Angel Thunder low-res - Southwest Aviation Review



Angel Thunder low-res - Southwest Aviation Review
Marine Corps CH-53E Training During WTI 2-13
CSAR Operators From Around the World Meet in Arizona for
Angel Thunder 2013
Angel Thunder is a comprehensive, multi-scenario, and multi-national, military exercise that provides an
opportunity for the Combat Search and Rescue community to practice their important challenging mission
of personnel recovery. Born out of lessons learned from the past, Angel Thunder is as adaptive as it is
comprehensive. With scenarios pulled from present day situations, evolutions are presented to players that
will require them to think, communicate and adapt to difficult, and often hostile and threatening situations; all
skills they must master in order to execute their mission successfully. Some of the units and players involved
will utilize Angel Thunder as their last pre-deployment exercise to validate the skill sets they may very well
be called upon to use during a forthecoming deployment.
Credit: Joe Copalman, Ned Harris & Dave Shields
Photos: as cited
On April 2 , 1972, an Air Force EB-66 Destroyer with the
callsign BAT21 was shot down in South Vietnam while
flying an escort jamming mission just south of the
Demilitarzed Zone. Of BAT21’s six-man crew, only the
Navigator, Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, was able to eject
safely. The rescue effort launched to recover Lt. Col.
Hambleton wound up being the largest personnelrecovery mission ever launched up to that point,
spanning ten days and ultimately costing American
forces another five aircraft lost, with many others
damaged, and eleven servicemen killed in action
while attempting to rescue Hambleton. While the
BAT21 rescue was ultimately successful, many –
including Lt. Col. Hambleton himself – questioned
whether the high cost in both lives and aircraft was
worth it. Since abandoning the American military’s
“no man left behind” ethos was not an option, the
solution was to restructure, re-equip, and re-train the
air rescue service to mitigate the kinds of threats that
made the BAT21 rescue so costly. With the continued Pararescue Jumpers (PJs) fast-rope from HH-60G Pave Hawk
rescue helicopters. PJs are part of a “Guardian Angel”
importance of the personnel recovery mission, the
weapons system that also includes Combat Rescue Officers
United States Air Force – designated as the lead agency
(CROs) and Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE)
for search and rescue missions – is still looking for ways Specialists. Photo: Ned Harris
to improve their mission effectiveness. The most
effective tool used to address the training needs of the Angel Thunder 2013 was the most comprehensive of
rescue community in recent years has been Angel these exercises yet, comprised of eight different subThunder, the world’s largest and most complex exercises encompassing virtually the full spectrum of
personnel recovery exercise.
real-world personnel recovery scenarios. These eight
sub-exercises were RESCUE RODEO, Operation
Angel Thunder was founded in 2006 by then-Major Brett AUDACITY, Operation RESLIENT, Operation
Hartnett, who was an HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot assigned TENACITY, UNITED FRONT, Task Force BACA,
to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base at the time. Along with MIDNIGHT RIDER, and RESOLUTE ANGEL. While some
his colleagues in the Pararescue (PJ) and Combat King of these were standalone exercises, in many cases,
(HC-130) communities, Hartnett realized that existing Angel Thunder 2013, scenarios support two, three,
Air Force exercises did not place much emphasis on the or even four of these exercises at a given time.
personnel recovery mission. “We didn’t get what we
needed out of Red Flag, Green Flag, any of the RESCUE RODEO comprised the first week of Angel
exercises,” Hartnett explained. “So we decided – Air Thunder 2013 (April 7 through 12 ) and was geared
Force rescue, the rescue guys – we will start our own toward task training and task validation for all
rescue exercise on our own. Nobody funded it, nobody exercise participants. This training ranged from
told us to do it, we just did it because we needed it.”
aerial live fire work on the Barry M. Goldwater Range
to swift water rescue training on
the Salt River to high-angle rescue
training on Mount Lemmon, from
marksmanship training on the Pima
County Sherriff’s rifle range to
overwater parachute jumps into
Lake Roosevelt. These are all skills
that participants would likely be
called upon to utilize once the
scenario-based exercises kicked off
the following week. RESCUE
RODEO also allowed all of the
exercise participants to
Angel Thunder exercises often involve military rescue personnel interfacing with
demonstrate their capabilities to
civilian healthcare systems. Here an HH-60G prepares to depart from a Phoenixtheir peers to give them a better
area hospital after delivering several simulated casualties. Photo: Joe Copalman
understanding of what they do
and how they do it, which would be critical
knowledge for commanders and operators to have
before moving into the scenario-based training the
following week.
RESOLUTE ANGEL was the first of the scenario-based
exercises, taking place on Saturday, April 13th to
allow the state and local agencies involved to
participate more effectively than they could during
the Monday-through-Friday work week. The purpose
of RESOLUTE ANGEL was to train relevant military
units in supporting federal and state emergency
management and disaster relief agencies, and to
emphasize the importance of interoperability
between civilian first-responders and those military
units that might be tasked to assist them. Such
assistance is coordinated through a process known as
Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA), and is
most often requested in the wake of massive natural
disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.
A California Army National Guard UH-60 Blackhawk
assigned to A Co, 2-238th AVN over the Goldwater Range
en route to NATO Hill. Photo: Ned Harris
The centerpiece of RESOLUTE ANGEL was a masscasualty scenario at the Grand Canyon involving a car/
bus crash. In the scenario, civilian first responders were
already to have been stretched thin by a magnitude 8.0
earthquake, meaning the military would be called upon
to assist. In this case, it was the PJs from the 58 Rescue
Squadron at Nellis AFB who answered the call. The 58
deployed to Afghanistan shortly after Angel Thunder
and used their participation as their pre-deployment
work-up. Alongside the PJs, firefighters, paramedics,
and search and rescue personnel from the National Park
Service and the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office helped
with triage and vehicle extraction as well as assisting the
PJs with the high-angle rescue of survivors several
hundred feet below the rim of the canyon. Adding
realism to the exercise were dozens of active duty
airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base who played
the role of victims in the RESOLUTE ANGEL scenarios.
An HH-60G Pave Hawk from the 101st RQS flies at lowlevel on the Barry M. Goldwater Range. The 101st is a
subordinate unit of the New York Air National Guard’s
106th Rescue Wing, which sent a sizeable contingent of
personnel to DMAFB for Angel Thunder 2013. Photo:
Ned Harris
The third major component of Angel Thunder 2013 was
Operation AUDACITY. With nearly twelve years of
experience with irregular warfare (IW) since the
beginning of the Global War on Terror, the United States
Armed Forces are among the best IW troops in the world.
With operations in Afghanistan drawing down and the
strategic focus shifting to the Pacific Rim and toward
more conventional threats, it is important to not lose the
Door gunners from the New York Air National Guard’s
101st Rescue Squadron engage simulated urban targets
with their .50 caliber machine guns on the Barry M.
Goldwater Range during a RESCUE RODEO sortie early
on in Angel Thunder 2013. Photo: Ned Harris
ability to meet IW threats competently, should they
arise, and that is what AUDACITY was aimed at.
AUDACITY consisted of a number of scenarios, primarily
in Playas, New Mexico, that put participants’ IW skills to
the test, dealing with enemies who blend in with the
local population (all portrayed by role-players).
Operation RESILIENT was the fourth component of
Angel Thunder 2013, and focused on contested/
degraded operations. The premise of the RESILIENT
scenarios was that a conventional adversary had
captured or destroyed one or more airbases through
Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) operations, forcing the
US and coalition forces to operate from roads and
austere/unimproved surfaces. RESILIENT was one of
the operations that reflected the DOD’s strategic shift to
Commandos from the Chilean Air Force’s Unidad Táctica de Fuerzas
Especiales, or Tactical Special Forces Unit, stand guard during an
operation in Playas, New Mexico. Photo: Dave Shields
the Pacific, where potential adversaries possess the
capability to degrade operations in this manner, making
this skillset more important than it has been since the
end of the Cold War. The centerpieces of RESILIENT
were a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP)
scenario on a dry lakebed on the White Sands Missile
Range and a similar operation at Bisbee Municipal
RESILIENT wasn’t the only component of Angel Thunder
2013 that involved training for missions in the Pacific
Rim. Angel Thunder’s fifth component was Operation
TENACITY, which focused on Air-Sea Battle scenarios off
the coast of Southern California. Angel Thunder itself
was planned in coordination with three other large-scale
joint exercises as part of the Joint National Training
Capability, and one of those exercises was the Joint War
Fighting Center Training and Exercise (JTEX) in
conjunction with the US Navy’s 3 Fleet and numerous
Naval Special Warfare units. TENACITY’s scenarios took
place near San Clemente Island off the coast of San
Diego, pushing the endurance of the HH-60G Pave Hawks
to their limits while staging out of Davis-Monthan AFB
and Brawley, California.
Commandos approach the driver of an unknown vehicle during
an Irregular Warfare evolution as part of Operation
AUDACITY. Photo: Dave Shields
One of the hallmarks of Angel Thunder has been a high
degree of realism. This goes for the kinetic side of the
scenarios as well as the administrative and planning
sides. Brett Hartnett and the other Angel Thunder
planners have gone to great lengths to give participants
a real taste of what it is like to work with various
military, civilian, and foreign agencies in an operational
environment, so that when they are tasked with similar
missions in the real world, the process – if not the very
players themselves – are familiar. To this end Hartnett
states “If I need a US ambassador, I just bring a US
ambassador in, versus trying to train some guy how a US
ambassador acts. It’s a lot easier to just go get the real
guy. If I need a real general, we go get a general. If we
need a real congressman, we’ll bring in a real
congressman.” Angel Thunder 2013 was no exception
to this, with Ambassador Charlie Ray, former U.S.
Ambassador to Zimbabwe, and both a longtime advocate
of and participant in Angel Thunder, playing the role of
a U.S. Ambassador in the exercise. Ray’s presence was
part of the sixth component of Angel Thunder 2013,
Operation UNITED FRONT. UNITED FRONT scenarios
involved personnel recovery in nations where the
authority to green-light PR missions does not lie with a
U.S. military commander, as it has in war zones like Iraq
and Afghanistan, but rather with the U.S. Chief of
Mission, most often the U.S. Ambassador. A familiar
scenario in which this command arrangement is found is
with kidnappings of U.S. citizens in foreign countries like
Colombia (a strong participant in Angel Thunder 2013),
where the Ambassador’s job would be coordinating with
host-nation government officials on rescue options. This
training is as important for the military participants as it
is for the Department of State officials participating, as
the DOS is in the process of setting up its own personnel
recovery office.
Branching off of UNITED FRONT’s focus on non-wartime
Chief-of-Mission scenarios is TASK FORCE BACA, the
seventh major component to Angel Thunder 2013.
BACA scenarios dealth with interagency/host-nation
partnerships with joint military support. In a situation
in which a personnel recovery mission is necessary
outside of a combat zone, U.S. personnel recovery forces
would have to coordinate with host-nation law
enforcement and military organizations. Playing the
role of such law enforcement agencies were various
Sheriff’s departments throughout Arizona.
An HH-60G Pave Hawk prepares to refuel from an
HC-130J Combat King II. The 79th Rescue Squadron
provided four of the new HC-130Js for Angel Thunder
2013. Photo: Ned Harris
The last component of Angel Thunder 2013 was
operation MIDNIGHT RIDER, which focused on Nonconventional Assisted Recovery (NAR). MIDNIGHT RIDER
scenarios involved mostly Army Special Forces and other
Special Operations Command assets, but little else was
divulged about this portion of the exercise. In a briefing
on Angel Thunder a few weeks prior to the exercise,
Hartnett summed up what he could say about MIDNIGHT
RIDER with the following statement: “Go see the movie
Ten A-10 Warthogs were provided for the exercise
by the Michigan Air National Guard’s 107 Fighter
Squadron “Red Devils.” The A-10s operated in the
“SANDY” search and rescue role during the exercise.
Photo: Joe Copalman
During Angel Thunder 2013, SoAR was able to observe
a RESOLUTE ANGEL scenario at the Grand Canyon and an
AUDACITY irregular warfare evolution in Playas, New
A massive earthquake in the American Southwest has
pushed civilian first responders to the brink. An exodus
of panicked tourists fleeing from the Grand Canyon
results in a massive, multi-car and tour bus pile-up, with
injuries ranging from head trauma to pinned extremities
to full-scale vehicle ejections. A few people have also
gone over the edge of a nearby cliff, further
complicating the challenges that await those who
respond to scene. With the accident victims in dire need
of rescue and medical assistance, but with all but a
handful of on-scene emergency workers already
overtasked as a result of the earthquake (which has also
downed bridges and slowed an already traffic-jammed
ground response), civilian first-responders are still hours
away from being able to assist. In this simulation, the
incident commander at the Grand Canyon initiated an IR
– “Immediate Response” – request for military support
through Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. All state
governors have the authority to intiate a DSCA request in
response to numerous types of domestic crises; such as
floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. In this
scenario, Governor Brewer contacted Colonel Kevin
Blanchard, the Commanding Officer of Davis-Monthan’s
355 Wing to request support. Using local assets in the
form of Davis-Monthan-based HC-130J COMBAT KING II
search and rescue aircraft, Colonel Blanchard
authorized the movement of Pararescue Jumpers (PJs)
from the 58 Rescue Squadron to the Grand Canyon.
The multi-vehicle accident at the rim of the Grand
Canyon involved fires, pinned victims, ejections,
compound fractures, and even victims stranded hundreds
of feet down in the canyon itself. Photo: Ned Harris
At the Canyon, Fire and EMD personnel from the National
Park Service and Tusayan Fire Departments extinguished
vehicle fires, extricated casualties from the cars and
tour bus using tools such as pry-bars and the “jaws of
life,” and performed patient triage and treatment.
Additionally, these rescue personnel also performed onscene patient triage and treatment to the wounded after
their rescue and/or extrication. Meanwhile, the PJs,
assisted by the NPS and Coconino County Search and
Rescue personnel engaged in the high-angle rescue of
those casualties who were ejected into the canyon.
This was a slow, methodical process in which the safety
of the PJs who rapelled down the canyon and the
casualties they treated and prepared for extraction was
paramount. All told, the PJs and civilian SAR personnel
rescued six casualties from inside the canyon. All
casualties, including those who were extricated from
Personnel from the National Park Service Fire
Department use the “Jaws of life” to extricate a
simulated casualty. Photo: Ned Harris
the vehicles, were evacuated from the area aboard the
Davis-Monthan-based HC-130J and a Columbian Air
Force C-130.
Pararescue Jumpers from the 58th Rescue Squadron
performing a high-angle rescue inside the Grand Canyon.
The 58th participated in Angel Thunder 2013 as part of
their pre-deployment training. Photo: Ned Harris
PJs work together to pull a “wounded” role-player out
of the Grand Canyon. Photo: Ned Harris
Enlisted airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base
wear make-up simulating various traumatic injuries
prior to being transported to the Grand Canyon for
the main Resolute Angel scenario. Photo: Ned Harris
In an image that captures the interagency cooperation
that was the centerpiece of RESOLUTE ANGEL, search
and rescue personnel from the National Park Service
and the Coconino County Sherriff’s Office confer with a
PJ from the Air Force’s 58th Rescue Squadron prior to
carrying out a high-angle rescue in the Grand Canyon.
Photo: Ned Harris
A C-130H from the Fuerza Aerea Colombiana at the
Grand Canyon Airport. Photo: Ned Harris
The scene is a desert bazaar on a gently-sloping hillside
overlooking a vast, windswept valley. Merchants
dressed in traditional shalwar kameez blouses and
citrali caps haggle with customers while a group of
burqa-clad women cluster in a remote corner.
Conversations, while lively, are drowned out by strong
gusts of wind that kick up clouds of dust and mask the
distant engine hum of the Air Force MC-12W Liberty
reconnaissance plane orbiting high overhead. Several
American servicemen and women are among the
bazaar’s patrons, moving casually among the various
dirt-floored stalls that line the long alleyway. The
merchants and their patrons have grown accustomed to
the Americans, and friendly conversations in broken
mixes of pidgin English and phrasebook Pashto take
place all along the length of the bazaar, while chickens
move about freely underfoot.
Role players in the market at the Playas Training and
Research Center. PTRC provides military and law
enforcement with immersive, high-fidelity training
environments, going to great lengths to replicate the
sights, sounds, and even the “cultural terrain” of otherthan-America areas of operation. Photo: Joe Copalman
An IED, hidden in a far corner of the bazaar detonates,
sending fragments of shrapnel flying out at several
thousand feet per second. Well over a dozen of these
jagged missiles find targets, tearing through flesh and
bone and muscle. Voices that were seconds ago
engaged in friendly banter now scream out in pain and
horror. The dusty alleyway is littered with wounded –
men and women, soldier and civilian, all maimed
indiscriminately by an insurgent’s bomb. Within a
quarter-mile radius of the bazaar, three quicklydissipating mushroom clouds confirm that this was part
of a coordinated attack. An American soldier, his right
leg blown off below the knee, crawls to cover in a
butcher’s stall. A comrade of his, blinded by shrapnel,
stumbles while feeling his way to cover, calling out the
names of his buddies for help. The cries of the wounded
come from everywhere, and the unwounded quickly get
to work assisting the wounded to find cover and
beginning rudimentary care such as applying
tourniquets to buy some time until help arrives. Finding
cover is essential, since whoever set these four bombs
off may use the chaos and confusion to engage in further
attacks from snipers, mortars, rockets, suicide
bombers, or combinations thereof. With all of the
An MC-12W Liberty from the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron
at Beale AFB orbits high overhead, providing Intelligence,
Surveillance, and Reconnaissance support to the ground
forces and their commanders. Photo: Joe Copalman
Americans wounded and unable to employ their
weapons if needed, they are all sitting ducks,
desperately waiting for the cavalry – and much needed
medical evacuation – to arrive. While scenarios like this
have been all-too-common occurrences over the past
13 years during the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan,
fortunately this attack was simulated. The four IEDs
were little more than mid-grade commercial fireworks,
the blood is fake, and the wounds are the hasty-butconvincing work of make-up artists who specialize in
simulated injuries. Though the sights, sounds, language,
and even smells can trick one into believing he or she is
actually in a dusty Afghan open-air market, this is not
Afghanistan. This is Playas.
The Playas Training and Research Center (PTRC),
located 20 miles north of the Mexican border in the
Playas Valley in southwestern New Mexico, is a unique
complex of urban and desert training ranges used by
law enforcement, first responders, government
agencies, and the military primarily for tactical
training. The town of Playas was built in the 1970s by
Phelps, Dodge and Co. to house the employees who
ran a nearby copper smelter, along with their
families. With over two hundred individual homes, six
apartment buildings, stores, a bank, a post office, an
A simulated IED explodes at the Afghan
market. Seconds later, role-players will lay
in the street simulating various types of
injuries, including shrapnel wounds,
amputations, and eye and ear injuries. The
market was one of four sites at the Playas
Training Center that were hit
simultaneously by coordinated IED blasts.
Photo: Joe Copalman
airfield, and other facilities common to larger
municipalities, Playas was a largely self-contained
community. When Phelps Dodge closed the smelter
down in 1999, the town was abandoned, save for a
small group of residents tasked with the demolition of
the smelter and environmental upkeep.
Playas gained a second lease on life in 2003, when New
Mexico Tech, a University located in Socorro, New
Mexico, purchased the town and the surrounding land
from Phelps Dodge for $5 million. New Mexico Tech
developed the site into the PTRC, one of the world’s
preeminent tactical training facilities for military and
law enforcement professionals from all over the US and
internationally as well. Brett Hartnett and the Angel
Thunder planning cell have used the PTRC for scenariobased training for the past several years, as its proximity
to Davis-Monthan, diverse range of realistic training
venues, and terrain similarities to Afghanistan and the
presence of role-players with relevant cultural and
language skills provides them with the ease of access,
flexibility, and immersive training environments needed
to make Angel Thunder as realistic and effective as
possible. In terms of tactical training facilities, the PTRC
hosts shooting ranges that offer numerous target sets at
known and unknown distances, an airfield, a multitude
of structures in which to practice breach-and-clear
tactics, both paved and off-road tactical driving courses,
Villagers assist in moving the wounded out of the street and into
the cover of the buildings nearby. Photo: Joe Copalman
and several clearings that can be
used as landing zones throughout
the area. The services offered by
New Mexico Tech’s staff at the
PRTC, however, go far beyond just
tactical training. With several
sites simulating “Other Than
America” locations that are often
populated by locally-hired roleplayers and native-born speakers
of Arabic, Pashto, or African
dialects, Playas also serves as an
environment in which to train for
the cultural and political aspects of
counterinsurgency and irregular
warfare, with the main goal being
to give troops a holistic and
immersive training experience
prior to deploying overseas. It was
this later role that Playas played
during the irregular warfare
evolution of Angel Thunder 2013
that SoAR observed.
main approaches into the area.
Shortly after the blast in the
marketplace, a blue pickup truck
stopped at the T-intersection,
off-loading three men in a mix of
civilian and military clothing,
each armed with an AK-47. The
trio quickly but methodically
made their way through the
market, sweeping through the
individual stalls to check for any
insurgents. These were the good
guys, described by Angel
Thunder ground boss Kyle Sauls
as “diplomatic security, Triple
Canopy-types.” They were first
on-scene due to the “embassy”
being located nearby. With the
scene somewhat secure, two of
the contractors left the market
to go to the other blast sites,
while one remained behind at the
market, taking a position
allowing him to observe the three
The civilian role-players stayed
in character the entire time,
with the wounded continuing to
cry out in pain, and the villagers
continuing to provide whatever
comfort they could until
legitimate medical help arrived
while the women continued to
wail in despair. After roughly an
hour since the bomb blasts, the
sounds of salvation could be
heard in the distance. The
steady, throbbing ‘whump’ of a
CH-47D Chinook provided by the
Army Reserve’s B Company,
7-158 Aviation Battalion and a
Sikorsky UH-60L flown by the
California Army National Guard’s
A Co, 2-238 AVN grew in
intensity as the helicopters
approached Playas. The pair
landed simultaneously, with the
H-60 landing in a clearing
surrounded by houses while the
In addition to the bomb blast at
the marketplace, further
coordinated attacks occurred on
a civilian bus (a simulated IED)
along with a simulated rocket
attack on a civilian vehicle.
These additional blasts served to
increase the operational stress on
the Quick Reaction Force and the
pararescue personnel who would
shortly be inbound to secure the
attack sites, treat the casualties,
and evacuate those who needed
it. Instead of dealing with an
isolated incident in the market,
there were now blasts and
related casualties (both civilian
and military) at multiple
locations within the immediate
area, along with an unknown
number of insurgents.
larger H-47 landed on a dusty
soccer pitch across from the
market. Each helo offloaded a
small squad of Force Recon
Marines from the 2 Force
Reconnaissance Company, who
cleared their respective landing
zones very quickly and advanced
toward rally points where they
could assess the situation and
plan their next move. They
moved out quickly, methodically
clearing the houses surrounding
the LZs. After about ten minutes
on the ground, the Marines made
contact with the lone security
contractor guarding the market.
“I’m the only one here!” he
shouted, to which a Marine
replied “Not anymore!”
During the scenario, three servicemembers
played the role of civilian/diplomatic
security personnel who provided security at
each incident site while waiting for allied
troops to arrive. Photo: Joe Copalman
A simulated IED explodes near a bus in one of four
coordinated, simultaneous attacks within a quarter-mile
area at the Playas Training and Research Center. Photo:
Dave Shields
Casualties await rescue and evacuation in one of the
numerous stalls lining the Afghan market. Photo: Dave
A role-player acting as an insurgent flees from the scene
after serving as the “triggerman” for the coordinated
attacks at Playas. Photo: Dave Shields
While the Marines had boots on the ground, their job
was to secure the landing zones for the main body of
the rescue force. Shortly after the LZs had been
secured, the call was made for the helos carrying the
rescue forces to come in to Playas. First on-scene
was a Boeing-Vertol CH-47SD Chinook belonging to
the Republic of Singapore Air Force. The pilot set
down in the soccer field, kicking up a massive cloud
of dust that completely obscured the aircraft from
view. Before the dust had settled, the the crew
chief had dropped the rear ramp, and a squad of
fourteen commandos from the Chilean Air Force’s
Unidad Táctica de Fuerzas Especiales (UTAFE),
accompanied by a Force Recon Marine attached to
them stormed out, weapons raised to meet any
unseen threat. They quickly moved to the cover of
some nearby buildings, establishing a rally point in
the yard of a house about a block north of the
market. Once settled, they communicated with the
Force Recon Marines who cleared the LZ,
determining their own position relative to the
market and the other units on the ground. As this
was happening, another Singaporean Chinook
appeared over the horizon, quickly making its way to
Playas and settling down on the soccer field the
previous Chinook had cleared only minutes before.
Again, the ramp dropped, and a group of commandos
disembarked the massive chopper, again
accompanied by a Force Recon Marine. The
commando team on the second Chinook reflected the
true multinational nature of Angel Thunder, being a
mix of seven Colombian Air Force Commandos
Marines from 2nd Force Recon disembark from an Army
CH-47D Chinook. The Recon Marines secured the landing
zones to ensure that helicopters bringing additional troops
in and to evacuate the wounded could do so safely.
Photo: Joe Copalman
“You’re not alone anymore!” – A Force Recon Marine
communicates with the security contractor guarding the
blast site at the market. Photo: Joe Copalman
on the information they had – three IED blasts in the
area with wounded at all three sites, contractors
providing security at each location, and an unknown
enemy presence in the area.
(Agrupación de Comandos Especiales Aéreos) and
seven Brazilian commandos, arriving on a
Singaporean helicopter and accompanied by a US
Marine. With boots on the ground, the Colombians
and Brazilians made their way to the rally point that
had been secured by the Chileans.
It is important to note that Angel Thunder scenarios
are not scripted. The Brazilians, Chileans, and
Colombians only knew what the Force Recon Marines
already on the ground knew, who in turn really only
had information from the contractor guarding the
market, and whatever information the MC-12W
orbiting overhead could provide. Once all units
were on the ground, they formulated a plan based
A Blackhawk from A Co, 2-238th AVN emerges from its own
brownout on departure from the Playas Training Center
after unloading a squad of Marines from 2nd Force Recon.
Photo: Joe Copalman
Throughout the PTRC grounds, there are numerous
observation decks, towers, and key vantage points
that are used by planning personnel, VIP visitors,
and official observers (often personnel from sister
units of foreign militaries). From these locations,
the planning personnel are able to coordinate events
integral to the scenario and to provide commentary
and explanation to the observers with minimal
disruption to/interference with the players involved
in the exercises. During the irregular warfare
evolution at Playas, there were numerous personnel
recovery personnel from foreign militaries (both on
the operator level as well as command and control)
that were observing and learning lessons to use both
“back home” and in preparation for their own
participation in future Angel Thunder exercises. An
additional benefit for all countries involved, whether
they are participating or observing, is that by
learning and operating from a similar playbook,
when the time comes to conduct a real-world
integrated personnel recovery operation, all the
players are able to function in a coordinated fashion,
thus reducing risk, increasing the team’s
effectiveness, and greatly improving the odds of
success in such operations. Evidence of this
coordination and cooperation between and among
the foreign and US personnel was observed
MEDICO!,” calling for medics to enter the market to
treat the wounded. At this point, the Colombians, who
were tasked with triage and initial treatment of the
wounded, entered the market along with the Brazilians,
whose task it was to assist the Colombians with
treatment, assisting in the movement of casualties, and
providing security for the market along with the
Chilean Air Force Commandos secure the LZ after
disembarking from a Singapore Air Force CH-47SD Chinook.
Photo: Joe Copalman
repeatedly throughout the day at Playas.
Within a matter of minutes of all units gathering at the
rally point, they moved out. The Chileans were first,
peeking out onto the street from the corner of a block
wall to make sure the path to the market was clear of any
visible insurgents. Within seconds, the rescue force was
making its way – slowly and silently – toward the market.
Once at the market, the Marine attached to the FACh
Commandos spoke with the contractor standing guard,
getting an up-to-the-minute status on the situation in
the market before sending troops in to treat and recover
the wounded. The Chileans again led the way, swiftly
clearing the market. Upon their first encounter with
wounded, the Chileans began shouting “MEDICO!
A Marine Force Recon adviser points out a rally point to a
mixed force of Brazilian and Colombian Air Force Commandos
after disembarking from a Republic of Singapore Air Force
CH-47SD Chinook. Photo: Joe Copalman
RSAF Chinook about descending into its own brownout
upon landing on the soccer field at Playas. Photo: Joe
Brazilian commandos arrive at a rally point near the LZ to
coordinate with Force Recon Marines and Colombian and
Chilean Air Force Commandos on moving toward the four
incident sites at Playas. Photo: Joe Copalman
FACh Commandos take the lead in clearing the way from
the rally point to the Afghan Market. Photo: Joe Copalman
Observers from several foreign
militaries watch as the multinational
force secure the market and triage
casualties in preparation for
evacuation. Foreign participation is
strongly encouraged, but nations
interested in being a part of Angel
Thunder must first send observers.
Photo: Dave Shields
“¡MEDICO! ¡MEDICO!” FACh commandos search the Afghan
market for threats, instead finding large numbers of
American military casualties sheltered in the various
storefronts and calling for medics to treat the wounded.
Photo: Joe Copalman
Another group of observers watch, and discuss with US
personnel, as forces arrive to evaluate and secure the area
surrounding another simulated IED detonation. Among the
militaries represented with personnel in this image are
Italy, India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. Photo: Dave
While this was happening, the Force Recon Marines who
had inserted via H-47 into the soccer field LZ were
establishing a casualty collection point – CCP – a block
north of the market. The same blue pickup that carried
the initial group of contractors to the market arrived to
start ferrying the wounded to the CCP for evacuation via
helicopter. The “wounded” role players were still very
much in character, responding to treatment or crying
out in pain while the Colombians tended to their wounds
or attempted to move them. As the critical cases were
moved via truck, ambulatory casualties, were escorted
to the CCP on foot, with those simulating blindness as a
result of the attack moving in a conga-line-like
formation led by a Brazilian commando, with each man’s
hands on the shoulders of the one in front of him. As this
was happening, a US Air Force Joint Terminal Air
Controller was calling in the medevac helicopters to
transport the critically-wounded to the care they
urgently needed.
As the majority of the casualties had been
transported to the CCP, two HH-60Ms from the US
Army’s F Company, 1-214 Aviation Battalion arrived
overhead and landed in the soccer field. Shortly after
landing, the crew chiefs met Recon Marines and
Colombian Pararescuemen to help move stretcherbound casualties aboard the waiting Blackhawks,
while some of the more critical cases among the
walking wounded were assisted aboard by their lessseverely wounded comrades. By this point, most of
the Brazilian and Chilean commandos had joined the
Marines in moving to the other incident sites to secure
them, and to evaluate and stabilize any casualties
there for movement to the CCP for extraction. This
process was repeated into the afternoon, as the H-60s
and H-47s shuttled “wounded” role-players from
Playas to Davis-Monthan until all had been accounted
for and evacuated.
Colombian and Brazilian commandos litter-carry a casualty
to a nearby truck for transport to the Casualty Collection
Point. Photo: Dave Shields
All told, Angel Thunder 2013 saw a total of 32 personnel
recovery events involving 109 aircraft and 3017
A Marine assists Colombian and Brazilian troops in loading a participants from 14 different nations, with an
impressive 282 “saves” made throughout the exercise.
casualty with severe leg injuries into the bed of a pickup
truck for transport to the CCP. Photo: Dave Shields
The scenarios that SoAR observed showcased the lengths
to which Angel Thunder’s planners go to ensure that the
exercise provides realistic, high-fidelity training for all
participants. The involvement of over a dozen armed
forces from around the world, domestic law
enforcement, and governmental agencies afforded
participants the opportunity to work alongside
organizations they likely would not have any other
training opportunities with outside of Angel Thunder.
And with another Angel Thunder exercise planned for
late Spring 2014, it is a sure bet that more nations will
be sending personnel recovery operators to Arizona for
this training.
Pickup trucks are used to transport the wounded from the
four incident sites to a Casualty Collection Point near the
LZ. Once at the CCP, casualties are triaged to determine
whose injuries are the most critical and thus which patients
need to be evacuated first. Photo: Joe Copalman
CAT ALPHA. A critically-wounded American is loaded onto
an HH-60M for transport to a hospital for surgery. Photo:
Joe Copalman
A US Air Force Joint Terminal Attack
Controller (JTAC) discusses the
medevac plan prior to calling in the
helicopters to pick up the wounded.
Photo: Dave Shields
An F Co, 1-214th AVN HH-60M Medevac emerges from its
own brownout upon landing. Photo: Joe Copalman
Ambulatory casualties are escorted by
Brazilian and Colombian commandos.
Photo: Dave Shields
The Walking Wounded – Force Recon Marines and several of
the role players with minor injuries prepare to depart
Playas aboard a CH-47D belonging to the “Spartans” of the
Army Reserve’s B Co, 7-158th AVN. Photo: Dave SHields
A UH-60L Blackhawk preparing to depart Playas carrying the higher-ranking officers of the foreign observer delegation.
Photo: Dave Shields
Credit & Appreciation
SoAR would like to thank the following for their assistance and coordination in preparing this article:
Brett Harnett and Kyle Sauls, both with ACC and 1st Lt. S. Godfrey with ACC PAO.