OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — The fog over the Yellow Sea was thick when Air Force Maj. Matthew McSwain guided his Pavehawk rescue helicopter Wednesday night to a small island near the North Korean border.

Yang Sun-ja, a 62-year-old South Korean woman, had suffered a stroke while sightseeing on the island, according to an Air Force news release, and she needed a medical evacuation to Incheon Hospital.

The U.S. Air Force launched the helicopter after receiving orders from the Korean Combined Rescue Coordination Center, a U.S.-South Korean office that dispatches rescue missions for emergencies such as downed pilots.

Occasionally, the center will coordinate civilian missions. The woman was visiting Paeklyongdo, a tiny island under South Korean control about three miles from North Korea’s west coast, McSwain said.

Usually, South Korean aircrews perform daytime rescue missions, but U.S. Air Force helicopters — equipped with three navigation systems and crewmembers wearing night-vision goggles — can better handle inclement weather, McSwain said.

“The weather was extremely poor,” McSwain said.

Visibility was about a half-mile and fog was heavy, he said. Even with the high-tech gear, the rescue wasn’t easy.

The infrared system allows pilots to see shapes based on the heat signatures, but water poses a greater difficulty, said Staff Sgt. Clayton Krein, flight engineer.

The crew’s Pavehawk HH-60G helicopter skimmed about 500 feet above the water on the way to the island, Krein said. His job is to scan outside to make sure the helicopter doesn’t run into anything. But because the visibility was so low, down was the direction he could see best, Krein said.

“It was kind of nerve-racking on the visibility,” he said.

McSwain and Capt. George Dona, mission co-pilot, thoroughly reviewed the route they would take to the island, as it is only about two minutes flying time from Paeklyongdo to North Korean airspace, McSwain said.

“It just requires precise navigation,” McSwain said of the flight.

Maj. Steven Kelly, director of the Korean Combined Rescue Coordination Center, said Yang is believed to be recovering. Efforts to contact the hospital where Yang was taken were unsuccessful.

The aircrew belongs to the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Crews rotate on 35-day temporary duty in South Korea for missions, and the unit has a detachment at Osan.

— Choe Song-won contributed to this report.

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