. As your Committee begins to prepare the fiscal year 2008 Defense Authorization bill, please consider this request. We, collectively and individually, do not have a financial interest in this request, and neither do any of our spouses.

Sincerely,

Maria Cantwell Patty Murray Norm Dicks Jim McDermott Doc Hastings Adam Smith Brian Baird Jay Inslee Rick Larsen Cathy McMorris Rodgers Dave Reichert Greg Walden