February 10, 2011: U.S. Air Force pararescue units (who go into enemy territory to rescue downed pilots) based near sea level are heading for the mountains for some of their training. This is because the most likely combat zone pararescue units will operate in these days is Afghanistan, and that is in the highlands (average altitude 1,200 meters/3,800 feet), with the central plateau averaging 1,800 meters/5,600 feet, similar to eastern Colorado. Then there are abundant mountains (many over 6,000 meters/18,600 feet). For the pilots of the pararescue C-130s and helicopters, those high altitudes mean thinner air and different flight characteristics. The mountains also present more flying hazards and tricky winds. The snow and frequent storms also add to the flight crew's workload. For the pararescue operators themselves, operating at high altitude requires getting used to the thin air, and the potential for altitude sickness. Cold weather and snow requires some getting used to. Aircraft maintainers face additional challenges, as do commanders and staff officers who must quickly draw up rescue plans and be able to deal with emergencies. So isolated areas of the Rocky Mountains (mainly in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado) have become more frequently used training areas. In response, some local residents and officials are trying to have such training, when it involves low flying aircraft, restricted, as it scares the animals and annoys some people.
The air force has 28 pararescue squadrons, equipped with HC-130 transports and HH-60 helicopters. The key operators are the pararescue jumpers (PJs). There are only about 400 of these, half of them in reserve units. These are the guys who actually go in and get the people needing rescue. They are trained to commando standards, with only about ten percent of candidates completing the 12-15 months training.
Until 2006, pararescue squadrons belonged to AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command), but most have now been transferred to the Air Combat Command (which controls all the combat aircraft). AFSOC, which was created in 1990, has 12,900 personnel (active-duty, reserve, and civilian), but most do not require the grueling training that the pararescue and other special tactics troops (about ten percent of AFSOC strength) require. This training typically washes out 40-80 percent of the candidates, takes up to two years to complete, and costs up to half a million dollars.
AFSOC belongs to SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which is composed of 52,000 special operations personnel from all the services. SOCOM increased its strength by about 1,200 personnel this year, but is, like the air force, having a hard time getting more "operators" (as the commando grade troops are called.)