News: DART to the rescue
Story by Staff Sgt. Bryan Lewis
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Proactive beats reactive in the military, especially when preparing for the worst-case-scenario. In the world of aviation, preparation to react to a downed aircraft can mean the difference between life and death for the crew and passengers.
Twenty-two members of Task Force Raptor’s downed aircraft recovery team strengthened their technical abilities and communication skills while training on scrap vehicles on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, June 22.
The Raptor DART program, led by TF Bellator and consisting of Soldiers from every battalion, is responsible for extracting personnel from a downed aircraft using high-powered equipment.
“Everybody is excited because they’re on DART … their unit has that much trust and confidence in that we’ll accomplish the mission,” said Staff Sgt. Erik E. Lopez, an aviation hydraulics repair noncommissioned officer and DART team leader.
Lopez, a native of Phoenix, was one of three personnel who started the program and now, along with other instructors, is responsible for selecting and training members who can handle extreme situations based around various helicopter airframes.
Soldiers are selected for the additional duty based on a high-proficiency in their military occupational specialty. Some Soldiers volunteered in support of the aerial mission in southern Afghanistan.
“On my first deployment, I focused on becoming proficient at my job,” said Spc. Justin R. Corwin, a TF Bellator aircraft powertrain mechanic. “Now, I’m trying to take a step forward in my career and try something new.
"I volunteered for DART because I have experience in my shop on multiple airframes, so I have a general idea on disassembling an aircraft and with what’s safe and not safe.”
Instructors pushed their new members outside their comfort zones by putting dangerous tools in their hands and reinforcing the urgency of removing people from a life-threatening situation.
“The objective we had was to teach these guys how to think on their feet. We used the concept, ‘Treat it as if it were your own family member stuck in the vehicle. What would you do to get them out of that vehicle?'” Lopez stated. “You have to think of it in that aspect so when you get to the site.”
Soldiers were introduced to using basic tools such as a crowbar and sledgehammer, as well as heavy-duty equipment to pierce through tougher conditions.
“We used the Jaws of Life and portable gasoline saws to teach these guys how to cut certain joints of an aircraft to make it easier to pull a pilot or passengers out of a downed aircraft,” Lopez said.
Two pickup trucks with smashed-in doors were presented for groups to rotate through until nothing remained except a pile of random pieces.
“As far as material goes, it varies depending on the type of aircraft. On an aircraft, you deal with a lot of composite and titanium so the way it burns is different,” Lopez pointed out. “With the vehicles we used, it was a lot harder because it gave them an opportunity to think of how to approach it instead of us saying, ‘Cut here, cut there.'”
“Every type of vehicle has a frame, so working on the trucks helped us think about working on the cockpit of Black Hawks, Apaches and other airframes,” added Corwin, a native of Fresno, California.
Once Soldiers became familiar with the basic use of each tool, groups had to learn how to work together by using the appropriate tool at the right time.
“The Jaws of Life is a very heavy piece of equipment. It’s very powerful and slow moving,” Corwin said. “You can lift it but when actually trying to use it in a precise area, you need two operators.”
“Everybody has to learn how to communicate because, if I’m holding the saw and he’s got the crowbar, I’m thinking where I have to cut and where I’m going to need help. I also have to be telling my guy where to pull,” Lopez added.
Pieces of unrecognizable vehicles continued to be tossed into a pile as Soldiers became comfortable with the crunching power of the Jaws of Life as well as the fireworks of sparks produced by the saw.
“As the day progressed, they got to understand the limits of the tools, how to use them, and they were thinking about where they needed to be by this point instead of looking at the instructor,” Lopez said.
Two piles of scrap metal sat where two trucks once existed in the morning. Soldiers who started the day with uncertainty ended feeling accomplished about the serious task they might have to perform.
“People should stay open-minded and think about doing it more as a civil service to help your brothers and sisters in arms. It’s a bad situation that nobody wants to do but has to be done,” Corwin said.