ARLINGTON, Va. — The Air Force has launched the biggest rescue mission since the Vietnam War in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina, an Air Force spokeswoman said Wednesday.

In six days, 38 pararescuemen have saved more than 4,000 people in Mississippi and Louisiana, said Capt. Carolyn McPartlin.

Pararescuemen are trained to retrieve downed pilots from behind enemy lines, she said.

They combine the skills of an emergency medical technician and an infantryman, said Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky.

“If you’re stranded on a roof in New Orleans, there is no one better to come and get you and make sure you’re safe than a pararescueman,” Smolinsky said.

Also Wednesday, the Air Force announced that eight UH-1 Huey helicopters from Space Command will drop food and other supplies to areas along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

In other efforts, the Air Force is sending R-26 aircraft to New Orleans to use infrared imaging to find survivors in the dark and fly photo missions during the day, said Maj. Barbara Carson.

The RC-26 is a manned, fixed-wing aircraft equipped with special recon equipment, frequently used in counterdrug operations.

And about 70 airmen based at Keesler Air Force Base, near Biloxi, Miss., are expected to arrive early Friday morning at Houston International Airport after completing their tours in Iraq, an Air Force spokeswoman said.

It is unknown when the airmen will return to Keesler; the Air Force is working on reuniting them with their families, said Jillian Speake, of Randolph Air Force Base, near San Antonio.

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