HURLBURT FIELD — Rescue teams are searching a 700-square-mile area of the Gulf of Mexico between Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola, looking for any sign of a 24th Special Operations Wing airman who went missing in the water late Tuesday morning after apparently falling out of a four-engine C-130 transport aircraft two miles south of Hurlburt Field.
According to a Wednesday afternoon news release from the 24th SOW, part of the Hurlburt-headquartered Air Force Special Operations Command, the airman — who has not yet been identified — "departed a C-130 aircraft making an unintentional water landing at approximately 11 a.m., November 5, 2019, over the Gulf of Mexico, south of Hurlburt Field, during a planned static-line jump as part of a training event."
The search area is being continuously adjusted as search efforts continue, according to the 24th SOW news release. Among those searching Wednesday afternoon as part of a massive effort involving a number of Department of Defense and other federal assets, along with state and local assets, were a group of about a dozen 24th SOW airmen staged at the Navarre Beach Pier. The airmen were using all-terrain vehicles to search the beach for signs of the missing airman and also were scanning the Gulf of Mexico, alerting rescue aircraft and boats to points of interest in the water.
An Air Force ambulance was standing by with the 24th SOW airmen. A short distance out into the Gulf of Mexico, a C-130 circled above a helicopter that would occasionally hover over the water as the boat followed along.
Expectations on Wednesday were that signs of the missing airman would most likely be seen along the beach from Okaloosa Island to west of Navarre Beach.
According to the 24th SOW’s Wednesday afternoon news release, the incident "is currently under investigation." As such, the 24th SOW public affairs office did not respond to questions from the Northwest Florida Daily News concerning specifics of the incident, including the height at which the C-130 was flying, whether the airman’s parachute deployed, and if there was any indication that the airman had survived the fall.
Calls to public affairs offices at Air Force Special Operations Command and the Air Force-wide public affairs office were referred back to the 24th SOW.
Search efforts began at about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, initially involving local law-enforcement agencies, units of the 24th SOW, the 1st SOW at Hurlburt Field and Coast Guard assets from Destin, New Orleans and Mobile. Two F-15 fighter jets and a helicopter from Eglin Air Force Base also assisted in the effort, as did the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also was involved.
Early Wednesday morning, the Coast Guard cutter Gannet, larger and more heavily staffed than the rescue boats from Station Destin, arrived to help in the search, according to a Coast Guard spokeswoman.
Later in the day, search and rescue airmen from the 920th Rescue Wing at Florida’s Patrick Air Force Base headed to Hurlburt Field aboard two helicopters and a C-130.
Initially, when the exact location of the incident was unclear, Hurlburt Field contacted the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office to report the airman in the water. A printed record of the call, while truncated, presents a minute-by-minute picture of the developing situation.
The initial call was placed at 11:19 a.m. by a Special Tactics airman who reported the airman was in the water a little more than two miles from Hurlburt Field.
Over the next 20 minutes, the Coast Guard was dispatched to the location, sending two 45-foot rescue boats. The C-130 continued to circle over the area, and was joined later by a CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and two helicopters from Hurlburt Field, one with rescue swimmers aboard.
Alternating reports of having sighted the airman, and then having lost sight of him, continued until shortly before 1 p.m., according to the call record, when Hurlburt Field reported that whichever of its aircraft was then looking for the airman no longer had sight of him.
It’s unclear exactly where the airman was at the last reported sighting, but Coast Guard Station Destin Petty Officer Kamil Zdankowski said at about 9 p.m. Tuesday night that Coast Guard crews then were searching about 10 miles offshore, south of Hurlburt Field, a significant distance from the reported incident location. The Coast Guard was adjusting its search area on the basis of currents in the Gulf of Mexico, Zdankowski explained.
The 24th SOW is the Air Force’s only Special Tactics wing, and is the service’s special operations ground force, with functions including reconnaissance, personnel recovery and attack control. It is the most decorated unit in the U.S. Air Force.
Col. Michael Conley, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, the host unit at Hurlburt Field, used a Facebook post on Wednesday to express solidarity with the 24th SOW.
"Our hearts are heavy today," he wrote. "We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the 24th Special Operations Wing, and are so grateful for all of the partnering agencies who are tirelessly assisting in the search efforts for this Airman. We ask everyone to keep his family and his teammates in your thoughts and prayers during this tragic time."