US, Coalition Forces exercising in Indo-Pacific conduct real-world search and rescue operation, save 11 stranded in dangerous sea conditions

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tiffany Del Oso
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs

A distress signal off the coast of Rota, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, on July 10 summoned the collective rescue efforts of French, Canadian and U.S. Forces participating in Mobility Guardian 23, in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and other civilian and military rescue forces, to save the lives of 11 people on a disabled vessel adrift in dangerous waves.

The distress call came just days after kicking off Mobility Guardian 23, the largest air mobility exercise in Air Mobility Command’s history, which is being hosted in the Indo-Pacific for the first time.

“This is the perfect example of why interoperability matters,” said Maj. Gen. Darren Cole, Director of Operations, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, Headquarters Air Mobility Command.  “A 7-nation integrated planning cell led to rapid response amongst multiple nations utilizing standard procedures to save lives. It allowed us to quickly pivot our focus and resources. There is nothing more rewarding, and our global partners allow us to do this around the world, anytime, anywhere.”

According to a U.S. Coast Guard news release, at approximately 5:00 pm, July 10, about 30 nautical miles northwest of the coast of Rota, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Full 20 Horizon, a 21-foot vessel with 11 people onboard was disabled and adrift in 6-foot waves and 12 mph winds.

A French Air and Space Force A400 Atlas military transport aircraft and its crew were the first aircrew to respond, launching from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The A400M Atlas, piloted by FASF Commander Ronan, had just completed a MG23 aeromedical evacuation training event with U.S. Air Force and U.K. Royal Air Force medical teams aboard.

When the U.S. Coast Guard’s call for support came through, Ronan directed the end of the aeromedical evacuation exercise activities and disembarkation of nonessential personnel to rapidly prepare the aircraft and crew to immediately launch in support of the Search and Rescue mission. In less than 10 minutes, the aircraft began its taxi and launched towards the distress call.

The French crew, equipped with night vision binoculars and safety harnesses, stood ready at open doors scanning the dark ocean below for signs of the vessel. The Atlas located the vessel at about 8 p.m. after running a search pattern and held its location as a CNMI Department of Public Safety vessel tried to close in on Full 20 Horizon. However, due to severe sea conditions with winds increased to 18 mph and seas built to 8 feet, the initial rescue attempt by the CNMI Department of Public Safety was unsuccessful.

“It is in these moments that [the] mission takes on its full meaning,” said Ronan. “Thanks to the A400M, we were able to locate the boat in record time.”

As U.S. civilian and military resources organized further rescue efforts, the A400M held overhead, maintaining visual contact with the disabled vessel for five hours as sea conditions continued to degrade. The FASF A400M was relieved by a Royal Canadian Air Force CC-130J Hercules from 436 Transport Squadron, also located at Guam to participate in Mobility Guardian, ensuring no interruption to air support during the rescue mission.

“Over the radio, we could feel that the presence of the plane above them reassured the passengers on the boat,” said FASF Lt. Felix, A400M co-pilot of the SAR mission. “We set out for a training exercise with our partners, and we ended up rescuing real people.”

This joint effort between the RCAF and FASF to maintain visuals on the disabled vessel allowed time for a U.S. Navy MH-60 Nighthawk helicopter to safely arrive on scene and begin rescue operations.

“Our Allies and partners are one of our greatest strengths, and our commitment to rapid global mobility honors our security commitments in the region by enabling us to rapidly respond to any crisis or challenge in the Indo-Pacific,” said Canadian Air Task Force spokesperson Capt. Anya Montpetit.

All 11 personnel on the vessel were successfully hoisted by the Nighthawk crew onto the helicopter with no injuries. They were transported to the Rota airport where local emergency responders were ready to receive them. Nine of the 11 people rescued are reportedly citizens of the People’s Republic of China. The U.S. Coast Guard coordinated the recovery of the vessel itself, which was towed to Rota.

Capt. Nick Simmons, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia/Sector Guam, emphasized the importance of aircraft in search and rescue operations at sea.

"Aircraft crews play a crucial role in our efforts to save lives in challenging maritime situations,” said Simmons. “Using aerial assets, combined with our local partnerships, ensures a swift and effective response to distress calls, ultimately increasing the chances of a successful rescue."

Mobility Guardian 23 Exercise Director Lt. Col. Jacob Parker affirmed that the real-world rescue operation highlights the importance of joint forces and interoperability between allies and partners.

“This is what it’s about,” said Parker. “Together, we are the best at what we do, and our ability to do it together is second-to-none. The seamless collaboration between multiple nations – to include both military and civilian resources – resulted in 11 saved lives this week.”

A multinational endeavor, MG23 features seven participating countries – Australia, Canada, France, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States – operating approximately 70 mobility aircraft across multiple locations spanning a 3,000-mile exercise area through July 21. MG23 employed 3,000 personnel in direct support of the exercise and expects to support more than 15,000 U.S. forces and Allied and partner participants associated with other exercises across the Indo-Pacific.

For more information on Exercise Mobility Guardian 2023 visit