Thursday, August 19, 2004
NAS Lemoore deactivates search and rescue: Rescue unit had been in operation for 41 years
By Eiji Yamashita
LEMOORE NAVAL AIR STATION - Lemoore Naval Air Station officially deactivated its search and rescue unit Thursday, bringing the 41-year-old program to a mandated closure.
Base officials said disbanding of the unit was a top-level fiscal decision by the U.S. Navy.
Lemoore is one of three Naval bases to lose a search and rescue unit. The two other bases are Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
In Lemoore, the move means an estimated $3.2 million in savings each year, said Capt. Robert Rutherford, base commanding officer.
With little military rescue needs and the unit's diminished role in civilian rescue, it has become "hard to justify the expenses," Rutherford said.
The Navy search and rescue unit in Lemoore has always been busier with civilian emergencies than with its primary mission of military rescue, Rutherford said.
Even civilian rescue needs have dropped over the years as local law enforcement agencies began to acquire their own helicopters, and usefulness of the unit has been in question, said base spokesman Dennis McGrath.
"The need for our people isn't as much as it used to be," McGrath said. "Most of what we used to do can be done by others now."
In the future, units from Naval stations in China Lake and Falon, Nev., which are located equidistant from Lemoore, will cover emergencies in the region, McGrath said.
Since its formation in 1963, the LNAS Search and Rescue unit, formed in 1963, has saved the lives of more than 950 people, according to its historical record.
The unit has played a major role in rescuing survivors in the high Sierras. It has rescued hikers off the face of El Capitan numerous times and twice off the stormy Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States.
Some of the achievements of the unit were remembered at the deactivation ceremony Thursday. Nearly 100 people, including 31 crew members, attended the ceremony in a hanger and spent time beside the last remaining helicopter of the unit.
Among the attendees was Keith Lober, managing rescue service coordinator at Yosemite National Park. Lober said the LNAS search and rescue had been a crucial "asset" for park safety.
"It's sad both from the historical point of view and the safety point of view," Lober said. "This was an asset to us that will never be replicated. They had some of the most advanced helicopter techniques utilized on big walls of Yosemite."
Lt. Jeff Villanueva, who directed the unit's operation for the past year, said it was a sense of mission that brought the crews together.
"Everyone here was a volunteer; they volunteered to come here," Villanueva said. "It's a dangerous job, but it's challenging and rewarding."
Crews were first notified of the planned deactivation as far back as February. Deactivation had initially been set for October, but was later moved up.
Some of the crews will remain at the base, but others will be transferred elsewhere.
"When we found out, we were initially upset," Villanueva said. "But we understand it all comes down to financial reason.
"We're hoping that we'll come back in some other form ... We're just here to help out the community, and that's what we'd like to do."
Two helicopters has already been relocated to Camp Pendleton this year. The last helicopter will be taken over by China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, McGrath said.
The 129th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard has put in its paperwork to transfer operations from Moffett Federal Airfield in the Bay Area to the former Air Force base at Castle. That decision rests with the secretary of the Air Force.
The Air National Guard unit could get more missions now that a Navy search and rescue team in the San Joaquin Valley has been disbanded.
The search and rescue division of the Air Operations Department for the Lemoore Naval Air Station was disbanded Thursday after being grounded for two years following a fatal accident during a rescue mission in Yosemite National Park.
The three helicopters and crews were shipped to other Navy sites. The Navy also disbanded two other search and rescue units in a cost-cutting move, a spokesman said.
"The office is reviewing it," said Capt. Tim Perez, the Guard unit's spokesman. "Who knows if it will take a month or a year."
In a Central California location, the Guard's three helicopters could assist in the civilian search and rescues once handled by the Lemoore crews.
One of my first tour pilots from my last deployment (Sep01-Mar02) went to Brunswick to fly SAR for his second tour. After finishing Huey training in Camp Pendleton he checked in last Dec to find out that there were going to be no helos left in just a couple months and he would be strictly desk-bound.
OTOH the station SAR jobs have always been career dead ends for the pilots (but good for the aircrewmen). The guys from Lemoore and Fallon have gotten quite a few rescues, especially climbers/hikers in the various mountain areas in north and central CA. One of the pilots I deployed with in the early 90s has rescues in the double digits. She made some truly awesome saves during the flooding that hit northern CA in the mid-90s - pulling folks off house rooftops minutes before their house was swept away by floodwaters, one-skids on autos to pluck folks from car roofs, great stories. The station pilot jobs were also nice places to go for a final tour before retirement/separation.