KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
Tasked with fixing everything from water pumps to runways, the 8th Civil Engineer Squadron is consistently thinking outside the box, and leveraging everyday resources for atypical solutions.
Perhaps even more-so during emergency situations.
When two fuel tanks were jettisoned off an F-16C Fighting Falcon during a routine training sortie, near Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, the 8th Fighter Wing faced a serious problem.
In order to abide by the promise of remaining good stewards to the Air Force's Korean partners, they must quickly recover the debris and ensure safety of the land and water surrounding Kunsan Air Base. To solve this problem, the 8th CES formed a multi-agency recovery operations team and jumped into action.
But first, they had to find the debris.
Both fuel tanks impacted water post-ejection, and once visibility was lost, land and sea searches commenced. When the tanks were finally found, leadership felt as though it couldn’t have come sooner.
“We walked up to the levee, and had a visual on both tanks,” said Major Ryan Amedee, 8th Civil Engineer Squadron Engineering Flight commander. “One was completely visible, it was on the shoreline; and then the other one was partially submerged in water with the pylon sticking out of the sand.”
A thorough survey of the shore was needed before recovery could begin, and the team had something special in mind to speed the assessment along.
Amedee explained the Rapid Airfield Damage Assessment System (RADAS), a variant of a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS), is a commercial, off-the-shelf product intended to provide airfield damage assessment in a war-time setting.
However, now was the time for some problem solving imagery collection.
“We used the RADAS to basically cascade (or survey) the area,” Amedee said. “We [also] used the payload [cameras] to identify submerged debris.”
This application was a first for the RADAS system.
“It is the first time [RADAS] has ever been used in an off-installation, international setting, and it’s the first time it’s ever been used in a real-world contingency - ever,” Amedee said.
With the debris field surveyed, the Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) flight began their phase of the operation.
“We had already been made aware the tanks had been jettisoned, and [knew] at some point we would have to recover them and the ordinance items inside the pylons,” said Tech. Sgt. Roland Kaaialii, 8th Civil Engineer Squadron EOD Flight Superintendent. “On each pylon there are two very small explosive charges, we call them breaches, that are meant to push the pylon away from the wings, a little bit bigger than a shotgun shell.”
Kaaialii went on to explain that the fuel tank on the shore was “just another day at the office” for his EOD team. The second tank, submerged in two feet of water, a foot into the sand bed and two-hundred yards out into the bay was a different story.
“We were in the water, shoulders-deep trying to get this thing dislodged. We had five or six individuals pushing on [the breach], just trying to knock it free and it wouldn’t budge.”
As hours passed and the sun set, the team decided to try again the next day; this time prepared with shovels and other heavy equipment.
“Instead of trying to fish this thing lose from the sand, we just started digging slowly to try to access the breaches,” Kaaialii said. “Once we cleared that, then heavy machinery could come in and do the rest.”
Slowly but surely the team chipped away at the sand, clearing the scene safe from explosive ordinance threats.
The first plan was to pull the submerged tank out from the shoreline using several interlocked chains and ratchet-straps. However, when they spread out to almost two-hundred yards, the straps failed. Amedee and the recovery team were forced to come up with a second plan.
“A Dirt Boy, Staff Sergeant Paul Vasile, came up with the idea,” Amedee explained. “He says, ‘Hey we could take this skid steer to make a ramp and try to get the 10K (10-thousand pound forklift) down there.”
For about an hour-and-a-half, the recovery team added and smoothed the sand to create a ramp strong enough to support the weight of the ten-thousand pound forklift. Once the forklift got to the shoreline, the team attempted to pull the tank with the previous ratchet strap and chain creation. Once again, it failed.
The team was running out of options.
“I was walking in the water and the bed of the sand, and said to myself,” Amedee recalled. “‘From an engineering standpoint, I think this [sand] is good enough to hold 10 thousand pounds.’”
The plan was approved and the Logistics Readiness Squadron assumed the risk of driving the forklift past the shoreline.
“My direction to them was, ‘if at all you don’t feel safe, reverse it and get out of there,’” Amedee explained. “Go slow, but keep moving.”
The 10K forklift slowly made it to the submerged tank, where the rest of the team was standing by to attach the pylon, and finish the job.
“We had ten EOD folks out there, five crash recovery folks, and the mission was to get those chain links on that pylon as fast as we could, hook them up to the 10K and put it in reverse,” Amedee said.
Finally, the team safely pulled the tank to higher ground.
“It was such a unique situation,” Amedee explained. “Had it not been for Sergeant Kai’s leadership, getting his EOD folks all-hands-on-deck, and then Sergeant Vasile’s creativity, the ground transportation folks feeling comfortable going out, and operating the 10K on the water; the RADAS system flying out over the water and figuring out where all the debris is… It was a huge conglomeration and culmination of creativity and innovation out on a very unique recovery site.”
Risk-balanced, creative, outside-the-box thinking and total team collaboration turned a truly unique recovery operation attempt into a success.
“It was basically on-the-fly decisions, and at that point you just have to take educated and informed risk decisions to get the mission done,” Amedee said. “And it ended up working out for us.”
The 8th CES ensured the safety of the land surrounding Kunsan Air Base and our host-nation neighbors. This operation served as a clear example of how the 8th Fighter Wing continues to innovate new uses for Air Force assets for contingency operations.