Pararescuemen or PJs (AFSC 1T2X1) 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. PJ’s are also used to support NASA missions and have been used to recover astronauts after water landings.
The primary mission of Pararescue is personnel recovery specialist with emergency medical capabilities in peacetime and combat environments. They deploy by air-land-sea tactics into forward, non-permissive environments and provide the trauma medical care for injured personnel and may act as aircrew gunners and/or scanner on both fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
Pre-World War II
As early as 1922 there was a recognized need for trained personnel to go to remote sites to rescue airmen. In that year, Army Medical Corps doctor Colonel Albert E. Truby predicted that “airplane ambulances” would be used to take medical personnel to crashes and to return victims to medical facilities for treatment. However, it was another two decades before technology and need helped to create what would eventually become Air Force Pararescue.
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 ‘steer able 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 Seely Lake, Montana as the first ‘para-doctor’.
World War II
During the opening months of the war, there was very little need for air rescue. American forces were in retreat or consolidating their positions and most long-range flying was limited. As the war progressed and American airmen began flying missions that would cover hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of miles, air rescue began to play a key role.
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.
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. 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.
Post-World War II
Recognizing the need for a unified organization to perform search and rescue, the Army Air Force formed the Air Rescue Service (ARS). Officially established on May 29, 1946; the ARS was charged with saving the lives of aircrews who were involved in aircraft disasters, accidents, crash landings, ditchings or abandonments occurring away from an air base, and with being world-deployable to support far-flung air operations.
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 135-mile 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. 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 late 1947, the crash of the B-29 “Clobbered Turkey” in Alaska brought home the need for specialized, well-trained pararescuemen. On December 21st, the “Clobbered Turkey” hit a mountain and when the wreck was spotted on the 27th, Medical Corps Lt. Albert C. Kinney, First Sergeant Santhell O. London and T-5 Leon J. Casey – none of whom were trained Pararescuemen – volunteered to jump onto the crash site, located ninety-five miles north of Nome. The team encountered poor visibility, extreme temperatures and high winds on the site and as a result, all three perished. Casey’s body was found seven miles from the crash site, swept there by the surface winds. Two members of the crew of the “Clobbered Turkey” who set out to seek assistance also perished a few miles from the site. When ground rescue crews finally arrived at the crash site two days later, they found that the remaining six members of the crew – who had stayed with the aircraft – had all survived. Dr. Kinney’s body was not located until July of the next year.
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
As Pararescue grew, PJ teams were assigned to every Air Rescue Service squadron to provide global coverage. By 1950, the unification of all the formerly independent Air Rescue Squadrons under the umbrella of the Air Rescue Service was complete.
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.
They 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 Vietnam War was a pivotal conflict for the Pararescue teams. The Air Force’s scope of operations became so large that demand for Pararescue teams expanded as well. The use of helicopters caused new tactics utilizing the speed, distance, and support they could provide. Rescue “packages” were created utilizing FACs (Forward Air Controllers), rescue escorts (such as AH-1 Cobras or A-1 Sandys), protective fighter CAP (Combat Air Patrol), HC-130 “King” Hercules for Rescue Mission Coordination and helicopter refueling, and the HH-3 Jolly Green Giant and HH-53 Super Jolly Green Giant helicopters to provide fast rescue for pilots shot down far behind enemy lines. Pararescue personnel were part of these packages to provide medical assistance for injured aircrew as well as the ability to patrol for missing aircrew that might have been unconscious or dead.
Pararescue team members would be inserted to conduct LSO (Limited Surface Operations) searches while the escorts maintained an aggressive patrol to provide instantaneous support. Sometimes they would be inserted to search for personnel who were being forced to escape and evade; in such cases the mission might last for days. The Pararescue teams racked up an impressive record; during the conflict only 19 Airmen were awarded the Air Force Cross. Ten of those were awarded to Pararescuemen.
Prerequisites to enter Pararescue
- Be a volunteer
- Be a US Citizen
- Be a male (based on current Department of Defense policies)
- Have a general score of at least 43 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test
- Have vision of best eye 20/70, worst eye 20/100; correctable to 20/20. (No Radial Keratotomy..)
- Have normal color vision
- Meet specific physical fitness standards
- Be a proficient swimmer
- Be a High School graduate or have a GED
- Able to obtain a SECRET security clearance
- Successful completion of the PAST test
- Minimum physical profile (PULHES) of 111111 (no problems)
- Pass an Initial flying class III physical qualification of aircrew, parachute, and maritime diving duty
- Strength aptitude standard of “K” for retention of AFSC
Age Limit information:
- Retrainee’s over 12-13 years in service has usually been the line in the cutoff.
- Exceptions have been made.
- AF cannot bring anyone in over 28 unless member has previous active duty which is subtracted from the age to get below the 28.
- AETC is not stopping people based on age except for TAFMS.
PAST Test — First hopeful candidates must pass the Physical Aptitude Stamina Test. This can be given by a local Air Force Recruiter, or it can be taken while in Basic Military Training during the second week. It consists of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, flutter-kicks, a 1.5 mile run, a 500 m swim, and an underwater swim. It is graded on a point scale.
Indoctrination Course, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas — This 10-week Indoctrination Course recruits, selects and trains future PJs through extensive physical conditioning. Training accomplished at this course includes physiological training, obstacle course, rucksack marches, dive physics, dive tables, metric manipulations, medical terminology, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, weapons qualifications, PJ history and leadership reaction course.
U.S. Army Airborne School, Fort Benning, Ga. — Trainees learn the basic parachuting skills required to infiltrate an objective area by static line airdrop in a three-week course.
U.S. Air Force Combat Divers School, Panama City, Fla. — Trainees become combat divers, learning to use scuba and closed-circuit diving equipment to covertly infiltrate denied areas, conduct sub-surface searches and basic recovery operations. The six-week course provides training to depths of 130 feet, stressing development of maximum underwater mobility under various operating conditions.
U.S. Navy Underwater Egress Training, Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fla. — This course teaches how to safely escape from an aircraft that has ditched in the water. The one-day instruction includes principles, procedures and techniques necessary to get out of a sinking aircraft.
U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Course “SERE”, Fairchild AFB, Wash. — This two and a half-week course provides service members with training in survival, evading capture, and dealing with being taken prisoner. Instruction includes resistance to interrogation, principles, procedures, equipment and techniques, which enable individuals to survive, regardless of climatic conditions or unfriendly environments and return home.
U.S. Army Military Free Fall Parachutist School, Fort Bragg, N.C., and Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz. — This course instructs trainees in freefall parachuting procedures. The five-week course provides wind tunnel training, in-air instruction focusing on student stability, aerial maneuvers, air sense and parachute opening procedures.
Paramedic Course, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. — This 24-week course teaches how to manage trauma patients prior to evacuation and provide emergency medical treatment. Upon graduation, an EMT-Paramedic certification is awarded through the National Registry.
Pararescue Recovery Specialist Course, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. — Qualifies airmen as pararescue recovery specialists for assignment to any Para rescue unit worldwide. The 24-week training includes field medical care and extrication basics, field tactics, mountaineering, combat tactics, advanced parachuting and helicopter insertion/extraction.
“It is my duty as a Pararescueman to save life and to aid the injured. I will be prepared at all times to perform my assigned duties quickly and efficiently, placing these duties before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, “That Others May Live.”
Originally titled “The Code of the Air Rescue man,” it was penned by the first commander of the Air Rescue Service, (then) Lt. Col. Richard T. Kight and is also still used by the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC).
Every summer since 1975, Air Force PJs have provided training to dozens of Civil Air Patrol Cadets at CAP-exclusive training camps called the ‘United States Air Force Pararescue Orientation Course.’
The term “Pararescue Jumper” is a retronym of the initials ‘PJ’ that were used on an Air Force Form 5 (Aircrew Flight Log) to identify anyone who is onboard in order to jump from the aircraft. Pararescuemen originally had no ‘in flight’ duties and were listed only as ‘PJ’ on the Form 5. The pararescue position eventually grew to include duties as an aerial gunner and scanner on rotary wing aircraft, a duty now performed by aerial gunners. Currently, aircrew qualified Pararescuemen will be recorded using aircrew position identifier ‘J’ (‘Pararescue Member’) on the AFTO form 781.Of the 22 enlisted Air Force Cross recipients, 12 have been awarded to Pararescuemen.