Friendly Fire in Northern Iraq
By Todd Bolger, Lt Col, USAF (Retired)
Sitting combat alert day after day for weeks and months on end can be summed up simply, 90 percent of the time is sheer boredom, but the other 10 percent can be over-the-top hectic. So it often was in Incirlik, Turkey, where the 55th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) provided an organic combat rescue alert posture as part of both Operation Provide Comfort II (OPC) and its multi-national combined task force (CTF) enforcing the United Nations (UN) no-fly zone in northern Iraq in the mid-1990s. By 13 April 1994, most of the 55th SOS crews had deployed to Incirlik multiple times to support this mission. It was just another typical alert day for the two MH-60G combat crews and support personnel until the alert radios sounded and the 55th, along with assigned special tactics (STS) forces, jumped into action. Two Iraqi helicopters were spotted in the no-fly zone, and both were shot down by two US F-15 Eagles. The 55th had to be ready for whatever came next and the events that followed put into motion what would be one of the longest helicopter recovery missions on record.
Again, that day began normally with the CTF conducting no-fly zone operations within the northern Iraq area of operations. The 55th SOS’s deployed mission commander, also serving as the OPC commander and commander of Air Force Special Operations Forces (COMAFSOF), received an urgent call from the CTF search and rescue liaison officer (SARLO). A flight of CTF F-15s had just shot down two Hind helicopters in northern Iraq. This was alarming! Not only was it unlikely that Hind helicopters were suddenly operating in northern Iraq for the first time in two years, but, more importantly, two US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 6th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment–call sign, “Eagle Flight”–were conducting an important CTF mission in the same area that day. COMAFSOF had just spent a few days in Zakho, Iraq, flying on Eagle Flight helicopters with the OPC Military Coordination Center (MCC) commander on daily missions visiting the various Kurdish villages. He knew that on this particular day the outgoing MCC commander was taking the incoming MCC commander to meet the local Kurdish leaders throughout northern Iraq.
Earlier that morning with a crew of 10, Eagle Flight departed their base in Diyarbakir, Turkey and made their first stop at the MCC in Zakho, where they picked up 16 members of the UN Provide Comfort coalition leadership team. This included four Kurdish civilians; one Chaldean-Catholic civilian; three Turkish, two British, and one French military officer; plus five US civilian and military officials, leaving one major behind to man the MCC. This day-long mission was meant to be an auspicious occasion for the entire MCC senior staff to meet and greet local Kurdish leaders at several locations, to include Irbil, Iraq, which is located approximately 120 miles inside Iraq. Knowing this, the COMAFSOF asked the SARLO to quickly check with the CTF operations section on the location and time of the reported shoot-down, against the flight plan and schedule for Eagle Flight. The SARLO quickly called back, stating that it appeared the Eagle Flight helicopters were supposed to be flying in the area near Irbil at about the same time the shoot-down was reported. Further, CTF Ops had not received any position updates from Eagle Flight since before the reported Hind shoot-down. The COMAFSOF grimly commented to the SARLO that, “Those were not Hinds…”
COMAFSOF immediately notified both 55th operations duty officer and the Commander, Joint Special Operations Task Force (COMJSOTF) of the potential friendly-fire shoot-down, while attempting to nail down CTF’s actual awareness of the situation. Immediate concern was that IF it was a friendly shoot-down, time was of the essence to rescue survivors, especially given the two-hour minimum preparation and launch time, and four additional hours transit time to the recovery location. It soon was apparent the CTF staff was not yet aware or engaged, a factor which cost the recovery effort a few extra hours of precious time. Fortunately, the 55th SOS, with JSOTF in tow, wasted no time “leaning forward in the saddle” to prepare for the mission, should it come to pass, well in advance of direction from CTF HQ.
Over the next hour and a half, as Eagle Flight failed to check in, and no further radar contact was made, the realization that the two downed helicopters were most likely the US Army helicopters of Eagle Flight began to sink in. The alert team readied the added gear for a potential recovery mission, to include additional personnel and communications equipment. Simultaneously, the 55th SOS generated its third and last helicopter, which required a maintenance check flight, providing what proved to be a mission critical asset. It was evident the CTF was not positioned to deal with a mass casualty event that would depend heavily on 100 percent of JSOTF’s air assets. If any one of the helicopters had been non-mission capable, the rescue/recovery operation would have been extended into a two-day operation. The ability to generate all necessary assets that day speaks highly of the squadron’s deployed maintenance readiness and personnel.
Apart from CTF delays, other challenges included very heavy-weight helicopter mission loads with STS and Army Special Forces (SF) personnel on board to provide crash site security and manpower for whatever the mission would encounter on the ground. Taking off at maximum gross weight and flying such a long distance would require inflight refueling enroute to the crash site(s). Yet the host nation imposed two other mission-impacting restrictions. First, a Turkish military officer was required to be on each helicopter simply to observe, which scratched a troop actually needed for the mission and second, Turkey prohibited the helicopters from air refueling within Turkish airspace. This forced the very heavy, fully loaded MH-60Gs, flying in hot conditions, to be critically low on fuel when crossing the border into Iraq. Then, when CTF finally gave the launch order, the Turkish base initially denied take off clearance, further delaying the mission.
By 1500, a full four hours after initial alert call, three combat loaded MH-60Gs finally departed Incirlik for the four-hour flight to the shoot-down site. The COMJSOTF and COMAFSOF were also aboard the MH-60Gs, serving as the joint rescue/recovery mission commander (RMC) and his air mission commander (AMC), respectively. When the crash sites were found, they and the special tactics teams off-loaded to provide on-site command and control (C2) for the operation. Along with the helicopter team, two MC-130P Combat Shadows launched to provide communications links and continuous on-call helicopter aerial refueling. Once the MH-60 formation was airborne, the long flight to the border proved to be uneventful. However, the AMC thought it was odd that the flight received virtually no radio (SATCOM) communications enroute and no situation or threat updates. Nothing!
The mission crews did not even know for certain if it was a shoot-down, and if so, if there were any survivors; but they still pressed on with the urgency of a rescue mission. Further, while the aircrews were aware of an Iraqi artillery and infantry garrison within 20 miles of the objective area, they had no information regarding enemy activity or what threats the recovery forces should expect upon arrival. Crossing the border into Iraq with bare minimum fuel onboard, all aircraft successfully inflight refueled, which required delicate flight maneuvers because the MH-60s were still very heavy.
The Pave Hawks arrived at the first shoot-down site just after sunset. But it wasn’t until actually flying over the first site that the aircrews saw the American flag in the cabin door window of the wreckage, confirming the downed aircraft were not Hinds, confirming their fear of fratricide. Flight lead provided airborne security while chalks two and three began recovery team insertion. The first site located was designated Site One. It was fairly level and accessible for a landing to insert their STS team. The RMC and AMC offloaded at Site One and spent the rest of the mission on the ground, providing both C2 of the recovery forces and the critical radio link with CTF. The second crash site was designated Site Two and it provided the biggest challenge to the task force, given the very rough terrain and limited number of body bags they had with them. The crash site was on a steep hill, not suitable for a helicopter landing, forcing the STS team to insert 500 meters down-slope. During the insertion the aerial gunner, while assisting the special tactics team offloading equipment, jumped out of the aircraft and broke his foot on the uneven terrain. The PJ immediately taped up the gunner’s foot with duct tape and proceeded to climb the steep terrain to the site while the gunner jumped back on the aircraft and continued his aircrew duties for the next 10-plus hours.
A few Special Forces soldiers from the Zakho MCC, who were already in the vicinity of Site One, met the arriving helicopters and escorted the RMC and AMC on a quick reconnaissance of the crash site. They reported a total of 12 dead at Site One and 14 dead at Site Two and no survivors. The SF team had collected all the dog tags and some personal effects from the deceased and gave them to the RMC. When the details were provided to the CTF, the CTF directed the RMC to recover the remains and sensitive equipment back to Diyarbakir, Turkey, under the cover of darkness. This was to prevent daylight site exploitation by Iraqi forces. It was now clearly a recovery, and not a rescue mission, but still an urgent one because it was located in hostile and uncertain territory. Thus began a very long, difficult, and dark night in many ways.
There were also about 200 armed Kurdish Peshmerga operating in the area, but not associated with the crash recovery. While there was no indication of any Iraqi military response to the recovery operation, the Iraqi threat was still a concern. Another concern was that the only communications between the AMC and the helicopters were VHF survivor radios transmitting in the clear, and it was very likely Iraqi forces were aware of the recovery force activity.
Full darkness came quickly as the mission crews got to work locating and preparing the remains for transport. This proved to be a slow and tedious task, due to the darkness, steep terrain at Site Two, as well as a broad dispersion pattern at both crash sites. In order to facilitate the process, flight lead put a plan together, directing one helicopter to recover remains from the steep hillside of Site Two and then shuttle the remains over to Site One, which was used as a collection area (see diagram to the right). The two other MH-60s then began transferring the collected remains from Site One to the security of the MCC at Zakho for temporary holding, prior to the final flight to Diyarbakir, Turkey.
As mentioned previously, Site Two proved to be the greater challenge for the recovery effort. The ground team found an area that permitted stokes litter hoisting near the wreckage which was along a steep cliff and surrounded by several 10-15 foot tall trees. This required the Pave Hawk to hover out of ground effect which called for very high-power settings. The stamina, skill, and determination of the Pave Hawk and special tactics team at Site Two allowed the recovery of all 14 sets of remains, using 8 separate stokes litter hoist events in the process. The whole process took a long time because of the challenges presented by steep and wooded terrain. To expedite the loading process at Site One, several aircrew members left the aircraft to help load remains. While preparing for the mission and prior to leaving Turkey, the CTF could locate only 16 body bags at Incirlik Airbase (AB), so the team had to use many of the body bags to transport more than one set of remains. This, of course was not ideal, but the aircrews and ground team, did what was necessary to get the job done, quickly, respectfully, and safely, despite all the clear and present dangers.
While the shootdown recovery was a somber and serious event, those of us who have served know that sometimes humor in the darkest of situations can be an incredible medicine. During one of the 40-minute shuttle runs from the crash site to the MCC at Zakho, a call came across the intra-flight radio:
Chalk one, “Did you see that?”
A pensive response came from chalk two, “Maybe.”
Chalk one replied, “I didn’t know if I was going a bit loopy and seeing things.”
Chalk two replied, “You probably are, but we saw it too!”
The exchange was prompted by the sight of huge 50-70 foot shadows projected on a cliff from a group of Peshmerga fighters sitting around a fire. One fighter stood up and shouldered a weapon and walked off, out of the firelight. This scene played out as huge shadows easily visible under NVGs, and provided a surreal sight that brought some much-needed levity to the crews that night.
The Pave Hawks conducted multiple inflight refuelings in northern Iraq throughout the night as they balanced aircraft weight and fuel endurance requirements, all the while avoiding sporadic ground fire. The MC-130s established an air-refueling orbit all night, north of the objective area, to stay clear of any possible Iraqi threats and making it easier for the Pave Hawks to pop up from low-level flight for fuel as needed. During the refuelings, one crew experienced a refueling probe partial extension malfunction. Normally the refueling probe extends a total of eight feet putting the probe tip four feet beyond the rotor disk when refueling. For this crew, the probe would only extend approximately three to four feet, leaving the probe tip under the rotor disk and making it highly possible for a blade strike on the refueling hose or basket; a very hazardous situation. The crew evaluated the risk and discussed the situation with the MC-130 aircraft commander before conducting a partially extended refueling. Over the night, the crew completed four successful aerial refuelings with the partially extended probe. This allowed them to stay on scene and enabled the recovery of all remains prior to daylight. The MH-60 crew demonstrated incredible skill because even one blade strike on the hose or basket would not just have damaged the helicopter, but could also have prevented the tanker from providing fuel to the other two helicopters that were feverishly working the crash sites and who were dependent on multiple refuelings. By the end of the night, after 13-14 hours of strenuous flying, another crew was critically low on fuel and repeatedly failed to make contact with the MC-130’s refueling hose. Despite the fatigue and the stress culminating in that moment, the crew stepped back, and with the encouragement and direction from the flight engineer came together as a team to finally make contact and receive the fuel necessary to reach Diyarbakir. The alternative was making a precautionary landing with its precious cargo in hostile territory and necessitating assistance from the other helicopters.
Once all 26 sets of remains were successfully recovered and shuttled to Zakho, the MH-60s returned to Site One to recover all JSOTF ground forces for final transport back to Zakho. After all forces were safely back in friendly territory, the three Pave Hawks loaded all 26 sets of remains waiting at Zakho, and then flew the final shuttle of the night to Diyarbakir, arriving after sunrise.
When the three helicopters landed at Diyarbakir and taxied to the airport parking ramp, they were met by the Eagle Flight command team. The aircrews kept the cargo doors closed to lessen the visible blow of the stack of body bags inside the cabin. One of the aerial gunners jumped off the aircraft to meet the command team. As he walked toward the group, meeting them a few feet outside of the rotor disk, he could see a lieutenant colonel leading the group, obviously crying, but doing his best to remain stoic. The gunner, still covered in blood and charred flesh from lifting the remains, could read the commander’s body language as he desperately looked for confirmation. No words were needed. The gunner just slowly shook his head “No” and the officer fell into the gunner, sobbing. They both dropped to the ramp as the others surrounded them. The moment lasted a few minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. The moment has stayed with the gunner and the onlooking crewmembers to this day.
Finally at Diyarbakir, the three crews entered crew rest, sleeping on cots hastily assembled on a gymnasium basketball court floor. In the end, 55th SOS MH-60 alert crews logged 15+ hours of flight time and over 19 hours of on-duty time after initial alert notification. The crew flying the third aircraft logged over 22 hours of duty time, including their maintenance test flights earlier in the day, all of which exceeded the Air Force’s crew duty day limits because the mission required it.
The 55th SOS crews flew two additional missions to the crash site over the following days. After proper crew rest, they flew the 3rd Air Force commander and incident investigation team back to the crash sites. The next day, they transported the CTF commander and various distinguished visitors from Diyarbakir to Zakho for a memorial service and return. The Pave Hawks then flew the ground recovery team (STS, C2, and SF) from Zakho to Diyarbakir, where they boarded an MC-130 for flight back to Incirlik AB. The third day, the 55th crews resumed SAR alert for CTF air activities from Diyarbakir, finally returning to Incirlik that evening.
Despite the tragic loss of two US helicopters with 26 lives, the actions of the 55th SOS and the entire JSOTF team were remarkable. The team was able to recover all remains under cover of darkness, denying Iraq the ability to exploit the shootdown, and ultimately moving all forces back into either the UN Security Zone or Turkey, all with no loss of life or injury to recovery personnel. Most importantly, the team’s actions provided families of the deceased the ability to bury their loved ones. The selfless, forward-leaning, mission-focused, agile, and tenacious character of each member of the 55th SOS team is truly what made this arduous recovery mission under such tragic and potentially hostile conditions so successful. The efforts of all involved contributed immeasurably to the 55th SOS being selected as the AFSOC Squadron of the Year for 1994.
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