By Air Force Capt. Erick Saks
455th Air Expeditionary Wing
KAPISA PROVINCE, Afghanistan, May 2, 2011 – Airmen from Bagram Airfield's 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron performed a daring mountainside rescue here April 23 after an Army helicopter crashed in a hostile valley.
The airmen, deployed from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and the 212th Rescue Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, recovered an injured pilot and a fallen hero while often coming under heavy fire.
The mission began before daybreak, when the squadron's tactical operations center received a report of a “fallen angel” -- the term that signifies a downed aircraft. Within 10 minutes, the Pedros of the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron had two HH-60 helicopters airborne and en route to the site where a coalition helicopter reportedly was down.
The helicopters -- Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 -- quickly flew toward the crash site, about 20 miles from Bagram, and held off about five miles away as they linked up with the other air assets in the area, including F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets and AH-64 Apache and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.
"When we arrived, one of the Apaches already had eyes on the aircraft, and he lased the pilot so we could see him," said Air Force Capt. Louis Nolting, Pedro 84 copilot. "At this time, we had thought that the pilots were collocated and that they'd egressed together from the aircraft."
One pilot had climbed several hundred feet to a ridge above the aircraft wreckage. This ridge is where Pedro 83, the lead aircraft, used its hoist to insert its team composed of Air Force Maj. Jesse Peterson, combat rescue officer; Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte, team leader; and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shane Hargis, team member.
"Once lead got the [pararescue jumpers] on the ground, we found out the pilots had split up," said Air Force Maj. Philip Bryant, Pedro 84 pilot. "The pilot who had egressed told the PJs that the other pilot was unconscious and at the crash site."
The PJs relayed the information about the second pilot still with the downed helicopter, and Pedro 84 was directed to insert PJs near the wreckage.
Based on the information, Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline, pararescue assistant team leader, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, pararescue team member, began preparing their gear for their insertion near the crash site. At about 180 feet, the hoist was significantly higher than their standard descent due to the surrounding terrain.
"It was the longest hoist I've ever been on," Kline said. "When we got on the ground, I was still under the impression that we were close to the other team, so we took a knee. We were about 50 meters from the crash site, and we didn't see the other guys, so we made our way to the site."
The team approached the pilot and found he had died. The PJs immediately began preparing the fallen hero to be hoisted out.
Overhead, Pedro 84's flight engineer had retrieved the hoist cable and was getting back into position when the aircraft began to take fire.
"Not more than two seconds after forward momentum was executed, … [we notices] pop shots," said Air Force Staff Sgt. William Gonzalez, Pedro 84’s gunner. "The first thing we start doing is checking to see where it's coming from and checking everybody out. And, maybe five seconds later, the [flight engineer] says 'I'm hit.'"
In addition to manning one of the Pave Hawk's .50-caliber machine guns and monitoring the aircraft's systems, the flight engineer runs the hoist on the aircraft. Air Force Tech. Sgt. James Davis was the engineer on Pedro 84 when it was first engaged by enemy fire.
"I had just turned off the hoist, and I was sliding back into my seat when the round came through the helicopter and hit me in the leg," he said. "They asked, 'Are you all right, Jim?' and I said, 'No I'm bleeding pretty good here.'"
Pedro 84 rejoined Pedro 83, but determined they were no longer mission capable after the injury to the flight engineer. They headed back to Bagram to get care for the injured flight engineer and to pick up another engineer to take Davis' place.
Gonzalez immediately moved over to provide medical care for Davis.
"I looked back, and the first thing I saw was a pool of blood by his seat," Gonzalez said. "I went over to assess his situation. I saw that he was still conscious and saw that he was still breathing. I put his tourniquet right above the wound. After I had it on, I went over to the PJs’ medical kit and grabbed some gauze, and I wrapped it around the leg, trying to absorb as much blood as I could."
When the Pave Hawk landed at Bagram, the gunner, copilot and a Marine Corps lieutenant who saw they needed assistance off-loaded Davis, who was brought into the Craig Joint Theater Hospital emergency room.
The flight engineer said the timing of the shot is what made the difference between a serious wound and a potentially fatal one.
"I had been in the doorway with no way of protecting myself to get the PJs on the ground," Davis said. "I got the cable up, and as soon as I slid from the doorway to the seat, the round came in. If I was still in the doorway, the round would have hit me right the in body armor or below it, and I'd have been in much worse shape."
As they cared for their injured crew member, Pedro 84's crew also worked to find a replacement for Davis so they could get back to their PJs on the ground.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Heath Culbertson was sleeping at Bagram Airfield when Davis was shot, and he was awakened up by frantic knocking on his door.
"They said, 'Get up, we need you in the [tactical operations center] now,'" Culbertson said. "I asked, ‘What's going on?’ and they said Davis had been shot."
"When we taxied over from the [refueling point], Culbertson had just walked out and was ready to go," Bryant said. "He came, got into the aircraft, got hooked up, and we took off. The crew swap only took about four minutes."
The reality of the situation hit Culbertson as he approached the aircraft.
"As soon as I got underneath the rotor, I saw the blood," he said. "It was pretty surreal. I'd seen blood before in the cabin, but never from any of our own guys. That was pretty shocking to me."
Back on the ridge above the crash site, the three-man pararescue team treated the pilot, pulled security and prepared for extraction. As team commander, Peterson coordinated for pick-up and passed along information about the situation on the ground.
"My job as team member was as the medic," Hargis said. "I checked over the pilot on the ground. He was fully alert and oriented with stable vital signs, and he had a laceration on his jaw."
Overhead, Pedro 83 swept the area, searching for the enemy.
"As we came around, I saw rounds come up, so I returned fire," said Air Force Senior Airman Justin Tite, Pedro 83's gunner.
The crew determined the enemy fire originated from a tree between the two PJ teams on the ground.
"There were no other trees on the slope except this one huge tree right in the middle between the two teams, and that's where they were hiding," Tite said.
Seeing that his teams were split up by enemy positions, Uriarte realized they were not going to be able to walk to the PJs below. As the enemy fire began picking up, Air Force Capt. Joshua Hallada, Pedro 83's pilot, decided they needed to get the PJ team and pilot off the ground as soon as possible.
"So we set ourselves up to come in for a hover similar when we first [inserted the team], although much lower," Hallada said. "Being that it was a little lighter now, we brought it into a 20-foot hover over our team and the survivor."
As the pararescuemen and the engineer worked to get the survivor into the aircraft, enemy fire increased, threatening Pedro 83.
"The team started to hook up the survivor, and that's when the pilot started to call rounds off the 1 o'clock," said Air Force Senior Airman Michael Price, Pedro 83 flight engineer. "Someone called the go-around at that point, and I sheared the cable to stop from dragging them through the rocks."
Price used the guillotine-type device built into the hoist to cut the cable and prevent injury to the airmen below.
"I had the strap around the survivor, and I was hooked into the cable," Hargis said. "I gave them the signal to bring up the cable, and I noticed a little more slack coming out. I thought maybe he didn't see me, so I gave him the signal again, and the next thing I know, the cable's sheared."
Hallada said he didn’t realize at first that Hargis had cut the cable. "We came back around,” he said, “and I was setting up to go lower and further back into the rocks so that we could prevent them from hitting us to try to get them out again. On short final, I was informed that we didn't have a hoist. He had told me several times -- I was just overwhelmed with other stuff."
Pedro 83 went around for yet another pass as the crew tried to figure out how to proceed.
"I determined we needed to one-wheel hover," Hallada said. "It's when you just set a wheel down on the rock next to them and hover the rest of the aircraft at the same time, allowing them just to jump on."
The maneuver took 10 seconds at most, with the PJs and survivor jumping onto the aircraft, followed by a speedy takeoff. However, the aircraft took damage from enemy fire as it lifted off.
"We went back into our overwatch patterns, realizing we'd been hit at that point," Hallada said, “and we started trying to figure out what to do next, seeing as we didn't have a hoist and we knew the lower [landing zone] was hot."
Pedro 83 stayed to provide overwatch for the remaining PJs and pilot despite the damage to their aircraft; however, running low on fuel, they were relieved to hear that Pedro 84 was on its way back.
"We left for [Forward Operating Base] Morales-Frazier planning to get gas, ammo and return," Hallada said. However, once we landed, the situation caused us to shut down and evaluate further."
At Morales-Frazier, Uriarte and Hargis transferred the injured helicopter pilot to the field surgical team while Peterson ran to the tactical operations center to coordinate with the ground force commanders. Meanwhile, Price looked over the aircraft to examine the extent of the damage. At first glance, he said, the damage appeared minimal. But then the airman checked the main transmission fluid.
"It was pretty much bone dry," Price said. "I told the captain we couldn't fly. We really didn't want to create another [personnel recovery] event out there."
The Pedro 83 crew began working with their operations team at the tactical operations center to get back into the fight. This entailed Air Force 1st Lt. Elliott Milliken, Pedro 83's copilot, coordinating a ride back to Bagram to pick up their spare aircraft.
There, the crew quickly loaded into the fresh Pave Hawk with additional pararescuemen and a small maintenance team, and they headed back to Morales-Frazier.
Pedro 84 arrived back on the scene to find significant airpower had joined the fight to protect the pararescue team and pilot still on the ground.
"While we were away, the A-10s had shown up," Bryant said. "We train with the A-10s to do this -- combat search and rescue. When we got back out there, there were three Apaches and four A-10s operating in the area."
The enemies in the large tree continued to threaten the aircraft and ground personnel until the A-10s and Apaches engaged the target. "The A-10s were using their nose guns and their rockets, and the Apaches were using their chain guns," Nolting said.
With the situation appearing to have settled down, Pedro 84 made an attempt to extract the PJs and remaining pilot. An Army Apache teamed up with the Pave Hawk to move to the landing zone.
On scene for the first time, Culbertson was able to get eyes on the crash site and the PJs. He was guiding the pilots down to the site when he began to hear what he thought might be gunfire.
"I heard whistling by my head," he said. "But, I thought to myself, 'That can't be. I've got my helmet on. There's no way I'm hearing the hisses.'"
It wasn't until Culbertson heard the impacts on the aircraft that he realized they were under fire, and he began searching for points of origin.
"Next thing I know, I get thrown on my console," the flight engineer said. "I still didn't know what was going on at that point. But from this vantage point, I could see under my gun, and I could see the muzzle flashes. I remember shaking my head to clear it, and then just a rage of fury came over me."
It wasn't until much later that Culbertson realized a bullet had entered his helmet on the right side, through his visor and exited the other side of the helmet without injuring him.
"I called for the go-around, turned the gun power switch on, and just started unleashing the .50-cal on these two points of origin," Culbertson said.
While Culbertson remembers the event in "slow motion," Gonzalez said the entire engagement was very quick.
"All of this happened within four seconds," he said. "I hear him say 'I'm scanning, I'm scanning. There was the ‘pop-pop-pop’ from the ground, then the ‘guh-guh-guh-guh’ from his gun."
Nolting credits Culbertson's quick and collected response to saving the aircraft. "Without him returning that fire, there was a chance that our right engine or hydraulics could have been shot out," he said.
Running low on fuel, and with plenty of air support on scene to protect the team on the ground, Pedro 84 returned to Morales-Frazier, where the crew looked over the damage to their aircraft. It was at this point they realized not only that Culbertson had been hit, but that Gonzalez had been hit as well.
"I initially counted seven rounds that had impacted the cabin," Gonzalez said. "And then I noticed the one that was under my seat. It had come from under my seat and fragged outward. One piece missed my right knee, and the other actually bounced off my knee and went through my knee pad."
Determining the aircraft was still flyable, Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 prepared to head back to the crash site together. Before departing, the pararescuemen who had come in with the spare aircraft from Bagram loaded onto the Pave Hawks.
"The situation being what it was, we didn't know how long the mission was going to take," Uriarte said. "We thought it was best to switch crews so that they could do some work and we could pick it up later in the night."
At the crash site, Kline and Cenna assessed the situation. With Pedro 84 off scene due to Davis' gunshot wound and Pedro 83 on its way to Morales-Frazier, there was little they could do but wait. They hunkered down near the aircraft and the pilot, waiting for the Pave Hawks to return.
"It was at that time when we started taking fire," Kline said. "I didn't know what was going to happen at that point. We were both preparing ourselves mentally to stay there for a while."
The enemy fire was sporadic as they took cover at the base of the mountain.
"Initially, it was just a couple shots here or there," Kline said. "But then, it really started to get close. Both of us ducked and got behind a rock outcropping. I think I saw the rounds impact before I heard them."
Unable to see the muzzle flashes, Kline requested support from the aircraft above.
"I was basing all of my calls for fire off the impacts," he added. "If rounds hit here, they had to come from there. There was no other way. We were just watching where the dust flew and taking a reverse azimuth."
The team member began looking for escape routes should the conditions deteriorate further. "To me, there was just one," Kline said. "There was this ravine. It was approximately 25 meters away."
The team eventually had to use the egress route as the enemy fire became overwhelming for the two airmen.
"We thought we were in pretty good coverage with the boulders and the helicopter," Cenna said. "But I distinctly remember looking over at [Kline] at multiple times, seeing rounds and dirt flying right next to him. How we were not hit was pretty amazing."
"It felt like 30 rounds were all around us, all within a two- to four-second period. They just hit everywhere," Kline added. "They hit the aircraft, and it went up in flames. It quickly overtook the aircraft, and I yelled at [Cenna] to get the hell out of there. I had noticed during my initial scan of the aircraft that there was still a rocket pod with rockets in it. That was my concern -- that it was going to be like the Fourth of July."
Kline and Cenna sprinted for the ravine taking cover from the aircraft fire while dodging enemy bullets.
"That's when it started exploding," Kline said. "Even while we hunkered down, they still kept shooting at us. The rounds were ricocheting above our heads. I have molten metal on my kit from where the helicopter had exploded."
Kline kept in contact with the air assets throughout the firefight, providing situation updates and receiving information about the enemy who was closing on their position.
"They provided overwatch the whole time," Kline said. "They were like, 'There are these guys 300 meters to the north of you; we're going to go hot on them.' We could feel the concussion from the rockets."
Kline also recalled seeing an Army quick-reaction force being flown over their position as they waited.
"I could see guys sitting there in their seatbelts with their guns," he said. "And as they were going by, I could see [a rocket-propelled grenade] whiz by. I looked up, and I could see the burst on the western mountainside."
Kline and Cenna said they would go up to 15 minutes without a shot fired on them, but that every time they would begin to signal that they were clear, the firefight would start up again.
"I'd say, 'Hey, it's been clear for 15 ‘pop-pop-pop-pop,’" Kline said. "It was every time I would try to tell someone it was clear, they'd pop off a couple of rounds."
While waiting in the ravine, Kline and Cenna overheard the medical evacuation request for a member of the quick-reaction force.
Together for the first time since Davis was shot, Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 left Morales-Frazier, hoping to extract the PJs and the second pilot. But they received the medical evacuation call before they arrived on scene.
A soldier had been hit and died within minutes of the call, Bryant said. Then as the Pedros approached the area, another soldier was hit, requiring immediate medical evacuation.
"When we got to the scene, there was an incredible amount of helicopter traffic in the valley," Hallada said. "It was more than I've ever seen anywhere in this entire country, going all directions. There were UH-60s, Apaches, Kiowas and French helicopters."
Two Apaches joined the Pedros' Pave Hawks, creating a four-ship rescue formation. But the number of enemy fighters on the ground and the amount of firepower they wielded resulted in several unsuccessful passes over the landing zone.
During the first attempt, Pedro 84 began descending into the ravine as the other three aircraft provided cover.
"As we got down to about 30 feet, [Gonzalez] and I starting seeing muzzle flashes from this one building 200 to 300 feet from us," Nolting said.
The flight lead determined they need to pull around, and as Nolting worked to get the aircraft out of the valley, the flight engineer and the pararescuemen engaged targets in the building.
Just barely passing over some wires that were strung along the valley, Nolting was able to safely get Pedro 84 out the zone. The aircraft formed back up for another pass with Pedro 83, this time attempting to land and extract the soldier.
"As we were about to set down, we were engaged, and all of the aircraft returned fire, including the Apaches," Hallada said. "As we took off, I immediately saw the wires out the windscreen, and I pulled everything the rotor system had to get over them."
On the third attempt, Pedro 84 was just feet from the ground when they started taking fire again, Bryant said. At that point, one of the Apaches performed a buttonhook back toward them and began engaging enemy targets.
"It split the formation, firing rockets and guns," Nolting said. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. It was deconflicted, it was safe, and it was awesome."
Based upon the threat, the formation again pulled out of the area to reset. At that point, the Apaches fired their Hellfire missiles, destroying a confirmed position that had been posing the immediate threat to the aircrews and the soldiers on the ground.
On the fourth attempt, Pedro 83 finally was able to land and extract the injured soldier. The Pedros saw this as the ideal time to finally extract the second pilot and their PJs.
"There had been this tremendous weight on us the whole mission since we'd left our PJs in the zone," Nolting said. "This was our golden opportunity to get them out."
Nolting contacted with the PJs as Pedro 84 began to move into position above them, and they agreed on an extraction game plan. Culbertson would lower the hoist, the PJs would first hook the pilot's litter to the line, then they would connect themselves on a second hoist. But just as the aircraft made its decent, the engineer noticed that the hoist had broken.
"I knew that we had to get our PJs out, and this was our opportunity," Culbertson said. "The only other option I had was to go to backup mode. I said a little prayer, pushed down, and it worked."
The problem with operating the hoist in backup mode, he explained, is that the speed is significantly slower. But they lowered the cable, and the pararescuemen connected the pilot.
"That's pretty brave to send up a hero and not yourself when you’ve been there over five hours," Nolting noted.
The lack of speed in the hoist was clearly evident to the PJs below the aircraft, the flight engineer said.
"As I'm putting the hoist down there, I can see Kline down there waving for me to go faster," Culbertson recalled. "I'm like, 'Sorry, brother, I can't go any faster. The hoist is broke.'"
"By this time, I was expecting for us to get shot down," Nolting said. "We'd been there so long, I truly expected we were going down."
For the first time that day, however, the aircraft did not take any fire, and Pedro 84 was able to extract the pilot and PJs and evacuate the area.
Kline and Cenna spent about five and a half hours in the valley, dodging bullets and the explosion of the aircraft. And while he didn't know whether he would make it out of the area alive, Kline said, he knew that he never would have left without the downed pilot.
"We were going to do everything in our power to get him back," he said. "If I had to clip in and hold him, I would have. There was no way he wasn't coming back."
Before leaving to have his injuries treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Davis expressed his pride in his squadron’s actions.
"We did what we do," he said. "We've got a motto for a reason: ‘These things we do that others may live.’"