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CAMP UDAIRI, Kuwait — In wars gone by, attack helicopter pilots who went down behind enemy lines got home on a blade and a prayer.

Usually a wingman or a buddy would swing by as soon as he could get there, swoop down close and lift him to safety. If the pilot was injured, he might have to wait for a medical evacuation helicopter. God help him if the bad guys got to him first.

Now, for the first time, he’s got something more.

Three weeks ago, the Germany-based 11th Aviation Regiment began organizing the Army’s first personnel recovery team: a group of pilots whose sole job in this war will be to rescue downed aviators.

“The Army never really has made a big deal out of combat search-and-rescue,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Warren Aylworth, the team leader. “(We) always said, ‘Why do we need it, when we can just pick them up ourselves?’ Times have changed.”

The Pentagon ordered the creation of the teams, but 11th Aviation Regiment — based in Illesheim and currently deployed to Kuwait — is the first to do it.

The team is composed of a UH-60 Black Hawk airlift helicopter from the 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment along with two AH-64 attack helicopters, one an Apache from the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, the other an Apache Longbow from the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment. The 5-158 Aviation is based in Giebelstadt, the two cavalry squadrons are from nearby Illesheim.

Aylworth said the unit follows a concept similar to the Air Force’s combat search-and-rescue team. The Air Force sends in UH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters to pick up its pilots, flanked by some A-10 Warthogs to protect them.

“We’ve tailored that concept to our requirements,” Aylworth said. “We use Apaches as our protection, and Black Hawks as our rescue.”

Helicopter crews aren’t the only ones the personnel recovery team is training to pick up, either.

“It could be anybody,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Sam DeNardi, 39, a Black Hawk pilot from the 5-158 Aviation who flies for the team. “Somebody in a Humvee, a reconnaissance team. ...”

For the Apache pilots attached to the team, learning to protect things instead of attacking them has taken some adjustment.

“It’s kind of a different mindset,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rolando Sanchez, 23, a co-pilot/gunner from the 2nd Squadron. “We came out (to Kuwait) in October, training and training for war, and suddenly we’re doing something different. We’re happy to do the job, but we hope we don’t have to do it.”

“You have to be kind of flexible,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chris Wiley, 30, the 2nd Squadron’s tactical operations instructor who flies on the team with Sanchez. “I feel better about going out and possibly saving a life.”

There is a good-natured rivalry between Apache and Black Hawk pilots.

They come from the same talent pool and train together in Army flight school, but then they take different paths. Flying an Apache is like driving a sports car, while Black Hawks are more akin to minivans. Apache pilots are known for their driven, Type-A personalities, while Black Hawk pilots are stereotypically laid-back.

Their battle tactics are quite different.

“We’re not used to flying with them, and they’re not used to flying with us,” Sanchez said.

But, added Wiley, “I’ve made some pretty good friends since I’ve been down there.”

Missing out on the attack mission they’ve trained for has been a bit disappointing, but realizing they could help buddies in peril makes up for it.

“Our troops know it’s me and Chris coming to get them,” Sanchez said.

Added Wiley: “It puts a little more urgency in it, knowing you’re going after one of your own.”

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