Helo crew recognized for daring rescue
By Bruce Rolfsen - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Jul 12, 2010 9:11:31 EDT
Staff Sgt. Tim Philpott could hear the firefight over the Pave Hawk’s radio. The soldiers sounded almost hysterical.
A roadside bomb had wounded three of their buddies. Then, Taliban fighters started attacking them. The bullets and rocket-propelled grenades just kept coming.
They needed to hang on a little longer. Two Air Force helos, carrying pararescuemen, were just minutes from the ambushed Army convoy in southern Afghanistan.
The airmen knew their mission, their commitment: flying out their fellow troops.
“We don’t leave without them,” said Philpott, the flight engineer and gunner for Pedro 16.
Both Pave Hawks landed. For 30 minutes, the airmen came under fire. Pedro 15 sustained enough damage to force it down within sight of the enemy. Pedro 16, supported by two Army Kiowa helicopters, had to land to pick up the Pedro 15 crew members and their patients.
The heroism and quick thinking that afternoon nearly a year ago has been singled out by the National Aeronautical Association as the most meritorious Air Force flight during 2009, earning Pedro 16’s four-man flight crew the Mackay Trophy. Second Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who went on to become the first five-star general of the Air Force, received the first Mackay Trophy in 1912.
The 2009 recipients — pilot Capt. Robert Rosebrough, co-pilot Capt. Lucas Will, gunner Master Sgt. Dustin Thomas and Philpott — were deployed from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan. They will be presented the trophy at a Nov. 8 banquet in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington.
Ad libbing in air
Word of the ambush came into Kandahar Airfield, home to the 129th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, early in the afternoon of July 29. Within five minutes, Pedro 15 and Pedro 16 — each with three PJs and the flight crew that included two pilots, a flight engineer/gunner and a gunner — were in the air.
“The most important thing was time — to return within the ‘golden hour,’ ” said Will, then a first lieutenant and on his initial combat deployment. “The word goes out. You go to the helicopter.”
There was no time for mission planning on the ground.
“You do a lot of the planning en route,” Will said.
The plan called for Pedro 15, the lead Pave Hawk from the California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing, to land while Pedro 16 circled overhead, firings its pair of GAU-2 7.62mm miniguns.
Once Pedro 15 was on the ground, the PJs would rush off and get the soldiers ready for the return flight. While the PJs treated the soldiers, Pedro 15 would go back up in the air until the patients were ready for loading.
A pair of Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopters would provide close-air-support fire to protect the rescue.
The Taliban fire turned out to be intense, the first sign to the crews that they would be tested this time out. Rosebrough described the fighting as the worst he had encountered in five combat deployments.
“I guess, I’d been lucky up to that point,” Rosebrough said.
The plan went on.
Pedro 15 landed, drawing all the attention of the insurgents. The PJs got out safely, but one round struck the front of the helo, slightly wounding the co-pilot. The Pave Hawk got back in the air and waited to be called back by the PJs.
Overhead, Rosebrough was playing forward air controller, coordinating strafing runs by the Kiowas and guiding Pedro 16 on gun runs. Early in the attack, Thomas’ minigun jammed. He tried to fix the machine gun but couldn’t. He picked up his M4 rifle.
The enemy refused to let up, taking dead aim at Pedro 15 as it landed for the second time. Their bullets hit the Pave Hawk’s hydraulic controls and fuel lines. The helo managed somehow to lift off the ground.
“They are losing a massive amount of fuel and battling to get over the hills,” Will said.
Two miles from the ambush, Pedro 15 made a forced landing in an open field. Now it came under more small-arms fire, from Taliban fighters hiding in three hills to the left of Pedro 15.
Over the radio: nothing but silence. Pedro 16 started to get edgy.
“We really weren’t sure what is going on,” Will said.
From above, Pedro 16 saw Pedro 15’s crew and patients get out of the helo’s right side, the side that offered a little protection from the small-arms fire.
Philpott opened fire with his minigun at where he thought the Taliban were hidden.
“I only saw three during the engagement,” recalled Philpott, now an instructor with the 512th Rescue Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
For Pedro 16 and the Army Kiowas, there was but one choice — all three had to land and fly out the downed airmen and soldiers.
Rosebrough and the Kiowa pilots quickly agreed to the plan: The wounded soldiers and PJs caring for them would be loaded into Pedro 16. Pedro 15’s aircrew members would climb onto the landing skids of the Kiowas and hang onto until the Army helos reached a safe place to land.
Pedro 16 touched down between the Taliban and the downed helicopter, acting as a shield for rescued troops while anyone with a gun fired at the Taliban.
“We saw bullets hitting the dirt, coming closer each time,” Thomas said.
The Kiowas landed on the other side of Pedro 15.
In less than a minute, the three helos were back in the air. Then, the helo crews realized they had left behind three airmen from Pedro 15 in all the confusion.
Pedro 16 turned back and landed again. With everyone accounted for, the Pave Hawk turned toward Kandahar.
‘Wasn’t anything left’
With 13 people onboard, Pedro 16 was weighed down.
Rosebrough set the engines to maximum power.
“There wasn’t anything left,” said Philpott, who as flight engineer watched the engine gauges.
Pedro 16 practically groaned getting off the ground. Now, Rosebrough and Will focused on gaining speed and turning the momentum into altitude.
“Once you get forward speed, you’re fine,” Will explained.
Out of range of the Taliban, the Kiowas peeled away and flew to an Army base with the airmen clinging to the skids.
Pedro 16 flew back to Kandahar. Medical personnel waiting on the landing pad rushed the injured soldiers to the base hospital. All three survived.
That night, airmen of Pedro 15 and 16 reunited in Kandahar for a three-hour debriefing.
Strange as it may seem, Thomas doesn’t recall the mission as the most dangerous he flew on the deployment. That flight was to a Taliban-held village, with no friendly troops on the ground for protection, to recover the body of an Afghan soldier.
“That is when I thought I was going to die,” Thomas said.
Philpott, Thomas and Will learned they had been chosen to receive the Mackay Trophy in May when they were in Florida being honored by the Jolly Green Association, a group of former and current rescue airmen, for flying the 2009 rescue mission of the year. Rosebrough had to hear the news secondhand because he stayed behind, preparing to return to Afghanistan.
Pedro 16’s crew members are quick to point out that they were just part of an effort whose success depended on several dozen airmen and soldiers. They said they see the Mackay Trophy recognizing the combat search and rescue community.
“There are people doing this every day,” Will said.
Added Thomas: “There are missions that could turn into this every day.”