US Air Force Makes Long-Range Airlift From Carnival Cruise Ship

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Showing what the US Air Force is capable of, the 920th Rescue Wing (RQW) of the Air Force successfully executed a high-stakes medical evacuation from a cruise ship over 350 nautical miles off the eastern coast of the United States. 

On May 4, 2024, the 920th Rescue Wing, Air Force Reserve Command’s only combat search and rescue wing, received an urgent request for assistance. A medical emergency onboard the cruise ship Carnival Venezia necessitated the patient to be taken off the ship and brought to shore to receive the type of care not available onboard.

Carnival Cruise Ship Airlift
Carnival Cruise Line Airforce Airlift (Photo Credit: 920th RQW)

Carnival Venezia had set sail from New York on April 26 for a 10-day cruise to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. After calls to Nassau, Half Moon Cay, Grand Turk, and Amber Cove, the ship was underway to homeport New York when an emergency happened onboard, forcing the Captain to make a call for help. 

The Air Force 920th Rescue Wing answered the call. The wing is trained and equipped to locate and recover U.S. Armed Forces personnel during both peacetime and wartime, while this is not necessarily what you would associate with a guest onboard a cruise ship, the service men and women stepped up anyway.

Based at Patrick Space Force Base in Florida, Air Force personnel quickly assembled a comprehensive rescue force comprising two HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, two HC-130J Combat King II aircraft, and expert teams of combat rescue officers and pararescuemen.

Captain Dylan Gann of the 301st Rescue Squadron, who piloted one of the rescue helicopters: “Everyone in the wing mobilized with exceptional speed. By uniting our efforts, we saved crucial time, delivering life-saving assistance six hours ahead of other response teams. Our collective determination and efficiency ensured the successful rescue and transport of the individual in need.”

Carnival Cruise Ship Airlift
Carnival Cruise Line Airforce Airlift (Photo Credit: 920th RQW)

The entire rescue mission became a combined effort by pilots of the two helicopters and airplanes, weather experts back at the base to plot the best possible route, and flight doctors to find the right treatment facility for the patient

According to the 920th Rescue Wing, one of the most challenging aspects of the mission was the need for multiple helicopter air-to-air refuelings due to the distance between the vessel and the Air Force Base. At 350 nautical miles or 403 land miles, Carnival Venezia was out of reach of the safe flying distance that an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter can do.

A Helicopter Air-to-Air Refueling (HAAR) involves a probe from the helicopter connecting to a drogue on the HC-130J aircraft, allowing the transfer of fuel mid-flight. This technique is important to ensure the helicopters can operate for extended periods over open water.

Carnival Venezia Guest Brought to Safety

Upon reaching the Carnival Venezia, the mission commander assessed the situation while two HC-130Js circled overhead. The HH-60s approached the ship and lowered pararescuemen to prepare the patient and his mother for evacuation. The patient received immediate medical attention in the helicopter and while underway to the hospital.

U.S. Air Force Airlift From Carnival Ship
U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Darius Sostre-Miroir)

Lieutenant Colonel John Lowe, commander of the 920th Operations Group: “This is what ready now looks like. These real-world missions are what our countless hours of training have prepared us for. Rescue was able to plan and execute this mission without hesitation.”

“This combined arms team is highly trained in their field while understanding what role they play in the bigger picture and led to the successful completion of the mission.” 

The two helicopters and the two support aircraft flew over 1200 nautical miles to ensure the Carnival Venezia guest reached safety and received the medical care needed.

Carnival Venezia Cruise Ship
Carnival Venezia Cruise Ship (Photo Credit: Mariusz Lopusiewicz / Shutterstock)

The fact that the guest was saved, is a feat in itself. While the US Coast Guard is known to perform medivacs from cruise ships regularly, this is typically done much closer to land. With the distance from land, the 920th Rescue Wing proved to be more than capable of fulfilling the role.

Carnival Venezia returned to New York City on May 6 and has since set sail on her next voyage, an 11-night cruise to St. Thomas, San Juan, Grand Turk, Amber Cove, and Half Moon Cay.

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