GERBER RESERVOIR, Ore. – In a quiet corner of an Eastern Oregon forest, a team of volunteers in bright yellow shirts emblazoned with “Search and Rescue” combed the rocky hills in search of a mannequin in an old camouflage uniform.
On June 5, the Klamath County Search and Rescue Team received a phone call from the 173rd Fighter Wing reporting that a simulated midair collision had occurred, and two pilots were “missing” in the woods near Gerber Lake.
The team quickly found the first pilot, a mannequin labeled deceased with “obvious traumatic head injuries.” The search quickly pivoted to find the second pilot, played by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kevin Welch, wandering in the forest.
At Kingsley Field, Oregon National Guard Airmen worked with the Klamath County Sheriff’s office to coordinate the search and rescue efforts, handle simulated media inquiries, and brief the commander on the evolving situation.
Lt. Col. Ryan Bocchi, 173rd FW inspector general, assisted the exercise as an adviser and subject matter expert for the Klamath County SAR team. He went to the site and worked with the volunteers to help them understand the equipment a downed pilot would have, what condition they might be in, and how far they could be from the site of the crashed plane.
“When you fly, you don’t realize how rough the terrain is, but as soon as you get to the ground, it’s a different story,” said Bocchi, who is also an F-15 instructor pilot for the 173rd Fighter Wing.
Pilots can be dragged across the ground, “the probability of injury is high, and that can compound the recovery effort,” he said.
An injury can reduce the amount of time a pilot can survive and remain viable for rescue.
In December 2019, a Marine Corps F/A-18 Naval aviator died after spending nearly 10 hours in the ocean waiting for rescue following a midair collision. Rescuers arrived only an hour after he died.
In July 2015, a collision between a civilian Cessna 150 and a Shaw Air Force Base F-16 forced a pilot to eject over South Carolina. A SAR team recovered the pilot, who survived.
Kingsley Field is not unique in working with local first responders to assist in search and rescue efforts.
“This exercise is regulation-driven,” said Bocchi. “AFI 10-2501 specifically outlines that these accident-driven responses incorporate our community partners.
Dale Morrow, SAR team leader, is a business owner who moonlights as a volunteer.
“We plug in coordinates, assign teams, and go find the missing person,” he said. “If we’re pretty close to the road, then obviously we’ll drive, but if we have to go through the trees, then we go through the trees.”
For this exercise, Morrow was a part of a team of 11 deputies and three sheriff's deputies. They brought side-by-side vehicles, ATVs, radio direction-finders, and other specialized equipment.
“I was impressed by the number of volunteers and equipment that responded to the exercise,” said Bocchi. Searchers used drones to search and clear large areas and locate the second pilot quickly.
Bocchi said the exercise was valuable in helping to determine a realistic response time and practice to ensure a cohesive response in the event of a real search for a pilot.
“This was great for interoperability,” he said. “This makes coordination easier and more effective.”