For almost a decade, Angel Thunder has offered foreign militaries looking to develop their organic PR capabilities an opportunity to train alongside US air force rescue forces. While most foreign participants send a handful of SERE or command and control types, each year sees at least one nation investing heavily in the exercise and sending aircraft, maintainers, and personnel recovery commandos. This year, the German Air Force played that role, sending three CH-53GS helicopters from Laupheim-based Hubschraubergeschwader 64 (HSG 64). Along with pilots, flight engineers, and maintainers, HSG 64 also sent a team of Kampfretter PJs, a flight surgeon, a JTAC, and some SERE specialists.

Words & Photography: Joe Copalman

‘Major L,’ a pilot with HSG 64’s 2nd Squadron who served as an HH-60G instructor pilot at Kirtland Air Force Base on an exchange tour, explains the motivation behind Germany’s participation, “We have a squadron that specializes in personnel recovery and special operations, and we are standing up along with that capability a PJ capability. That has been an ongoing process over the last couple of years. Angel Thunder is the exercise with the focus of personnel recovery, and it’s the benchmark for personnel recovery worldwide. We’ve always had the intent to come here, and this year we had the opportunity funding-wise to participate.” Regarding HSG 64’s learning objectives, Major L tells AFM “One thing was integration with other nations.” While the unit has extensive experience training alongside other European nations in exercises like the Combined Joint Personnel Recovery and Standardization Course, it was important to the wing to come to the US to train with the air force rescue triad. “It sounds cheesy, but we’re trying to learn from the best, and the US air force is the most capable personnel force in the world.”

Through lessons learned from exchange tours like the one Major L served at Kirtland, HSG 64 has adopted many of the American tactics, techniques and procedures and adapted them to reflect the unit’s own capabilities. Major L tells AFM “A lot of our TTPs are very similar, obviously tailored to the airframe because we don’t have the HH-60. Also, the standard operating procedures are very similar. The style of briefing we use is very similar, so it was quite easy to interact, especially with the 55th out here at D-M because all my guys have seen briefings like that. A lot of guys from the 55th, they never thought it would be as easy as it was working with us because our working principles are so similar.”

Captain Jake Hobson, a pilot with the 55th RQS, which was paired up with HSG 64 for the duration of the exercise, gives an American perspective on this partnership, “Whenever you work with somebody you don’t know, you’re always skeptical, like ‘Are these guys any good? Are they goofballs? Are they pros?’ And the Germans were awesome. They’re safe pilots, and they’ve very effective.” Hobson continues, “They’re newer to the game of rescue than we are, so we were able to teach them some very good stuff. But a lot of stuff was very similar, like basic helicopter flying, and our weapons patterns are very similar. It was really cool seeing the capabilities of the CH-53 helicopters that they fly.”

As with most helicopters serving in personnel recovery units worldwide, the GAF’s CH-53GS helos are compromise solutions to very challenging mission demands. Identifying some of the H-53’s weaknesses, Major L says “We are lacking some of the key elements like secure comms and air refueling capability.” HSG 64’s H-53s also lack built-in situational awareness tools like a FLIR turret or weather radar like the HH-60G. That said, the CH-53 has much to commend it. As Major L explains, the CH-53GS “gives us six hours of endurance if we need it, so that’s quite alright for our platform. We have quite a robust defensive suite, so the defensive systems work quite well. We have three by fifty-cal (machine guns) on each aircraft, so we have good defense on the platform. Obviously we have a lot of room. The guys liked to fly with us because you can stand upright in the airframe, which the PJs on the -60s aren’t used to. We bring a lot of space and lift capability, more than our smaller Sikorsky brethren.” Even the most capable platform is of limited use without trained and experienced aircrews, which were probably HSG 64’s strongest asset. “One of the key elements is mostly the trained personnel,” says Major L. “We have guys with a lot of PR background, and also with operational background from Afghanistan” where German H-53 crews have deployed in support of ISAF operations.

HSG 64’s deployment began in early May, with HSG 64 helicopters and personnel arriving at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, home to a GAF Flying Training Center educating Tornado aircrews. Per Major L, “Coming to the exercise was obviously the main goal of the deployment, but beforehand we used Holloman and its weapons ranges for five weeks, and we used the time for spin-up training and live-fire exercises. We rotated all of the personnel three times, so that a lot of pilots and flight engineers had the opportunity to fly in those conditions. “