As early as the First World War, while the aviation was still in its infancy, studies were carried out on ways of saving pilots when their machines were fatally hit. In the heart of the war, the parachute was adopted to save soldiers in the gondola of observation balloons, as they had become prime targets of enemy fighter aircrafts. Given the relative ease of hitting such targets, the aerostat pilots preferred to jump out of their gondola and head towards terra firma immediately they had the certainty that their balloon was being targeted.
In 1939, no system had been designed yet for
rescuing pilots who were shot down
Operations to rescue pilots who fell behind enemy lines used to look more or less like commando actions. From every indication, no solution had been found to this problem during the interval between the two world wars, and when the Second World War broke out, no system had been designed yet for rescuing pilots who were shot down. While the parachute was the main rescue gadget, the pilot had nothing else to count on with respect to his being picked up immediately he reached the ground. With the soaring popularity of pilots, the rescue of pilots was instituted by the two major warring sides, England and Germany. In both air forces, the pilot announced when he was leaving his plane, and, when possible, described the position where he fell on enemy territory. Those who fell in France were taken care of by the Resistance, whereas the Germans who landed in England were taken prisoners. Pilots who fell in the sea during fighting over the English Channel were fished out using rescue boats or emergency seaplanes. Though these unfortunate help-expecting pilots were on a few occasions caught up in fighting, while floundering around in rather cold water, a tacit agreement made it possible for rescuers from opposing camps to work side by side while saving their respective pilots without shooting at each other. The RESCO (search and rescue during fighting) was born. In addition to the parachute on the pilot’s back, beneath his buttocks were a dinghy, with an automatic inflection mechanism triggered off upon contact with water, a revolver, distress rockets, a whistle, a Mae West (named after a puffed-breast American film actress), and some fluorescein.
Sir James MARTIN got down to designing the first ejection seat to be mounted on almost all English aircrafts. Indeed the air ministry contemplated, with growing anxiety, the difficulty of a pilot to pop himself out of his machine when it is doomed to crash. A special study was consecrated to the evolution of the ejection seat given the important role it plays in the rescue of a pilot in good condition.
The ultimate impetus to the development of rescue techniques came from the Vietnam War.
The ultimate impetus to the art of rescuing pilots who fell behind
enemy lines was given by the Vietnam War.
In order to acquaint themselves with survival methods, pilots underwent training in settings like “jungles”, “deserts”, “mountains” and the “countryside”. Thanks to his pack, a pilot who was shot down or forced to abandon his bird, could survive, and indicate his position to his rescuers. The pilot’s rescue pack comprised: a life jacket containing a lamp, a mirror, some fluorescein, a shark-repelling powder, distress rockets, survival rations, a distress beacon to indicate his position and establish communication with rescuers, and other survival resources that bundled with the ejection seat.
An impact accompanied by a dazzling flash triggers off a profusion of red danger lights to warn the pilot that his plane has been hit. He has to eject himself as quickly as possible before it becomes too late, “Panther 4 I eject myself”. The dropping pilot lands on a mountain, in a forest, or somewhere where he might be captured by the enemy. He certainly wouldn’t appreciate the hotel comfort of the enemy’s prisons and thus has to use all his know-how and the rescue gear at his disposal to avoid it. During the ejection, his distress beacon is automatically activated and sends out signals on a coded frequency transmitting precise information about his position. The AWACS orbiting in the sky immediately notes the disappearance of the plane’s echo and locates the position of the SOS signal. From that moment, the RESCO unit gets down to work to rescue the pilot. Like all pilots and navigators, he must have undergone the DFSS training which should enable him to survive under very harsh conditions while awaiting rescue. The key word is discretion, both in the GPS location of the survivor and in the orchestration of the rescue operation. Immediately he reaches the ground, the pilot, using his radio, makes a call over the distress frequency, identifies himself with his tactical sign, and gives his physical state as well as his position if he is able to make it out. In case the contact is unsuccessful the first time, he has to keep on trying without relenting.
Henceforth, the rescue unit must be able to adapt to ruthless fighting conditions
The time for carrying out a RESCO operation ranges from 3 hours 30 minutes to 7 hours. The rescue unit must be able to adapt to ruthless fighting conditions where any opposition to the rescue of a pilot must be cleared. It is thus a force, which besides rescue helicopters, can comprise a dozen of aircrafts capable of dealing with all potential threats, under the tactical authority of an AWACS which goes into action. Once the pilot has been duly identified by information concordant with his ISOPREP (file containing personal identification information), the rescue helicopters approach his pick up point, under the protection of the aerial cover put in place. The over-aged Puma was replaced by the EC725 Cougar, which can be refuelled in flight, and has a speed of over 250 km/h for a flight radius of 740 km and a capacity of 10 persons. France currently occupies the second position, just behind the United States, in terms of technical know-how in the area of search and rescue during fighting.