As I stepped out the door for the flight, my mind was racing over the literally hundreds of details needed to successfully accomplish the mission. I was Sandy 1 for a local training mission, the standard call sign for the Rescue Mission Commander. I was leading a flight of four A-10s, and directing the escort, insertion, and egress of two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters. Additionally, we had a notional (simulated for this training flight) Airborne Warning and Control E-3 to give us a radar picture of the airspace, a flight of four F-16 Wild Weasels to find and destroy enemy ground to air threats, two flights of F-22 Raptors to provide air to air coverage in the area of operations, some additional F-16s and F-15Es for diversionary and actual strikes in the target area, and a flight of two KC-135 air refueling tankers to provide us all with enough gas to perform the extraction. My job was to lead, coordinate, share information, and to execute with this force in a way that ensured we extracted the isolated individual while at the same time not losing another aircraft to enemy fire.
In order for me to be a good Rescue Mission Commander, I needed to understand the capabilities of each of the team members of our force. I needed to know their fuel constraints, relative speeds, ability to combat different threats, the type of radios, radars, and data sharing capabilities they carried. I needed to understand a bit of their tactics, to include their airspace and altitude requirements, their expected ranges, shot criteria against different threats, and some of their flight standards where they effected the rest of us. I needed to understand what extraction capabilities the helicopters carried, what kind of self-defense weapons they had on board, and their preferred method of extraction based on the terrain and their team dynamics. I needed to know if the team of para rescue men aboard the HH-60s was at full strength, or had any other additional capabilities or shortcomings. Lastly, I needed to understand intimately the capabilities of my own flight of A-10s, and understand how heavily I could task each of them. I needed to know and understand the weapons that each aircraft was carrying, how many, and be able to assign targets based on those weapons and their capabilities.
Next, I needed to understand the terrain, the threats in the area, how many personnel I was trying to locate and how I would find them while flying overhead at over three hundred miles an hour. Would I be using a triangulation method with a simple radio, grease pencil and map to create an ellipse of where I thought they were based on their radio and my direction-finding capabilities? Was I launching with coordinates obtained via some digital means? While overhead the survivor, who would be shooting at me—if anyone—and would the survivor be able to walk and move to a pickup point? When I was close to his location, would he have any signaling devices, smoke, or flares? Was he inexperienced, scared out of his mind, and would he need to be literally talked off a ledge using my faux counseling degree? Was I going to have to use code words as I spoke with him, and would he have his wits about him enough to respond back intelligently? If there was more than one survivor, were they together? Could I get them together safely?
As I climbed into the cockpit of my aircraft, I carried my own personal equipment, along with a stack of papers clipped to my kneeboard cataloging all the key information for the mission. Strapping in, I found a place for my binoculars that I’d use to search for the survivor(s) before I sent in any helicopter to pick them up. I placed my night vision goggles in their rack on the right side of the cockpit. Wrapped around the heads-up display and above the glare shield, I placed my saddle bags that carried my aircraft checklists, airspace rules, maps, and my in-flight guide for the local range where we were practicing the mission. I strapped each kneeboard on my legs, placing multiple sheets of paper on my left leg in a specific order to aid in recall and search for that information. On my right kneeboard, I carried a pad of paper for in-flight notes. If it weren’t less than an hour before sunset, I’d close my canopy and use a grease pencil to organize much of the information on the canopy—weapons employment parameters, airspace setup, the start of a rough map of the terminal area where we’d make the extraction, and a reminder of my fuel limits. With the dark, I had to organize all of that information and more on my kneeboard for quick retrieval when necessary.
Electronically, I carried with me a data transfer cartridge with key information about the area, including maps, identification information for other aircraft in the fight, pre-planned messages for passage when it was time, and a myriad of other facts. After quickly starting the engines and executing my aircraft checklists, I uploaded this information. Lastly, I made minor adjustments based on updated mission information, and proceeded to direct my flight and the entire rescue group to execute as I saw fit and as we’d discussed. With what I felt was an average intellect and organizational capacity, I catalogued and prioritized all of this information and tools at my disposal, and launched into the evening. On top of all of that ‘mission’ information, continually prioritized the actions and information for the management and flight of the aircraft. The A-10 is relatively easy to fly, but hard to use as a weapons system when juggling all of this information. This training rescue mission scenario was and still is considered one of the toughest to execute well.
The training mission did not go perfectly, and we had plenty to debrief after landing, but we recovered the isolated personnel, and did not ‘lose’ any other friendly assets in doing so. Throughout the flight, I made notes of information I forgot, of mistakes I made, and took stock in how my use of the tools at my disposal could have been better than it was. During the debrief, the rescue mission task force discussed strengths, areas where we fell short, and how we could be better than we were that night.
From the start of the mission planning, through the flight and finally the debrief, the organization of equipment, information, and members of the team was paramount to success. As the mission commander, my job was to find the survivor, all while I coordinated fuel priorities, target priorities, and developed the plan of attack for the extraction of the survivor(s). I had to recognize issues, delegate tasks, and create the overall plan for the safe and effective execution of the mission. If I had given gas from the tankers to the wrong flight of fighters at the wrong time, I could have caused mission failure. Had I lost my sheet of frequencies, key team players may have missed important bits of information for the extraction. If I misunderstood the capabilities of enemy threats and our team’s ability to combat them, I could have put more aircraft in harm’s way and created a larger problem for us all. Bottom line, I had to organize all of the information at my fingertips and use it in a way that allowed me to make effective decisions for the team. I was lucky that nothing major went wrong on this ‘training’ mission that night, but my desire for success, my wish that all personnel made it home alive had little to do with our ability to successful come home. I was mainly based on the collection, organization and use of information at the right time, along with the proper application of firepower in the right way.
I remember the first time that I watched a combat search and rescue briefing, and participated peripherally in a training mission. I was overwhelmed with the amount of information. I didn’t even know where to start, didn’t even know how to be an effective team player other than with my gun. Had some foolish supervisor inserted me as a Rescue Mission Commander early in my flying career, I would have faced decision paralysis from the overwhelming nature of it all. Just as bad, I probably would have used the misconceptions that I then held, coupled with a poor organization of the information at hand, to make poor decisions during planning and execution. As I learned more about the mission, my ability to sift through and better organize the information I received increased, and I was able to participate in an increasingly larger way. The information did not decrease, and the missions did not necessarily become less complicated, but my ability to categorize, organize, and prioritize that information improved with practice. My flying skills did not magically improve. Nor did my ability to do many things at once. I simply learned how to shift through the chaff, ignore information that did not help me act, and came to understand the rescue mission better. I was able to unclutter enough to make effective decisions when it mattered.
The more experienced I became overall as a pilot, I did become better at the motor skills and knowledge of what it took to achieve mission success. Just as important, however, was that I learned what to ignore, what to clear from my field of view, and what needed my immediate attention. I began bringing less information to the cockpit with me. I made decisions before I ever reached the actual ‘decision point’, taking much of the stress out of the decision-making. Effectively, I uncluttered my mind and the cockpit to allow me to focus on what really mattered when it mattered.
Decision-making in a stressful environment is hard enough. When we clutter our environment, our mind, and our vista, we hinder our ability to get to the heart of any matter and make the decision that most effects where we are. Not everyone will have to fly a plane while simultaneously orchestrating the actions of a larger force of aircraft and personnel, but we each have decisions that determine how effective we are in our personal and professional lives. Each of us face regular decisions that require our utmost attention, upon which the livelihood and often the very lives of those around us depend. Planning, making decisions before the heat of the moment, and uncluttering our world will ensure that we are at our best. When it doubt, throw it out and make due with what remains.