MAG-12 Trains for Survival

Forager Fury exercise
Capt. Candice Creecy, USMC, employs signaling smoke off the coast of Guam to alert the HSC-25 MH-60S of her location during the2012 Forager Fury exercise. (Photo by Clarence Feagin)

Awakening from a moment of unconsciousness, you realize you have been ejected from your aircraft and are descending toward the ocean. Now you have to remember something you practiced every four years, as your parachute descent procedures come to mind. What are the specifics? Once in the water, then what? Will the radio work as advertised? More importantly, where is the pilot and how close is the enemy?

MAG-12 PatchThese were all questions that Capt. Candice Creecy, USMC, faced while participating in a survival training scenario during Marine Air Group (MAG) 12’s Forager Fury 2012 exercise, which ran from 28 November through 19 December 2012, on the Pacific islands of Guam and Tinian. Forager Fury is an annual exercise that integrates Marine air-ground task force functions with tactical aviation and aviation ground support.

The opportunity to thread this particular survival training into Forager Fury played an important role in specific intelligence updates, particularly throughout the week of the surge, a 72-hour operational continuum. Throughout the surge, MAG-12 intelligence gave status updates on the exercise, keeping the mission as realistic as possible.

The exercise scenario depicted “red” special operation forces inserted covertly onto Guam using commandeered fishing vessels, as well as offensive ground elements coming ashore using tank landing ships. The initial “road to war” brief given to friendly “blue” forces announced that an F/A-18D Super Hornet was shot down and all contact with the crew had been lost.

The survival scenario involved a pilot and weapon systems officer (WSO) forced to eject off the coast of Guam. During the ejection, the WSO lost consciousness and was separated from the pilot. Because of adverse weather, the recovery was limited to rescuing the WSO; the pilot landed in the vicinity of an unidentified vessel and was taken by enemy forces. The pilot’s whereabouts were constantly updated and briefed by the MAG-12 intelligence section, and his location was tracked for an eventual recovery later in the surge. The search and rescue operation for Creecy, who played the role of the downed WSO, was the first evolution and served as an interdepartmental and multiservice event. Among the participants were a WSO from VMFA(AW)-225, the local search and rescue asset from HSC-25, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Auxiliary, and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron (MAWTS) 1 (which assumed the role of joint search and recovery center).

At the conclusion of a mass brief covering safety, logistics, and coordination, the air crew conducted its preflight. The remaining members would launch the USCG auxiliary unit from the naval port, while HSC-25’s MH-60S would launch in expectation of the incoming search and rescue notice. After performing one last operational risk management brief, the Coast Guard crew and survival team members boarded the auxiliary vessel and departed for Agat Bay, Guam. Finally, it was time for Creecy to don her air crew gear, stand on the edge of the boat, and go through parachute descent procedures. She pulled down on the beaded handles that inflated her life preserver as the staff sent a single-place life raft into the water. After the initial refreshing jolt of Pacific Ocean water, Creecy climbed into the life raft (endearingly known as a “shark taco”). A safety observer then towed the raft carrying Creecy back to the auxiliary vessel.

Lt. Col. Thomas Frederick
Lt. Col. Thomas Frederick floats in Agat Bay on the west coast of Guam, while awaiting rescue from the HSC-25 search- and-rescue asset. (Photo by Robert Sajnovsky)

During the tow, Creecy activated her combat survivor evader locator (CSEL) radio, which triggered the recovery efforts. The radio obtained a GPS fix and established a satellite communications link with MAWTS-1 on the other side of the world in Yuma, Ariz. Creecy switched to UHF voice to monitor the SAR A frequency. It did not take long for the already airborne MH-60S to establish voice communications with their target. After feeling confident that rescuers were on their way, Creecy drew the attention of the helo with a day/night signal flare, then left the safety of the raft and slipped into the water. The helo confirmed visual of the orange plume of smoke and proceeded to take charge of the scenario. The rescue swimmer was dropped at 10 ft. above ground level and began swimming to Creecy while the MH-60 maneuvered into position to perform the hoist at 70 ft. (In a real ejection recovery, the air crew members would be hoisted in a rescue litter, but for this training evolution a rescue basket was used.) With Creecy safely in the helo, there was just one more item of business.

Lt. Col. Thomas Frederick, MAG-12’s executive officer, also participated in the training. Although not part of the ejection scenario, he added to the training event by using other signaling devices, testing the FLU-8 automatic activation system for the life preserver, and letting the rescue swimmer practice with the rescue strop. Frederick’s training started once the helo was on location. The pop of eight pencil flares intermittently filled the air. Seconds passed by slowly as Frederick entered the water and remained submerged for what seemed to be too long. Just as the rescue swimmer was about to notch another rescue onto his belt, Frederick surfaced and nonchalantly commented on his newfound belief in the equipment. His FLU-8, an essential piece of equipment for unconscious airmen involved in water landings, had activated and inflated as designed.

With Creecy already aboard, rescue swimmer AWS2 William Branson and the helo made their way over to Frederick’s location for the rescue. The rotor wash made a full-fledged assault on Frederick’s breathable air, keeping everyone who had warned him of the wash honest. He would later comment on its intensity and how it came from all directions, even upward. The day concluded with all personnel safe on deck, quick debriefs, and the captive pilot still missing.

According to the intelligence scenario, the enemy brought the captured pilot onto an area of Guam to an area with minimal civilian presence that was used as a staging area for troops and equipment. Signals intelligence and imagery allowed the blue forces to pinpoint a location of significant enemy activity near their suspected stronghold. Ground forces raided a building in hopes of locating the missing pilot, but only found a torn piece of flight suit, ropes, and blood stains. A wounded enemy combatant was detained from the raid and given medical attention before interrogation. Following a shootout with five enemy personnel, the Guam police forces reported that they observed a man in a green flight suit with a black bag zip-tied around his head being loaded onto a fishing vessel. A confiscated cell phone obtained from an enemy corpse verified that the pilot was being moved off the island of Guam because of significant pressure from the blue forces.

The exercise also had personnel acting as the enemy red forces, which was comprised of 30 Marines that deployed at different points on Guam and Tinian. Their mission was to use inflatable targets and seize air strips, ports, and other land resources. During the 72-hour surge, the red forces facilitated check points, enemy convoys with weapon movements, prisoner-of-war transfers, and weapon cache staging. Blue forces were in constant motion while members of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion conducted a successful raid to produce intelligence, aiding in the rescue of the downed pilot.

During the previous 18 hours of the surge, a seaplane pilot reported seeing mirror flashes along the southern tip of Pagan Island, approximately 180 nautical miles north of Tinian. When the pilot came around for a closer look, he was hit with small arms fire from an unknown location. The pilot was able to get a visual on the individual flashing the mirror, who he described as wearing green coveralls and not in the same position as the enemy. Intelligence assessed that the pilot would soon be transported, allowing a rescue to be planned prior to enemy transport efforts. With the warning order issued, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel planning commenced between squadrons, using an MV-22B Osprey escorted by F/A-18D Hornets. The Osprey would be critical since Pagan Island was outside the range of the MH-60S.

Upon arrival, rescue personnel gathered their gear for the day’s event and left the tilt-rotor aircraft. As the staff was walking away from the departing Osprey, it returned for an unexpected landing and shutdown, as a chip light had been detected in the right rotor gear box. Ironically, the Osprey aircrew would be joining the survival staff for what turned into a real recovery of aircraft and personnel.

All the activity elicited the curiosity of the island’s inhabitants. Although Pagan Island is officially listed as uninhabited following a volcanic eruption in 1981, there is still a small population of people who call the island home, regularly driving a single boat 200 miles south to Saipan for supplies. Their representative wore a full U.S. Army combat uniform, flip-flops, a baseball cap worn backwards, and a machete at his side. After cordial introductions, the hospitality began with a tour of the local area, showcasing an old Japanese Zero, wreckage of a medium-range bomber, as well as multiple bunkers, shelters, and craters from World War II. Medical treatment and supplies were also offered to the Pagan Island residents. The training mission was cancelled and now turned into a recovery effort. As maintenance personnel and supplies would arrive in forthcoming hours, there was time to both interact with the locals and reorient the training.

Capt. Jonathan Stroschine
Capt. Jonathan Stroschine, USMC, communicates with F/A-18’s overhead using his combat survivor evader locator radio during a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel during the 2012 Forager Fury exercise. (USMC photo)

During the cultural experience, a Hornet passed overhead low enough to startle the island residents. This prompted the captive, Capt. Jon Stroschine, USMC, to communicate with the aircraft overhead using a CSEL radio. He conveyed the situation and reported how friendly the locals were, making sure that “the locals are friendly” was not in the special instructions as a duress signal. Stroschine also employed a signal mirror to practice the often overlooked, but reliable, means of signal. The Hornet had no problem identifying the signal as long as the sun was behind it.

Several hours passed before two Ospreys arrived to drop off a maintenance team and transport the stranded personnel back to Guam. There was common relief in knowing that the recovery mission, whether tactical or not, was successful in retrieving the stranded personnel and aircraft. In addition, the VMM-265 air crew also received a volleyball named “Wilson” that was signed by all the Pagan Islanders. Despite some unexpected outcomes, the exercise was beneficial to all service members and agencies involved.

Air crews are more apt to become engaged and committed if survival training is embedded in the exercise design in a realistic manner and threaded throughout the experience. It takes creative and committed officers to produce world-class training. Despite the small number of personnel who find themselves in survival situations, training efforts such as Forager Fury are priceless.

Lt. Erwin is a naval aerospace/operational physiologist in the Medical Service Corps of the U.S. Navy. He is currently serving as MAG-12’s aeromedical safety officer.