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Chris Geradine, 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron Missile Retriever commercial diver, prepares to recover a BQM-167A drone during a training run. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Rachelle Elsea/Released)
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Waterproof: Missile Retrievers not afraid to dive in

Posted 1/31/2013   Updated 12/12/2013 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Rachelle Elsea
325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

1/31/2013 - TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla.  -- Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series.

When the Weather Channel reports tall waves, mean currents and high winds, the last thing anyone is eager to do is jump into open water.

But, for Ray Gallien, Chris Geradine and Steve Shafer, commercial divers aboard the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron's three Missile Retrievers, it sometimes becomes part of 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."

Tyndall's tenant unit, the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron, is the only Subscale Aerial Target provider in the Air Force, housing nearly 30 BQM-167A remote controlled drones, which are water and land recoverable. The drones are a means to test and evaluate air-to-air weapons, the effectiveness of counter measures during sorties and the effectiveness of the weapons systems.

The men of the 133 ton-117.5 ft MR boats are responsible for the location and recovery of Subscale Aerial Targets in the Gulf of Mexico W151 Live-Fire Range.

"Usually, the recovery area is anywhere from 45 to 85 miles out ... for us to go pick up a drone it averages about a ten and-a-half-hour day," Gallien said.

With a crew of 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," said Gallien.

Gallien has been a diver for 35 years and aboard the MR for 17, while Geradine just recently joined the team the beginning of January.

"He is the newest member of the team, but is very experienced for his age," Gallien said. "He is also a member of the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, teaching others how to dive."

Chris is only 25 years old and has already done a fair amount of diving, he added.

Shafer, aboard a separate vessel, has been diving with the squadron for 15 years. Prior to joining the squadron, he was diving for a research laboratory in California.

For all three divers, operations include recovering drone targets, aircraft parts and related equipment, both floating and submerged. They have the ability to dive up to 100 feet.

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

Shafer agrees.

The divers have no problem diving into waves up to five feet, but are prepared to recover into waves up to eight feet depending on the situation, which can be extremely complicated.

"There is a time frame when you actually have time to think and wonder what am I doing out here," said Shafer. "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," said Shafer. "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."

Shafer said a lot of time they rely on their sense of touch.

"When you can you try to hold the drone, so you can keep it from going through your cranium," said Shafer. "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."

Another obstacle is climbing 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.

But, rough weather isn't their only rival.

"Some of the challenges, other than the seas themselves, is 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."

The parachute may have up to 100 lines.

Also, sea life can play a part.

"I have only seen a shark one time in 15 years," said Shafer. "I was trying to cut off a shoot and between the shoot 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 animal the crew does worry 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.

"But, many times we are out 70 to 80 miles and its emerald water, what they call the blue water," said Shafer. "It's hard to explain ... it's almost like being in space because you are suspended in this water and you are limitless in what you can see. 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."
All in all, the divers and crew thoroughly love what they do, and grow 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."

The divers, because of the high mission rate, do not undergo an extreme amount of training.

"We pretty much tax ourselves as divers and try to stay fairly fit," said Shafer. "A lot of the diving, the longer you have done it, the easier it becomes. It's just like anything else, if you have experienced it before, you are a lot calmer."

There is only 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."

According to 82nd ATRS officials, the mission of the Missile Retriever saves the Air Force several million dollars a year.

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