Marines practice recovering downed pilots in Okinawa’s northern jungle
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 27, 2017
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A pilot groaned in mock pain from two broken legs after a plane went down last week in the northern recesses of the Okinawan jungle.
A radio in one hand and a plastic pistol in the other, Navy Lt. Saul Burleson crouched over his injured fellow pilot — played by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robin Moss — and tried to coordinate their rescue. The pair could see AH-1Z Cobra attack helicopters circling overhead. Rescue seemed imminent — if the enemy didn’t get to them first.
This simulated rescue operation at the Jungle Warfare Training Center was the culmination of weeklong Marine Corps Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, or TRAP, training, said Marine Capt. Tyler Boring, air officer for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. The goal was simple: find downed pilots, bring them home and prevent classified information from falling into enemy hands.
“Every Marine who is on any kind of contingency alert … [needs to be TRAP proficient],” Boring said. “It’s something you got to train to and be prepared for at any time.”
Personnel recovery was a big part of the Vietnam War, where pilots were often shot down during bombing runs over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Helicopters would swoop in and try to recover them before they could be snatched up by enemy forces.
The biannual TRAP drills are Marine Corps specific; however, part of the personnel recovery training, which includes academic coursework, is performed by all service, Boring said.
Thursday’s drill was the first TRAP mission for Burleson — a chaplain — and Moss — a religious program specialist. They were enjoying their roles as downed pilots.
“We’re just always out and about having fun, getting out with Marines, boosting morale,” Burleson said. “It’s good stuff.”
As Thursday’s mock rescue continued, a friendly voice from one of the Cobra’s came over Burleson’s radio.
“Breaker 3-4 for Viper 4-4, we’re just going to ask you a few questions,” it said.
After the pilots’ identities were authenticated, it wasn’t long before two MV-22 Ospreys appeared on the horizon. The tilt-rotor aircraft moved in swiftly and landed nearby.
Minutes later, a squad of Marines fast-walked toward the downed pilots, rifles ready. Burleson also stood ready with his plastic prop gun.
“Put down the weapon,” an approaching Marine said. Burleson obliged, and the Marines set a perimeter.
“We’re just going to ask you a few questions to determine who you are, OK?” a Marine asked as he knelt next to Moss.
Another Marine called for a stretcher.
“What high school did you graduate from and what year?” the Marine asked Moss. “Where was your first job? Where were you first employed?”
Moss groaned through the answers.
“We have positive [ID],” the Marine announced.
Moss was then loaded onto a stretcher and carried toward the landing zone.
“Bang, bang, bang, bang,” a Marine shouted to simulate live rounds. He took out a mock enemy lying in ambush.
“Contact left,” another Marine shouted.
They progressed methodically to the landing zone.
“Bang, bang, bang, bang,” came more shouts. “Contact right,” the Marines said nearly in unison as they closed in on an enemy in the jungle.
“I got you,” one Marine shouted at an enemy roleplayer wearing desert cammies. “I got you!”
The platoon set a perimeter at the landing zone and waited for the Ospreys to land again and take the downed pilots to Camp Schwab.
“Some of the challenges we face is maybe coordination-wise, setting up that 360-degree security after the plane takes off and figuring out how to get from point A to point B in the smoothest but most secure way,” Sgt. Jeffrey Martinez said as Moss lay on the stretcher at his feet.
There were no casualties during the drill, and organizers were pleased with the Marines’ performance.
“It went pretty good,” Boring said. “There’s a lot of focus put on training pilots and getting them ready, so when a pilot or an aircraft goes down in an environment that is high tempo and you need all your pilots operating, you need to be able to recover that person and get them back in the fight as soon as possible, as well as just for other political reasons, to prevent the enemy from gaining an advantage or the ability to injure them or anything else they could do to break will on the U.S. forces and their mission.”