By Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr., 919th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 23, 2010
DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- On a runway cut into the side of a mountain, four critically wounded Afghan National Police waited in the cold for a medical evacuation aircraft to land and rescue them from a fate determined by a suicide bomber, hours earlier.
That aircraft was a MC-130E Combat Talon I from the 711th Special Operations Squadron. The crew flew through mountainous terrain in a heavy snow storm with no visibility to recover the wounded and save their lives. The aircrew, part of the 919th Special Operations Wing, was recently awarded the Air Force Association's Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award for their efforts in the snowy rescue.
In February 2009, the aircrew of "Daddy 05" was enjoying its first day off in weeks when they received word they were on alert.
Aircraft commander Lt. Col. Daniel Flynn thought it was a joke at first since they hadn't had a break in a while. It wasn't, however. The situation was gravely serious and the mission was a medical evacuation.
A suicide bomber had detonated an Improvised Explosive Device at a ceremony, wounding 10 and killing one. Four ANPs were injured in the blast. One victim had ball-bearing shrapnel in his chest and skull. The hospital at Bagram Air Field was the only hospital capable of saving him.
"We were bringing a team of docs with us," said Master Sgt. Bruce Callaway, Talon loadmaster on the rescue. "The medics could not handle that much trauma at that location."
The aircrew quickly began preparing the flight plan, calculating aircraft performance requirements and studying approaches.
"We gathered all the information and we'd worked enough that everybody did his own part, so we met at the airplane and did a brief," said Colonel Flynn. "Tactically, there wasn't a lot involved, but because of the weather, the medics in the back and the guys we were going to rescue made for a lot of unknown variables."
In less than an hour, 919th maintainers had the previously bed down aircraft completely reconfigured for a casualty evacuation mission. They also shoveled snow so the aircraft could taxi out.
"The maintenance guys got the same call we did," said Chief Master Sgt. Mike Klausutis, 919th Special Operations Wing command chief and airborne mission systems specialist on the flight. "When we got there, the plane was almost ready to go fly this mission. The actions they took in that first hour were critical to saving those guys' lives."
Daddy 05 left Bagram and into the dark and snowy mountains.
Without the ability to climb above the mountains on takeoff, the aircrew relied on their instruments and their navigators to guide them through.
"We had to climb around the mountains without being able to see them," Colonel Flynn said. "Just using the instruments, we had to climb up above them because of the weather we were in."
An hour flight brought them to their destination - a 60-foot wide runway at an altitude of 8,000 feet. They relied on a precision approach to bring them in. To land, the pilot and co-pilot used night vision goggles.
"We didn't break out (of the weather) to see the runway until about 200 feet above it," Colonel Flynn said. "We touched down on what looked like the runway. You could barely see it, but on NVGs, I could see a couple of lights."
Upon touchdown, Daddy 05 began to slide sideways on the ice. Colonel Flynn brought the engines back up thinking he would have to take back off and make another approach, but with the renewed thrust, the plane righted itself and was able to stop.
"There was about three seconds of serious drama and was done, so there was really no time to think about what's going to happen," said Colonel Flynn. "I just said, 'Wow, I hope we don't fall off this runway, uh, well, looks like we have control again,' and we just stopped there. It happened that quick."
The aircrew was told they could park on the apron, but all that could be seen was a blanket of snow. Instead of taking the Talon onto the fresh snow on an unfamiliar airfield, the team stayed on the runway.
"We tried to turn around from the end of the runway and the aircraft actually just skidded around," said Colonel Flynn. "It just did a 180 on its own, just using the engines. It just flipped around."
While waiting on the ANPs, the crew ensured stretchers and equipment were in place for their arrival. They also kept the aircraft as warm as possible for their new passengers. The wounded were brought out and the medics immediately went to work.
"The docs swarmed them," said Sergeant Callaway. "They were literally working on them as they were getting them on the airplane."
The take off was much easier than the landing, but there was still another touchdown to go and the snow storm had not let up. Back at Bagram, the runway was shut down due to the weather and poor visibility. Because of the urgency of the situation, they were granted a waiver to land.
Colonel Flynn radioed to the Bagram air traffic controller and let them know they'd perform their own contained approach, but needed to know if there were any other aircraft in the airspace.
"He jokingly said there was only one plane that took off a couple of hours ago, and that was the only guy crazy enough to be up there flying," said Colonel Flynn. "I said to him, 'that's us and we're coming back home.'"
Daddy 05 landed without incident this time. Snowplows drove in front of the Talon to clear a path to the parking ramp closest to the hospital.
The crew was informed later all four of the Afghan police lived, even the officer with the severe shrapnel wounds.
"Within a week, he was sitting up in bed and was responsive," said Chief Klausutis.
Upon reflection, the aircrew sees how significant their actions were, but in the "cold" of the moment, it was business as usual.
According to Colonel Flynn, very little was any different than a standard 711th SOS mission.
"It sounds amazing, but this is what we train for and what we do," said Colonel Flynn, thinking back on it. "It was exciting though, because we were doing something for real. We weren't just carrying equipment; we were going to save somebody."
The aircrew of Daddy 05:
Lt. Col. Daniel Flynn, aircraft commander
Capt. Miriam Williams, co-pilot
Lt. Col. Timothy Broeking, navigator
Lt. Col. Steven Jensen, navigator
Lt. Col. Thomas Frazier, electronic warfare officer
Master Sgt. Kevin Woodward, flight engineer
Chief Master Sgt. Michael Klausutis, airborne mission systems specialist
Master Sgt. Bruce Callaway, loadmaster
Master Sgt. Thomas Haddock, loadmaster