Air Force shifting search-and-rescue ops from England to Italy

Two 56th Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawks respond in a combat search-and-rescue scenario on RAF Lakenheath, England, in January 2015. The 56th is moving to Aviano Air Base, Italy, in fiscal 2017.


By KENT HARRIS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2015

• See timeline at bottom of story.

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — The Air Force is moving its search-and-rescue air operations from England to Italy, positioning them closer to potential trouble spots in eastern Europe and Africa.

The 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons will start to relocate from RAF Lakenheath to Aviano in fiscal 2017. It is part of a series of moves outlined in the European Infrastructure Consolidation review.

“The relocation of our rescue airmen places them in a more strategic location to respond across Africa, Europe and Southwest Asia,” Gen. Frank Gorenc, U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander, said in a statement Friday.

The move is expected to bring about 350 additional airmen and family members to Aviano. Five HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters would make the move.

Aviano, home to the 31st Fighter Wing and a few dozen F-16 Fighting Falcons, does not currently have any helicopters, though some Army helicopters have called the base home in the past.

Earlier this year, officials announced the planned relocation of the 606th Air Control Squadron from Spangdahlem, Germany, to Aviano — a move expected to bring about 300 more airmen and their families. There are currently about 4,200 active-duty personnel attached to the base, 3,000 dependents, and roughly 300 U.S. civilians and 600 Italian employees.

Lakenheath itself will see a shift in its population and missions as it absorbs various elements from nearby RAF Mildenhall, which has been scheduled for closure.

Both squadron commanders expressed enthusiasm about the move in interviews Friday.

Lt. Col. Jose Cabrera, the 57th Rescue Squadron commander, said his pararescuemen — to number about 70 at Aviano — are required to train in various conditions and climates, and Aviano seems well-suited, with easy access to the Alps, Adriatic Sea and various Italian training grounds.

“It’s a good place for us to take advantage of,” he said.

Aviano also has the U.S. military’s largest heavy drop facility in Europe and is the launching pad for the Vicenza-based 173rd Airborne Brigade, whose members routinely jump into a nearby field from C-130s. Cabrera said his unit will be bringing boats and all-terrain vehicles that could be dropped from aircraft, and they’re just as adept jumping from C-130s as they are from helicopters.

Though he’ll be at a different duty station himself by the time the move takes place, he estimates about half the current squadron could make the trip south.

The 56th will bring about 50 pilots and crewmembers to Aviano, according to its commander, Lt. Col. Bernard Smith. One hundred and ten maintainers will keep the helicopters in top shape.

Smith said he could “not offer enough praise” for the squadrons’ hosts in the U.K. but thinks the move to Aviano makes sense: “It definitely gets us further forward.”

He visited Aviano recently and saw the Dolomite mountains. “As a helicopter pilot, I was drooling,” he said. “I’d love to get my guys more experience flying up there.”

Pave Hawks are capable of flying about 500 miles without refueling, Smith said. So a mission to Turkey or off the north coast of Africa would require stops en route or in-air refueling from other U.S. assets. But Smith said the squadron’s new location would allow it to respond more quickly as needed to the Middle East and Africa, as well as within Europe.

New construction at Aviano will be needed to accommodate the squadrons and could take several years.  But the base has started to prepare.

“We are thrilled with this decision and believe our location is ideal for our rescue airmen to provide world-class combat support for our combatant commands,” Col. Craig Hollis, 31st Operations Group commander, said in a statement. “This relocation to Aviano will enhance training opportunities for our aircrews and pararescuemen and enable them to respond more quickly to emerging operational requirements.”



A pararescueman assigned to RAF Lakenheath, England's 57th Rescue Squadron prepares to be hoisted into an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter during exercise Joint Warrior 15-1 in Scotland in April 2015. The 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons are scheduled to move to Aviano Air Base in fiscal 2017.

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