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Pa. Air National Guardsmen Aid in Search and Rescue Mission at Sea

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Shawn Monk
  • 171st Air Refueling Wing

Pennsylvania Air National Guardsmen from the 171st Air Refueling Wing in Pittsburgh were at the tip of the spear during a search and rescue mission in the Western Pacific Ocean when a fishing boat with seven fisherman on board capsized about 900 miles southwest of Guam, Nov. 21, 2017. 

Pennsylvania Air National Guardsmen Lt. Col. Troy Wing, Lt. Col. Hilary Ayanru, Capt. Kelman Khersonsky, 1st Lt. Brandon Rader, Staff Sgt. Erin McBane and Senior Airman Alexis Smith, who were at the time deployed to Andersen AFB, Guam, were first to locate the capsized fishing boat after searching from the sky in a KC-135R aircraft, an aircraft normally used for midair refueling.  

While at Andersen AFB, they had the only available aircraft that could make the more than 900 mile trip quickly enough when a call came in from the United States Coast Guard asking for assistance. Guardsmen on the ground, Master Sgt. Patrick Gallagher, Master Sgt. Krystl Larkin and Tech. Sgt. Sereno Beneccio quickly prepared the aircraft for takeoff while the air crew planned their mission. The crew was airborne within two hours and 30 minutes of the initial phone call.

Flying relatively low for a KC-135R, at about 2500 feet, the crew used binoculars to search the ocean for survivors in the area of the boat’s last known location. They found only the capsized fishing boat, the “Gyotokumaru No. 1,” and what looked to be two orange life rafts and a small life boat. The aircrew marked the location and transmitted it to the USCG and continued to search for the fisherman for several hours. A storm had scattered the wreck and debris about two miles from its original location making a difficult situation even more difficult. Finding the wreck and debris helped the USCG redefine the search area.

Simultaneously, a multi-agency search had been underway including the USCG, USAF, the Japanese Coast Guard and civilian vessels in the area that fall under the automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER), a worldwide distress reporting system sponsored by the United States Coast Guard.

After two days, Coast Guard Sector Guam received notification that all seven fisherman were safe.

“The fishermen reported their vessel sank after a collision with another fishing vessel. All seven of the fishermen were rescued by crewmembers aboard the second fishing vessel and brought to the Philippines.” according to an article published by the Coast Guard News.

“We’re incredibly relieved these men are safe and back on dry land,” said Lt. Cmdr. Josh Empen, the search and rescue mission coordinator at Sector Guam. “Special thanks to all our partners with the Department of Defense, Japanese coast guard, the government of Palau, Pacific Mission Aviation and AMVER who quickly brought their resources together in an effort to locate these fishermen in such a remote part of the Pacific.”

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