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Four U.S. aircraft and more than two dozen troops from RAFs Lakenheath and Mildenhall on Wednesday anchored a highly orchestrated international rescue hundreds of miles off the coast of Ireland.

Led by two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters from Lakenheath’s 56th Rescue Squadron, a KC-135 and a special operations C-130, both from Mildenhall, the mission evacuated an injured crewman from a massive cargo ship in the remote North Atlantic waters.

"The C-130 refueled the helicopters and the KC-135 refueled the C-130. None of them could have done it without the other," said Staff Sgt. Nathan Gallahan, spokesman for RAF Lakenheath, home the rescue squadron.

Identified by British officials as a Burmese national, the victim suffered a fall on Tuesday night aboard the 28,000-ton vessel Ann Rickmers. The man sustained serious head and spinal injuries. By the morning, the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre at RAF Kinloss in Scotland had called U.S. forces to assist with the operation.

"The [Royal Air Force] have a phenomenal capability, both aircraft and people. They just needed a little help with the longer distance and the air refueling aspect we can provide," said Lt. Col. Mark Ahrens, director of operations for the 56th Rescue Squadron.

The helicopters — Air Force versions of the Army’s Black Hawk, only capable of in-air refueling — left Lakenheath about 1 p.m. They arrived at the ship about 6 p.m. after refueling three times en route to the ship. The choppers refueled once more on the way to Shannon, Ireland where the victim was taken to a hospital, said Capt. Joel Soukup, the mission commander and lead pilot.

The Burmese sailor had been stabilized on board the ship and did not receive medical care from the pararescue men who flew him back to land, he said. His condition and identity were unknown Thursday afternoon.

The choppers, which always operate in pairs, hovered over and around the ship, roughly 250 miles off the coast of southwest Ireland, for about two hours to get victim prepped and hoisted onto the aircraft, Soukup said.

A Kinloss-based Nimrod, a British maritime patrol aircraft, also participated in the remote rescue, flying ahead of the helicopters to coordinate with the ship’s crew beforehand.

Though visibility was low during the nighttime mission, "the weather could have been worse," said Soukup, 30, of Kansas City, Mo. The pilot had never participated in a mission over water before Wednesday night.

"It’s always great when you can go out and actually do what you’ve trained for," he said. "In the end, it came down to us getting that guy off the ship."

Soukup, who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the non-combat aspect of the rescue took some of the pressure off the operation. Still, he said, a heightened concern for fuel and the isolation in the middle of the ocean, "added a whole different element" to situation.

"At one point it got a little bit uncomfortable knowing that you have to head back to land or you’re going to run out of fuel."

The crews rested in Shannon overnight and were expected to head back to Lakenheath on Thursday.


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