Northwest keeps skilled rescue force
An Oregon Army National Guard medical company will handle missions when private flight crews fall short
THE OREGONIAN - WEDNESDAY, APRIL 2, 2003
The 939th Rescue Wing of the Air Force Reserve officially disappeared into Portland history and the 939th Air Refueling Wing opened for business at Portland Air Base on Tuesday.
Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington had worried about the Northwest losing a skilled fescue force, but that won't be an issue. The Oregon Army National Guard's 1042nd Medical Company is stepping in.
On July 1, the 1042nd expects to be available around the clock, seven days a week, and can be contacted directly from the scene of an accident.
The 939th lost its eight H-60 Black Hawk helicopters and five HC-130 long-distance rescue planes to the Air Force. But most of the 40 pararescue members who flew in them will stay with the refueling wing in their old job descriptions.
Oregon Emergency Management's search and rescue office and the National Guard are working on a plan that will give the 939th's pararescue members some training time and perhaps get them involved in missions.
It's all a function of Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic MAST, for short - a Department of Defense and Department of Transportation program that allows military air resources to be used in local emergencies.
'We knew the 939th was going away," said Lt. Col. Dan Hokanson, the Oregon National Guard's MAST director. "So we went to each of the private agencies - Air Life in Bend, Mercy Flights out of Medford and Life Flight - to work out an agreement that will let us use our capabilities."
The three private agencies get priority at a rescue, Hokanson said, but if it falls outside their capabilities, the 1042nd will be available. That will include high-altitude rescues for which the 939th and 1042nd are well-known. The 1042nd's UH-60L helicopters can carry six litters and two walking wounded each.
The 939th and 1042nd were involved in a rescue on Mount Hood in spring 2002 that included fatalities and the crash of a 939th helicopter.
The system is vulnerable at the moment. Twelve of the 15 helicopters in the 1042nd's inventory are at Fort Bragg, N.C., on standby assignment to the war in Iraq, and the National Guard has been holding down the fort with three.
According to the 1042nd's activation orders, the 12 helicopters should be available by late May. If the activation is extended, the July 1 deadline for the new around-the-clock system still holds, Hokanson said.
In the meantime, the 939th Air Refueling Wing, commanded by Col. Mark Kyle, will start work with three KC-135 refueling tankers and a complement of 800 to 1,000 troops, just as it had in its rescue configuration. It will eventually have eight KC-135s - converted Boeing 707s.