Pararescuemen (AFSC 1T2X1), also called PJs (a nickname pronounced 'pee jays'), are United States Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and Air Combat Command (ACC) operatives tasked with recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and combat environments. They are the only members of the DoD specifically organized, trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile or denied areas as a primary mission. PJs are also used to support NASA missions and have been used to recover astronauts after water landings. They wear the maroon beret, as a symbol of their elite status. Part of the little-known Air Force Special Tactics community and long an enlisted preserve, the pararescue service began commissioning Combat rescue officers early in the 21st century.
Even so, there were developments in critical technologies. In 1940, two U.S. Forestry Service Smokejumpers, Earl Cooley and Rufus Robinson, showed that parachutists could be placed very accurately onto the ground using the newly-invented 'steerable parachute'. These parachutes and the techniques Smokejumpers used with them were completely different from the techniques used by Army airborne units. And it was in that year that Dr. (Captain) Leo P. Martin was trained by the U.S. Forestry Service Parachute Training Center in Seeley Lake, Montana as the first 'para-doctor'.
Rescue units were formed around the globe under the operational control of local commanders. While training, techniques and equipment varied, one rule was constant: "Rescue forces must presume survivors in each crash until proved otherwise."
Search and rescue of downed aviators in the continental United States fell primarily to the Civil Air Patrol, a civilian aviation group under the command of the Army Air Corps. The CAP would usually send in ground crews after locating a crash site; however, they would sometimes land small aircraft and they did experiment with parachute rescue teams.
With Canada's entry into WWII in 1939, the former Canadian fighter ace Wop May was put in charge of training operations and took over command at the No 2 Air Observer School in Edmonton, Alberta. Edmonton was one of the common stops for A-20 Boston, B-26 Marauder and especially B-25 Mitchell bombers being flown to the Soviet Union as part of the lend-lease program. When these aircraft went down, typically due to mechanical or navigational problems, the crew often survived only to die attempting to make it out of the bush. May's school was often asked to supply aircraft to search for downed planes, but even when one was spotted there was often little they could do to help. May decided to address this problem.
In early 1942 May asked for volunteers from his civilian servicing crew, and about a dozen agreed to join. With basically no equipment, the instruction consisted of "jump and pull" and windage was calculated by throwing an Eaton's catalogue out the door. Early operations were comical, but in early 1943 May sent two volunteers, Owen Hargreaves and Scotty Thompson to the smoke jumpers school in Missoula, Montana to be trained by the U.S. Forestry Service. After six weeks they returned home with borrowed steerable equipment to train two other volunteers, Wilfred Rivet and Laurie Poulsom. Soon the unit was conducting operational jumps, and by 1944 May's persistence had paid off and an official para-rescue training program started. For his work, May was awarded the Medal of Freedom, with Bronze Palm in 1947 by the USAAF.
In the European Theater, there was very little opportunity for ground rescue. Most flights were over enemy-occupied territory, where a landing meant immediate capture. In the UK area of the European Theatre, the British military was at the time creating its own Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service which would be based largely on civilian mountain rescue doctrine. The RAFMRS has rescued many American aircrew, or recovered remains, from USAF crashes over its UK territory. Crashes during over-water flights created a great many casualties, the Eighth Air Force initiated a 'sea rescue' group. From its creation in 1943 until the end of the war, the recovery rate of aircrews downed at sea rose from less than five percent to over forty percent.
In the vast reaches of the Pacific Theater, a plane crash meant almost certain death from exposure to the elements. The Army formed several squadrons in theater specifically to aid and rescue downed flyers - both at sea and on islands - with great success.
The China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) was the birthplace of what would eventually become pararescue. Here was a unique combination of long overland flights through territory that was loosely held by the enemy and survivable. Dominating the flying in the CBI was 'The Hump' route: cargo flights that left India carrying thousands of tons of vital war supplies had to cross the spine of the Himalayas to reach their destinations in China. Every day thousands of flight crews and their passengers risked their lives making this passage in C-46 and C-47 aircraft. Many of these flights never arrived at their destinations due to mechanical problems, weather and mistakes. Crews forced to bail out or crash land faced weeks of hardship in tracing a path back to civilization, enduring harsh weather, little food and the injuries they carried with them.
Capt. John L. 'Blackie' Porter - a former stunt pilot - is credited with commanding the first organized air rescue unit in the theater. Known as "Blackie's Gang" and flying out of Chabua, India, they were equipped with two C-47 aircraft. One of their first rescue missions was the recovery of twenty people who had bailed out of a stricken C-46 in August of 1943 in the Naga area of Burma; an area that contained not just Japanese troops, but tribes of head hunters as well. Among the twenty was CBS reporter Eric Sevareid. The men were located and supplies were dropped to them. The wing flight surgeon Lt. Col. Don Flickinger, and two combat surgical technicians, Sgt. Harold Passey and Cpl. William MacKenzie, parachuted from the search planes to assist and care for the injured. At the same time, a ground team was sent to their location and all twenty walked to safety.
Although parachute rescues were not officially authorized at the time, this is considered by PJs to be the birth of Air Force pararescue. Eric Sevareid said of his rescuers: "Gallant is a precious word: they deserve it". A few short months later, Capt. Porter was killed on a rescue mission when his B-25 was shot down.
In 1944, General William H. Tunner took command of Air Transport Command operations in CBI. Declaring the rescue organization to be a 'cowboy operation', he appointed Maj. Donald C. Pricer commander of the 3352nd Air Search and Rescue Squadron and assigned him several aircraft for the mission. In addition to fixed-wing aircraft, early helicopters were deployed to the CBI for use in rescue, marking the start of a long association between rotary-wing aircraft and air rescue.
In the area around an air base, the air base commander had search and rescue jurisdiction through the Local Base Rescue (LBR) helicopter units. However, these were limited to a radius around the base due to the range and payload limitations of the aircraft. In order to reach beyond this limitation, Pararescue teams were authorized on July 1, 1947, with the first teams to be ready for fielding in November. Each team was to be comprised of a para-doctor and four pararescue technicians trained in medicine, survival, rescue and tactics. Pararescue was given the mission of rescuing crews lost on long-range bomber and transport missions and to support other agencies when aerial rescue was requested.
A mission earlier in 1947 was the final impetus for the formal creation of Air Force Pararescue. In May, Dr. (Capt.) Pope B. 'Doc' Holliday parachuted out of an OA-10 Catalina into the Nicaraguan jungle to aid a crewmember who had parachuted from a crippled B-17 Flying Fortress. His actions earned him the Bronze Star and made him another of pararescue's early legends.
Shortly after Pararescue teams were authorized, the 5th Rescue Squadron conducted the first Pararescue and Survival School at MacDill AFB in Florida. The core of instructors were experienced officers and enlisted men who were recruited from all branches of service. The commandant of that first school was pilot Lt. Perry C. Emmons, who had been assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. At the close of the war, Emmons and six sergeants flew prisoners of war out of Thailand, earning his group the nickname "Perry and the Pirates", after the popular comic strip "Terry and the Pirates". After the war, Emmons completed Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, becoming only the second jump-qualified Air Force pilot.
In 1949, due to a shortage of available doctors, Medical Service Corps officers replaced para-doctors on the teams, receiving the same training as the enlisted pararescuemen. One of the first of these officers was John C. Shumate, a pharmacist, who was appointed commandant of the Pararescue and Survival School.
At this time the Air Rescue Specialist Course was created at the School of Aviation Medicine, Gunter AFB, Alabama. Designed to teach pararescuemen the skills needed to determine the nature and extent of injuries and to administer treatment, the course was taught by Medical Corps officers with previous pararescue experience, including: Dr. Pope B.'Doc' Holliday, Dr. Rufus Hessberg, Dr. Hamilton Blackshear, Dr. Randal W. Briggs and Dr. Burt Rowan.
In 1950, North Korea attacked across the 38th parallel and began the Korean Conflict. This was an opportunity for Air Rescue to put training into practice and to develop theories into policies. One of the key new concepts was rescue of stranded personnel from behind enemy lines. This, along with evacuating critically wounded men from aid stations close to the front, were Air Rescue's primary missions.
Pararescuemen were a normal part of Air Rescue crews for these missions. Their medical and tactical skills made them invaluable for evacuation and rescue missions of this type.
Pararescuemen were often called upon to leave the helicopters that carried them in order to assist the personnel they were sent to rescue. This might call for an extended stay behind enemy lines and overland travel of several miles. The longest of these 'Lone Wolf' missions lasted seventy-two hours.
By the end of the Korean Conflict in 1953, Air Rescue had evacuated over eight thousand critical casualties and rescued nearly a thousand men from behind enemy lines.
The process of becoming a "PJ" is known informally as "the Pipeline." (Even more informally as "Superman School.") Successfully completing it takes about two years of intense physical and mental effort. Of the dozens who begin the process, only the most determined will graduate; sometimes as few as four to six from a class of nearly 60. Over 90 percent drop out from each class; the highest training drop-out rate in the entire U.S. military Special Operations community.
10 weeks, Lackland AFB, TX. The mission of the Indoctrination Course is to recruit, select and train future PJs and CROs. At this school you will participate in extensive physical conditioning with lots of swimming, running, weight training and calisthenics. This course helps prepare you for the rigors of training and the demands of these lifestyles. Other training accomplished at this course includes physiological training, obstacle course, rucksack marches, dive physics, dive tables, metric manipulations, medical terminology, dive terminology, CPR, weapons qualifications, history of PJs, and leadership reaction course. Graduation of this course is "your ticket to ride" the pipeline and begin learning those special skills that make PJs highly regarded special operators.
3 weeks, Fort Benning, GA. Here you learn the basic parachuting skills required to infiltrate an objective area by static line airdrop. This course includes ground operations week, tower week, and jump week where you make 5 actual parachute jumps. Personnel who complete this training are awarded the basic parachutist rating and are allowed to wear the coveted parachutist's wings.
6 weeks. Panama City Beach FL. The course is divided into four blocks of instruction: (1) Diving Theory, (2) Infiltration/Exfiltration Methods, (3) Open Circuit Diving Operations, and (4) Closed Circuit Diving Operations. The primary focus of AFCDC is to develop Pararescuemen/Combat Rescue Officers and Combat Controller/Special Tactics Officers into competent, capable, and safe combat divers/swimmers. The course design provides Commander’s with divers/swimmers capable of meeting worldwide Personnel Recovery and Special Operations waterborne mission taskings. AFCDC provides diver training through classroom instruction, extensive physical training, surface and sub-surface water confidence pool exercises, pool familiarization dives, day/night tactical open water surface/sub-surface infiltration swims, open/closed circuit diving procedures, underwater search and recovery procedures, and the training culminates with a waterborne field training exercise (WFTX).
1 day, Pensacola NAS, FL. This course teaches how to safely escape from an aircraft that has ditched in the water. Instruction includes principles, procedures, and techniques necessary to get out of a sinking aircraft. Training requires personnel to actually experience water entry in a training device and perform underwater egress.
2.5 weeks, Fairchild AFB, WA. This course teaches basic survival techniques for remote areas--using minimal equipment. This includes instruction of principles, procedures, equipment, and techniques, which enable individuals to survive, regardless of climatic conditions or unfriendly environments, and return home.
5 weeks, Ft. Bragg, NC. and Yuma Proving Grounds, AZ. This course instructs free fall parachuting (HALO) using the high performance ram air canopy. The course provides wind tunnel training, in-air instruction focusing on student stability, aerial maneuvers, air sense, and parachute opening procedures. Each student receives a minimum of 30 free fall jumps including 2 day and 2 night jumps with supplemental oxygen, rucksack, and load bearing equipment.
22 Weeks, Kirtland AFB, NM. This course teaches how to manage trauma patients prior to evacuation and provide emergency medical treatment. The course consists of two phases. Phase I is 5 weeks of Emergency Medical Technician Basic (EMT-B) training. Phase II consists of 17 weeks of instruction in minor field surgery, pharmacology, combat trauma management, advanced airway management, and military evacuation procedures.
20 weeks, Kirtland AFB, NM. Qualifies airmen as Pararescue recovery specialists for assignment to any Pararescue unit worldwide. Training includes EMT-paramedic certification, field, mountaineering, combat tactics, advanced parachuting and helicopter insertion/extraction qualifications. At the completion of this course, each graduate is awarded the maroon beret.