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Air Commando Hall of Fame 2022

Air Commando Hall of Fame 2022

Introducing the class of 2022 Air Commando Hall of Fame

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 11 Issue 3, January 2023, pages 8-12

By Air Commando Journal Staff

Major General Stephen A. Clark

Major General Stephen A. Clark, Retired, United States Air Force, distinguished himself by exceptionally dedicated service to the Air Force and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) from March 1987 to September 2018. General Clark made extraordinary contributions at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. In addition to flying combat missions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti, he served in leadership positions in Afghanistan and Iraq. His legacy includes an unparalleled development of future AFSOC leaders, combat leadership during the opening salvo of the Global War on Terror, and a strategic vision in building the SOF force structure of the future at AFSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, and United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). He served as operations officer and commander of the 4th Special Operations Squadron from 2002 through 2005. This was a particularly challenging and historical time in the AC-130U unit’s history. He commanded Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component-Iraq from July 2006 through August 2007. There he commanded all SOF aviation assets during this brutal period of fighting in Iraq. This period included insurgency against coalition forces and a full-fledged civil war. He is credited by many for bringing the Air Commando’s “voice” to the front of the table. From 2009 to 2011, Maj Gen Clark served as the second AFSOC commander of Cannon AFB. Under his leadership, the wing more than doubled in size and grew to more than 5,000 personnel and 84 aircraft. The singularly distinctive accomplishments of Major General Stephen Clark reflect great credit upon himself, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Commandos of every generation.

Lieutenant General Eric E. Fiel

Lieutenant General Eric E. Fiel’s significant contributions to Air Force Special Operations Forces and the United States Special Operations Command span more than four decades. He has commanded at multiple levels in the United States Air Force and the USSOCOM, culminating his service as the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. At every level of command, in peacetime and in combat, he received the highest commendations from his commanders and the trust and respect of his superiors, peers, and subordinates. Through sense of duty, strength of character, personal fortitude, and unfaltering commitment to his people and the mission, he endeavored to make positive, lasting contributions to the defense of the United States of America. He airdropped Rangers on Point Salinas during Operation Urgent Fury and led AC-130Us in Allied Force. He was at the tip of the spear after 9/11, leading joint special operations forces during multiple tours of duty. Part of his enduring legacy left behind as the AFSOC commander was the stand-up of the 24th Special Operations Wing and pushing forward as much combat capability as possible to fight and win on the battlefield. To that end, he directed the first beddown of MC-130J Commando II and CV-22 Osprey in Europe General Fiel inspired and empowered those around him to serve to their full potential and to not be afraid to take risks. He worked tirelessly for the nation, the mission, and Air Commandos and their families. He is exceedingly worthy of induction into the Air Commando Hall of Fame. The singularly distinctive accomplishments of Lieutenant General Eric Fiel reflect great credit upon himself, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Commandos of every generation.

Chief Master Sergeant Roger D. Maginel

Chief Master Sergeant Roger D. Maginel, United States Air Force, Retired, has served our nation with honor for almost 45 years, including active-duty, contractor and civil service. He distinguished himself during 25 years with the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in squadron, wing, and headquarters positions and epitomizes the saying that “One Man Can Make a Real Difference!” Chief Maginel was an initial cadre MH-60 flight engineer in the 55th SOS, the first H-60 unit in the USAF. He played a critical role for all Air Force MH-60 flight engineers by developing initial qualification courseware and tactics, techniques, and procedures for all enlisted aircrew. He flew on the first NVG night water operation for the 55th SOS. He was also a vital crewmember on the first long-range refueling test of the MH-60G flying two MH-60s non-stop from Eglin AFB, FL to Peterson Field, CO. This ten-hour flight required three aerial refuelings and covered over 1200 nautical miles. Chief Maginel’s expertise was so critical that he was tasked to support HQ Air Rescue and the 542nd Operations Group before returning to HQ AFSOC as Chief Flight Engineer and Enlisted Aircrew Functional Manager. During this tour at HQ, he participated in Operations Allied Force And Enduring Freedom and was current and qualified as a flight engineer on the UH-1N and Mi-8 Hind for the 6th SOS’s foreign internal defense mission. After active-duty retirement, he excelled at HQ AFSOC as a unit deployment manager and air expeditionary force planner. The singularly distinctive accomplishments of Chief Master Sergeant Roger D. Maginel reflect great credit upon himself, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Commandos of every generation.

Senior Master Sergeant Michael Rizzuto

Senior Master Sergeant Michael Rizzuto, United States Air Force, Retired, served for over 33 years within the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). SMSgt Rizzuto’s AFSOC career spanned 15 years as an active-duty enlisted member and 18 years as a Department of Defense civilian. A two-time formal training Distinguished Graduate, three-time Life Support Technician of the Year (1993, 1996, 2002), and four-time Special Tactics Squadron NCO and SNCO of the Quarter (1992, 1999, 2001, 2002). His career is highlighted by numerous awards, first-time initiatives, by-name selections, and selfless service. These accomplishments include establishing the first Navy-certified dive locker in the USAF and the first chemical, biological, radioactive, nuclear, and high yield explosives (CBRNE) capability in all of SOF. He was involved in numerous projects designing, building, and fielding equipment for special mission use, and was hand-selected support to support classified operations, including the first combat parachute jump since the Vietnam War. SMSgt Rizzuto directly supported every major force structure event, including initial stand up, of the 724th Special Tactics Group, ensuring each organizational change was operationally validated by the command. As his unit’s unofficial historian he authored every Annual Historical Report since 2008, ensuring the preservation of the unit’s story for future generations. He established a 501 (c)3 non-profit, providing merit-based scholarships and grants to current and former unit members, spouses, and children. This was also used to fund and build a permanent memorial to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation. The singularly distinctive accomplishments of Senior Master Sergeant Michael Rizzuto reflect great credit upon himself, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Commandos of every generation.

Lieutenant Colonel William O. “Sam” Schism

Lieutenant Colonel William O. “Sam” Schism distinguished himself as a 16-year-old flying as a US Navy seaplane radio operator in the World War Two Pacific theater. He further distinguished himself during a 25-year United States Air Force career by exceptional, competent and, professional service as a worldwide airlift, reconnaissance, photo-mapping, and special operations officer and pilot. A gifted leader and manager, he quietly and competently led crews, squadrons, and special projects with great success. During his 9,600-hour USAF flying career, he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Meritorious Service Medals and eleven Air Medals. He commanded AC-130A Spectre gunships during the Vietnam War and distinguished himself in combat flying operations. He then filled key management and leadership positions in the Air Commando community and was chosen as the active-duty lead for the conversion of the 919th SOG, into the gunship weapon system. Assembling a hand-picked team of active duty professionals, he provided excellent and positive leadership to active duty and Reservists alike and did an outstanding job successfully concluding a difficult conversion with decades of lasting impact. After his USAF retirement, the US Government decided not to honor its promise of lifetime medical care for 20-year military veterans. Lt Col Schism sued the Federal Government and along with Brig Gen Bud Day and Maj Robert Reinlie battled for five years until the promise of lifetime medical care for 20-year veterans was set up by Congress itself. As “one of the most important cases the court decided,” Schism v United States led to Tricare for Life, for all services, all ranks, and all Air Commandos. The singularly distinctive accomplishments of Lieutenant Colonel William O. “Sam” Schism reflect great credit upon himself, Air Force Special Operations Command, and Air Commandos of every generation.

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Friendly Fire in Northern Iraq

Friendly Fire in Northern Iraq

Recovery of Eagle Flight — 14 April 1994

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 11 Issue 2, November 2022, pages 43-48

By Todd Bolger, Lt Col, USAF (Retired)

OPC Military Coordination Center (MCC) located at Zakho, Iraq (Photo by Scott Swanson)

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.

Two of three 55th SOS MH-60G Pave Hawks at the Eagle Flight shootdown site, taken the day the accident investigation team was brought to the site. Vicinity of Site One (Photo taken by Scott Swanson)

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.

Crewmembers from the 55th SOS at Site One of the Eagle Flight shootdown, the day the accident investigation team was brought to the site. Back to camera is unidentified Turkish military. Left to right is Aerial Gunner Robert Keiper, Copilot Mike Geragosian, and Aerial Gunner Rodney Quinn. Person in far background is unidentified (Photo taken by Scott Swanson)

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.

Crewmembers from the 55th SOS at Site One of the Eagle Flight shootdown, on the day the accident investigation team was brought to the site. Left is aircraft commander John Stein and right is flight engineer Kurt Gustafson (Photo taken by Scott Swanson)

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.

About the Author: Lt Col Todd Bolger retired after serving 21 years in the Air Force. His assignments included 8 years in AFSOC, While assigned to the 55th SOS, Colonel Bolger deployed in support of Operations Provide Comfort, Northern Watch, and Uphold Democracy (Haiti). Later, as the 66th Rescue Squadron Commander, he led the initial US combat rescue deployments for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. UponAfter his retirement, he joined SAIC and later, Leidos, as a Joint Special Operations University instructor and program manager, followed by multiple international business development and management programs in Europe and the Mideast.
Contributors to this article: Col (Ret) John Zahrt, Maj (Ret) Scott Swanson, SSGT William Rodney Quinn Jr, MSgt (Ret) Kurt Gustafson

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Operation Atlas Response

Operation Atlas Response

The US military’s contribution to relief efforts following torrential rains and flooding in southern Mozambique and South Africa.

Reference: Air Commando Journal, Vol 11 Issue 1, July 2022, pages 35-42

By Mike Russell, Colonel, USAF (Retired)

Author’s Note: This article was composed from data and events recorded in the United States Special Operations Command study titled Special Operations Forces in Operation ATLAS RESPONSE, Flood Relief in Mozambique, March 2000.

A local man waits for the signal from SSgt Greg Sanford, an Aerial Gunner assigned to the 56th Rescue Squadron at Keflavik, Iceland, to help unload tents for the people in the town of Machanga, south of Beira, Mozambique. (Photo by TSgt Cary Humphries)

US ambassador to Mozambique, Brian Curran, left, and USAF Maj Gen Joe Wehrle, commander of Joint Task Force Operation Atlas Response, discuss the delivery of humanitarian relief supplies with Colonel Joachim Wundrak, the head of the German contingent. (Photo by TSgt Cary Humphries)

During late February and early March 2000, two tropical cyclones, Connie and Eline, dumped heavy rain on southeast Africa, causing extensive flooding that left approximately one million people homeless. In Mozambique, one of the hardest hit countries, hundreds of thousands of residents fled their homes and sought refuge on high ground. Dramatic news footage showed desperate flood victims huddling on roofs and clinging to the tops of trees. Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Portugal, Malawi, and the Netherlands responded with a multinational humanitarian relief effort. Working in concert with those nations, the United States sent Joint Task Force-ATLAS RESPONSE (JTF-AR) to provide assistance to the devastated region. At the end of the mission, the United States had delivered more than 1.5 million pounds of humanitarian relief supplies and cargo and had moved more than 1,100 aid workers, medical personnel, assessment team members, US military, and other passengers as part of the international relief effort.

JTF-AR included conventional military as well as special operations forces (SOF). Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) provided the SOF who were organized into the Joint Special Operations Task Force-ATLAS RESPONSE (JSOTF-AR). JSOTF-AR included a headquarters, a special operations communication element (SOCE), a joint special operations air component (JSOAC), and civil affairs (CA) personnel who worked in the two civil-military operations centers (CMOC). The JSOTF integrated into the JTF structure, enabling SOF to make a number of contributions that were critical to the success of the US humanitarian efforts in Mozambique, to include: SOCEUR CA personnel who were well versed in assessment missions and had experience working with the various non-governmental organizations (NGO), private volunteer organizations (PVO), and international organizations (IO) who had already been providing relief before JTF-AR arrived. The JSOTF also provided air-refuelable helicopters and MC-130P Combat Shadow tankers that permitted the JSOTF to reach outlying areas beyond the range of non-refuelable helicopters, a reliable long-haul theater deployable communications system (TDC) that ultimately formed the backbone of the JTF’s communications capability, and SOF intelligence resources to augment JTF capabilities. By integrating special operations aircraft into the surveys of flooded and damaged areas, intelligence personnel were able to take high quality digital photographs of flooded and damaged areas from the low flying special operations aircraft which significantly increased both the quantity and quality of intelligence products for the JTF.

On 7 February, US Ambassador to Mozambique, Brian Curran, declared a disaster and, on 15 February, Secretary of Defense William Cohen visited the area and promised to send aid, albeit unspecified at that time.

Anticipating a formal tasking, USEUCOM directed United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) to deploy a humanitarian assistance survey team (HAST) to the disaster region, conduct an assessment of the emergency, establish a US military presence, and make recommendations to the Commander in Chief European Command (CINCEUR) regarding further actions. Maj Gen Joseph Wehrle, 3rd Air Force (AF) Commander, put Lt Col Steven Dreyer in charge of the HAST which deployed to Mozambique on 17 February. Surprisingly, the SOCEUR CA director, Maj Greg Mehall, had to lobby for positions on the HAST. Mehall was sufficiently persuasive and he and another SOCEUR CA soldier deployed with the HAST, arriving in Maputo, Mozambique, the next day.

When the HAST toured the hardest hit areas to the north, they found washed out roads, but saw no flooding or any significant damage to the infrastructure. The HAST concluded that floodwaters had started to subside, and with the help of the international relief organizations already on site the country seemed to be returning back to normal. Dreyer recommended no further action was needed.
That changed on 22 February when Cyclone Eline made landfall. Rainfall from Eline swelled rivers to as much as 26 feet above normal and left an additional 23,000 people homeless. At the same time, unrelenting rain in Zimbabwe and South Africa forced water releases from several stressed Mozambican dams, which exacerbated the flooding and prompted the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to recommend the United States take action.

Commander of the 67th SOS, RAF Mildenhall, Lt Col Ross Victor, reviews the day’s mission with his MC-130P Shadow crew before departing from AFB Hoedspruit, South Africa, where they are deployed in support of Operation ATLAS RESPONSE. (Photo by TSgt Cary Humphries)

On 28 February, President Clinton pledged $1,000,000 through USAID to support “aircraft for critical search and rescue (SAR) operations and the delivery of relief supplies.” However, on 1 March, he committed additional resources, including a joint task force and specifically mentioned special operations forces, including MH-53 helicopters, as well as Green Berets and Navy SEALS.
On 3 March 2000, the Joint Staff issued an execute order that included a SOF command element, up to six MH-53s, three MC-130Ps, three MC-130Hs, and two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIB). USEUCOM established JTF-AR and appointed Maj Gen Joseph Wehrle as the JTF-AR Commander. I was the SOCEUR Deputy Commander at the time and was selected to command the JSOTF. Lt Col Raymond Kruelskie, SOCEUR Deputy J3, would serve as my deputy.

Believing the MH-53s to be the wrong assets for the mission due to their strong rotor downwash and the extremely long logistic pipeline to South Africa, I recommended either Air Force Rescue HH-60s or Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) MH-60s be deployed from the United States instead. However, because the President had specifically mentioned MH-53s in his press briefing, there was extreme reluctance among the leadership to exclude them. Fortuitously, three HH-60 Rescue helicopters, crews, and maintenance personnel were in the process of redeploying from Operation NORTHERN WATCH in Turkey. Acting quickly, USEUCOM was able to stop the HH-60 redeployment and redirect the Rescue assets to support JTF-AR. Subsequently, Maj Gen Wehrle decided to use both the MH-53s and HH-60s.

Ultimately, the JSOTF-AR would consist of a command element and SOCE from SOCEUR, three MH-53 Pave Lows, two MC-130P Combat Shadows, and pararescue specialists (PJ) and combat controllers (CCT) from the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) at RAF Mildenhall, UK, as well as three HH-60G Pave Hawks from the 41st Rescue Squadron (RQS) at Moody AFB, Georgia that would fall under the tactical control (TACON) of the JSOTF-AR.

Because of airfield conditions in the affected area, the late US response, and the large size of the deployment, Hoedspruit, South Africa, across the southwestern border of Mozambique, was chosen as the JTF-AR intermediate staging base (ISB). On 4 March, after considerable diplomatic wrangling, approval to use Hoedspruit was obtained from South Africa and the deployment began. The HAST, led by Lt Col Dreyer split into three groups: Dreyer took his team to Hoedspruit, Major Mehall stayed with his team at Maputo, and Major John Burns took his team to Biera, Mozambique, where the JSOTF-AR would bed down. There, the individual teams coordinated for lodging, workspace, warehouse space, transportation, and fuel. Once the JTF arrived, the HASTs folded into the JTF and JSOTF as CMOCs where they provided liaison between JTF-AR, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), and the government of Mozambique.

Maj Gen Wehrle and his core staff arrived at Hoedspruit on 6 March. The next day he took a small staff to Maputo to establish a JTF HQ there, but left the bulk of the JTF-AR at Hoedspruit. Colonel Russell also arrived on 6 March and immediately began the process of preparing to move the JSOTF forward to Biera as soon as the airport assessment was completed and airlift could be arranged. Two C-5s carrying the HH-60s, aircrews, maintenance, and support personnel and equipment arrived at Hoedspruit on 7 and 8 March. The last C-5, carrying the MH-53s, arrived on 11 March. By the time the aircraft arrived in theater, the mission focus had changed from rescue to humanitarian relief.

Due mainly to logistical considerations, it was decided that the MH-53s and MC-130Ps would base out of Hoedspruit where they would support the southern region of Mozambique while the HH-60s would move forward to Biera with the JSOTF to support the northern region.
The move to Biera, originally planned for early on 8 March was delayed by C-130 maintenance problems and crew duty day restrictions. Thus, the JSOTF did not arrive at Biera until the evening of 8 March. With the airport and relief operations at Biera in the process of shutting down for the day, Colonel Russell set up communications with the JTF, secured the JSOTF equipment, and then met with his JSOTF staff to prioritize tasks for the next day before bedding down for the night. The HAST that had moved to Biera earlier had done a great job of securing quarters, transportation, and work space which enabled the JSOTF to hit the ground running very early the next day, to set up the JSOTF, prepare for the HH-60s arrival, coordinate with the wide variety of foreign military and humanitarian support organizations, and figure out how to meld into the existing air asset allocation process. With multiple military and civilian organizations from different countries all contributing, General Wehrle did not want it to appear that the Americans were taking over the flying operations. Therefore, he asked us to “tread lightly” in our dealings with the other organizations.

With so much to be done and a hard arrival time for the HH-60s amidst a media frenzy, the next day proved to be hectic. The CMOC and the Contingency Response Air Mobility Squadron that arrived earlier in the operation, had already established contacts with nearly all the relevant players at Biera. This allowed me to quickly begin coordination with relief participants while the JSOTF staff and SOCE set up their equipment and organized the workspace to be ready to conduct operations. With just five minutes to spare until the announced HH-60 arrival time, the JSOTF-AR was fully operational. The HH-60s were on initial approach and I, SGM Phil Clayton, and Maj Giles Kyser from the JSOTF J3 were physically pushing civilian aircraft out of the designated HH-60 parking area to make room for the arriving helicopters.

An unidentified HH-60G planner, Lt Col Corby Martin, Col John Zahrt at Biera Airport. (USAF photo)

Keeping in mind that President Clinton had specifically mentioned Green Berets during his press briefing, I designated LTC Burt Brasher, the SOCEUR Legal Advisor and also a Special Forces officer, to be my Public Affairs Officer. When the HH-60s arrived, LTC Brasher was standing in front of the CNN and international news cameras wearing his green beret and tactfully keeping that part of the President’s promise.

The decision to keep the MH-53s and MC-130s at Hoedspruit, drove the requirement to split the JSOTF-AR into two elements: the JSOTF HQ at Beira and a special operation liaison element (SOLE) with the JTF staff at Hoedspruit. Colonel Kruelskie headed up the SOLE while Col John Zahrt, the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) commander, became the JSOAC commander, exercising operational control of all SOF air assets and TACON of the HH-60s. Kruelkskie and Zahrt worked closely together. They attended all meetings with the JTF-AR staff as well as the twice daily teleconferences with General Wehrle.

Two Navy planners from Naval Special Warfare Unit Two also deployed as part of the JSOTF to determine if Naval Special Warfare assets were required for rescue operations in the flooded riverine areas. They determined that there was no requirement and were released to return to Germany, however, this initial deployment of a couple SEALs kept the rest of the President’s promise to deploy Green Berets and Navy SEALs.

While the JSOTF staff was setting up at the Beira, I met with key personnel from the various relief organizations and foreign militaries to figure out the best way for the JSOTF to be helpful and work with their system. Peter Carrington, a British civilian from the World Food Program, wanted to turn the operation over to the United States as soon as possible, but in keeping with General Wehrle’s guidance, I demurred. Instead, I emphasized that the US intended to augment and support the relief system already in place.
Carrington put the JSOTF in touch with a Malawian officer, Maj Masamba, who had been a key player from the beginning of the emergency response operation. He had coordinated early relief efforts after the disaster and because of his personal rescue efforts, was regarded as something of a hero. Masamba organized regular meetings where NGOs, PVOs, and IOs with operational needs could connect with aircraft owners and operators to get relief supplies to needy areas. Lt Col Corby Martin, the JSOAC representative within the JSOTF, worked closely with Masamba to build an effective, cooperative operation. With Maj Masamba’s assistance, Colonel Martin procured a load of corn for delivery to a flood damaged area as soon as the HH-60s arrived. Within hours of touchdown, the helicopters were in the air again, delivering relief supplies to northern regions of Mozambique. JSOTF-AR was open for business!

MH-53J build up. (USAF photo)

On 10 and 11 March, the MH-53s finally arrived at the ISB and, once built up, immediately started flying missions in support of the southern Mozambique relief effort. The Combat Shadows refueled the helicopters in-flight, which made extended flights to outlying areas possible and also relieved the pressure on fuel supplies in Mozambique. Between aerial refueling and delivery operations, the Pave Lows, Pave Hawks, and Combat Shadows also served as real time reconnaissance platforms by taking digital photos of the region. Images provided by the MC-130Ps were designated LOR image for “Lieutenant on a Rope,” referring to the intelligence specialists that took the photos from an open aircraft doorway while secured with a gunner’s harness. The JSOTF’s digital imagery proved to be clearer than that of the Keen Sage OC-130 photo reconnaissance aircraft and also provided a below-the-clouds capability. As ATLAS RESPONSE unfolded, 50 percent or more of the JTF’s aerial survey photos came from JSOAC personnel taking pictures from helicopters and MC-130Ps.

By 11 March, Operation ATLAS RESPONSE was in full swing. With communications support provided by the TDC, the headquarters staff managed the JSOTF-AR from the second floor of the Beira air terminal. The three HH-60s operated out of Beira, the three MH-53s from Hoedspruit used Maputo as a staging area, and the MC-130Ps provided fuel from Hoedspruit for all the USAF helicopters. Conventional C-130s staged relief supplies among the three airfields while the Keen Sage OC-130s collected survey and assessment images. General Wehrle controlled the missions from his headquarters at Maputo where the main CMOC was also located. The Maputo and Beira CMOCs operated independently, and other than exchanging daily SITREPs, contact between the two was minimal.

MH-53 landing at Hoedspruit Air Base (USAF photo)

When the JSOTF arrived at Beira we found more than 50 NGOs, PVOs, and IOs competing for cargo space on aircraft from five nations. Even though the NGOs had an infrastructure in place, the relief efforts were not well synchronized. We had trouble with relief teams not showing up on time, incomplete cargo loads, and inefficient ground loading operations. My direction to the staff and CMOC was to the point, “Get these people organized and get the helicopters full.” I needed the CA soldiers to improve the efficiency of the relief effort by “supporting and augmenting’’ the civilian agencies, but not by taking over.” To that end, the CA team worked to transform the CMOC into a civilian-run disaster response cell. They established daily meetings where the UNDAC-led civilian groups would prioritize NGO, PVO, and IO requirements and coordinate missions with the air cell. With the civilians making the decisions, the JSOTF did not have to decide which relief agencies would get airlift and, therefore, could concentrate on making operations more efficient. Aircrews also shared information they gathered on missions, such as which areas appeared to have urgent needs and which appeared to have surplus relief supplies.

To increase the efficiency of air operations, the JSOTF had to resolve a cultural difference regarding schedules. Whereas the JSOTF-AR viewed scheduled times as hard, the IOs, PVOs and NGOs regarded scheduled times as approximate. To minimize the impact, Maj Burns assigned SSG Johnson, a CA NCO and former 3rd Special Forces Group soldier, the task of trouble shooter and expediter. After acquiring a truck and a radio, SSG Johnson moved from “crisis to crisis” and, through the strength of his personality, was able to build rapport with the airfield workers and get their cooperation to keep the relief efforts as close to “on-time” as possible.

SSgt Greg Sanford, 56 RQS unloads tents from an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. (USAF photo)

With all the additional humanitarian relief sorties adding dramatically to the operational tempo at Biera, the local air traffic controllers were in danger of becoming overwhelmed. So, the JSOAC sent a three-man team from the 321st Special Tactics Squadron to assist. TSgt Epperson, the PJ on the team, was fluent in Portuguese, so the team was able to effectively communicate with the local controllers and quickly developed a good working relationship. The team provided assistance and advice without appearing to take over operations or offending the local controllers. With the large number of aircraft now using Beira, one of the main challenges was controlling the ground movement of aircraft. There was no clear parking or ground movement plan, so the situation on the ground was becoming dangerous. The combat controllers recognized the problems, devised an aircraft parking and ground movement plan and, with tact and diplomacy, were able to convince airport management, as well as host nation and foreign ground personnel and aircrews, to accept the plan.

Initially, all three HH-60s flew 12 hours a day, every day, but Maj Kyger, the HH-60 mission commander, cut back to two helicopters per day to allow for crew rest and aircraft maintenance. In the end, the Air Rescue crews and maintenance kept at least 2 helicopters in the air every day for 19 days straight.

The nature of the HH-60 missions varied. Typical missions included rice, food, tents, tools, and farming equipment deliveries. Many of the missions involved moving civilian relief workers and medical personnel throughout the relief area. One of the longest missions flown involved carrying the Mozambican Minister of the Environment to the Cahora Vasa Dam in the extreme northwest to try to persuade the dam operators to delay releasing more water into the valley despite the dam’s stressed condition.

JSOTF also performed a few SAR missions. On 11 March, five boats from Britain’s Royal National Lifeboat Association failed to arrive at their destination on time. The HH-60s searched for the boats until darkness, then resumed the search in the morning. They found the five boats that morning and radioed their position to the British contingent who sent their own Sea King helicopters to complete the rescue. In another incident, a German medical assistant had an accident that left shards of glass in his eye. The only hope of saving his eye was to get him to a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, as soon as possible. Within minutes, the JSOTF was able to recall a conventional C-130 aircraft that had just departed Biera to transport the patient to Pretoria where they were able to save the man’s eyesight. Other missions included evacuating a local national with gangrene and assisting in the medical evacuation of a British Royal Navy seaman who fell out of a helicopter and broke his leg. An HH-60 also carried two German physicians to a remote village to attend to a child with an advanced stage of cerebral malaria. Unfortunately, the young girl succumbed to the disease before the helicopter arrived.

Relief supplies at Palmeria, a staging area for international aid workers. (USAF photo)

Our emphasis on providing support, rather than usurping control, paid big dividends throughout the mission. Our “we-really-are-here-to-help” way of doing business facilitated early acceptance of the American forces by the NGOs, PVOs, IOs, and other military forces. Within days, ATLAS RESPONSE personnel had smoothly integrated with all other relief organizations. On numerous occasions, representatives from other military and civilian relief organizations expressed their appreciation for the cooperative attitude and team focus maintained by JSOTF-AR personnel.

The system for mission coordination for southern Mozambique differed from the one used at Beira. The Maputo CMOC secured office space conveniently located next to the United Nations’ Joint Logistics Operations Center (JLOC) and effectively integrated with government, NGOs, and PVOs. Using information generated at JLOC meetings, the CMOC built a database of towns and villages that had been visited and their needs, enabling the NGOs, PVOs, and IOs to efficiently identify mission requirements. CMOC staff members also helped to match up supplies with the most appropriate aircraft. The overall management of the effort in southern Mozambique was not as structured as the one implemented in the north and relied on a corkboard and notecard system to coordinate NGO, PVO, and IO needs with air assets. Though simple, it proved to be effective.

Maj Scott Howell from the 352nd Operations Support Squadron (OSS) served as the JSOAC liaison officer to the JTF-AR headquarters at Maputo and took the lead for collecting all JTF-AR requirements for the southern region. He identified missions at the CMOC, passed the missions back to the JTF-AR staff in Hoedspruit for dissemination to the JTF or JSOTF for approval, and managed the missions in Maputo. Maj Howell made it possible for me to maintain oversight of all JSOTF missions. Scott did a great job, and did virtually all the planning and coordination for mission support at each site. He was invaluable and key to successful ops in the southern region.

21st SOS crew from Mildenhall, UK, assists the people of Xai-
Xai, Mozambique, with the offloading of donated items. (Photo by Ron Jensen, Stars & Stripes)

Col Zahrt received mission assignments from the Hoedspruit JTF-AR staff via the JSOTF. The JSOAC managed refueling operations for the JSOTF helicopters, coordinated survey missions, and maintained OPCON of the MH-53s, MC-130Ps, and STS. Lt Col Paul Harmon, commander of the 21st Special Operations Squadron, reviewed and approved all of the MH-53 mission assignments to ensure the Pave Lows were effectively used during the operation.

As in the north, missions in the south varied. The Pave Lows stayed busy moving relief supplies and personnel throughout the southern region. On 12 March, an MH-53 flew from Hoedspruit to the Maputo airfield where the crew met with General Wehrle, US Ambassador Curran, and the Vice Chief of Staff from the Mozambican armed forces. The helicopter then flew to Palmeria, a staging area for international aid workers, where it uploaded over two tons of relief supplies. It then flew over miles and miles of flooded countryside to the remote village of Xai-Xai where it was greeted by hundreds of cheering villagers, mostly children. The MH-53s also helped deliver a water purification system to one of the southern villages and approximately two tons of medicine, rice, and clothing to another remote village. Due to their size and heavy rotorwash, the MH-53’s were sometimes unable to deliver relief supplies to some of the smaller landing zones. The JSOAC’s MC-130Ps, in addition to providing in-flight refueling to the MH-53s and HH-60s, performed survey and assessment missions, and on occasion, moved relief supplies among the different airfields.

Near the end of the operation JSOTF-AR did suffer one casualty. On 24 March, an Airman from the 352nd Maintenance Squadron joined several of his co-workers for a trip to Lisbon falls near Graskop, South Africa, during their off-duty time. Against the advice of his friends, the Airman insisted on swimming in a prohibited area at the top of the falls where he got caught in a strong current, was swept over one of the smaller falls, and subsequently carried over the larger, 300-foot waterfall. Two JSOTF-AR MH-53s and one MC-130 responded immediately and joined South African Rescue personnel in conducting an air and ground search until darkness. The Airman’s body was discovered the next morning at the base of the falls.

On 24 March, after much discussion, the government of Mozambique announced that it was time to transition relief efforts to its local governments. On 25 March, the HH-60s delivered 14 tons of food in their last day of operations and the C-130s moved 42.6 tons of agricultural seed to Maputo. On 26 March, the JSOTF flew three missions, delivering 5.52 tons of food, and also began packing for redeployment, concluding humanitarian relief efforts under JTF-AR.

Moholool Front gate

During Operation ATLAS RESPONSE, more than 700 US personnel were deployed. Aircrew, maintenance, and support personnel flew approximately 600 sorties, delivered 970 tons of cargo, and moved 1,200 passengers from various relief organizations, foreign governments, and militaries. The Airmen and support personnel from JSOTF-AR flew 319 of those sorties, delivered 203 tons of the cargo, and moved 387 passengers. The HH-60s proved to be the workhorses of the operations, delivering over 177 of the 203 tons of food and cargo transported by JSOTF-AR assets.

Because they had been diverted to Mozambique while on their way home from a 120-day deployment, the HH-60 team was given priority for the return home. The Air Rescue personnel departed from Beira for Hoedspruit on 27 Mar and boarded C-5s for home on 2 April. JTF and JSOTF personnel, except for a handful of CMOC staff members, who remained behind to transition relief operations, departed Mozambique by 28 March and all remaining air assets and CMOC personnel left southern Africa by 7 April.

Operation ATLAS RESPONSE was the first major deployment of US military forces to Africa since Operation RESTORE HOPE (Somalia, 1993). JSOTF-AR demonstrated the flexibility and adaptability of SOF, especially special air operations personnel and units. Over a period of more than a month, SOCEUR and the 352nd SOG planned and deployed over 5,500 miles, from northern Europe to southern Africa, set up dispersed operations 400 miles apart, integrated with conventional and multinational air forces to ensure responsive support of more than 50 international aid organizations, and successfully redeployed all resources to home stations. It was a job well done and one we were rightly proud of.

About the Author: Colonel Mike Russell is a retired Air Commando and USAF pilot. He flew as a Primary Jet Instructor Pilot (T-37), Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Pilot (HH-53B/C Jolly Green Giant), and Special Operations Helicopter Pilot (MH-53H/J Pave Low III). Col Russell also served as the Commander, 21st SOS, Deputy Commander, 16th Special Operations Group, Commander of the 66th Air Operations Squadron, and Deputy Commander of Special Operations Command Europe, and JSOTF-AR Commander.

Additional Photos Not included in the printed article

  • Maj. Ronald Whittle, a pilot assigned to the 17th Airlift Squadron at Charleston AFB, South Carolina, guides the first C-17A Globemaster III to a landing at Huidspruit AFB, South Africa. Photo by Tech. Sergeant Cary Humphries

  • Biera Ramp C-47 and Helos

  • Shadow on Biera Ramp

  • DustDevils at Heodsripte

  • The Combat Shadow is deployed for the operation from the 67th Special Operations Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, England. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cary Humphries

  • Pave supply offload

  • South Africa Helo

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Saving A Wild Boar

Saving A Wild Boar

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

The US military team delivered search and rescue experience and capacity to the tremendous efforts provided by Thai authorities and international search and rescue teams. (Photo by Capt Jessica Tait)

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.”

Air Commandos meet with Royal Thai military officials and a Thai engineering company to advise and assist in the rescue operation. (Photo by Capt Jessica Tait)

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.

Thai rescue authorities work together to support the staging of equipment for pumping operations. (Photo by Capt Jessica Tait)

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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