Stuart sends this one from Ft. Hood:
On the wing of an Apache
1st Cav. pilots make daring rescue
By Cpl. Benjamin Cossel - 122nd MPAD
CAMP TAJI, Iraq –For two Apache Longbow pilots, the night of Oct. 16 was just a regular night flying a reconnaissance mission around southern Baghdad. A distorted cry for help came across the emergency radio shattering the chatter of all other communications. They recognized the call sign, they recognized the area and a few minutes later, they were in route to perform what would become a heroic rescue.
“I really couldn’t make out at first what was going on. The transmission over the radio was broken up and weak, but I could make out that it was a distress call,” said Lodi, Ca native Chief Warrant Officer Justin Taylor, an Apache pilot, with Company C, 1st Battalion 227th Aviation Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team.
At first, the transmission seemed as though it might be coming from U.S. Marine Corps aircraft. The call sign speaking to the downed aircraft was of Marine Corps designation Taylor said. He radioed to Marine Corps headquarters asking if any aircraft of theirs was down in the area, to which the response came back negative. Then a call sign familiar to Taylor and Capt Ryan Welch, the air mission commander, came across the guard, or emergency channel.
“We’re in zone 43….” came the weak transmission
“I recognized the area and immediately made the decision that we were going to break from our sector and go over to the area,” said Lebanon, N.H. native Welch. “Those were our guys on the ground and we had to help. My first thought was we would provide aerial security.”
As the team changed flight paths they notified the USMC aircraft of their intention as well as calling back to 4th BCT headquarters to alert them to their movement. When they arrived on station they began trying to contact the pilots on the ground.
“As soon as we told the Marines what we were doing, a call came up on the guard channel, it was the same call sign but a different numerical designation,” Welch explained.
The wounded pilot explained that the previous pilot was unable to respond, that two pilots were killed in action and that he and the other survivor were trying to make their way to a defendable position but having difficulty as one of the wounded was unable to walk.
“When we flew over the sector, we immediately picked up the heat signature of a burning fire,” said Welch.
“But at first we weren’t sure what it was, it kind of looked like one of the many trash fires you see all over Baghdad,” Taylor added.
Flying over the fire to try and get a better look at the ground an excited call came up.
“You just flew over our position,” the transmission informed.
Standard operating procedure has helicopters flying in pairs, one main and one wingman. Welch’s wingman noticed the emergency strobe on the ground and notified Welch of the positive identification.
“Once we had identified the crew on the ground, I made the call that we were going to land and get those pilots out of there,” Welch commented. “I had no idea of the situation on the ground or what the landing zone looked like, so I informed my wingman to fly a tight defensive circle around our position to provide cover if needed. As we landed and I got all the cords off of me, I looked back at JT (Taylor) and told him, if he started taking fire, get this bird out of here, leave me and we’ll collect all of us later.”
Welch had landed his Apache approximately 100 meters from the crash site, armed with his 9mm and an M4 Carbine rifle he set out to collect the downed pilots.
Welch contacted the pilots and asked if they were ready for self-extraction and again it came over the radio that one of the pilots couldn’t walk, they would need help getting out of their location.
“I basically had to stumble my way through an open field, it was treacherous with pot holes and low brush, I stumbled a couple times,” recalled Welch, “but I finally came up on the crash site about ten minutes later.”
When Welch arrived on the scene he saw one pilot standing and one sitting, the two had been able to get a fair distance away from the aircraft.
“As I came up on them, I noticed they looked pretty bad, multiple cuts on their face and both looked like the early stages of shock had set in. I called out to Beck (Chief Warrant Officer Chad Beck, 1st Battalion of the 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Infantry Division attached to the 4th BCT) who was standing, to get him to help me with Mr. Crow (Chief Warrant Officer Greg Crow, also of 1-25 Aviation). It took a few seconds to get Mr. Beck’s attention as he was visibly shaken and dazed.”
As the two got Crow up and between them to begin the long trek back, the mess of tangled cords attached to all their equipment nearly tripped them up.
“We stumbled initially with all those wire just everywhere… I pulled out my knife and just cut them all away and we took off.”
Carrying two wounded back over the treacherous 100 meters to his waiting Apache, Welch said the time seemed to slow down to an absolute crawl as they inched their way back, working carefully not to further injure Mr. Crow.
“We had to move kind of slow,” he explained. “I swear it probably took us like ten minutes to get back but it seemed like we were out there for hours, I was never so relieved to see JT and my bird sitting there.”
Four personnel, two seats in the Apache. Self-extraction was a maneuver the pilots had been told about in flight school. A maneuver considered dangerous enough that no practical application was given, just the verbal “Here’s how you do it”
Hanging from a pilots flight vest is a nylon strap attached to a carabineer. On each side of the Apache, hand holds are bolted on, primarily to assist maintenance crews as they work on the birds. They also have another purpose, to be used in the event of a self extraction. The general idea being a pilot attaches to the side of the helicopter with the nylon strap wrapped through the hand holds connecting the nylon strap with the carabineer, and then flies off to a safe location.
“I knew getting back to my bird,” explained Welch, “that Mr. Crow was in no position for self extraction that I would have to put him in the front seat. I radioed to JT and told him what I intended to do, Crow in the front seat, Beck and I strapped to the outside.”
At first Taylor just looked at Welch, a little surprised at the plan.
“It kind of surprised me at first and then I just thought, ‘Cool, that’s what we’re going to do,’” said Taylor.
Beck and Welch worked to get Crow into the front seat as Welch explained what was next to Beck.
“At first Beck really didn’t want to leave, his commander had just been killed and he still wasn’t thinking 100% clear”
“I can’t go, I just can’t go,” pleaded Beck but soon enough he understood the situation and then another problem surfaced.
“The mechanism Kiowa pilots use for self extraction is different then the set up Apache pilots use,” explained Welch. “But we finally got it worked out, got Beck hooked up and then secured myself to the aircraft.”
Secured and assuming a defensive posture with his rifle, Welch gave Taylor the thumbs up sign and the Apache lifted off.
“I was a little bit freaked out,” explained Taylor, “you just don’t fly an Apache by yourself, it’s definitely a two man aircraft”
At 90 miles per hour the two helicopters flew 20 kilometers to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon, the closet FOB with a Combat Support Hospital (CSH).
“I only had my night visor on,” said Welch. “I thought my eyes were going to rip out my sockets and that my nose would tear from my face, the wind was so strong.”
Landing on the emergency pad, Welch and Taylor jumped out and helped medical personal take Beck and Crow inside for treatment.
“One of the medics asked me if I was a medical flight pilot,” chuckled Welch. “You should have seen the look on his face when I told him, Nope, I’m an Apache pilot.”
The patients safely delivered to the CSH, the two exhausted pilots looked at each other with the same thought.
“We both climbed back into our bird,” Welch said, “and almost simultaneously said to each other, ‘Lets go home.’”