SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras --
SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras – When a true disaster strikes in the waters of Central America — a sinking boat or a person lost at sea — there is a small crew who stands ready for emergencies in order to save lives.
Joint Task Force-Bravo’s 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment spent the last year developing a robust overwater search-and-rescue, or SAR, program that brings a crucial, life-saving capability to JTF-Bravo.
Prior to the launch of this program, the 1-228 AVN capabilities for overwater search-and-rescue were considered rudimentary.
The enhancements made to the program were led by Sgt. 1st Class William Shewbridge, 1-228 AVN Air Ambulance NCO, who says it’s proven safer and more efficient to have crews trained correctly when performing an overwater rescue or recovery.
“We borrowed doctrine from the US Coast Guard and Navy and made it a genuine program here at JTF-Bravo, said Shewbridge, “We purchased the correct equipment, uniforms, wrote a [Standard Operating Procedure] and developed a training program.”
According to the 1-228 training program developers, this immersive training is essential because designated rescue swimmers have to be able to think and perform challenging tasks while submerged, holding their breath, and getting tossed around by high waves. No classroom presentation can prepare them for that.
Additionally, 1-228 aviators now have proficiency in the same overwater search patterns the U.S Coast Guard uses, making the program more efficient and functional.
In February, 1-228 aviators and designated rescue swimmers performed the final phase of the training program by participating in an all-encompassing SAR exercise in Roatán, Honduras, validating their advanced swimming and overwater search-pattern skills they spent months training on.
Though this training mission was successful, no one could have predicted what happened just 36-hours after the conclusion of the exercise.
In the late night of Feb. 28, JTF-Bravo leadership was notified of a possible SAR mission after 28-year-old Rickilee Mercer from Spring, Texas, went missing after a reported jet-ski accident off the coast of San Pedro, Belize. The U.S. Embassy in Belize notified the U.S. Embassy in Honduras to request the aid of JTF-Bravo after initial Belizean resources had been exhausted.
The next morning, a CH-47 Chinook and HH-60 Blackhawk helicopter launched from Soto Cano Air Base and began to scour the Belizean coastal area where Mercer was last seen.
“We were hanging onto the hope that she would be found alive -- camped out on a nearby island or something, but unfortunately her body was discovered by our crew after an hour and a half of searching,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Eric Simpson, the pilot-in-command of the SAR mission.
The 1-228 AVN crew exercised an important US Armed forces mantra—leave no one behind.
“We were able to find the victim, recover the body and give her family some closure,” said Capt. Russell Scott, 1-228 C Company commander.
While preparing to head back to Soto Cano, friends of the family approached the crew on the airfield and thanked them.
“The collaborative efforts between the JTF, our Belizean military partners, and the US Embassies were integral in the rapid response to this search and rescue operation,” said Col. Brian Hughes, JTF-Bravo commander.
JTF-Bravo has a history of responses to coastal emergencies involving American citizens. In 2015, JTF-Bravo worked with Honduran counterparts to find and rescue an 18-year-old American citizen who drifted 18 miles off the coast of Roatán in his Kayak. In 2013, the 1-228 AVN assisted with a coordinated search and rescue effort which located a stranded vessel and saved the lives of nine people including two Americans, one Canadian and six Hondurans.
“You never really see a scenario where a training exercise runs right into a real-world situation on the same training you just validated hours earlier,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Baker, SAR training program coordinator.