Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Search and Rescue Works


Combat SAR (CSAR)
U.S. President Bill Clinton applauds as U.S. Air Force pilot Captain Scott O'Grady raises his fists during ceremonies at the Pentagon to welcome O'Grady home.
U.S. President Bill Clinton applauds as U.S. Air Force pilot Captain Scott O'Grady raises his fists during ceremonies at the Pentagon to welcome O'Grady home.
David Ake/Getty Images

The life of each U.S. soldier is important, and combat search and rescue has become one of the most vital operations in modern warfare. In fact, CSAR units are among the first to arrive behind enemy lines after combat operations. The Department of Defense has appointed the U.S. Air Force as the lead in CSAR operations. Whenever an aircraft goes down or a soldier is isolated away from his unit, the Air Force CSAR comes in to locate, establish contact and attempt to recover him.

Other operational tasks of the CSAR units include:

  • Medical evacuations
  • Rescue intelligence support
  • Configuration of rescue equipment
  • Self-protection during rescue
  • Airdrop equipment and personnel
  • Rescue training

Currently, the Air Force has two operational systems that use two different aircraft. The HC-130 plane is for long-range search operations in low-to-no threat scenarios. It also provides in-flight refueling for the search helicopters to extend the mission's range. The HH-60 helicopter is for search and recovery in a medium-threat environment. Each operation can perform in both day and nighttime scenarios. In the event of an emergency medical situation, the helicopters drop paramedic rescuers if the enemy threat is low enough. In order to minimize the threat, support aircraft launch air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and gunfire to keep the enemy away.

­Authenticating the source of a distress call is the most important step in a CSAR mission. With the enemy's ability to monitor and jam radio frequencies, discreet ground-to-air signals are vital to the successful extraction of a soldier in need. After communication is established, the CSAR unit needs to get information on the physical well-being of the soldier first. After that, the authentication process is initiated. This typically entails relaying the soldier's name and rank, as well as unit numbers, colors and letters. Isolated personnel won't receive assistance until authentication is complete. Authentication details are never given in full over the radio as they can be stolen by the enemy. The CSAR team will ask the soldier to add, subtract or multiply specific digits in the authentication code and relay that information back. This allows the soldier to reuse the codes later without being compromised.

In the next section, we'll examine some of the techniques used by civilian SAR teams in missing persons searches.