Apache Pilots Save Comrades in Daring Rescue
By Cpl. Benjamin Cossel, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
CAMP TAJI, Iraq, Nov. 5, 2004 For two AH-64D Apache Longbow pilots, the night of Oct. 16 was just a regular night flying a reconnaissance mission around southern Baghdad.
Then a distorted cry for help came across the emergency radio, shattering the chatter of all other communications. They recognized the call sign; they recognized the area; and a few minutes later, they were en route to perform what would become a heroic rescue.
"I really couldn't make out at first what was going on. The transmission over the radio was broken up and weak, but I could make out that it was a distress call," said Lodi, Calif., native Army Chief Warrant Officer Justin Taylor, an Apache pilot with Company C, 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, of the 4th Brigade Combat Team.
At first, the transmission seemed as though it might be coming from a U.S. Marine Corps aircraft. The call sign of another aircraft speaking to the downed pilot was of Marine Corps designation, Taylor said. He radioed to Marine Corps headquarters asking if any aircraft of theirs was down in the area. The response came back -- negative.
Then a call sign familiar to Taylor and Capt. Ryan Welch, the air mission commander, came across the guard, or emergency, channel. The two men now knew that Army OH-58D Kiowa helicopter pilots were down.
"We're in zone 43," came the weak transmission.
"I recognized the area and immediately made the decision that we were going to break from our sector and go over to the area," said Lebanon, N.H., native Welch. "Those were our guys on the ground, and we had to help. My first thought was we would provide aerial security."
As the team changed flight paths, they notified the USMC aircraft they had heard earlier of their intentions and made a call to 4th BCT headquarters to alert the unit to their movement.
When they arrived in the area of the crash site, they began trying to contact the pilots on the ground.
"As soon as we told the Marines what we were doing, a call came up on the guard channel. It was the same call sign but a different numerical designation," Welch explained.
The wounded pilot explained that the pilot who had called previously was now unable to respond, that two other pilots had been killed in action, and that he and the other survivor were trying to make their way to a defensible position but were having difficulty because one of the wounded men was unable to walk.
"When we flew over the sector, we immediately picked up the heat signature of a burning fire," said Welch.
"But at first we weren't sure what it was. It kind of looked like one of the many trash fires you see all over Baghdad," Taylor added.
While the two were flying over the fire trying to get a better look at the ground, an excited call came up. "You just flew over our position," the transmission informed.
Welch's wingman noticed the emergency strobe on the ground and notified Welch of the positive identification.
"Once we had identified the crew on the ground, I made the call that we were going to land and get those pilots out of there," Welch said. "I had no idea of the situation on the ground or what the landing zone looked like, so I informed my wingman to fly a tight defensive circle around our position to provide cover if needed.
"As we landed and I got all the cords off of me, I looked back at (Taylor) and told him if he started taking fire, (he should), 'Get this bird out of here, leave me, and we'll collect all of us later.'"
Welch had landed his Apache approximately 100 meters from the crash site. Armed with his 9 mm pistol and an M4 Carbine rifle, he set out to collect the downed pilots.
Welch contacted the pilots and asked if they were able to come to him themselves. Again it came over the radio that one of the pilots couldn't walk. They would need help getting out of their location.
"I basically had to stumble my way through an open field. It was treacherous, with potholes and low brush. I stumbled a couple times," recalled Welch. "But I finally came up on the crash site about 10 minutes later."
When Welch arrived on the scene he saw one pilot standing and one sitting. The two had been able to get a fair distance away from the aircraft.
"As I came up on them, I noticed they looked pretty bad, multiple cuts on their face and both looked like the early stages of shock had set in. I called out to (Army Chief Warrant Officer Chad Beck), who was standing, to get him to help me with (Chief Warrant Officer Greg Crow)," Welch said. "It took a few seconds to get Mr. Beck's attention as he was visibly shaken and dazed."
Both of the downed pilots were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. Their unit is attached to the 4th BCT, Welch's unit.
As the two got Crow up and began the long trek back to Welch's Apache, the mess of tangled cords attached to their equipment nearly tripped them up. "We stumbled initially with all those wires just everywhere," Welch said. "I pulled out my knife and just cut them all away, and we took off."
Assisting two wounded men over the treacherous 100 meters to his waiting Apache, Welch said the time seemed to slow down to an absolute crawl. They inched their way back, working carefully not to further injure Crow.
"We had to move kind of slow," he explained. "I swear it probably took us like 10 minutes to get back, but it seemed like we were out there for hours. I was never so relieved to see (Taylor) and my bird sitting there."
Four personnel to get out and only two seats in the Apache posed a problem. Self-extraction was a maneuver the pilots had been told about in flight school -- a maneuver considered dangerous enough that no practical application was given, just the verbal "here's how you do it."
Hanging from every pilot's flight vest is a nylon strap attached to a carabiner. On the outside of the Apache there are handholds bolted on primarily to assist maintenance crews as they work on the birds. But, they also have another purpose -- to be used in the event of a self-extraction. The general idea is for the pilot to wrap a nylon strap through the handholds and then connect the strap to the carabiner. The aircraft then flies off to a safe location with the person attached to the outside of the aircraft.
"I knew getting back to my bird that Mr. Crow was in no position for self- extraction -- that I would have to put him in the front seat," explained Welch. "I radioed to (Taylor) and told him what I intended to do -- Crow in the front seat, Beck and I strapped to the outside."
At first Taylor just looked at Welch, a little surprised at the plan. "It kind of surprised me at first. And then I just thought, 'Cool, that's what we're going to do,'" said Taylor.
Beck and Welch worked to get Crow into the front seat as Welch explained what was next to Beck. "At first Beck really didn't want to leave. His commander had just been killed, and he still wasn't thinking 100% clearly."
"I can't go; I just can't go," pleaded Beck, but soon enough he understood the situation.
And then another problem surfaced. "The mechanism Kiowa pilots use for self- extraction is different than the setup Apache pilots use," explained Welch. "But we finally got it worked out, got Beck hooked up, and then secured myself to the aircraft."
Secured and assuming a defensive posture with his rifle, Welch gave Taylor the thumbs-up sign and the Apache lifted off. "I was a little bit freaked out," explained Taylor. "You just don't fly an Apache by yourself; it's definitely a two-man aircraft"
At 90 miles per hour the helicopter flew 20 kilometers to Forward Operating Base Falcon, the closest base with a combat support hospital.
"I only had my night visor on," said Welch. "I thought my eyes were going to rip out of my sockets and that my nose would tear from my face, the wind was so strong."
Landing on the emergency pad, Welch and Taylor helped medical personnel take Beck and Crow inside for treatment.
"One of the medics asked me if I was a medical-flight pilot," chuckled Welch. "You should have seen the look on his face when I told him, 'Nope, I'm an Apache pilot.'"
With the patients safely delivered to the hospital, the two exhausted pilots looked at each other with the same thought. "We both climbed back into our bird," Welch said, "and almost simultaneously said to each other, 'Lets go home.'"
(Army Cpl. Benjamin Cossel is assigned to the 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.)