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Staff Sgt. David Jewell, a survival instructor from the 374th Operation Support Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan, rappels from a UH-1 helicopter from the 459th Airlift Squadron during training at Yokota.
Staff Sgt. David Jewell, a survival instructor from the 374th Operation Support Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan, rappels from a UH-1 helicopter from the 459th Airlift Squadron during training at Yokota. (Val Gempis / Courtesy U.S. Air Force)
Staff Sgt. David Jewell, a survival instructor from the 374th Operation Support Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan, rappels from a UH-1 helicopter from the 459th Airlift Squadron during training at Yokota.
Staff Sgt. David Jewell, a survival instructor from the 374th Operation Support Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan, rappels from a UH-1 helicopter from the 459th Airlift Squadron during training at Yokota. (Val Gempis / Courtesy U.S. Air Force)
Staff Sgt Calvin Warner, right, a life support specialist, assists Staff Sgt. David Jewell during helicopter rappel training.
Staff Sgt Calvin Warner, right, a life support specialist, assists Staff Sgt. David Jewell during helicopter rappel training. (Val Gempis / Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Airmen who haul distinguished visitors in UH-1N Huey helicopters here soon will add rappelling to their repertoire.

No, the pilots and flight engineers won’t be dropping midair from ropes.

Nor will their VIP guests.

But for the first time, the 459th Airlift Squadron will be able to support rappellers on training and — one day, perhaps — real-life missions.

“We’re trying to season and challenge our young fliers and give them experience for future Air Force assignments,” said Capt. Al Sunday, chief Huey pilot and 374th Operations Group standards and evaluations officer.

The squadron practiced its maiden rappel run Monday on Yokota Air Base.

Staff Sgt. Dave Jewell, an Air Force survival instructor, successfully rappelled from heights of 25, 50 and 75 feet.

Sunday and Capt. David Eidsmoe kept the Huey hovering in place, while flight engineer Staff Sgt. Donald Cruz communicated Jewell’s whereabouts to the cockpit.

The crew says helicopter rappelling is safe — but practice is essential.

“Our job is to hold a steady hover and know what to do if something goes wrong,” said Capt. Karl Seekamp, Huey pilot and life support officer.

Worst-case scenario: an engine fails, and the crew has to act fast to protect the dangling rappeller and safely land the chopper.

Through rappelling — which can be used to place military personnel into remote terrain or a hostile environment quickly — squadron leaders hope to put the Huey’s capabilities to better use.

Most of the squadron’s pilots are fresh from training school.

They say giving a visiting general a lift to Tokyo, for example, is a good first assignment.

But when it’s time to move on, many advance to helicopter units that use rappelling and other “insert and extraction” techniques.

Sunday said incorporating rappelling into the 459th’s operations took about a year.

“The biggest challenge was convincing the (wing) leadership that this is safe to do and there’s a good enough reason to do it,” Seekamp said.

The squadron will support military units in the Kanto Plain that need rappel training. That list includes a special weapons and tactics team from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, explosive ordnance disposal personnel from Yokosuka Naval Base and Marines from Camp Fuji.

“We expect them to be our biggest customers,” Eidsmoe said of the Marines.

Jewell said Camp Zama’s Black Hawks are the only other choppers he knows of that support helo rappel training in the Tokyo area.

In the future, the 459th may consider supporting real-life missions, such as search and rescue and anti-terrorism.

Squadron leaders stressed, however, that they will continue to focus on their primary mission of transporting distinguished visitors.

Rappelling just makes the job more interesting.

“It gives us something to work towards as pilots, and, yeah, it’s a lot more interesting than the standard passenger run,” Seekamp said.

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