March 23, 2003

AF rescue team returns from harrowing classified mission behind enemy lines

By Gordon Trowbridge
Times staff writer

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf region — U.S. Air Force rescue crews plunged deep into Iraq on Sunday on a marathon mission apparently aimed at aiding coalition ground troops under fire.
Nearly all details of the mission remained classified Sunday evening, Air Force officials said. But interviews with airmen involved and commanders on the ground reflect a harrowing, complicated mission that fully taxed the combat search-and-rescue forces at this base near the Iraqi border, and apparently involved the evacuation of allied ground forces.

“We went deep into our bag of tricks,” said Lt. Col. Pony, a helicopter pilot involved in the mission, after roughly eight hours of flying. “I’m tired, but I’m so full of adrenaline about completing this mission I won’t sleep. I can’t wait until this mission is declassified so we can tell you about it.”

Journalists here are restricted to identifying aircrews only by rank and first name or radio call sign. They have been allowed on this base on condition they not name it or its home nation.

Air Force public affairs officials said they were seeking permission from U.S. Central Command representatives to release more information on the objectives of the rescue mission, but they and the crews involved described them as successful.

Lt. Col. Caz, commander of the HC-130 Hercules rescue planes of the 332nd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, said the mission involved, at least in part, rescue of U.S. or coalition ground forces, rather than the squadron’s primary mission of extracting downed aircrews.

“Other components of the coalition are finding that we are it,” he said. “Based on today’s experience, it’s clear we’re a rapid-reaction force that can go anywhere and do what has to be done.”

The rescue began in the pre-dawn hours of March 23, when two HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters were scrambled to respond to a distress call, apparently somewhere in Iraq. As usual, the helicopters were accompanied by HC-130 planes that can refuel the helicopters in the air, as well as A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack jets to provide firepower in support of any rescue effort.

Both the helicopters and the HC-130s carry Air Force pararescue jumpers, known as PJs, who can parachute or drop onto the ground to provide protection and medical treatment for friendly forces.

Much of the mission is still hidden behind security restrictions. But the crewmembers interviewed said they received three separate taskings — two that had yet to emerge when they launched on their initial alert.

Pony and Maj. “TC,” another HH-60 pilot, said they faced enemy small-arms fire and an indication on their airborne sensors that an Iraqi SA-8 surface-to-air missile was fired at their slow-moving, low-flying helicopters.

The HC-130s involved, another “low-and-slow” aircraft, faced similar threats. The helicopter pilots praised their fixed-wing partners for taking on great risks to provide vital refueling.

“The Kings really hung it out,” Pony said, using the standard radio call sign for HC-130s. “They usually don’t come that far north of the border. But they knew we needed the fuel and they went north for us.”

HC-130 crewmembers weren’t available for interviews because they went directly into a mandated crew-rest period required before their next mission. But Caz, their commander, echoed the praise of the helicopter crews.

“It really comes back to that cliché that we don’t leave anybody behind,” he said. “That’s our sister squadron and when they get to the point where they need the gas, we’re going to get them the gas.”

Commanders here have repeatedly denied media requests to allow reporters aboard the HC-130 aircraft flying combat missions.

The helicopters and HC-130s based here were deployed from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla. The crews — nearly all of them traditional reservists — are from Patrick as well as the Oregon Air National Guard.

While enemy fire was vivid in the minds of the pilots, they said scenes of Iraqi civilians were even more memorable.

TC described a scene in which an Iraqi truck driver, frightened by the helicopters roaring overhead, leapt from his truck — until he saw the U.S. flag painted on the belly of the helicopter, rose, and waved.

“It was surreal,” TC said. “I will never, ever forget that sight.”