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920th Rescue Wing Crews Swoop in to Scoop Up Brevard Boaters

The swampy, winding canals lined with dormant trees just west of Interstate 95 were a long way from the powdery desert terrain of Afghanistan. But for Air Force Col. Jeff Macrander, easing the 22,000-pound HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter down on a small tract of land in the marshy area was second nature, as he and three members of the 920th Rescue Wing combat-search-and-rescue crew were called to help civilians badly injured in a Tuesday night airboat accident.

“It was a lot better than combat rescue missions, no one was shooting at us,” Macrander said, a day after Brevard County authorities credited the crews of two helicopters with diverting from their training to help save the four men in the St. Johns River crash.

The boating accident happened about 7 p.m. after the airboat snaked through the darkened waterways and slammed into a tree west of Interstate 95 near the Sweetwater Boat Ramp. One of the men called 9-1-1, prompting Brevard County Sheriff’s Office and Brevard County Fire-Rescue crews to send out airboats in search of the boaters. Among the victims was a man in his mid-50s who was tossed several feet. The rescuers also needed air support.

Low-lying clouds and moderately windy conditions, however, kept helicopters from Holmes Regional Medical Center and the sheriff’s office grounded. Paramedics would have been forced to first find the injured, then take them back to a boat ramp and then transport them by ambulance to area hospitals. The injured men did attempt to flip over the disabled air boat but the craft took on water,leaving the four stranded.

Thirty miles away,Macrander and the other rescue-wing crews — all stationed at Patrick Air Force Base — were in the medium-lift helicopters carrying out live gunnery exercises with mounted .50-caliber guns at the military’s Avon Park installation when a call came in from 38-year-old Maj. Rod Stout.

The Air Force rarely carries out civilian rescues except when requested. Both of the helicopters, which can fly indefinitely with in-air refueling and in windy weather, were used on missions in Afghanistan and plucked stranded civilians from rooftops and waterways in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

“The initial call was that the airboat was going to try to make it out on its own and that our assistance was not needed…that changed,” Stout said, adding that a reservist had informally called the air base to report the incident. “It was a very easy decision to make. Life, limb or eyesight, if we can affect that mission or save that person’s life, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Stout dispatched messages to the Pave Hawk crews by radio and then to a sheriff’s watch commander by cell phone, who then radioed information to paramedics at the scene.

Macrander, 48, said the rescue was actually less complex than the combat scenario the airmen — Macrander, Mstr. Sgt. Randy Wells and Mst. Sgt. Will Towers — were practicing at Avon Park.

“We were doing some landing zone work when they called and said we might have a real-world mission for you,” said Macrander, a full-time reservist technician who has flown the HH-60 since the 1990s and flew combat missions in Afghanistan.

Paramedics located the men and worked to stabilize them as the modified Blackhawk helicopters slowly hovered to the ground by night-vision-guided pilots. Three of the injured boaters were loaded onto the helicopter piloted by Macrander.

Two paramedics also got onboard for the eight-minute flight to Holmes Regional Medical Center’s trauma center in Melbourne. A fourth patient was taken by ambulance. Their conditions — not believed to be life-threatening — were unknown late Tuesday.

“It was just another day at the office,” Macrander said.

“We train to do this sort of thing all the time.”

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