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Monday, April 21

Global locator could speed recovery of downed pilots

By Gordon Trowbridge | Air Force Times

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf Region - The laptop Maj. Mark DiPaolo points to seems average enough. But it is, he proclaims, ``the cure for cancer for us.''

DiPaolo, a Hawk helicopter pilot with the 301st Rescue Squadron, is almost evangelical in his advocacy for the Global Personnel Recovery System, a command-and-control tool the squadron has been experimenting with during its deployment here.

When fully installed, GPRS - pronounced ``Jeepers'' - would give rescue crews and ground controllers real-time information on the location of helicopter rescue units, plus a simple, secure-text messaging capability that already has proved its worth on missions.

``When you look at the historical data, what hurts us isn't the speed of the helicopters, our limited weapons, or limited range,'' DiPaolo said. ``It's command and control.''

On average, he said, it takes nearly four hours from the time a downed pilot is identified until a combat search-and-rescue team can be organized and launched. It can take as long as an hour, he said, simply to communicate the decision to launch to the helicopter, refueling and air support units that need to be involved.

The delays can be especially long for a rescue in a particularly dangerous environment, which is just the sort of situation where speed is crucial to success.

GPRS, in its concept form, would place laptop computer terminals at ground command-and-control centers as well as aboard search-and-rescue helicopters. Quick-burst satellite radio transmissions would automatically update the positions of all search-and-rescue assets, and a chat room-style text messaging function would offer secure communications.

The simple act of using text documents rather than voice communications to pass on critical information such as grid coordinates can help save lives, DiPaolo argues. He said studies have shown that error is introduced through radio communications at some point in nearly half of all rescue missions.

The system is based on one the Army uses to track ground units, which itself is based on software used to track long-haul trucks in the United States. It's simple and portable, consisting of the laptop terminal, a small data-link box and a satellite antenna. Technicians hope to soon be able to shrink the box from roughly the size of a shoebox to nothing larger than a credit card.

During the war in Iraq, crews from the 301st, deployed from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., have worked to integrate the demonstration system into their operations. It sometimes has been the only way to communicate between the unit's forward operating point, at Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq, and the squadron's regular base south of the Iraqi border.

There are bugs to work out. DiPaolo said some crew members worry that the terminal, which sits at the flight engineer's station, could be a distraction from other vital duties. On one mission, the engineer was typing a text message when the helicopter nearly struck a power line.

DiPaolo said there is also concern that introducing yet another data system will further fragment an area planners are struggling to integrate.

``What's happened is that units facing real-world problems have come up with their own solutions,'' DiPaolo said.

But GPRS, he said, could be easily integrated with any of the various command-and-control systems in use. And the successful demonstration of even limited uses for GPRS during this war can only raise its visibility, DiPaolo said.