Afghanistan — Air Rescue Team Retrieves ‘Fallen Angel’

KAPISA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — 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.

83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron
Air Force Maj. Jesse Peter­son and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shane Har­gis, 83rd Expe­di­tionary Res­cue Squadron, prac­tice a hoist mis­sion April 22, 2011, the day before they were called upon to recov­er the pilots of a downed Army heli­copter in Afghanistan.
U.S. Air Force pho­to by Staff Sgt. Bill Cen­na
Click to enlarge

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.’ ”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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