Waterproof: Missile Retrievers not afraid to dive in

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Rachelle Elsea
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
When the weather forecast calls for tall waves, mean currents and high winds in the Gulf, the last thing most people want to do is jump into it.

For Ray Gallien and Steve Shafer, two of the commercial divers aboard the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron's three Missile Retriever boats, it sometimes becomes a requirement for the job.

"When you walk out and the seas are coming in and breaking over the stern and you are up there, about to jump in and its pitch black, that is when you have adrenaline rushes," Schafer said. "Even though you have done it many times, it stills worries you because in essence, you are jumping into a black hole. In addition, the lighting off the ship, essentially, blinds you."

The 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, a tenant unit at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., is the only subscale aerial target provider in the Air Force, housing nearly 30 recoverable BQM-167A remote controlled drones. The drones are used to test and evaluate air-to-air weapons, the effectiveness of counter measures during sorties and the effectiveness of the weapons systems.

The crew members of the 133 ton, 117.5 foot long Missile Retrievers are responsible for locating and recovering subscale aerial targets in the Gulf of Mexico W151 Live-Fire Range.

"Usually, the recovery area is anywhere from 45 to 85 miles out," said Gallien, a 35-year veteran diver and 17-year Missile Retriever crew member. "For us to go pick up a drone, it averages about a 10.5 hour day."

And with a crew of only half a dozen, everyone is put to work.

"It's a six-man crew -- a captain, an engineer, a wiper and three deck hands, two of which double as divers," Gallien said.

For the divers, operations include recovering drone targets, aircraft parts and related equipment both floating and submerged down to 100 feet.

"It's almost like being in space because you are suspended in this water and you are limitless in what you can see," Shafer said. "You will see schools of fish, all kinds of plankton and all kinds of sea creatures. You don't want to get out of the water."

"I love being in the water," Gallien said. "But, it's not fun if it's bad weather."

The divers have no problem diving into waves up to five feet and are prepared to recover into waves up to eight feet depending on the situation, but when the waves get larger, the mission can become complicated.

"There is a time frame when you actually have time to think and wonder what am I doing out here," Shafer said. "When you get in a sea state where the wind is going one way and the ship is going the other, it's a tumultuous dishwasher type-feeling. Everything is going every which direction. Sometimes you just hold on for dear life."

We are taught safety, safety, safety, just like everyone else in the Air Force, but safety isn't always easy to attain, Shafer said. Weather changes everything.

"The older drones, the 34-As, were really heavy," Shafer said. "In a sea state, they were like corks, going up and down in the water, while the ship was doing its own thing, and you were completely out of sync with both of them. The drone would be right above your head, bobbing and you were trying to make your hook-up under it. What many don't realize is the waves breaking over the drone creates air bubbles and you can't see anything."

When the divers are trying to complete their mission in the middle of a dark and angry sea, sometimes the only thing they have to rely on is their sense of touch, Shafer said.

"You try to hold the drone, so you can keep it from going through your cranium," he said. "At the same time, you are looking towards the ship because you need to connect to the crane, and the lights from the ship are still blinding you. It's like riding a bull in the dark underwater."

But once the divers actually get control of the drone the hard part isn't over - they still have to climb back aboard the boat.

"The mission itself is pretty straightforward," Gallien said. "But, things get complicated by the sea state. Sometimes in rough seas with a bad current, there is no way a diver can get back to the boat's ladder. So, we have to throw a life ring out to the diver and pull them back in. The boat can be going up and down several feet, so it is real tricky getting back on the boat."

He said it's even difficult for crew members on board to stay on their feet.

Even when weather conditions are perfect, recovering drones is no day at the beach for the Missile Retriever crews.

"The drone sometimes has a lot of damage on it, so you have to be really careful in maneuvering around it because it can have a lot of sharp edges," Gallien said. "It can cut you pretty badly if you are not careful. You also have to be cautious of the parachute, if it is still wrapped around it. You can get tangled up in that."

Some of the parachutes have up to 100 lines that divers can potentially get tangled in like an underwater spider web.

Encounters with the local "residents" are also something the divers have to be mindful of while conducting missions.

"I have only seen a shark one time in 15 years," Shafer said. "I was trying to cut off a chute, and between the chute and myself there was a 15-foot shark. But, it didn't bother me. He was just being curious. I just did my thing, and we kept an eye on each other."

The animals the crew worries about most are jellyfish because in rough weather their tentacles can become detached and wrapped around divers. Shafer said the crew keeps meat tenderizer on board to help take away the sting.

All in all, the divers and crew said they love what they do and have grown to become like a family.

"We primarily stay with one boat and one crew throughout our career here," said Gallien. "Together, with the other two boats, we recover about 20 to 25 missiles a year."

According to 82nd ATRS officials, the work the Missile Retriever crews do saves the Air Force several million dollars a year.

But, there is one part of the job the divers aren't fond of.

"When you are stuck in the office, those are the days you don't want to be here," Shafer said. "Most of us would rather be out at sea. We all have a passion for it. If we didn't, we couldn't justify going out there and getting beat up. We go out there and do whatever it takes."