Happy New Year! I wish each of you a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2022! WOW, what a year 2021 turned out be…COVID-19 did not relent, we departed Afghanistan after 20 years, and AFSOC Airmen continued to answer the nation’s call across the globe. I couldn’t be more proud of their amazing accomplishments and I’m delighted that this edition of the Air Commando Journal is filled with the Airmen of AFSOC doing what they do best, excelling!
Let me start by sharing personal thoughts about our 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001, our world changed forever. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon drew America into conflict with violent extremists in Afghanistan. Over the last 20 years, the blood and treasure sacrificed in Afghanistan rings especially true for me because of multiple deployments and the pain of losing Airmen and sister service members who were personal friends. Not a day goes by where I don’t think of them, their families, and their sacrifices. Please take a moment of silence to honor all of those who served so remarkably and dedicated their lives to service…remember.
AFSOC Airmen certainly answered our nation’s call in Afghanistan. In this edition some of our greatest Air Force Special Operations Forces legends who also served in Afghanistan are highlighted and are being inducted into the ACA Hall of Fame: Col Timothy Hale, Lt Col Bill Schroeder, Maj Dan Turney, CMSgt William “Cal” Markham, and SMSgt James “JB” Lackey. Each of these Airmen provided countless contributions to AFSOC and their impact and legacy continues on today through the lives and careers of so many.
To continue the theme of greatness, service, and sacrifice we also have the special tribute to the compelling life and career of Lt Col Felix “Sam” Sambogna. Lt Col Sambogna had an illustrious career from flying as an attack pilot with two tours of duty in Southeast Asia. After 29 years of service he served again for another 17 years at the Oklahoma State University Office on Eglin AFB and continued his service as a volunteer for the Guardian ad Litem and as the ACA President from 2004-2008. What an impressive life and story and I think you will enjoy, as I did, learning so much more about this Air Commando. Well done Sir!
I’m so thankful for all of the heroes that came before us and their lineage permeates through the outstanding Air Commandos we have today. As I read through the 2021 AFSOC awards and each individual’s accomplishments, I’m extremely proud of each of them and as you will see; they continue on the proud legacy. MSgt Hannah Walters from the 352nd SOW is one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for the entire Air Force. I have the privilege of knowing Hannah and she is the epitome of what we want and desire in all of our Air Commandos…she is impressive!
Thank you for the opportunity to be surrounded by selfless All-Stars and as we begin 2022, I wish each of you and your families health and happiness and the profound hope that this year is even better than previous years. I know our Air Commando community will continue to thrive and ascend to even greater heights. I’m forever indebted to so many Air Commandos, and the exceptional joint force we work alongside, and couldn’t be more honored to be on this team. Happy New Year!
Air Commandos Support the International Thai Cave Rescue Effort
Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 10 Issue 3, February 2022, pages 32-37
By Lt Col (Ret) Matthew Durham
On Saturday, July 23rd, the Moo Pa, roughly translated to Wild Boars, a junior association football team (“soccer” to Americans–“football” to the rest of the world) from Chiang Rai province, on the northern border of Thailand, had just finished practice and planned a quick trip. It was later reported they traveled to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system to celebrate a birthday, with lots of food. This turned out to be incorrect. They rode their bikes up to the nearby cave entrance simply to explore the cave a little. They were led by the Boars’ 25 year-old assistant coach, Ekkaphon Chantawong, a trained Buddhist monk. After parking their bikes 12 boys, ages 11-16 and Coach Ek entered the cave. Almost as soon as they went into the darkness it began raining. Hard. Point in fact, in 2018 the monsoon season had arrived two to three weeks early in northern Thailand. There were signs posted advising not to get beyond the entrance of the 6.2 mile-long cave from July-November, the rainy season, but it was not supposed to be the rainy season quite yet. The cave system is in the Doi Nang Non mountain range and is called “the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady,” which it vaguely resembles, a woman laying on her back. As the rain continued, the porous limestone ground on top of the cave leaked water into the cave system itself, creating flooded chambers. As the chambers flooded, the Wild Boars were forced back deeper into the dark cave. After Coach Ek unsuccessfully tried to swim out, they eventually found themselves on a rock ledge, almost two and one half miles from the cave entrance, and no one knew they were there. One man was looking for them, though. Wild Boars head coach Nopprat Kanthawong had checked his phone about 7 p.m. and found 20 missed calls, all from parents wondering where their kids were. He started calling every team number he had listed, until he reached a 13-year old Boar who got picked up after practice. He told the coach the rest of the team and Coach Ek were planning on biking to the cave and doing a little exploring. Nopprat sped up to the cave entrance and easily found their bikes and packs, but no Wild Boars. He did find lots of water in the cave and it was rising. Fearing the worst he immediately notified authorities. Thus began an underground rescue operation that would eventually involve approximately 10,000 volunteers, including Thai Army and Special Forces, divers from around the globe, doctors, mining specialists, military and civilian rescue specialists from 38 different countries, from Ireland to India and just about everywhere in-between, with over 100 government agencies represented. Hundreds of media descended upon the rapidly growing base camp. Helicopters flew, ambulances hurried, and food trucks began to arrive. The Wild Boar families had been sent for and were being bedded down. The camp had everything but the kids. Nobody had found the Wild Boars yet. As each hour passed it was becoming harder to be overly optimistic about “the boys in the cave.”
The United States government, in all its power and might, is good at many things. Unfortunately, the government is also known for its levels of bureaucracy. As the requests for help went out, the US Embassy in Bangkok contacted their desk at the State Department in Washington DC, who then contacted the Department of Defense, also in Washington, who contacted Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), who notified Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC), who immediately contacted an organization known to be quite good, and practiced, in moving quickly. Air Force Special Operations Command’s 353rd Special Operations Group, headquartered at Kadena AB, Okinawa, was told to prepare to deploy for rescue support. Less than 19 hours after SOCPAC was notified, the 353rd had rescuers inside the cave. They were joined by members of the 31st Rescue Squadron from the 18th Wing, host unit of Kadena. The approximately 40 personnel had flown into Chiang Mai airport on two of the 1st Special Operations Squadron’s MC-130J Commando II aircraft after receiving special permission to overfly the country of Vietnam. It was now early morning of June 28 and, aside from the team’s footprints leading into the cave, no one had found anything yet. The Wild Boars had been in the cave, unheard from, for nearly five days. It was not from any lack of effort that nothing was found early on. The Thai authorities knew of a local man that could be of help. The first official diver to enter the cave was 63 year-old British expat Vernon Unsworth. As divine providence would have it Unsworth was an experienced cave diver, lived about an hour south of the cave entrance and had been planning to dive the Tham Luang Nang Nong system, with which he was already familiar, that very day. Unsworth advised the Thai government to contact the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC). Hearing of the dilemma, the BCRC rushed three experienced cave divers to the cave , arriving one day before the 353rd. Thai Navy SEAL divers had been in the cave since June 25, but even using bright lighting the water was so murky it was impossible to operate. Sniffer dogs were used above the cave to try to find a crevasse where engineers could look at drilling down from above. Drones and robots would soon join them. It continued to rain. The members of the 353rd arrived and went to work. However, they had to look at things realistically. The Wild Boars had not even been found yet. When they arrived at about 2 a.m. on the 28th, there was a trickle of water in one part of the cave. In one hour it had risen to two feet. Major Charles Hodges, a Citadel graduate from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron and the mission commander later said, “When we arrived it was worse than had been painted. I thought it was highly probable we would never find these kids.” Special Tactics is not formally trained in cave diving rescues, but they are outstanding at planning difficult missions. Members of the 320th began working with the unit in charge, the Thai SEALS, to come up with an extraction plan if or when the Wild Boars were found; a plan that would have a chance of success without killing kids or rescuers. MSgt Derek Anderson of the 320th became a lead planner for the extraction. It was an all-international team effort but Anderson is generally given credit for drafting the plan that ended up successfully saving the kids. It involved a complicated scheme of dropping hundreds of necessary air tanks at various points to supply the Wild Boars and the extracting divers. That, and the guide rope system, was complicated, but it could work. The Air Force team of the 320th and the 31st had already examined the possibility of pumping water out and drilling down from above. Hodges contacted Chevron Oil in Bangkok and quickly found it unworkable, too complicated, and too lengthy. Battling rising water and swift currents, two of the BCRC cave divers, Richard Staunton and John Volanthen, a Belgian cave diver and a French diver, Maksym Polejaka, began searching the cave and setting up guidelines for other divers. The rain continued to fall and the water rose. Operations had to be suspended until the weather improved. On July 2 Volanthen was setting guidelines and ran out of rope. He surfaced in a cave chamber and in the darkness smelled something… human. The Wild Boars had been found. They were weakened and confused, but passably healthy. Coach Ek had kept the kids calm, told them to drink the clearest water possible and had given the kids all of his food. Word was passed down the line. Thanks to those hundreds of media on site, the good news rocketed around the world. Hours later, seven Thai military personnel, including a doctor and a medic, made the extremely difficult trip to the Wild Boars, bringing medical supplies, high calorie food, and clean water. Four of the seven volunteered to stay with the Wild Boars for the duration. They would be the last to leave the cave. Now the real challenge began. How were they going to get 12 kids and a coach, most of whom could not swim, and none with diving experience, out of a flooded cave two and a half miles back, with twist, turns, changes in elevation and some openings as small as 15 X 28 inches? It would take some of the best cave divers in the world five hours with the current, and six hours against it, just to get back and forth to the Wild Boar’s ledge. As the world rejoiced at the news the rescue experts took a real, deep sigh. This was going to be very, very dangerous. “It’s zero visibility, it’s cold, and it’s far, far back into a cave. There were never any guarantees and I remember Major Hodges saying specifically there’s maybe a 60 percent chance of survivability. We were completely honest when briefing the Thai leadership that we were expecting casualties. Even though we did as much mission planning and rehearsals as possible, no one had ever done anything like this before.” said Anderson. Alternatives were examined. A shaft was found that sank to 900 meters, but it was not enough. During the rescue operation over 100 shafts were drilled, but none were sufficient. There was serious consideration by the Thai government to constantly resupply the Wild Boars, wait months for the monsoon season to end and have them walk out. This would have meant an almost constant train of divers shuttling supplies back two and a half miles through a mostly flooded cave. You could almost guarantee casualties. Then there was the oxygen, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. On July 6, the oxygen level had dropped. By July 8, the oxygen level was less than normal and becoming dangerous. Engineers looked at the possibility of running an oxygen line back to the Wild Boar’s chamber but quickly deemed it next to impossible in the timeframe. The Thai government naturally wanted the safest possible extraction, just wait it out, but time was quickly evaporating. “We were explaining it was time to fish or cut bait,” said Hodges.” If you don’t do something now the cave will make the decision for you. Five or six months from now, when the water recedes, we will be lucky to find remains.” The experienced divers and Thai SEALS examined and contributed to MSgt Anderson’s plan. Cave divers would have to lead the Wild Boars out one at a time. Slowly, deliberately and carefully. Practice missions were already being run in a nearby pool and a rope system to get the divers accustomed to the size of the twist and turns had been put into place. Normally a mission this intricate would call for months of practice. There was no time. As if to emphasize the danger, on July 6, a volunteer and former Thai Navy diver, Saman Kunan, died while helping deliver the almost endless need for fresh diving air tanks. It is often thought that Kunan was the only casualty in the rescue operation, but there were several injuries and another Thai SEAL diver, Beruit Pakbara, contracted blood poisoning while in the cave and died that December. On the same day Kunan died, oxygen levels on Wild Boar ledge dropped to 15 percent, down from the normal 21 percent and more rain was forecast. The plan had to be initiated and the rescue extraction had to be moved up. At the same time, one member of the 353rd had an unexpected role. Capt Jessica Tait, the 353rd Public Affairs Officer, deployed to on-site as rescue support, unexpectedly found herself the face and voice of the rescue for the English-speaking public of the world. This was a little more complicated than at first glance. Tait had been sent with the 320th/31st initial package because the Thai Cave Rescue was already a world-wide story when they received orders. On the ground she became the focal point for the English speaking media, and was expected to arrange interviews and give updates for everyone. The possible sensitive issue of US heavy messaging and “taking credit” with an American military member speaking for a Thai-led operation was always discussed between the State Department, OSD/PA, and AFSOC/PA. Tait consistently emphasized this was a Thai operation and the United States, along with all the other nations, were in support. Apparently, she got that point across. The King of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, later asked to meet Tait and expressed his gratitude. On July 8, the cave entrance was cleared and over 90 international divers, including those from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, the 31st Rescue Squadron and US medical personnel were stationed along the staging areas deep inside the cave. The water was still so muddy that the support divers’ air regulators would often malfunction due to the mud buildup. All aspects of the plan had to be precise; there was no room for error. A team of 13 international cave divers and five Thai SEALS began their hours long journey back to the Wild Boars. The team included an Australian doctor, Richard Harris, who would administer the anesthetic Ketamine to render the boys going out of the cave unconscious. It had been decided that it was safer to guide them through the maze of muddy water, rocks, twists and small openings if they were unconscious and therefore would be no chance of them panicking and endangering both themselves and their rescuers. They were also given the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Atropine to steady their heart rates. The Ketamine was effective for 45 minutes to an hour, meaning the escorting divers, trained by Dr. Harris, had to re-administer a dose of Ketamine. The Thai government gave Dr. Harris and two of his assistants diplomatic immunity in case something went wrong. At various cave chambers they were quickly examined by medical personnel before being sent on. The boys were dressed in wet suits, with positive pressure full face masks and a harness. Handles were attached to their backs to allow them to be “carried” in the water. They were also tethered to their escort. Divers at various points carefully pushed, pulled and lifted the boys, always careful not to bump their heads or masks on the ever-present jagged rocks. The escorting divers ensured their heads were always above the unconscious boys so if there was an unseen rock in the muddy water the divers would hit their head instead of the boys’. “It wasn’t going to be an issue of visibility,” said Hodge. “Visibility was always going to be bad. They were kicking up so much silt that the concern was mud getting into the regulators. The guy in front would start and the guy behind him would have mud in his regulator.” The trip was arduous on the divers. When the boys made it to a dry spot in the cave, they were met by three other divers, taken out of their dive gear and at one stop they had to be dragged on a stretcher approximately 600 feet across slippery rocks and wet sand hills to the next demarcation point. There they were medically examined, put back into their dive gear and sent on the next part of their journey. In Chamber 3 they were alternately carried and transported by zip line, installed by rock climbers, to the cave entrance. The route remained partially flooded and rescuers later recalled how tough that part of the journey proved. The first day that Chamber 3 section took five hours alone, though at the end, practice and improvements had reduced it to a little over one hour. At the cave entrance an ambulance awaited to take them to Changrai Prachanukfroh Hospital where doctors found the Wild Boars had lost, on average, approximately four and a half pounds apiece, but were generally in good shape. The boys wore sunglasses while their eyes readjusted to light and were checked for any infections. How was it decided who would go first? They considered youngest to oldest or the weakest to strongest. Actually, Coach Ek said the boys were all “still strong,” mentally and physically. Then they left it to the Wild Boars themselves to decide who went first. After talking they reasoned the boys living farthest away from the cave should go first. They could ride their bikes and tell everyone where the others were and would be coming out shortly. They had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact the world was watching and nobody was going to let them bike ride off into the sunset. A decision was reached by the on-site Thai divers and the first four were quickly prepared. That first day four boys were taken from the cave. The rescuers knew that they would need 10-20 hours to resupply the cave route with air tanks, medical equipment and other supplies. For once the weather had cooperated—it had stopped raining. That, and efficiencies cut down the amount of time it took to transport the kids the required two and a half miles. However, it remained a tough go.
On July 9, four more Wild Boars were rescued. The weather, and the luck held. Again, the difficult and still dangerous procedure of resupply had to be accomplished. The cave had proven several times it was unforgiving of mistakes. On July 10, the remaining four Wild Boars left the cave, along with Coach Ek. Mission accomplished? Well, the Wild Boars had been saved but approximately 100 divers, volunteers, and medical personnel remained in the flooded cave, most almost a mile back, with a few even farther from the entrance. The cave rescue was not done. Almost immediately after the last ambulance left, water began rapidly rising in Chamber 3. It is thought the main water line, pumping water out of the cave, had broken. Pumps had been installed early on to help bring down the water in the cave. With all the rain the pumps were never expected to be the final solution. However, the pumps had removed the equivalent of 400 Olympic-sized pools of water and with the short dry spell had actually made a little progress in the water levels. As soon as the kids and Coach EK left the cave, the pumps stopped and water rose rapidly. The codeword for “drop everything and get out” was issued. Air tanks, equipment, all of it had to be abandoned. Workers and divers moved in an orderly way, but quickly, for the entrance. They began to work against the advancing water. By the time the Thai divers, deepest in the cave when the pumps broke, made their way to the entrance, only about an 18 inch air pocket remained. Everyone was out. Looking back, it probably should not have worked as well as it did. Everyone on the inside expected casualties, but that did not happen. They were justifiably proud, but it took a little while. “The actual core of rescuers, were all kind of exhausted, but kind of in awe that we had pulled this off over a three-day period. Everyone was pretty quiet, just rinsing off our gear. The very next day the hotel had a dinner for us and we were able to relax a little bit and take in what had just happened,” said Anderson. What had happened had some interesting side notes. The oldest of the Wild Boars, Phiraphat Samphianghai, turned 17 years old while in the cave. In fact, while the world literally came together to rescue them, four of the Wild Boars and Coach Ek had no country to call their own. Belonging to tribes that extended across the borders of Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar, they were considered technically “stateless,” and could not be issued a passport or technically be allowed to leave the Chiang Rai providence. The team had run into past difficulties when playing outside of Chiang Rai. After the rescue the four “stateless” Wild Boars and Coach Ek were officially made Thai citizens. Was Coach Ek held responsible by the parents and an army of lawyers for leading the Wild Boar youths into the cave? Not at all. The parents forgave Coach Ek and actually showed appreciation for all he did while spending two weeks with their boys, in a dark and flooded cave. The Thai cultural outlook is both forgiving and graceful. Many people like hearing or reading about the rescue. It was a time when the world literally came together to help the helpless. China had sent two teams, with robots and a 3D imager, to work alongside Americans. The Czech government had tried to deploy four large water pumps, but the ground was found to be too unstable. Space-X CEO Elon Musk had his engineers design a “kid-sized submarine”, but it was deemed too impractical. Musk then got into a somewhat bizarre feud with one of the Australian divers, but at least he tried to contribute. In all, best-selling books were written, documentaries were produced and at the time of this writing a large-scale movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Viggo Mortenson, Colin Farrell, and Joel Eggerton is currently shooting. It is to be entitled 13 Lives. The “Quiet Professionals” from the 353rd? They gathered what equipment they could, made their way back to the airport and boarded their MC-130Js, tired and relieved. The flight back to Kadena would take a bit longer because the country of Vietnam had denied their overflight. Vietnam’s rationale was “The crisis is now over.”
About the Author: Matt Durham served on the AFSOC headquarters Public Affairs staff for over 19 years, under eight different commanders as both officer and civilian. He has deployed to Haiti, the Bosnian AOR, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
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As this edition of the Air Commando Journal goes to press the world is settling into a new era of great power competition between the United States and liberal democracies on one side, and the authoritarian states of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea on the other. This lineup has similarities to the Cold War, but is fundamentally different because of less direct military competition offset by more governmental and economic competition.
This issue of the Air Commando Journal provides some thoughtful ways to learn from our shared history, with articles ranging in time from the Viet Nam War to the present day, discussing individuals and weapon systems.
The diverse set of skills and capabilities across the AFSOC community is truly stunning and expanding almost every day. That diversity will ensure AFSOC remains relevant in a complex and uncertain future.
Once again, the Air Commando Journal delivers on its mission to inform all Air Commandos on operations, issues, and developments within our Air Force special operations community.
Mark Hicks, Maj Gen, USAF (Retired)
Former Commander, Special Operations Command Africa
First reports of a disaster travel fast. Some are accurate, some are not. Emerging eyewitness accounts, data from surface, subsurface, airborne, and satellite sensors, intelligence updates, and media reports help inform emerging realities. Extensive loss of life, insufficient response capacity, and mounting uncertainty often compel foreign governments to request emergency assistance from the international community.
Air Commandos are leaders among our nation’s rapid responders for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief taskings at home and abroad.
Air Commandos of every capability are made available to save lives. Medical expertise may include deployment medicine, expeditionary readiness, health care, and disaster preparedness. Mission support prowess may be comprised of force protection, communications, contracting, engineering, personnel, and transportation elements. While maintainers prepare to sustain deployed aircraft in austere conditions, “loggies” draft plans to increase throughput at forward locations. Operations personnel, including command and control, special tactics, aviation advisors, surgical, intelligence, and aircrew tweak plans and recheck gear. Public affairs officers stand ready.
Click on the link to see how Air Commandos answered these and other questions during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations in Aceh Province, Indonesia; Bangkok and southern Thailand; Haiti; the Philippines; Afghanistan; and Beirut, Lebanon. We know you’ll be immensely proud of what Air Commandos accomplished and how they found a way to get it done.
With great admiration and respect for our Air Commandos…patriots, warriors, and rapid responders.
Reflecting on 2020, among the things of which I am most proud is the way AFSOC leaders at all echelons handled the turbulence of the year. Dealing with crises is, after all, what Air Commandos do. I found myself providing broad intent and watching commanders and senior enlisted leaders—from the wing to the flight—execute brilliantly. In this issue, Col Nate Scopac reflects on his own experience in crisis leadership during a year which also found him in combat command. *Yawn*…just another year in AFSOC.
This issue also features articles and a book review which illuminate various other strands of our shared history. For instance, we learn about Combat Controllers in early 1975, during the evacuation of Saigon. We also find an article describing an early Air Advising effort in China during the Second World War. Additionally, this issue contains a great rundown of the impressive 36 year history and significant contributions of the humanitarian arm of the Air Commando Association, the McCoskrie Threshold Foundation. Finally, the book review of COL (Ret) Joe Celeski’s chronicle of Air Commandos in Laos from 1964-1975 highlights a fascinating look at a shadowy chapter in our history, written by a retired Special Forces soldier, no less!
But of all the rich content contained in this issue of the ACJ, none is more important than the recognition of deserving Air Commandos past and present. The 2020 Air Commando Hall of Fame inductees represent a spectrum of leaders and operators whose fingerprints remain on those of us serving in 2021. Meanwhile, the individual and unit-level award winners among today’s Air Commandos remind us that no matter how turbulent the world becomes, Air Commandos will be ready to face it.
With sincere affection and respect,
James ‘Jim’ Slife, Lt General, USAF
Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 9 Issue 2, October 2020, pages 34-41
By Colonel Cory Peterson, USAF (Retired)
The “Ugly Baby” infiltration was the key element that opened the northern front in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and was incredibly significant to the overall campaign in Iraq. While small advance force elements were on the ground in the KAZ, they lacked the combat power to accomplish the mission of fixing 13 Iraqi divisions (two thirds of the Iraqi Army) to prevent them from interfering with the main invasion force’s drive towards Baghdad. The audacious air maneuver successfully inserted the bulk of two battalions of Green Berets and convinced the Turks to allow subsequent overflight. — Lt General Ken Tovo, USA, (Retired)
The US and its coalition partners began planning Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF) months before the actual D-Day on 19 Mar 2003. The strategic plan for the initial invasion called for a two-pronged assault from the south on Baghdad by coalition forces, coupled with a simultaneous northern attack by the US 4th Infantry Division (ID) supported by US SOF partnered with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The intent behind the northern assault was to fix 13 Iraqi divisions in place and prevent them from moving south to oppose the main coalition effort, while also protecting the vital oil fields in the around Mosul. The 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), commanded by COL Charles Cleveland, was given the task to plan and lead the special operations in the north.
Before those northern operations could occur, the 4th ID and their equipment would need to disembark at Turkish ports on the Mediterranean Sea, move overland to link up with additional equipment that had been pre-positioned in Turkey, and then enter the Kurdish Autonomous Zone (KAZ) in northern Iraq. The dilemma, though, was Turkey’s internal political situation. Although Turkey was a reliable NATO ally and very interested in removing Saddam Hussein’s destabilizing influence from the region, they feared that Kurdish participation in OIF might embolden the Kurds to renew their claims for an independent Kurdistan. The Turks’ quandary was how to join and support the coalition without causing domestic political problems.
The 10th SFG(A) was chosen to be the nucleus of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (CJSOTF-N) because (1) they were apportioned to USEUCOM and Turkey was a member of NATO and (2) 10th SFG had established relationships with the Kurds after almost 10 years of participation in Operations PROVIDE COMFORT and NORTHERN WATCH. Similarly, the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG), commanded by Col O.G. Mannon, was designated as Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-North (JSOAD-N). After more than three decades of working together during training, exercises, and contingency operations, the 10th SFG(A) and the 352nd SOG had developed a solid partnership based on mutual trust and operational success.
The original plan for CJSOTF-N, nicknamed Task Force-Viking, was to establish a special operations base in Turkey from which to launch missions into the KAZ, establish forward operating bases (FOBs) in Iraq, and then link up with the two rival Kurdish factions. One battalion of the 10th SFG would partner with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the northern half of the KAZ and the other with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the southern sector. It was a classic unconventional warfare operation – US special operations support to indigenous resistance movements supported by airpower.
Execution of the initial plan began with Col Mannon deploying to Turkey early with a team to begin the negotiations and encampment. Almost a year earlier, the Turkish government had fully intended to cooperate with potential coalition operations, at least by offering basing and overflight rights. But by New Year’s Day, Turkey’s internal politics had changed. Feeling intense domestic pressure, the Turks let it be known that they were unlikely to allow coalition operations from Turkey. They also cautioned that even if they did approve the use of their ports, roads, and bases, it would unlikely be soon enough to permit the timing needed for proper coalition force staging and preparation. Leaning forward, Special Operations Command Europe, TF-Viking and JSOAD-N began looking for alternatives. With USEUCOM’s help, Romania offered the use of Mihail Kogalniceanu (MK) AB, near Constanta on the Black Sea. A team of 30 airmen from the 352nd SOG, led by Lt Col Timothy Brown and dubbed the “Dirty-Thirty” due to the conditions of the base upon arrival, arrived at MK on St Valentine’s Day to prepare the base for future US operations, gambling that diplomatic negotiations would enable TF-Viking to infiltrate from MK by overflying Turkey. In late February, aircraft from the 352nd SOG: MC-130H Combat Talon IIs, MC-130P Combat Shadows, and MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, AC-130 gunships from the 1st SOW, plus Special Tactics teams, support units, and equipment deployed to disused conscript barracks and an off-season Black Sea hotel near MK. Unfortunately, on 1 March the Turkish Parliament voted to refuse staging from Turkey, transit through its territory, and overflight of Turkish airspace. The plan for OIF’s northern assault had to change.
The Turks’ refusal meant the 4th ID had to reposition from where it was waiting offshore outside the Turkish ports, through the Suez Canal, to Kuwait where it would eventually join V Corps in the assault from the south. The job of holding those northern Iraqi divisions in place now fell to solely Col Cleveland and the soldiers and airmen of TF-Viking. On 3 March 10th SFG deployed to MK, linking up with the Dirty-Thirty and aircraft from JSOAD-N.
USCENTCOM and TF-Viking planners were left scrambling to develop a new plan for the northern front of the war. The resulting “Plan B” called for the Kurdish Peshmerga, backed by US Special Forces (SF) and coalition airpower to keep the Iraqi divisions from moving south to Baghdad and opposing the southern assault until the coalition main effort could fight its way north from Kuwait. The 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, elements of the 10th Mountain Division and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit would later be added to TF-Viking, to increase the CJSOTF’s combat power.
On 20 March, Turkey’s parliament finally voted to allow the coalition to transit Turkish airspace for military operations in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Turkish military refused to comply. For two nights three-ship flights of MC-130Hs from the 7th Special Operations Squadron, commanded by Lt Col Mark “Mo” Alsid, launched from MK to deliver Special Forces teams to their destinations in northern Iraq. On both nights, the Combat Talons were intercepted by Turkish F-16s and told to return to base by Turkish air traffic controllers. The Turkish military was denying use of their airspace until the US agreed to allow Turkish forces into the KAZ, a condition that was completely unacceptable to both the US and the Kurdish leadership.
Meanwhile, a separate crew commanded by Maj Mark “Buck” Haberichter, was isolated from the current operations planners and tasked to develop an alternative route to get the CJSOTF into northern Iraq. The concept of operation they were given to work with was to find a circuitous route that would travel from Romania to Jordan where the force would rest overnight and the next day fly a 5-hour, night, low-level penetration of Iraqi airspace, and return along the same route. This alternate routing would take the Combat Talons through some very heavily defended airspace, not so affectionately nicknamed “Happy Valley” by Northern Watch intelligence professionals. The new routing required precise navigation just inside the Iraqi border, staying north and west of Mosul, all the while avoiding Iraqi air defenses and possible compromise by Syrian and Turkish air traffic controllers. The proposed routing added hundreds of miles to the flight route which in turn reduced the load sizes the Combat Talons could carry due to increased fuel requirements. The number of aircraft needed for the initial infiltration grew, from three airplanes to six, one of which was flown by Maj Rich Dyer’s crew from the 15th SOS. As this option was being briefed at the CJSOTF a member of Col Cleveland’s staff muttered under his breath, “That’s one ugly baby.” The name stuck and the mission has become known by this unconventional moniker.
It then became the responsibility of Col Frank J. Kisner, the commander of the Combined/Joint Special Operations Air Component (CJSOAC) to convince Maj Gen Gary Harrell, the SOCCENT commander, of the validity of the plan. As Lt Gen Kisner now tells the story,
All airpower, with the exception of SOF, was restricted from low-level operations over Iraq, and he (Harrell) knew when he took the plan forward that a low-level infiltration, from south-to-north, transiting the entire length of the western border of Iraq, would raise some questions. I reviewed the facts with him—most of which we had already been discussing: it was critical to USCENTCOM’s campaign plan to get Col Charlie Cleveland’s 10th Special Forces Group into the north to hold down the Iraqi divisions that would otherwise reinforce Baghdad; a northern infiltration was politically denied; no other air platforms were available to infiltrate 10th Group; the amount of time it would have taken the heavily laden MC-130s to climb to altitude once they started to burn off gas along their route would have left them vulnerable to small arms and anti-aircraft fire for too great a time; therefore the only reasonable, albeit high-risk option was to have the force package execute the entire infiltration at low level. Was it an audacious plan? Yes, but the crews and SOF air leadership had conducted detailed and intensive planning to reduce the risk as much as possible, and it was the only option available. I closed by recommending his approval of the infiltration plan.
The new plan was for three Combat Talons to carry elements of 2nd Battalion, 10th SFG (2/10 SFG) to Bashur LZ and the three additional Talons to transport elements of the 3rd Battalion (3/10 SFG) led by Lt Col Ken Tovo along the same route to As Sulaymaniyah LZ. A small advance force had been infiltrated by ground earlier and Air Force Special Tactics airmen from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron would set up infrared landing markings for the Talons at both locations. Almost 300 Green Berets would be inserted into northern Iraq by the six MC-130Hs taking off at pre-determined intervals and proceeding to each of the two LZs and landing with 20-minute spacing throughout the middle of the night.
As word of the approved mission was disseminated the SF teams and our loadmasters set to work adjusting load plans to accommodate new weight limitations. The SF teams were divided into split teams and redistributed among aircraft in case one of the Talons might be lost. All non-essential equipment was removed from the aircraft and the mission-equipment was planned to be floor loaded with the soldiers using snap-link harnesses to attach themselves, via their belts, directly to the floor of the aircraft. The teams packed heavy not knowing what they would encounter—each operator’s rucksack averaged just under 200 pounds. The weights were carefully calculated as every spare pound equaled another pound of fuel that could be added. This careful planning and prudent cross-loading proved prescient—there was minimal impact to the mission when one of the MC-130Hs took heavy ground fire and had to divert from its planned objective.
According to Capt Joe Gelineau, Assistant S-3 for 2/10 SFG, “The fact that the mission was going was a total relief. For two weeks we had been trying to get into Northern Iraq to link-up with our Kurdish counterparts but had been literally turned back at every attempt. Any approved route, even if it was called “ugly baby,” was very much welcomed. We just wanted to get into country and start our mission, regardless of how we go there.” Another huge consideration for the crews was fuel–we had to carry enough to make it in and out without a stop. The plan for exfiltration, after the Talons were light from offload, would be to fly to the maximum altitude possible and retrace our steps back out hoping that many of the air defense systems would not be able to reach us. Lastly, we would rely on the robust electronic countermeasures of the Combat Talons to protect us from any other threats.
On 21 March, four heavily loaded MC-130Hs from the 7th SOS departed MK to join up with two MC-130Hs and one crew from the 15th SOS at King Faisal AB, Jordan, the forward staging base. Two MC-130Ps and a conventional C-130 followed, bringing additional loads and the extra 7th SOS Talon crew since this was not yet a “wartime” mission and the max weights were not yet allowed. After landing, all crews immediately began mission planning activities lasting well into the morning as coordination now had to take place between two squadrons who had not flown together in years. The 15th SOS crew did not have the benefit of the prior day’s planning and, thus, they were playing catch-up through most of the night.
As the sun rose all of the crews completed their planning and attempted to rest in the “transient-personnel” tents during the noise and heat of the day, but were woken only hours later with the notification that the alert time had moved up and the mission was “On.” They grabbed their gear, tweaked their plans for updated weather and intel and proceeded to their aircraft. Proving the age-old aircrew adage that “no plan survives engine start” the SATCOM system on the lead aircraft malfunctioned. This aircraft was planned to carry the Airborne Mission Commander, Lt Col Pat Dean, at the time the 7th SOS Director of Operations. Without a functioning SATCOM his ability to communicate with both the formation and headquarters elements would be significantly hampered and, thus, a bump plan was executed to move Col Dean to the #3 bird before the mission was even underway. The aircraft taxied out of parking to the parallel taxiway where the troops were marshalled and performed an engine-running onload of the SF soldiers. Men, gear, and equipment were strapped down and the crews ran final checklists. Within minutes, as the sun began to set, five Combat Talons, call sign “Harley,” flying at wartime maximum allowable gross weight, lifted off in into the darkening skies of the Jordanian evening. The sixth MC-130 with the SATCOM issue now fixed launched shortly thereafter and was able to continue.
According to one of the SF team leaders, the first hour or so of the flight felt about the same as any training mission from their home base at Ft Carson, CO. Things changed, however, when over the eastern desert of Jordan the MC-130 pilots cancelled their flight plans, made their last radio call to the E-3A AWACS, and declared they were “tactical.” All aircraft lights were switched off as part of the Combat Entry Checklist and with all aircrew on night vision goggles (NVGs), each aircraft descended on their terrain-following radar into the pitch black night, preparing to blast across the border with Iraq at 250 feet above the ground at speeds nearing 300 kts.
While years of Operation NORTHERN/SOUTHERN WATCH had given our intelligence personnel fairly detailed information about the location and capabilities of Iraq’s fixed air defense and early warning systems, along with Iraqi air defense fighters, what was unknown was how well manned the border outposts were and the number and extent of mobile AAA and man-portable missile systems (MANPADS). As the Talons approached the Iraqi border, navigators and pilots focused radars, IR detection systems, and their NVG-shrouded eyes outside the aircraft searching for locations with the least build-up of people or defenses. Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs then, now called Combat Systems Officers, CSOs) armed the aircraft self-defense systems and strained over the noise of the cockpit to listen for missile warning and launch indicators. Aboard Harley 37, the EWO, Capt Robert “Opie” Horton, was spiked by an air-to-air radar and “chaffed-off” what he later believed was a US F-15. With only a select few SOF aircraft operating at low altitude the action was probably a good one to let the US pilot know he had not locked up an enemy target.
Rocketing over the Iraqi border at altitudes of 100 ft AGL and maximum speed it seemed we had been successful in not raising alarms. Navigators had easily picked out the border-sentry posts on radar miles out and routes were adjusted so as to take advantage of the gaps. For the first two hours, the six MC-130s passed unnoticed along the eastern Syrian border. This part of Iraq is sparsely settled, but we knew the tough part of the route was yet to come. With the anticipatory excitement past, crews settled into their routines. In the back of the airplanes, the SF teams were sleeping among their loads and tied-down equipment in the blacked-out cabins.
As we passed Anah, Iraq, and then headed north towards Tal Afar, the situation changed. According to Capt Jeremy Kokenes, the lead aircraft’s navigator, he and Maj Eric Elam, the EWO, began to notice horseshoe-shaped returns on their radar similar to our intelligence briefing description of “potential embedded AAA or other enemy fighting vehicles.” After a short conversation they relayed these observations to the rest of the extended-formation via secure radio. Col Dean attributed a portion of the success of the mission to the efficacy of good inflight communications.
While crossing the first belt of Iraqi defenses the first of the MC-130s took the Iraqi defenders by surprise and quickly passed by drawing only sporadic small arms gunfire. The aircrew looking outside with their NVGs could see the Iraqi soldiers clustered around burn-barrels trying to stay warm on the cold desert night. Now, with the first Talon passing by at threat-penetration altitudes just above their heads, the Iraqis were alerted and moving to their guns. TSgt Mark Peters, one of the two loadmasters strapped into the paratroop door scanning for and alerting the pilot for threats from the sides and rear of the plane, saw an Iraqi gunner under camouflage netting run to his AAA piece with a cigarette in his mouth, something that can only be seen from closer than 100 ft on NVGs.
With the following MC-130s in trailing intervals, the Iraqis were waiting but their initial targeting solutions had them aiming too high. The tracers were mostly going over the tops of the aircraft. Aggressive evasive maneuvering by the pilots avoided any serious damage. By the time the following aircraft approached, however, the Iraqis had adjusted and were ready. This time the defenders were able to place effective AAA fire against the next group of Combat Talons.
Aboard the aircraft crewed by the 15th SOS, Capt Todd Fogle, the navigator, recounts having gone through three and a half minutes of continuous AAA from multiple directions and five guys telling the pilot different things: jink-up/don’t jink-up/jink-left/etc. and with the terrain-following system squawking at us, low altitude warnings blaring, and the copilot saying, “They’ve got us,” as he saw tracer fire now coming at them but not moving from its relative position on the window. Fortunately, at that very moment they crossed over the shoreline of the Saddam Dam Lake and all was absolute calm—three and a half minutes of getting shot at, then complete peace. The flight culminated with the crew landing at Bashur and seeing coach-style tour buses ready to pick up the SF teams. It felt pretty strange to go through all that chaos and then cross a line into to what seemed like another world.
“Buck” Haberichter’s aircraft, tail number 89-0280, “The Highlander,” and call sign Harley 37, was the planned tail-end Charlie. We fully expected enemy defenses to be woken up by the time we entered the engagement zone. They opened fire on us with what we later believed to be 57 mm, 23 mm, 14.5 mm, and small arms fire. The initial engagement was from a 57mm proximity-round exploding outside the pilot’s window, which sounded like a pool-ball being thrown at the floor. We all looked at each other and then the engineer verified the pilot’s swing-window had been severely damaged by the explosion. That engagement then continued as we jinked and maneuvered the aircraft for the next four minutes. SSgt Eric Rigby, our flight engineer, reported that our number two engine had been hit and we were rapidly losing engine oil. We began the engine shutdown sequence just as we flew into a second hornet’s nest. AAA was everywhere. We began jinking again, this time on three engines, and maneuvering the plane through all dimensions. Threat calls were coming from all directions and at that moment the TF system failed, leaving us in the moonless night with no radar at 250 feet and under attack. AAA fire began to rip through the fuselage of the airplane and the smell of burning powder was evident in the cargo compartment. “Opie” Horton fought the urge to deploy preventative flares against potential MANPADS knowing they would illuminate us against the pitch back desert. In the back, the SF team leader said his men could hear the shrapnel hitting the aircraft and were just waiting for holes to start opening up in the sides of the airplane. The soldiers sat helplessly as the pilots tried to evade the firestorm and watched as bullets and shrapnel penetrated the cargo compartment.
Capt Gelineau, in the back of Harley 37, remembers hearing and feeling the effects of the enemy air defenses. The enemy gunfire sounded as if someone drove a metal rod into an industrial-sized fan…clack-ity, clack, clack, clack! He remembered seeing debris and insulation scatter inside of our MC-130’s cargo area due to the enemy gunfire. He also remembered seeing the loadmaster’s hand signal that one of the engines was dead and smelling the smoke enter the cargo compartment as the pilot repeatedly descended and ascended in order to maneuver to avoid additional enemy fire. Up front, “Buck” descended to below 100 feet AGL to try and avoid the AAA, but during that engagement a 23 mm round penetrated the skin of the aircraft forward of the right paratroop door narrowly missing the loadmaster, SSgt Dave Buss, scorching insulation, and starting a fire on the honey-bucket curtain. Buss distinctly remembers the wild rollercoaster ride of the flight going from weightlessness to not being able to move because of the 60 pounds of body armor and the survival vest he was wearing. In the opposite door SSgt Ryan “Tico” Pentico called out the dead engine to the pilot while continuing the threat calls. One Special Tactics airman later relayed to me after we landed that he flipped down his NVGs to look out a side window and then flipped them back up, not wanting to see the end which he fully expected due to the massive amounts of tracer fire.
There were a significant number of Javelin missiles and boxes of fragmentation grenades loaded in the center of the aircraft, and the soldiers knew they couldn’t be far enough away from them to be safe. The second engagement lasted almost seven minutes and I remember thinking that our training scenarios never lasted this long. Happily, the only round that struck the floor-loaded cargo went straight into a box of MREs later found squished, but entirely intact in a ham slice (we knew they hated the pork MREs). Harley 37 was hit 19 times before we got past the high-threat zone. We were badly leaking fuel and had lost the #2 engine in addition to the damage to the pilot’s side window.
By that point each of the still heavy airplane’s engines had been over-temped and over-torqued, and the entire plane had been over-G’ed with the massive load of fuel, people, equipment, and munitions we were carrying. After some quick calculations and assessment of the battle damage, we realized we could not make it to Bashur, deliver the teams, and have enough fuel to return to King Faisal AB. Knowing that leaving an aircraft on the LZ would have disrupted the entire battle plan, Buck made the hard decision to abort the infiltration and divert. Despite the Turks’ prohibition against flying through their airspace and using their bases, the best option available was to declare an emergency and head to Incirlik AB where we knew there were American maintenance and support facilities and where the 7th SOS had staged out of for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM just two years earlier.
We made an immediate left turn to the north and began to climb to clear the mountains which separate the two countries without the luxury of a terrain avoidance radar. The copilot, 1st Lt Jon Cotton, declared an emergency and was contacted by the NATO AWACS crew, callsign Magic, which was flying just north of the Iraqi border to monitor the situation. A Turkish F-16 locked us up for an intercept, but Magic directed them away as we were an aircraft in distress. The F-16 “offered” to escort us to Incirlik but our Talon’s ALQ-172 jammers were wreaking havoc on the fighter’s radars and he quickly peeled off. Buck quoting from the movie Airplane, “Have you ever spent the night in a Turkish prison,” didn’t help defuse the mood. Magic relayed our position and status to Turkish controllers who allowed us to pass.
With the next two-hours spent gingerly dodging thunderstorms and doing triage of the damage, we finally began our descent into Incirlik AB. Buck made an incredibly smooth landing. During the ground roll the loadmasters reported fuel cascading from the wings. The pilot carefully applied the aircraft brakes and avoided reverse thrust per the engineer’s direction and thus preventing fuel spray forward of three engines which could have ignited and destroyed the whole plane. Once we came to a stop Buck called for an emergency shut-down of the engines and evacuation of the aircraft. For the SF soldiers who thought the excitement was over, the adrenaline spiked again. All of the crewmembers and SF teams sprinted from the aircraft onto the grassy infield to avoid the rapidly responding fire rescue vehicles which foamed the entire area and put out barriers to collect the thousands of pounds of fuel still spilling from the wings. Our Incirlik AB hosts took us and the soldiers to a reception area and less than 24 hours later we were on a C-17 back to MK via Ramstein.
Aboard what was now the last aircraft, Maj George Thiebes, the C/3/10 SFG(A) commander, sat with his troopers in the dimly lit cargo compartment. In the midst of the engagement he looked over at his supply sergeant whose eyes looked like giant saucers. At one point, Thiebes glanced at the Air Force Direct Support Operator (DSO) monitoring friendly and enemy communications from his suite in the cargo compartment, who looked up and shrugged. Thiebes climbed over the equipment to get near the DSO and asked what was up. He replied the plane had just run out of chaff and flares. Great! After many more gut-wrenching moments Thiebes’ aircraft landed at As Sulaymaniyah and his team carefully slipped down the vomit-slickened ramp before a Kurdish Peshmerga hoard stormed the plane to assist with the offload. In a matter of minutes, the plane was empty, but accountability and redistribution took hours to sort out because of the “help.”
After landing at Bashur, the lead MC-130’s crew, assessed the ingress route, threats encountered and reported, and then discussed whether to fly an alternative low-level route home, or to fly at max altitude to avoid the now, definite small arms and AAA threat. While the 10 SFG(A) Command team, including Col Cleveland offloaded, the flight engineer calculated fuel, weight and balance, and determined that the five Combat Talons could step climb to be high enough to avoid the AAA and MANPADS threats, but it would put the aircraft in range of more capable surface-to-air-missiles. The decision was made to fly at altitude and let the EWOs and their defensive systems do their job. Each aircraft began a spiral climb to altitude over the landing zones and then continued along the return flight home. The view from these altitudes, some as high as 30,000 ft, highlighted the ongoing airstrikes on Mosul, Baghdad, and other key cities where coalition forces were smashing key targets.
As the crews crossed back into Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Combat Exit checklists were run and there were many sighs of relief and thoughts of gratitude. On a more comical note, many 7th SOS crews had never seen King Faisal Air Base at night and were somewhat unfamiliar with the taxiways, especially in poor lighting, with poor markings and on NVGs. It may or may not be true that one MC-130 that night shared a “road” with another American serviceman in a vehicle who was wondering if that was an actual C-130 he was nose-to-nose with.
That night, JSOAD-N successfully inserted 19 SF teams and 4 SF company headquarters at Bashur and As Sulaymaniyah. More importantly, though, the bold decision to take the high risk, circuitous flight caused Turkey to rethink its position on overflight of their territory. When the Turkish General Staff heard that one of the Combat Talons had almost been shot down with 37 souls onboard because of their obstinacy, they relented. This fact is often lost in the tactical retelling of the mission. On 23 March, the Turks allowed coalition aircraft to use Turkish airspace and non-combat sorties were permitted to launch from Turkish bases. The air bridge from Europe to Iraq was open and JSOAD-N landed additional missions the same night to begin the flow of replacements and supplies to the northern front.
Following the successful infiltration of over 300 SF operators and many more support personnel, the expanded task force, along with their Kurdish partners, successfully held the 13 Iraqi divisions in-place on the northern front. The combination of coalition airpower and unconventional boots on the ground proved a powerful tool in the friendly arsenal.
For the Air Commandos, they continued to fly and fight for the duration of OIF. Harley 37, tail #0280, was grounded for a couple of weeks while she underwent battle-damage repair and was eventually returned to service.
The 22 March 2003 Ugly Baby mission is likely one of the most decorated in AF history. Arguably, the mission was the longest low-level, combat infiltration by US special operations aircraft since the Second World War. In recognition of the exceptional airmanship, bravery, and professional courage displayed during the mission, the Harley flight crews were awarded a total of 32 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 13 Air Medals. The 7th SOS also received a Gallant Unit Citation for their actions during OIF and the Secretary of the Army awarded the squadron the Bronze Arrowhead device to the OIF Campaign Medal for conducting the combat assault.
About the Author: Col Cory Peterson was the navigator on Harley 37. He retired after more than 26 years of service, having flown both conventional and special operations C-130s. He was part of the joint SOF faculty at the US Army Command & General Staff College and the international SOF faculty at the NATO Special Operations School. Col Peterson’s final assignment was as the plank-holding Chief of Staff at Special Operations Command North. He remains honored to have served with the 7th SOS, “The Finest Flying Squadron in the US Air Force.”
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On the night of 21 November 1970, a little after 2 a.m., 15 aircraft, led by 7th SOS MC-130E Combat Talons, converged on the Son Tay prison located 23 miles west of Hanoi. They were supported by another 100 Air Force and Navy aircraft fulfilling various roles in Operation KINGPIN, the mission to rescue American POWs.
By the fall of 1969, there were over 500 Americans being held by the North Vietnamese as prisoners of war. The air war over North Vietnam had progressed at a blistering pace and the sophisticated air defenses had previously precluded any serious consideration of a rescue attempt. The President had imposed a bombing halt that fall and by the spring of 1970, the pent up pressure of the “no soldier left behind” tradition led Brig Gen Don Blackburn, USA, Special Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, along with Brig Gen James Allen, Director of Plans and Programs on the Air Staff, to initiate an all-out effort to rescue some of the prisoners. Lt Gen Leroy Manor led the planning and execution of this challenging and historic effort and I was proud to be a part of his great team as a planner. John Gargus’ excellent article, “Recollections of the Son Tay Raiders,” is the lead story in this issue of the Air Commando Journal honoring the skill and courage of all the participants and marking the 50th Anniversary of the Son Tay Raid.
In his first meeting with a small inter-service team of planners in the Pentagon, General Blackburn had a DIA expert on POW matters present a briefing on the known POW camps and plight of the prisoners inside them. Following that, in an impassioned statement, Blackburn said “that the planners’ task was to develop a plan to recover some of the prisoners,” and he personally ensured that “whatever it takes” to get the job done would be provided. That attitude and commitment spawned a lot of incredible out-of-the-box thinking by the entire team of planners, aircrews, and SF operators to develop the tactics and capabilities needed to give the mission the greatest possibility of success.
As history tells, we failed to rescue any of the POWs, but the operation deep into North Vietnam set in motion events that dramatically improved the lives and reversed the loss of hope that all POWs experienced while being held in captivity. One of those POWs was Air Commando, Capt Ramon Horinek from Atwood, KS, and in this issue we honor his courage and service as a Forward Air Controller and F-105 pilot flying missions over North Vietnam until his luck ran out on 23 October 1967 when he became a POW in Hanoi.
The same out of the box thinking, courage, and aerial skill exhibited by the Son Tay raiders in 1970 has transcended time and was displayed again by Air Commandos during the opening days of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in March 2003. Air Commandos from Hurlburt Field planned, coordinated, and flew multiple tough missions early in the war inserting US Special Forces into the Iraqi desert by helicopters and by MC-130s while AC-130 gunships flew top cover and interdiction missions. Our great Air Commandos from Europe planned their missions from the continent into northern Iraq, but due to an uncooperative ally air planners had to create a Plan B driving the mission into a two-night operation and testing the aircrews aerial skills and courage to deliver Special Operations Forces to their landing zones in northern Iraq, dodging heavy Iraqi AAA along the way. The long-range low-level infiltration mission led, coincidently, by aircrews from the 7th SOS would become known as the “Ugly Baby.” Their story is also presented in this issue.
As we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Son Tay Raid and last reunion for the Raiders, we also honor and remember our Air Commandos, past and present, who live up to the motto “Anytime, Anyplace” every day.
Colonel Ropka, a master navigator and special operations aircraft expert, was selected as one of the original operational planners in Washington DC. He led a small group of intelligence and operations officers for Operation KINGPIN, the raid on Son Tay prison to rescue American POWs. Colonel Ropka was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame in 1969.
I write this CV-22 Osprey introduction on the 24th of April 2020, 40 years after Operation EAGLE CLAW, the attempt to rescue 52 hostages held by the Iranians in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It is appropriate to remember those courageous special operators who risked all in this attempt. But all was not lost, for today the CV-22 and its crews and maintainers are how Air Force special operators could help make a similar operation successful.
The CV-22 was born from a joint service program in the 1970s where the basic Air Force special operations requirement was established and what would be designated the replacement for AFSOC’s MH-60 and MH-53 helicopters. Eventually only the Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps stood, and the Marines became the lead acquisition service based upon their need for greater numbers of aircraft.
Over the years that led up to delivery of training CV-22s to the 58th SOW in July 2006, and the operational aircraft to the 1st SOW in January 2007, the program experienced many fits and starts, but dedicated and visionary airmen from the Pentagon, to AFSOC and USSOCOM, and down to the 1st SOW nurtured the vision until it became a reality. During my tenure as AFSOC Commander, I was asked, to again recertify the special operations requirement for this covert infiltration/exfiltration, fast, refuelable, long-range vertical take-off and landing capability. It is no secret that I had concerns with the program. In 1991 I had my first look at the Marine MV-22 test aircraft during a refueling stop at Hurlburt Field. Later that very day, the aircraft and crew were lost on approach to Cherry Point MCAS, NC. This gave me cause to reevaluate my own views. I saw dimly a great capability, but also an aircraft with many moving parts and consequent maintainability challenges. Yet, it was the only future capability I could envision that would drastically improve the opportunity for success for a future long-range infiltration and exfiltration mission with similar Operation EAGLE CLAW requirements. I saw many growing pains with the CV-22, but as has been proven, the men and women of AFSOC have been up to the task. The CV-22 has never let us down and should an EAGLE CLAW situation ever return, the weapon system and its people are ready to make those EAGLE CLAW warriors proud. And this generation of all Air Commandos still have “THE GUTS TO TRY.”
The idea for an Air Commando Hall of Fame pre-dates the formation of our Air Commando Association. In January 1968, “Heinie” Aderholt, then my Deputy Commander for Operations at the USAF Special Air Warfare Center (SAWC), proposed the idea in order to recognize outstanding Air Commandos past, present, and future. Well, as Jim Ifland noted in a previous edition of this journal, if someone has a good idea the commander is likely going to tell you to run with it … and that was exactly what I did.
Heinie put the committee together and they received 200 nominations from Air Commando units around the world. They then created a ballot and sent those ballots back out to the units so that individuals could vote for the most deserving candidates. It was a very democratic process. In April 1969, 20 Air Commando from the Second World War through the beginning of the Vietnam War were inducted into the first Hall of Fame class. I was transferred that summer and for many reasons, including changing priorities, loss of personnel, and resource constraints, the Hall of Fame went inactive after that first class. It took 25 years, but again it was Heinie who took the initiative and resurrected his original great idea. In 1994, we started recognizing Air Commandos again in the Hall of Fame.
Because of the 25-year hiatus, there was some catching up we needed to do. For a few years we had some pretty big HoF classes, but now we’re in a good place and operating at “steady state.” A few years ago, Wayne Norrad described the new updated rules for nominating some to the HoF. He also explained why, in 2010, the ACA Board of Directors decided to limit class sizes to five per year. Theirs was a good decision and fully in keeping with what Heinie intended back in 1968, when he suggested we needed a way and a place to recognize our most outstanding Air Commandos.
Since that first class, way back when in 1969, almost 200 Air Commandos have been inducted into our Hall of Fame. All have made meaningful contributions in the service of our nation and to Air Force Special Operations. As you will read in this issue, in October your Air Commando Association inducted five more outstanding Air Commandos into these distinguished ranks. I urge you to read their stories and think about the examples they have set. They carry on our association’s proud traditions of service, achievement, and valor. Any Time, Any Place.
My first exposure to what I would come to know as an Air Commando came in 1986, when an eight-ship of Pave Low helicopters landed at my base — Hill AFB, Utah, where I was a 2LT — for an exercise. I had no idea what all those “things” hanging off the airframe were, nor did I know what these special operators did. And, these SOF Airmen weren’t very forthcoming when I asked about them. I learned nothing. But…it did pique my curiosity, and frankly, the experience absolutely convinced me beyond the shadow of a doubt that I HAD to be part of them. A year and half later, I was.
Of course, it took me years of developing my craft, tactically as a Pave Low pilot, and seasoning operationally and strategically as a senior leader in our Air Force before I appreciated the “bigger picture” of what an Air Commando is and why we are so vital to SOF, our Air Force, and our nation. We, Airmen, tend to gravitate to our machines and the various sub-cultures of our squadrons as rallying points. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this. It actually makes us a viable force on the battlefield. Still, as far as Air Commandos are concerned, there is another perspective we ought to acknowledge.
An Air Commando is a leader. She is unabashed with her perspective on mission contribution, always keeping in mind that her tactical mission will have strategic consequences. An Air Commando is a unifier. The air contribution to special operations missions…more than any other element in SOF, will require fusing disparate joint contributions together to ensure seamless synchronicity. Because SOF and Airpower (not to mention Space and Cyber) are inevitably thrust together, the Air Commando is routinely the key cog to success (and is often unheralded). Finally, an Air Commando is a quiet professional. He has a keen connection to the mission and has competence in spades. But, he is a humble warrior. Former Secretary of the Air Force, Dr Heather Wilson, coined the term “humble competence” when describing Air Commandos not long ago…I love this!
So, congratulations and thank you, ACA, for 50 years of stellar support to Air Commandos past, present, and future. What follows in the pages of this edition of the ACA journal will most certainly celebrate our past and simultaneously pave the path for Air Commandos to follow. For, while we stand on the shoulders of giants such as Phil Cochran, John Alison, Dick Cole, Heinie Aderholt, and on, and on…Air Commandos of tomorrow will marvel at, and take note of, the legendary exploits of TODAY’s Air Commandos. Because, Air Commandos, at our essence, are warrior patriots who continue to fundamentally shape our national security successes and further the blessings of liberty we hold so dear.
Reference: Air Commando Journal, Volume 8, Issue 1, July 2019, Page 37-39
By Maj Amanda Reeves, 919th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
From a non-descript building on Hurlburt Field, FL, a group of Air Force Reserve Citizen Air Commandos carry out a unique 24/7 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) mission for Air Force Special Operations Command. As part of the Air Force Reserve’s only special operations wing, the 2nd Special Operations Squadron (SOS) operates the MQ-9 Reaper in support of warfighters across the globe. Executing a unique mission for the Reserves, the 2nd SOS has overcome great obstacles and proven itself to be a lethal force on the battlefield.
Boasting a unit legacy and heritage dating back to 1917, the 2nd SOS has provided ISR to commanders and warfighters since World War I. Then, they were the US Army’s 2nd Balloon Squadron, using observation balloons over the battlefields of France to help commanders on the ground identify enemy composition, positions, and movements. Although the unit has been de- and re-activated several times in the last century, since March 2009, the 2nd SOS has delivered consistent, timely, and accurate ISR support and capabilities to the greater special operations enterprise.
In its current form, the 2nd SOS was initially activated to operate the MQ-1B Predator at Nellis AFB, NV. Five years later, in 2014, the unit was hit with two major changes simultaneously: changing platforms to operate the MQ-9, and moving to Hurlburt Field, FL. “We didn’t miss a single day of operations,” said a 2nd SOS senior intelligence officer. “What’s even better is the majority of our people chose to move with us as well. That’s rare in the Reserves.”
Indeed, most things about the 2nd SOS are rare in both the Reserves and the Air Force in general. Many traditional AF Reserve units are hindered by restraints on their manning and resources – it is often difficult to support a non-stop mission with people who are only present a total of one month per year. The 2nd SOS, however, has been blessed with a cadre of people who are dedicated to their mission and consistently go above and beyond the minimum requirements.
“Being a part of AFSOC, we’re on the leading edge of the weapon systems coming out,” said the 2nd SOS superintendent, a senior enlisted member assigned to the unit. “We’re always using the newest software and executing the newest capabilities. This requires constant training, and most of our traditional Reservists are working 120 plus days per year.”
As an AF Reserve unit, the 2nd SOS has been able to take advantage of the diversity of its Citizen Air Commandos by tapping into their varied experiences. “Our diversity makes stronger,” said Lt Col Brian Diehl, 2nd SOS commander. “It provides strategic depth, and more importantly, it makes us lethal. The mighty 2nd SOS is stitched together with seasoned Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine, National Guard, and Regular Air Force veterans. We have seen it, we have done it, and we are ready for more!”
In addition to bringing a wealth of knowledge, the 2nd SOS’s composition allows it another strategic advantage—every member of the unit is a volunteer who wants to be there and is completely dedicated to the mission. In a recent command climate survey, respondents had a 97 percent job satisfaction level, with a 94 percent commitment rate. Satisfaction levels that high are nearly unheard of in any work environment, let alone in the Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPA enterprise, which has historically been plagued by resiliency issues.
For the mission, this translates to incredible longevity and expertise in the 2nd SOS. On average, the unit’s pilots, sensor operators, and intelligence coordinators each have approximately 3,000 flying hours under their belts. In a recent ceremony, the squadron marked both its tenth anniversary since being re-activated and its achievement of 100,000 flying hours.
Maj Gen Vincent Becklund, the deputy commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, spoke at the ceremony and highlighted the squadron’s contributions to the AFSOC mission. “To be great, a unit needs three critical things: professionalism, technical proficiency, and esprit de corps,” said Becklund. “The 2nd SOS has all three in spades. You truly are a great unit.”
The 2nd SOS works around the clock to support AFSOC’s global operations. Since 2009, it has operated in every named operation in which the US has been engaged, encompassing six different areas of operation (AOR). The resulting intelligence from thousands of different targets assisted in countless raids and detentions, while also neutralizing numerous high-value individuals wishing to do the US harm.
“You are a critical part of our team,” said Gen Becklund. “I have never once heard someone say that a mission was so critical that they would rather not have the 2nd SOS handle it.”
As an integral part of the Total Force, the 2nd SOS has also supported its active duty counterparts in untraditional ways. In 2017, when its sister unit, the active duty 65th Special Operations Squadron, underwent its own move, the 2nd SOS mobilized to support the move to ensure operations did not stop. Once the move was complete, the 2nd SOS continued to provide intelligence support for nearly a full year. Additionally, the 2nd SOS runs the operations center for both the Reserve and active duty components at Hurlburt Field. Since they opened in 2014, they have never closed their doors and have maintained steady-state, 24/7/365 operations. “This unit works so seamlessly with the active duty component that I would never know you were a Reserve unit if you didn’t tell me — you’re that good,” said Gen Becklund.
That professionalism and expertise is a direct result of each member’s dedication to the mission. The squadron is comprised of a mix of full-time Active Guard Reserve positions and traditional Reservist positions. Significant system upgrades occurring every six months and the mix of full-time and part-time schedules require true personal commitment to stay proficient.
“Our traditional Reservist crew members come in, and with minimal spin-up are ready to fly any mission in any AOR,” said a senior master sergeant assigned to the unit. “It might be a new system, it might be a new AOR. It’s a really unique and challenging situation for us, but our people thrive.”
In October 2018, the 2nd SOS demonstrated just how good they are when they faced a Category 5 hurricane head-on. Projected to make landfall just 80 miles east of Hurlburt Field, Hurricane Michael was the first Cat 5 to hit Florida since 1992. The storm’s rapid change in intensity forced the 2nd SOS to act quickly, informing numerous global players of the situation, ensuring troops on the ground had the critical air support they required thousands of miles away, and keeping local crews safe from the storm’s path in Florida.
The 2nd SOS operations center remained operational throughout the storm to coordinate aircrews and missions and to maintain personnel accountability. For safety, they moved to minimum manning, and for about 48 hours, the operations center was manned by the unit’s commander, senior intelligence officer, flight operations supervisor, and senior mission intelligence coordinator.
The hurricane ride-out crews served as a hub of communication between several interested wings, squadron members and their families, and the deployed controlling agencies. In addition to command and control duties, the ride-out crew also ensured generators and air handlers operated at full capacity in order to protect the irreplaceable computer servers and equipment required to operate aircraft halfway around the world. The squadron’s leadership carefully monitored the storm’s path, weighing the decision of whether or not to evacuate. This was as close as the 2nd SOS had come to ceasing operations since it relocated to Hurlburt Field in 2014. Once the hurricane’s path shifted slightly to the east and the squadron had 100 percent accountability, the operations center returned their focus to their normal operations, recalling aircrew and flying combat missions again.
The 24/7/365 no-fail mission of the 2nd SOS persisted, despite the threat from an unpredictable hurricane, because its people believed in it and committed to uphold it. The unit’s members make those same decisions day-in and day-out, providing continuous, superior support to the nation’s warfighters on the ground.
To ensure the fast pace doesn’t take a toll on its people, the 2nd SOS works closely with its wing’s Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) representatives. They hold monthly family events for the members and take resiliency seriously from the moment each member is gained to the unit.
We address the nature of our mission in our initial interviews,” said Diehl. “Everyone who comes here knows what to expect and has decided this is what they want to do. I think that, combined with the exceptional support we receive from POTFF, is why we have such a high job satisfaction rate.”
Looking to the future, the 2nd SOS has no intention of slowing down and is eager to meet its next milestones. “Make no mistake: while looking forward, we will remain fully engaged in our current fights,” said Diehl. “We will leverage all of our experience to lead our community, not only in restoring our near peer proficiency, but in expanding the envelope of capability.”
About the Author: Maj Amanda Reeves is an Air Force Reserve public affairs officer augmenting the 919th Special Operations Wing. Prior to her role in the Reserve, she spent nine years active duty with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations and had several opportunities to support the Special Operations community in AORs across the globe.
Editor’s Note: Last names of 2nd SOS personnel are withheld for security reasons.
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“You can run, but you’ll only die tired.” Why? Because you can’t hide from the heavily armed Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Airmen of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). ISR Air Commandos out-think, out-maneuver, and out-innovate our enemies. They provide joint force commanders an amazing range of ISR options by combining critical and creative thinking, technology, artificial intelligence, and guts to enable mission success. As the former commander of the Air Force ISR Agency, and also a former AFSOC Commander, I was extremely pleased when I was asked to pen the foreword for this edition of the Air Commando Journal.
Air Force Special Operations Forces have a long history of conducting ISR missions. From armed reconnaissance on the Ho Chi Minh trail using AC-130s in Vietnam, to today’s hunting, tracking, and killing violent extremists using a multitude of unconventional fixed wing and remotely piloted aircraft, ISR has been an essential, but largely unknown, aspect of being an Air Commando. The men and women of AFSOC have created a world class distributed and networked exploitation system of sophisticated sensors and, most importantly, highly trained people who are skilled in multi-domain operations to find, fix and finish our nation’s enemies.
Today, Air Commandos are retooling and transforming the existing ISR capabilities to address the new priorities recently established in the latest National Defense Strategy. Working behind the scenes, as quiet professionals do, ISR Air Commandos are leveraging enhanced cyber and space capabilities to strengthen an already formidable capability. By fusing signal intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, Air Commandos are pushing the envelope of digital age opportunities and applying them in the air to deter and defeat adversaries. As special operations and the nature of our nation’s enemies have evolved so, too, has the special operations ISR mission.
This edition of the ACJ highlights a number of ways innovative thinking and good old Air Commando spirit have used and adapted conventional and commercial hardware to address ever-evolving SOF mission requirements. The ACJ editors have put together a series of great articles to show the readers the essence of what makes AFSOC’s ISR team work. It is definitely not the whole story, but a great introduction. I am really proud of all the ISR warriors in AFSOC who know what right looks like in the invaluable ISR business. As is always the case with Air Commandos, failure is not an option and, without a doubt, this volume drives that home.
It’s an honor to serve as your new president and introduce this Hall of Fame (HoF) issue of the Air Commando Journal. If you remember, the Air Commando Association (ACA) decided to cap the number of inductees into the HoF at five starting in 2011, but 2018 was different. Air Commando TSgt John A. Chapman, a Combat Controller, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor (MoH) by President Trump on 22 Aug 2018. This MoH was the first earned by an Airman since the Vietnam War — some 47 years ago. It was also a long time in coming, some 16 years after his heroic actions took place. With the help of technology, Chapman’s actions on Takur Ghar Mountain in Afghanistan on 4 Mar 2002, showed he was still engaging the enemy long after he was thought to be dead. The additional information led to his Air Force Cross being upgraded to the MoH. His selection into the Air Commando Hall of Fame was an easy exception to the five-person per year rule. You can read more about his extraordinary gallantry later in this version of the journal or wait and read Alone at Dawn written by Air Commando Dan Schilling and Chapman’s sister, Lori Chapman Longfritz, to be released on 25 Jun 2019.
Without much hesitation, ACA decided to celebrate Chapman’s induction separately and induct the other five selectees at another time. After all, it’s hard to compete with a Medal of Honor recipient. So, in conjunction with AFSOC’s local celebration of MSgt (posthumously promoted) John Chapman, the ACA hosted a special HoF Induction Banquet on Saturday, 27 Oct 2018, at the Emerald Coast Convention Center in Ft. Walton Beach, FL. This was the largest event ACA has sponsored, with more than 800 people in attendance, including Chapman’s widow, both of his daughters, his mother, brother, both sisters, and other family members. Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein, was the keynote speaker, with Lt Gen “Brad” Webb, AFSOC commander, providing introductory remarks. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright also attended. Thanks so much to the many corporate sponsors who helped make this such an extraordinary event. The volunteers who assisted were awesome — including active duty members contributing on their off-duty time. We couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you!
With that behind us, we still had a Reunion/Convention to put on later in the year. Back to work we went. ACA hosted a memorable Heritage Seminar at the Soundside Club on 6 Dec 2018 featuring some of AFSOC’s most talented female leaders. We honored AFSOC’s Commander’s Leadership Award winners at that breakfast event, too. At the banquet on Saturday evening, we honored the winners of ACA sponsored annual awards in special categories. Last, but certainly not least, the five 2018 Hall of Fame selectees were inducted. Please take the time to read their citations in this journal and offer your congratulations whenever you see them. The HoF is a prestigious honor with less than 200 total inductees – taking into consideration that Air Commandos have been in existence for 75 years, that’s a pretty elite group. I offer my personal congratulations to each of them. Enjoy reading the rest of the ACJ.
In 1993 Congress repealed the ban on women serving in combat aircraft. Shortly thereafter Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) led the way integrating women into all fixed wing aircrew positions. Yet, nearly a quarter of a century later, the story of AFSOC’s female Air Commandos has never been told in a cohesive, comprehensive manner that captures our vast combat experience, leadership, and significant impact on Air Commando history. This volume is an opportunity for the women of AFSOC to share a glimpse into the lives of your wives, mothers, friends, and neighbors who are proud to call themselves Air Commandos past and present.
Twenty-plus years ago when I heard the news that AFSOC was hiring, I was a junior captain at the decision point of whether or not to stay in the Air Force when my active duty service commitment expired. I thought, “This sounds like my dream job.” I made a phone call to the squadron commander of the 16th Special Operations Squadron, then Lt Col Brad Heithold , who told me, “Brenda, we’re happy to hire you into Spectre gunships, but if you want an assignment quickly give the 4th SOS a call. They’re a new airframe and trying to fill a lot of crew positions.” On his advice, I called the 4th Special Operations Squadron and spoke with Lt Col Eric Fiel who asked when I could start. Soon thereafter my orders arrived, and I checked into the 19th Special Operations Squadron for AC-130U Spooky Gunship training in September 1997.
I don’t remember exactly how many female aircrew there were when I arrived at Hurlburt Field in the late ‘90s, but I do recall there were fewer than a dozen or so that I knew of across all AFSOC aircraft. One of those was the first female AFSOC pilot, 2Lt Shelley Ripple (now Col Shelley Rodriguez). Col Rodriguez is an MC-130P/J Shadow pilot who has gone on to have a distinguished career. She recently led Air Commandos as the Operations Group Commander at the 58th Special Operations Wing. Currently she is serving at AFSOC Headquarters developing the future of AFSOC weapons systems, making Air Commandos more ready and lethal.
A couple years after my arrival I was joined in gunships by Lieutenants Tracy Onufer and Meghan English (now Col Tracy Onufer and Lt Col Meghan Ripple), both Air Commandos who share their stories in these pages. There were many more to come, both officer and enlisted, serving as aircrew, maintainers, and combat support, Air Commandos including Allison Black, Heather Bueter, Kristina Montgomery, Rachel Halvorson, Kate Hewlett, Jackie Powell, and Anna Garcia-Lucas. I am grateful to these women for sharing their stories in this edition and personifying hundreds of female Air Commandos past, present, and future.
Nevertheless, in spite of two-plus decades of women serving as Air Commandos, I still run into people who don’t realize or believe women serve in special operations. There are those who, despite our successes—including being awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses, hundreds of Air Medals, and dozens of Air Force Combat Action Medals— still doubt that when faced with the immense challenges of combat we can overcome obstacles and emerge successfully alongside our brothers in arms.
The truth is today we have women serving with distinction in all crew positions and combat support roles. The Air Commandos in these pages represent some of our nation’s top talent, contributing diversity of thought, perspectives, and skills to AFSOC. We have fought in every combat contingency since Operation ALLIED FORCE (1999). We are patriots who have a deep desire to serve our nation, defend our Constitution and support our allies at all costs. Some have paid the ultimate sacrifice, including women such as SSgt Anissa Shero.
We’ve turned to each other along the way, both deployed and at home, forming bonds of friendship and family. We’ve also enjoyed tremendous support from many of our male counterparts and leadership who have trained with us, deployed in combat with us, and developed us into AFSOC leaders. Across our joint SOF world, many of us have a story of being ‘by name requested’ by a SEAL or Special Forces team going to the ‘X’ to be the crewmembers of choice on particularly tough missions.
While these pages highlight our history and our Air Commando experience today, this edition is also a call to the future. The next generation of girls and boys who want to be Air Commandos is out there. We want them to know the hangar doors are wide open for them to join the proud women and men of Air Force Special Operations Command.
My thanks to the Air Commando Association for the opportunity to be a part of this edition, and a very special thanks to Col (Ret) Dennis Barnett for giving me the great honor of penning this Foreword and ensuring that we capture the rich history of all Air Commandos, anywhere, anytime, any place.
It has been over four decades since a little-known battle occurred in the Gulf of Thailand, in the shadow of America’s most unpopular war–Vietnam. In May 1975, Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboats seized the US container ship, SS Mayaguez, in international waters. President Ford made the decision to mount a joint military operation to recover the ship and rescue the crew. I was Don Backlund’s copilot on Jolly Green 11, a Rescue HH-53C Super Jolly Green Giant. As such, for 14.7 hours I had a front row seat to the extraordinary heroism and selfless dedication of all who put themselves in harm’s way that day. Collectively, we relearned hard lessons from the World War II Pacific Campaign as to the extreme difficulty in assaulting heavily defended islands. As a side note, the helicopter Backlund and I flew during Operation EAGLE PULL, the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and again on May 15th, 68-10364, was converted to an MH-53J Pave Low during the mid-1980s. That same aircraft was also the one I flew as the 20th SOS commander 14 years later, in 1989, during Operation JUST CAUSE. It was a true “warhorse.” MH-53M, 68-10928, now in the Memorial Air Park at Hurlburt Field, was a CH-53, Knife 22, flown by Terry Ohlemeier during the Mayaguez Incident.
This edition of the Air Commando Journal keeps alive the memory of those Airmen, Marines, and Sailors who, without question, said, “Send me” when communist Khmer Rouge fighters seized the ship. Between the front and back covers you will find articles that give the history, but more importantly the personal perspectives of those who flew and fought that day. Many of the captains, lieutenants, and young NCOs from the 21st SOS, 40th ARRS, and 16th SOS would go on to form the nucleus of what became Air Force Special Operations Command. Their experiences shaped who we became as Air Commandos, serving at the leading edge of America’s efforts to defend itself against those who seek to harm our nation.
The Mayaguez story is also one about the danger of ad hoc joint special operations and the lessons we did not learn before Operation EAGLE CLAW (Desert One) and the creation of US Special Operations Command. Though the battle at Koh Tang island is now almost “ancient history,” what happened in 1975 offers lessons that modern Air Commandos can and should learn. They illustrate the value of clear command and control, communications, joint mission planning, teamwork, interoperability, and comprehensive intelligence—all of which we now take for granted but were not common practices then.
So, I invite you to read and enjoy another excellent and important edition of the ACJ.
After serving 10 years on the Hall of Fame (HoF) Committee I decided to resign last year. I had served long enough and wanted to give someone else the opportunity. ACA President Dennis Barnett asked me to write the foreword for this edition of the Journal and to talk about my experience serving on the HoF Committee.
I was truly honored when asked to serve and also excited to be able to read about so many great Air Commandos. After serving on the committee for several years, Col (ret) Jim Ifland, the HoF Committee Secretary, asked if I’d consider serving in that position. I accepted. Jim and I had a meeting where he graciously passed on his wisdom, insight and files.
As secretary, I started making suggestions to improve the process and format. I suggested limiting the number of inductees to five in any year, making those still serving and those recently retired or separated ineligible for three years, limiting the package narrative to three pages, and revising the HoF Form. Shannon, Melissa, Jeanette, and I tried to make the process better and more convenient for nominators and committee members. For example, most packages are now received electronically, and all are forwarded electronically to the voting members to read, screen, and vote on at their leisure.
Maj Gen (ret) Norm Brozenick, the HoF Chairman, asked Jeanette and I to update the changes on the web site. We developed “Word” and “PDF” documents that allow nominators to fill out the HoF nomination form, narrative, and citation online in the specified font, format, and page length. We believe the changes improved the process and made it more user friendly.
Currently serving with Chairman Brozenick is Secretary CMSgt (ret) Mike Ramos with other voting members: Col (ret) Tom Bradley, Col (ret) Steve Connelly, Col (ret) Jim Connors, CMSgt (ret) Rick Crutchfield, and CMSgt (ret) Bill Turner. These committee members take their responsibility seriously and serve with the utmost integrity.
Just when I thought my involvement was over, Jeanette came up with the idea of having a HoF logo. She asked for my input and we went to work creating one. MSgt (ret) “Tazz” Felde, a former graphics artist, helped me design the 25th Anniversary of AFSOC coin. So, I went back to my friend and asked for his help. Tazz drew up the design and we presented it to President Barnett who gave it his stamp of approval. It went into effect immediately and was used on the citations and name tags for the 2017 inductees. That is the new logo you now see at the bottom of this foreword.
During the past three years I’ve been encouraged by the diversity of inductees. You don’t have to be a general, colonel, or a chief master sergeant to be considered. Three Lt Cols and three MSgts have been inducted. Career field diversity is encouraging too, with the selection of a maintenance officer, maintenance NCO, and for the first time, pararescuemen.
Oh, I can’t close without mentioning my latest suggestion. Let’s present new inductees with a sports coat, like the green jacket at the Masters golf tournament. What do you think? Okay, I’m really done with the HoF. Over and out!
The spring of 1999 saw multiple AFSOC units come together once again in support of a major combat operation – Operation ALLIED FORCE (OAF) – the air war over Kosovo.
After deploying to points short of Italy in late February, but recalled after the diplomats thought they had resolved the situation in the Balkans, special operations forces from the States joined their European counterparts and descended on Brindisi in late March and quickly spun up for war.
Crews operating Gunships, Combat Talons, Combat Shadows, Pave Lows, Pave Hawks, and Commando SOLO, and Special Tactics teams planned together at San Vito del Normanni Air Station, Italy. The JSOAC was led by Col John Zahrt and Col Jerry Garlington and, in my opinion, performed as an extremely well-oiled machine. The main effort early on was focused on combat search and rescue in support of the Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC). Once again, a special operations force (SOF) that was not specifically organized, trained, or equipped for the CSAR mission set was called upon to deliver in a time of need because Air Combat Command’s rescue units did not yet have the right equipment to safely and effectively accomplish the mission. SOF taskings eventually expanded to precision strike ops, leaflet drops, and humanitarian relief operations later in the conflict.
This edition of Air Commando Journal highlights the contributions of AFSOC in OAF to include the AC-130U’s first taste of combat and two successful rescues of fighter pilots who were shot down in Serbia. The first shoot-down and rescue of a F-117 stealth fighter pilot happened very early in the conflict and was an extremely traumatic event for the Air Force. The aircraft was advertised as undetectable by radar and no one could believe it had really been shot down. This rescue was so strategically important to the United States that President Bill Clinton called the crew directly after the mission and personally thanked them for “saving his ass.” It was another great demonstration of the flexibility Air Commandos bring to the fight and I was extremely proud to play a small part in the overall effort.
Support of the air war in the Balkans was the last hurrah for the 55th Special Operations Squadron which closed shortly after returning home. As the CV-22 Osprey became a reality, the 55th was the first bill payer in exchange for this new tilt-rotor capability – capability that is proving itself everyday in combat operations downrange supporting the joint warfighter. Now that all the helicopters are gone from AFSOC, it seems strange looking out to the flight line at Hurlburt Field or any other base where our assets operate and not seeing a UH-1N, MH-53, MH-60, or even an Mi-17 in the pattern. But time moves on and so does AFSOC in advancing the combat power it delivers to battlefields around the world.
Please enjoy the pages within this edition and another walk down memory lane. My hat is off to all Air Commandos past, present, and future who live at the pointy end of the spear leading and executing to perfection whatever mission they may be tasked with.
Initial qualification or “pipeline” training (IQT) for aircrews has been a multi-generation debate for Air Commandos. Arguments usually center on three main dichotomies: 1) should aircrew IQT be organic to AFSOC or should the task belong to Air Education and Training Command (AETC), 2) should AFSOC isolate aircraft as dedicated training platforms or should operational and training units share a single set of mission aircraft, and 3) how much training should be conducted in-flight versus in the simulator? Each of these choices has their pros and cons depending on the perspectives of the units, staffs, and headquarters. The solutions usually come down to human and equipment resourcing, which there is rarely enough of to allow AFSOC to fully separate training from operations.
Like many, I spent much of my “youth” opposed to AETC owning the AFSOC formal training pipeline because I thought AFSOC knew best how to train its own. And, I also wanted to stay operational. Later, I was assigned to the 550th SOS and quickly understood why formal aircrew training was conducted by AETC, separated from the commitments of operations. That perspective was strengthened when I became the 1st SOG deputy commander and experienced the challenges of supporting initial training while also maintaining the group’s operational focus. Training suffered whenever operations required the SOG to deploy those highly qualified instructors and scarce mission aircraft. The AFSOC and AETC teams have always done their best to share available resources, but when the nation calls, operations are the priority. That experience reinforced my belief that it is usually better to let the training professionals focus on the pipeline while operational units concentrate on operations; rarely should the two be mixed.
Which brings us to the last point—how much training should be conducted in-flight versus simulator? This is a real challenge and as you will see in the article from the 58th SOW, the Air Commandos of AETC seem to have found the right balance point. This issue of the Air Commando Journal offers a collection of great features describing the diverse array of innovative, challenging, and impressive training and education programs that are turning Airmen into Air Commandos—mission focused, adaptive, resilient, and relevant for an ever-changing world. The Air Force Special Operations Air Warfare Center and the USAF Special Operations School (USAFSOS) are driving the future of AFSOC education and training through programs like Air Commando Development, an effort to prepare special operations Airmen for leadership roles in a very uncertain world. The Joint Special Operations University, which got its start at Hurlburt Field as an outgrowth of USAFSOS, is shaping a new era of joint SOF education. It is an exciting time for Air Commando training and education and the Journal is pleased it can help tell that story.
“Just doing our jobs.” That’s how the newest members of the Air Commando Hall of Fame described their contributions to the mission and people of special operations during the ACA awards banquet on October 15.
After carefully reviewing every nomination package last August, the Hall of Fame Committee unanimously recommended five Air Commandos for induction. With the unanimous approval of the Board of Directors, these warriors once again stepped into history, this time as members of the Air Commando Hall of Fame, Class of 2016.
Two pararescuemen, a maintainer, and two aircrew members “doing their jobs,” executing no-fail operations under the most demanding circumstances. Together, the Class of 2016 is responsible for contributions defining our special operations history in Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Liberia, Panama, Somalia, and Zaire, as well as in undisclosed locations. Countless objectives achieved, enemies destroyed, and lives saved. Leaders to a man, this class includes a teammate awarded the Air Force Cross and a Purple Heart, and another awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
These five Air Commandos continue impacting our mission and people years after retiring from uniformed service. Our nation’s most elite forces are expertly supported by the development, testing, and fielding of new personnel recovery capabilities. A fully modernized, capable, and accredited Air Force training and rehearsal center graduates the world’s most capable SOF aircrews. The John Groves School in Honduras remains open to care for disadvantaged children. And the next generation of Air Commandos fully embraces a heritage shared by teammates past, present, and future.
There’s just one thing left to say to the Class of 2016’s John Easley, Scott Fales, Randy O’Boyle, Ray Turczynski, and Tim Wilkinson. From all of us across the ranks, thank you teammates, and a “job well done!”
The phone finally rang. I grabbed it and heard the code word I had been waiting for hours to hear. We had secure telephones but I hadn’t wanted to wait for the keying process so a code word had been established to clear us to launch. “Blow Job.” Timing was critical so I told the small staff around me, “We have a go,” and jumped into my car and headed for the flight line. Crews were already at the helos ready to go but had not started engines because fuel was so critical. I first went to the Air Force guys because their engine start-up process was longer. “We have a go!” I yelled over the roar of the auxiliary power units. Their commander said, “Holy shit, we are really going to do it.” Next I told the Army guys, “We have clearance to launch.” Their commander smiled and headed for his waiting Apache crews. Finally, after all those months of waiting we were going to kick Saddam Hussein’s ass. Within that same hour I sat at the end of the runway and listened as our birds and crews flew overhead. They were completely blacked out and with no moon they were completely invisible. I couldn’t help but worry for their safety but at the same time I was so proud that Special Operations had been selected to fire the first shots to start the Gulf War. As the last sounds of freedom disappeared in the distance I started the car up and headed back to the Saudi Arabian jail we called headquarters and did one of the hardest things a commander ever does. Wait for some word about how things are going.
DESERT STORM had come quickly on the heels of Operation JUST CAUSE and was a real test to our command. Not only did the 1st Special Operations Wing deploy nearly all of our assets and people to the far corner of the earth, we went to a completely bare base in deplorable conditions. I was in awe of the guts and determination I saw at every level. Maintainers worked in conditions so hot that they had to use gloves to hold the hot wrenches. Tents were erected at night to help negate the effects of the heat but night brought new challenges including spiders, scorpions, and mountains of debris that had to be cleared before a tent could be erected. Still our people prevailed and even made a competition out of it, seeing which team could assemble the most tents in one night.
Dust, stifling heat, and darkness unlike anything we had ever seen were the norm. Despite those conditions our crews flew incredibly demanding missions and excelled. Unfortunately, combat sometimes results in loss of life. The loss of Spirit 03 hit us all hard and will be with us always. They died as heroes doing what they were trained to do but we will never forget them and wish with all our being that they were with us today.
I have always been proud to be an American but during Operation DESERT STORM it was so obvious what made us a great nation. The perseverance, ingenuity, and the SOF ethos from initial deployment through final execution was simply phenomenal. Our nation could have asked for nothing more from the “Great American Air Commandos” deployed in Operation DESERT STORM. Please enjoy this edition of Air Commando Journal that highlights some of their incredible teamwork and accomplishments.
It is our special privilege to introduce this ACJ issue featuring AFSOC’s Combat Aviation Advisors. Comprised of articles written by former and current “CAA,” this issue reflects the capability, credibility, and faithfulness of the quiet professionals entrusted with the aviation advisory mission. We hope it provides realistic context and increased clarity regarding CAA and their mission.
Since the stand-up of the 6th Special Operations Squadron in 1994, all officer and enlisted CAA undergo qualification training together. A team-building experience, qualification training tests core values and personal attributes like integrity, excellence, selflessness, accountability, and courage. Tactical scenarios develop skills necessary to operate with confidence while teaming with joint, interagency, and foreign counterparts. Education inspires a personal commitment to master the cultural, political, regional, and language skills required of an effective advisor. Upon graduation, most advisors are assigned to the CAA’s primary weapon system – the team!
The CAA team is a multidisciplinary weapon system deployed to accomplish the mission in a specified area of operations. Whether conducting combat advisory operations in a remote location or a strategic airpower assessment in a national capital, CAA are individually and collectively expected to know “what right looks like” and possess the courage to do the right thing. Team members are placed in positions of trust and confidence, often with placement and access to senior foreign military and civilian authorities. They are fundamentally responsible for building relationships, and transitioning them into networked partnerships that accomplish shared security objectives.
The classic tactical mission is to train, advise, and assist aviation forces of friendly governments. CAA teams are task tailored to help foreign counterparts develop, sustain, and employ specialized airpower in special operations roles within irregular warfare environments. At the operational level, CAA create and operate command and control capabilities that integrate and orient foreign aviation forces to achieve assigned objectives with special operations counterparts.
Tactical actors on a strategic stage, CAA practice the art of the long view. Although short-term advancements in foreign aviation capabilities occur, CAA understand that meaningful, lasting progress is years in the making. Success can be masked by changes in politics and policy, and is rightfully veiled by the SOF ethos of ensuring foreign counterparts get the credit. It suffices to say that when the United States achieves a security objective by, with, and through the actions of a friendly government, and those actions were made possible in part by a CAA team, then the team has accomplished its mission.
To all AFSOF advisors, past and present, thank you for developing the relationships, partnerships, and capabilities with friendly nations that quietly helped ensure our freedom. We deeply appreciate your many personal sacrifices and those of your families. And to all those who lost an advisor in training or combat, please know their spirit lives on in the current generation of Combat Aviation Advisors.
Norman J. Brozenick Jr., Maj Gen, USAF (Ret) Former AFSOC Vice Commander CAA #127
Tom Phillips, CMSgt, USAF (Ret) CAA #79
I am very pleased to offer a foreword to this issue of the Air Commando Journal (ACJ). After finishing a total of seven years as Vice-President, President, and Chairman of the ACA, I believe the single most important achievement during that time has been the publication of the ACJ. I’ll put its quality and content up against any institutional publication. Since September 2011, the past four years have seen the Journal cover heritage stories along with contemporary matters of interest to all Air Commandos, past and present.
This issue is no different, and the stories behind the five new inductees to the Air Commando Hall of Fame fit in perfectly. The Air Commando warrior spirit and no fail credo described herein demonstrate why our fame and importance to the nation continue to grow.
It is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce readers to this 14th issue of the Air Commando Journal. To all of our Air Commandos out there…past, present and future, thank you so much for what you do and who you are. In this issue, we pay special tribute to the men and women who maintained, operated and supported the MC-130P Combat Shadow and its crucial mission. The MC-130P recently retired its last tail number and it’s only fitting we highlight this incredible workhorse to our Air Commando Journal followers and readers.
While the beloved MC-130P airframe was tired and worn well beyond her years, we couldn’t have been more blessed to operate and maintain such a reliable and sturdy platform. I have really put some deep thought into this and I am sure most of you will agree…..what really made this aircraft and its mission so successful was its people. The most important aspect of any AF weapon system is people.
I often talk about grit, determination, toughness, relentlessness, tenacity and skill when I refer to the character of an Air Commando. Other exceptional qualities we have come to expect in Air Commandos are teamwork, humility, pride, loyalty and a steadfast commitment to the mission. During my time as an MC-130P Flight Engineer, I was introduced to these key traits from the entire Shadow Community and it was demonstrated day in and day out. You would never hear us say it, but the joint partners we worked with and supported still talk about it to this day. We were just doing what we do and getting the mission done.
For Combat Shadow Airmen who built the platform and performed the mission, it was never about the glory or a decoration on your chest, it was always about the supported unit, the customer and each other. It was about being on-time and on-target every time with hoses out, ready for anything, anytime and anyplace. I am certain that this was the source of the bonds we share today after many years in combat and generations of Airmen growing up in this incredible family.
I know each of you will find similarities in the articles in this issue and your own AFSOC platform and experience. For it is that overall sense of Air Commando pride and sense of history and culture that comes out in everything we do, regardless of the weapon system we maintain or operate. I trust you will find this issue a good read and one that helps all of us appreciate one another for what we bring to make AFSOC America’s specialized air power.
It is my pleasure to introduce our readers to this 13th issue of the Air Commando Journal. Presented here are stories of little known special operations, principally in Southeast Asia (SEA), as we focus this quarter on air commandos in Indochina.
Although the Vietnam War is almost “ancient history” for most Americans, this long war saw a great expansion of air commando organizations and capabilities in South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, along with similar growth in the US, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. These seven stories give one a good sense of the range and scope of operations from which our modern AFSOC forces have evolved.
It is true that the Eagle Claw (Desert One) disaster in 1980 was the catalyst that kicked off the resurgence of US special operations capabilities. But the air commandos of the 1960s and ‘70s provided a sizeable foundation for today’s special operations air forces. At the height of the war in SEA, USAF air commando strength reached nearly 100,000 men and women, organized into 5 wings and with numerous smaller units deployed around the world. The articles in this issue of ACJ were written by men who at the time, were at “the tip of the spear.”
Their stories cover a wide range of air commando activities, beginning with Project Jungle Jim in 1961, which restored our modern USAF special operations force. Look for articles in upcoming issues that talk about Air Force SOF in another “forgotten” war, Korea, and how the capabilities and spirit of the air commandos were kept alive during the 1950s. We also promise articles on the US Army Air Forces “Carpetbaggers” from the Second World War and how those airmen pioneered air commando operations.
Always controversial in the all-jet US Air Force, air commandos again find themselves at the center of a classic conventional vs. unconventional capabilities debate—similar to the quality vs. quantity issue air forces have faced after every conflict since the end of the First World War. That debate continues today as our nation looks beyond over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. My crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s, but every indication seems to be that air commandos and USAF SOF will continue to be key to our nation’s future security.
These articles offer insight into aspects of the war/post-war and quality vs. quantity debate, and how earlier air commandos “played the hands they had been dealt.” Things are changing, but the good news is that the leadership is working hard to create the optimum force mix—mobility, ISR, strike, and air-ground integration, plus active, Reserve, and Guard forces, to ensure the current and future air commandos are in the best position to deal with the unknown challenges that will undoubtedly come our way. It probably won’t be easy, but there is much to be optimistic about.
I trust you will find this issue to be a good read—I did. And as always, we welcome your comments and recommendations to improve our association and our journal.
Any Time, Any Place.
The history and evolution of the Hall of Fame are interesting — and at times, controversial. The concept was started by recognizing a Founder’s Group of nine individuals that included the famous co-commanders of Project 9, (later officially designated as the 1st Air Commando Group) Philip Cochran and John Alison. In 1969, the Air Commando Association was founded by Brig. Gen Robert Cardenas and then Col Harry C. “Heinie” Aderholt. Leaders of the ACA decided to establish an Air Commando Hall of Fame (HoF) to recognize the outstanding contributions of Air Force commandos. There were 20 selected into the inaugural class. Some of the more familiar inductees included “Jumping” Joe Kittinger, “Hap” Lutz, Charlie Jones and “Heinie” Aderholt. Evidently it caused some controversy because it was another 25 years, in 1994, that the ACA resurrected the HoF and selected 32 more – presumably to “catch-up for lost years.” The following year, another 17 members were inducted. For the next 14 years, from 1996 to 2010, the number of selectees varied from none in 2006 and 2009 to 11 in 2000.
It is my opinion the process was ad hoc at best with the “good ol’ boy” network often having too much power and influence in deciding who was selected. Eventually, ACA leaders appointed a Hall of Fame Committee. They were asked to develop guidelines and procedures, cast their votes, and forward their recommendations to the Board of Directors who had final approval authority. As with any process, adjustments were made over the years. For example, new rules now state that nominees must have been assigned to Air Force Special Operations for at least three years and must be separated or retired from the Air Force for at least three years.
Following the ACA Annual Convention Banquet in 2010, the HoF Committee recommended a limit on the number of annual inductees. The previous year, ten inductees just seemed too many to properly honor each Hall of Famer. The Board of Directors agreed with that rationale and set the limit to no more than five. Last year was perfect. Each of the five inductees was presented their HoF plaque at the ACA Annual Convention Banquet while their citation was read, and each delivered a brief acceptance speech. The positive response from the audience, for each and every inductee, was overwhelming – as it should be!
I consider it a privilege to be on the HoF Committee and take this responsibility very seriously, as do the other committee members: Chairman Lt Gen (Ret) Mike Wooley, Col (Ret) Steve Connelly, Col (Ret) Jim Connors, Col (Ret) Dave Mobley, CMSAF #9 (Ret) Jim Binnicker, and CMSgt (Ret) Lamar Doster.
What do we look for during the evaluation process? We look at the whole person concept to include levels of responsibility held, major development of weapons systems or changes to tactics, techniques and procedures, total years served in special operations, deployments in harm’s way, significant awards and decorations, involvement in fraternal organizations, charities, assistance to our wounded warriors or support for the families of our fallen. We are not just looking to induct heroes. We look at those who made significant contributions to special operations while serving on active duty and have continued to contribute in civilian life. I highly recommend visiting the ACA website (www.aircommando.org) to read the list of Hall of Famers, and also consider submitting a package on a deserving Air Commando for induction in 2015.
The HoF is comprised of an elite group. Of the thousands of Air Commandos who have served in special operations over the past 70+ years, only 170 (117 officers and 53 enlisted) are in the Hall of Fame. Gen Duane H. Cassidy, former Commander-in-Chief, US Transportation Command and Military Airlift Command, once told me “Elite means…few; too many means…average.” “Average” does not have a place in special operations or in the Air Commando Hall of Fame.
Operation Just Cause in Panama was the first major joint special operation since the establishment of the United States Special Operation Command in 1987. At the time, 23rd Air Force was a subordinate operational command under Military Airlift Command (now Air Mobility Command) and was also designated the air component of USSOCOM—Air Force Special Operations Command. Preparations to help Panama rid itself of the dictator, Manuel Noriega, had been going on for over six months. That plan, Blue Spoon, envisioned a slow build up of forces in Panama with military action triggered by an event precipitated by Noriega.
When Gen Max Thurmond assumed command of USSOUTHCOM, this strategy changed to a very rapid intervention in Panama. The planners determined that USSOCOM and the Air Commandos of AFSOC offered the only reasonable means of achieving the surprise necessary to depose Noriega and ensure the safety of the thousands of American civilians living and working in the Canal Zone.
When a group of Noriega’s Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) troops harassed four American officers, fatally wounding one, and after another PDF unit abused a US Navy Lieutenant and his wife, President George H.W. Bush had sufficient justification to order the intervention. The President directed Just Cause commence at 0100 hrs on 20 Dec 1989. The plan called for taking down 27 key targets within 15 minutes of H-hour. Air Commandos, along with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and Military Airlift Command Special Operations C-130s, C-5s, and C-141s inserted the Joint Special Operations Task Force.
As you will read in this edition of Air Commando Journal, there were some very key events that occurred during Just Cause. One was the infiltration into Panama of over 200 special operations and conventional forces aircraft into Panama without detection by Cuban radar. Another was the rescue of Mr Kurt Muse from the Carselo Modelo Prison, during which two AC-130 gunships successfully destroyed the PDF headquarter across the street from the prison. AC-130s also blocked the PDF’s “Battalion 2000” from entering the fight at the Pacora River Bridge. Operation Just Cause also saw the first limpet mine attack since World War II by the US Navy’s SEALs, against two of Noriega’s yachts. SOF and conventional forces combined to seize two airfields: Rio Hato and Torrijos-Tocumen. Jerry Thigpen provides a stirring account of how the 8th SOS established a forward area refueling and re-arming point at Rio Hato airport, in the middle of a tough fire fight. And finally, how the Special Forces employed the “Ma Bell” concept to exploit their overwhelming advantage in air power by telephoning PDF units who were resisting to look up at the AC-130 circling overhead. The SF advised the PDF commander to have his soldiers stack arms and form up for their surrender to Special Forces soldiers.
Operation Just Cause put USSOCOM and AFSOC on the map, eventually leading to AFSOC becoming an Air Force major command equal to ACC and AMC. Just Cause was also the harbinger of the continual string of successful operations through the 1990s—in the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia…all the way to 9/11 and the last decade and a half of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world. The lieutenants, captains, and majors who earned their spurs during Just Cause are today’s Air Commando leaders.
In August 1967, Capt James Krause (Deceased), Capt James Wolverton (Deceased), Wing Commander Thomas Pinkerton, RAF (Deceased) and yours truly gathered around a drafting table along with design draftsmen and engineers of the Flight Test Modification Shops of the Aeronautical Systems Division, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, OH. Jim Wolverton and I had just recently returned from Los Angeles, where we were assisting in a special study on Counter-insurgency conducted by the late Maj Gen Gordon P. Seville. The study was chartered by Gen Bernard Shriver, Commanding General of the Air Force Systems Command. Jim Krause (the father of Forward Looking Infrared [FLIR] in the Air Force) had just completed test of our earliest FLIR Sensor and Tom Pinkerton had built our first analog fire control computer. We laid out the design and integration plan of what was to be designated the Gunship II Modification Program. The modification was accomplished on one of the original three C-130 prototypes made available to us. The installation included 4-20mm Gatling guns, 4-7.62mm Gatling guns, FLIR, NOD (Night Observation Device), Beacon Tracking Radar, and the analog computer tying it all together. By this time, the AC-47 which we began deploying three years earlier in Vietnam had achieved an amazing combat record and was in high demand for close support and armed reconnaissance. Our hope was to take this capability to an even higher level of effectiveness and safety for the crews. This hope, which has been fulfilled a thousand times over, is now a matter of record.
The articles in this historic Air Commando Journal, on occasion of the retirement of the last of the AC-130H aircraft, describe some of this outstanding record. I am honored to have the opportunity to both congratulate and thank all those who have flown, maintained and provided the logistical support for the: AC-130A, AC-119G, AC-119K and the AC-130 E, H, and U model gunships, over these past six decades. Winston Churchill said of the RAF, “Never have so many owed so much to so few.” I think the same could well be said of those who flew and supported the AC-47, AC-119 and the AC-130 Gunships. Thank you, and thank you, and thank you ….. JOB WELL DONE!!!
Over two years ago the ACA started publishing the Air Commando Journal (ACJ) aimed at being a quarterly professional magazine to feature Air Commandos past, present and future. This is the ninth issue.
We have been delighted to receive numerous plaudits literally from around the globe. And we hope to continue this pursuit of excellence with the help of our contributors, volunteers and the financial support of our advertisers.
I want to single out special praise due our two staff members that work hard on the ACJ – Jeanette Moore, graphic design and composition, and Shannon Pressley, advertising and sponsorship. Without these ladies we would be sunk!
We have several volunteers who are very important in publishing ACJ. They include “cold eyes” reviews by Rick Newton, Scott McIntosh, Pete Riley, and Darrel Whitcomb and relevant stories by Air Commandos who actually participated in the operations described.
It is also sent to all congressional offices and numerous places in the Pentagon as well as being posted electronically on our web site (www.aircommando.org)
While handing out kudos I want to give special recognition to Col (Ret) Dennis Barnett, our President, the editor and driving force behind the ACJ. And a special shout out to Gen (Ret.) T. Michael Moseley, USAF, 18th Chief of Staff, who is ACA’s policy and financial advisor and responsible for developing a number of our advertisers.
Needless to say I am very proud of the ACJ and hope for many more years of excellence. However we need assistance in the form of commercial sponsors, advertisers and donations to ensure a long life for YOUR Journal. All who can-please help us!
Please enjoy this latest Air Commando Journal.
Any Time, Any Place!
There are many Talon operators who are better equipped to pen an introduction to this issue of the Air Commando Journal. But, the editor was kind enough to approach me and of course I enthusiastically agreed to prepare this brief narrative. Allow me to assert at the outset that my service in our Air Force was profoundly influenced by that initial operational and four follow-on supervisory tours in the Special Operations community. Let no one suggest otherwise: had I not experienced the intensity of the mission, associated with an array of remarkable joint teammates, and earned a reputation as being a “SOF warrior,” I would never have had the opportunities to lead in our Air Force that I ultimately enjoyed.
I arrived at Hurlburt for Talon School in the fall of 1980 in the immediate aftermath of Honey Badger. I arrived as a reasonably well qualified C-130 tactical pilot. I knew the airplane (or so I thought) and basic airdrop tactics. How hard could this be? Well, it was hard as Bob Brenci, Jim Hobson or Jerry Uttaro can attest. The leadership of the 8th SOS accepted me, with some deserved reservations of course. The Talon business has always been a “show me” activity. At that time and hopefully for all time, performance trumped other considerations…but these notable Talon leaders and marvelous squadron-mates gave me a chance: Lee Hess, Tom Bradley, Ray Turczynski, Bob Meller, George Ferkes, Jerry Thigpen, Sam Galloway, Thom Beres, Bob Almanzar, Buff Underwood, Ray Doyle and Taco Sanchez among a number of others. How important it was to me not to disappoint them in any way.
I checked out and ultimately was assigned to Jerry Uttaro’s crew…one of just five in those days. Jerry was also the crew commander for the initial mission and follow-on Credible Sport II effort to evaluate short take-off and landing and related avionics technologies that had matured under the earlier classified program, undertaken following the American Hostage rescue attempt in Iran. Ultimately, the leadership of that crew passed to me, with Sam Galloway, Chris Armstrong, Mike Dredla, Tom Daignault, Dee Newberry, Ken Bancroft and Dave Metherell and others as teammates.
The Credible Sport II crew worked for many months together at the Lockheed Marietta plant, evaluating and documenting those aspects of the Credible Sport I aircraft that should be incorporated in the then newly conceived Combat Talon II aircraft development program. Self-contained approach avionics was one such capability. I will never forget a Friday night sortie in the Sport aircraft inbound to Field 6 at 80 knots when all the instrumentation in the aircraft was “wired,” but looking outside on PVS-5s I apparently mumbled to myself: “This Doesn’t Look Good”. Had we followed the internal approach guidance we would have landed well short. The moral of the story was that good instincts in the special operations aircraft cockpit will always be essential to managing the inherent risks of and accomplishing that very demanding (and rewarding) special operations aviation mission.
It is with genuine humility that I now defer to the authors of the accounts of Talon history you truly wish to read. I just close this introduction by expressing appreciation to all the Talon crews over the years, our “Heavy” program predecessors, those in each of the Talon squadrons (notwithstanding the focus on the 8th SOS above), and those who lost their lives (and in some cases their careers) in pursuing Talon excellence in special operations aviation. Only Talon families sacrificed more and are more deserving of our lasting respect.
In October it will be 12 years running America has been at war. Throughout, Special Operations has led the way. And some of the first in (and still there) were warriors from AFSOC. There is no more heavily deployed command in the Air Force than AFSOC. And it naturally follows there are no more heavily tasked units in the nation than some of AFSOC’s squadrons. Members with more than 20 deployments are not unusual. True to the “Silent Professional” creed, neither the nation, nor anyone outside the inner circle of AFSOC and its many satisfied customers, have heard a lot about their accomplishments. There have been many and these accomplishments have had a profound impact on the outcome of innumerable operations. These proud men and women have gone about doing the nation’s business with total professional aplomb. This edition of the ACJ is dedicated to these American heroes and their families that have given so much at such a high price. A signifcant number of AFSOC warriors have paid the supreme sacrifice and have been wounded in action since 9/11. These are the visible tolls. The less visible are the impacts that these losses and injuries have had on innumerable Air Commando families.
In this edition there are some great renditions of Air Commando achievements and the makeup of the Air Commando Ethos. We also have a great article highlighting one of the most altruistic Air Commandos of all time, Major John Grove. He gave a lot and if he were alive today, he would still be finding ways to assist those that have needs greater than his. Indeed, he would be proud that the Air Commando Association has evolved into an organization that has as one of its basic tenets “Helping Air Commandos and their families, past, present, and future.” ACA has been honored to assist many of our warriors and their families in times of unmet needs. Unfortunately, those needs have been many and will continue for the foreseeable future. ACA, through our Foundation, is partnering with our generous membership, the US Special Operations Command Care Coalition, and others, to raise funds to continue to honor those that have needs greater than our own….just as John Grove would have wanted. As you enjoy this edition of ACJ, we ask all to reflect on the tremendous sacrifices that Air Commandos and their families have faced quietly doing the Nation’s bidding since WWII. Any time….Any place.
It is my distinct honor to contribute to this issue of the Air Commando Journal in dedication to the MH-53 “Pave Low” helicopter and the men and women who supported the mission. Over the past 30+ years, until the retirement in 2008, the “red scarf” community of Air Commandos were involved in, and I would say critical to the success of, nearly every military engagement required by our nation’s leaders. From the jungles of Panama to the mountains of Bosnia and the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq with many harrowing contingencies in between, this aircraft and its crews were relied upon to perform some of the most difficult missions imaginable in order to save American lives and support special operations forces around the world. To this day I am in awe of their bravery and commitment.
When I was a young captain in the 20 SOS, during the late 80s and early 90s, I quickly learned that this squadron was different. There was a cadre of leaders and support personnel who understood the importance of the MH-53 in the tactical SOF mission. With unique modifications, the Pave Low would prove over time the ability to do what no other aircraft in the world could do; precise infiltration and exfiltration in nearly all weather conditions, day or night. As the Pave Low grew, those leaders would spread the same tactics and procedures, and instill the new leadership with the same understanding. This revolution in capability would be the guiding vision that eventually bonded the three operational squadrons and the training squadron together. It created a culture of innovation and pushed the limits of training and performance for the crews and the aircraft. If I could encapsulate the essence of Pave Low, it would be the enduring commitment of the people and the willingness to dedicate their lives in support of the mission. Gen Schwartz put it so eloquently in the foreword of the recent by Darrel Whitcomb On a Steel Horse I Ride: “Ultimately, the story of Pave Low bears out the first SOF Truth: Pave Low proved to be a highly capable and impressive aircraft, but more significantly, the people behind Pave Low, and those who served with it, were, and always will be, even more impressive.” Over the years, those people coalesced into a family of operators, maintainers, trainers, testers, and acquirers who gave it their all time and time again.
Today, MH-53 aircraft are proudly displayed in air parks and museums across our nation. Pave Low crews and support personnel served with great distinction in combat all the way until the very last flight in September 2008. But the culture of innovation, tenacity, and mission focus lives on in the myriad of other squadrons in AFSOC. I am proud to see how far our command has come since then, and I am inspired by our current leaders and the direction they are going. We have passed the torch and they are running strong. God-speed on their mission in the future.
WOW! What a Convention/Reunion we had this year. They just keep getting better and better. I am very proud of each of you for what you continue to do as Air Commandos, past and present, and for your support of your Air Commando Association. As we grow as an organization, I want to say a few words about the Air Commando Hall of Fame and your Hall of Fame Committee. We had five very deserving inductees this year, all which had a lifetime of service to our GREAT NATION as Air Commandos and you will read about each of them in this issue. As you know, we (ACA) also sponsor the AFSOC Commander’s Leadership Awards and you will find out more about them as well.
Back to the Hall of Fame—to find a detailed discussion about nomination criteria, just go to our website www.aircommando.org/content/hall-fame/nominations or go to the “About” pull down and click on “Hall of Fame” to find all the resources that you will need to nominate an Air Commando that you know has made significant contributions to the betterment of Air Commando or Air Force Special Operations Forces. The committee uses a one to ten (in half point increments) scoring system similar to the Air Force Promotion System to select our Hall of Famers. Therefore, the package you submit is very important and must communicate to the committee the specifics on why your nominee should be chosen! At the end of the process, if your Air Commando was very close to being selected, then I will send a letter of feedback to you so you can rework the package, present additional facts or other things to make the package stronger. I am confident that our process allows us to select the “very best” of “the best” to be inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame. It’s not too early to start thinking about whom you want to submit as the 2013 nominees.
I know that you are as proud of this very professional journal as I am and we get your feedback often! As Lt Gen Brad Heithold said in our last issue, “I look forward to a hearty response from my AFSOC brethren.” Well, as many of you reminded us, we left out our AC-119 Shadow and Stinger Gunships in our Gunship issue—shame on us! We’ve corrected that oversight and have a super article on the AC-119s in this issue. Sit back, relax and enjoy your Air Commando Journal.
It has been my honor and privilege to spend the past 27 years of my career associated with the special operations community. I am especially proud to contribute to this issue of the Air Commando Journal because I have deep friendships with nearly every author published this quarter. Our shared heritage began at Hurlburt Field three decades ago. Since then, the Air Commandos of AFSOC have been, and continue to be, key contributors to our Nation’s success in military engagements around the world. Air Commando Journal salutes all Special Operations Airmen, and this particular issue highlights the incredible accomplishments of the gunship community.
In this issue, Ron Terry’s article traces gunship lineage from its inception as a rudimentary side-firing aircraft to today’s multifaceted precision platform. In addition Dr. Hallion, former Air Force Historian, highlights the great contributions of the venerable C-47 including its use as a gunship. The Journal also explores the planned use of the gunship in the attempted Iranian hostage rescue; furthering our understanding of the gunship’s maturation. Several articles in this journal provide a historical perspective of our community from the optic of experienced veterans who were there and further highlight our role in modern Defense Strategy.
Air commandos have been deployed in every American conflict in the past seven decades. We are just as relevant to the fight today as was the First Air Command Group who carried the Chindit Raiders 200 miles into enemy territory during World War II. We must not rest on our laurels. We must continue to push the envelope to maintain readiness and boost our combat effectiveness. While doing so, we can draw inspiration from our community’s heroes, specifically the crew of Spirit 03 and this edition’s celebrated hero, Maj Bernard Fisher. I am pleased to contribute to Air Commando Journal, and I look forward to a hearty response from my AFSOC brethren. After all, that competitive spirit fuels our efforts and has become a trademark of our community.
As we Air Commandos reflect on the early exploits of Johnny Alison and Heinie Aderholt, we are reminded of the challenge each of them had to overcome to integrate a force many did not understand nor appreciate. When the Vietnam era came to an end, we still faced an uncertain future with conventional wisdom not understanding the relevance of special operations forces (SOF). Upon our return to CONUS, we faced a downturn with a disinvestment in SOF capabilities. It was not until the failure at Desert One on 24 April 1980, that the Nation realized the consequences of previous decisions. This wake-up call to the nation was considered the birth of modern day special operations.
With Jim Locher working behind the scenes to form the legislation that led to the implementation of the Cohen-Nunn Amendment and the establishment of the US Special Operation Command (USSOCOM), SOF was finally placed on a path of national importance. This year marks the 25th anniversary of that historic legislation and the impact of this amendment continues to be felt throughout the community.
In Panama, Iraq, the Balkans, and the aftermath of 9-11, these forces have been called upon at an unprecedented level for the most sensitive and critical operations in support of our national objectives. With USSOCOM taking on the supported role for the planning of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), new realities for SOF were apparent. Prior to 9-11 with a USSOCOM budget of just over $3 Billion per year, leveraging the services was the norm. However, after 9-11 the Command needed to expand in order to meet the new commitments for GWOT. With the increased demands for SOF from all the Combatant Commanders, USSOCOM developed 13 initiatives for approval by SECDEF; not without controversy. The one question of major concern involved the Major Force Program (MFP) funding for the Command. The “snowflake” from Washington questioned the need for MFP-11 with an assumption these funds could be better exercised by the services in support of SOF. As the debate continued and the need for additional resources gained momentum, SECDEF chartered the President of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), General (Retired) Larry Welch, to conduct an analysis of the 13 initiatives. On Saturday, 7 December 2002, in a private meeting, the assessment of the 13 initiatives was presented to SECDEF which, if supported, provided the resources required to fulfill the new role of the Command. During General Welch’s assessment of MFP-11, he succinctly stated, “I was the TAC/DO during Desert One and if you take away the MFP-11 funding, SOF will die of benign neglect.” After completing his assessment for all 13 initiatives with a positive recommendation, SECDEF asked if resources were available to fund them. The answer was yes. With the Command now at an estimated $10.5 Billion per year (with the services providing the funding for military personnel accounts of $3.5 Billion) and still growing, USSOCOM and the components, along with the Theater Special Operations Commands (TSOCs), are in a better position to fulfill their global commitments.
For Air Commandos, the past ten years have shed more light on the importance of the SOF Operator. From Special Tactics personnel on horseback calling in B-52 close air support (CAS), to AFSOC aircrews developing new tactics, techniques and procedures for upgraded capabilities on legacy aircraft, the innovativeness of our personnel maintains our premiere war-fighting capabilities. In the same manner, the introduction of new systems such as the CV-22, Non-Standard Aviation (NSAV), Predator remotely piloted aircraft and specialized ordnance delivery capabilities such as Dragon Spear and the maintainers who keep a step ahead in supporting multiple small fleet size operations, prove the SOF truth that “Humans are more important than hardware.”
For the future, we are steadied knowing that the Quiet Professionals are well led, well trained, well resourced and ready to continue to meet the challenges of the 21st century—anytime , anyplace. I salute each of you for your dedication and resiliency. You continue to make a difference!
On a chilly day in December 2001, we drove through the gates of Hurlburt and opened an Air Force door that was unknown to us. For the next 2 ½ years, my pride grew everyday at the opportunity to be a part of the Quiet Professionals and to tell your story when and where it was appropriate.
What could not be seen at that moment was the growth spurt that the Commandos and all of SOCOM were going to experience. Nor the closeness we would draw to our Air Force conventional forces. Yet, it was you, the one with the mission in this now War on Terror, who set the requirements…trained and taught those who came to help and in doing so, exposed a greater audience to the professionalism of your Command. None of this came as a smooth road, for change is never easy…yet, persistence found a better way to do our Nation’s business and Air Commandos, recognized as never before, found themselves leading and serving all across our Air Force and DoD. It has now become the norm to find Air Commando Airmen at every level of NCO and Officer Leadership. The challenge is to keep that professionalism every day on the top shelf in both staff and field operations. This new magazine affords you the place and space to offer thoughtful and questioning discussions on the issues of yet more change. Use it to your benefit!
As an example, in this issue, is a terrific article by former Secretary of the Air Force, Dr James Roche, on the growth of Special Tactics. It is but one example of how vision and hard work can make change a reality. If you need more visuals, go to the Hurlburt Field or Cannon AFB flight lines.
Lastly, the holiday season we just completed from Thanksgiving through Christmas to New Year’s Day is often the highlight of the year for American families. Each day gave us 24 hours to focus on the blessings in our lives from where we live and the bounty of liberties…who we work and play with…and of course, the excitement…and yes, a bit of tension, in being at family gatherings.
But this time was also a very strong reminder that the excitement is often tempered with the everyday reality of Air Commandos and other service members deployed away from family and, too often, in harm’s way. This in itself is yet another blessing for all Americans…that there are strong men, women, and their families who are willing to stand for the protection of us all….it sustains us for this New Year!
Our English language is short on gratitude expressions…so from the heart of all who walk free in the US … THANK YOU!
With genuine anticipation, I am privileged to contribute to this inaugural issue of Air Commando Journal. Given the examples of courageous leadership, gritty determination, bold innovation, unparalleled competence, and quiet professionalism, the heritage of air commandos has long deserved a dedicated publication to chronicle the many substantial contributions of special operations Airmen.
That time has arrived. With operational accounts and thoughtful analyses that both inform our many ongoing operations and inspire us toward future success, this journal represents the intersection between operations and plans, and will serve well as a platform for debate and discovery—where theory meets practice, and where we can capitalize on the many valuable lessons from our experiences. Our operations in the past decade alone offer enough material for a lifetime of study; and, now that the voices of many of the founding fathers of Air Force special operations—including the likes of Air Commando One Heinie Aderholt and the legendary John Alison—have gone silent, it is incumbent on us to recount and remember the teachings of the past as we explore today’s lessons learned.
Air Force special operations has never been more prominent in our overall national security effort than it is now; and, as special operations professionals, we must pursue continual improvement. I therefore call on the entire Air Force special operations community to maintain and advance our professionalism through thoughtful and candid debate in this forum. This means that both celebrating our successes and reflecting on our missteps are in order. In doing so, I anticipate that future editions of Air Commando Journal will contain, from time to time, much of our trademark candor. Reflection and self-criticism have always served us well, and indeed, they will propel us forward, with common cause and a shared vision of operational excellence. With this effort, we will hold true to our proud tradition in helping to provide for our Nation’s security—through unique and often game-changing contributions, but with little fanfare. Such is the hallmark of the United States Air Force’s Quiet Professionals.