The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force officially opened a permanent exhibit devoted to combat search and rescue operations Saturday , exploring the premium the Air Force and its partners placed on the lives of soldiers and Marines.
Found in the museum’s second building, the exhibit shows how the Air Force became the primary service for search and rescue missions in the Vietnam War era, a pride of place that continues to this day, said museum research curator Bryan Carnes.
Initially, the Air Force was not the service of choice for such missions, Carnes said. A combination of Army and Air Force crews tackled these tasks, with the Army relying on its skills in mobilization and insertion, and Airmen relying on training for specialized airborne and scuba operations.
“They were more equipped to handle those situations,” Carnes said. “The Air Force became the primary rescue force in Southeast Asia. It was the pararescue forces, the trained specialists who were able to be lowered down to rescue individuals, who had the medical training, and the pilots who knew how aircraft handled when hovering above mountains and water.”
Aerial refueling of helicopters was invented at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Carnes noted, another strength giving the Air Force a leg up in perilous rescue missions.
Once thought impossible, pilots and civilian engineers at Wright-Patterson set the stage for showing that “probe-and-drogue” refueling connections with helicopters could actually work, leading to the first helicopter in-flight refueling between a modified CH-3 and C-130 in 1966, according to the museum.
That innovation led to bigger and better helicopters able to travel longer distances.
The exhibit also explores Piqua native William Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman who gave his life supporting a company of 134 U.S. soldiers pinned down by a Viet Cong battalion of some 500 troops in April 1966.
Volunteering to assist on his day off, Pitsenbarger was lowered into the firefight with a medical bag, splints, a rifle and a pistol. He cared for the wounded for hours until he himself was mortally wounded. He was posthumously promoted to staff sergeant, and he received the Air Force Cross — and the Medal of Honor
Carnes said the exhibit was created with the help of veterans and their families, including vets who took part in what has been called the “secret war” in Laos, military operations denied by three presidents.
“The experience has been great,” Carnes said of working with veterans. “It’s talking to them and telling their stories, and being able to tell their stories for everyone to see.
“With them walking through the exhibit, they just started crying; they were very appreciative,” he added. “It’s great on our end. It’s more of a healing process for them.”