Airmen assist victims of avalanche, downed aircraft in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Larlee
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
A team of U.S. Air Force and Afghan air force aircrew and support personnel snapped into action Jan. 24 to provide life-saving support to 31 Afghan victims of an avalanche.

Additionally, the team supported an Afghan aircrew that had downed their aircraft in an effort to rescue the victims of the avalanche in Northern Afghanistan near the city of Fayzabad.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Chas Tacheny, the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group deputy commander, was in charge of putting a team together for the mission. He said his first priority was to ensure that this mission didn't add additional victims to the situation.

"First thing you think about in Afghanistan is the ability to survive," Tacheny said. "You don't want to do any more damage to your crew or equipment."

The Portland, Ore., native said he made sure to include medical and force protection personnel in the team of people spread out among two Mi-17 helicopters. He also wanted to ensure that everyone was properly equipped with cold weather gear because temperatures at the site were minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

The rescue team showed off some flexibility in performing the mission. They were originally assembled to perform an air safety inspection of the crash site, but about an hour before their arrival, they learned of the avalanche victims, which added a humanitarian wrinkle to the mission. Airlift of all victims would require two flights. The aircrew of the downed aircraft communicated with the new rescue team to provide triage information about which victims needed to be on the first flight. They also combined forces with the local villagers to shovel out a landing zone for the rescue team.

"This aircraft recovery mission changed very quickly from a safety mission to a humanitarian effort," said Lt. Col. John Conmy, the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron commander and a Mi-17 pilot who participated in the mission. "The landing zone was much smaller than we anticipated. Not too many teams could've pulled this off."

Tacheny said the biggest challenge was getting to the site safely. The site was at an elevation of 9,000 feet and tucked into the difficult-to-traverse Hindu Kush mountain range. The Afghan air force members were an integral part of the navigation as they helped direct pilots to the rescue site.

"The Afghans know this country and the terrain well," Tacheny said. "They did a great job of leading us through the mountains to where we needed to go."

The Afghans also sent safety officers and maintenance personnel on the mission. They were eager for a chance to pitch in to help their countrymen.

"It makes us happy to help others who are facing danger," said Afghan air force Maj. Farid Samin. "The crews of all the aircraft worked together as a team to make this happen."

Even with expert direction, traveling safely to the site was no easy task, said Capt. Mark Morales, an instructor pilot with the 438th AEAS. Morales piloted one of the two helicopters.

He said that the combination of the high altitude and a small landing zone required the best efforts of everyone involved in the mission. The landing was complicated by the snow, which was up to five feet deep in some areas, obscuring the landing zone.

"The mission presented very challenging flight conditions and to see our crew execute it effectively makes me extremely proud of them," Morales said. "It was not just the aircrew, though; a lot of people came together to help us get up the mountain and help save (the victims) from additional suffering."

Master Sgt. Chris Banks, a ground medic with the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, played a vital part in the mission as well. As the sole medic, he was in charge of making sure all 31 victims of the avalanche and the aircrew of the downed Mi-17 received urgent care.

"That was probably the most intense mission I have ever worked on," Banks said. "When you are working with that many patients, it really gets your adrenaline running."

During the approximately 15-minute trip back to Faizabad, the sergeant, a native of Orlando, Fla., hustled from patient to patient swapping out wet dressings for new dry ones and treating wounds as best he could. He said if the rescue mission had come any later, they may not have been able to save all of the victims.

"It was the worst case of frostbite I have ever seen in person," he said. "I have only seen cases that severe in pictures."

Morales, a native of San Antonio, Texas, said it was a true team effort. In addition to the Afghans providing guidance through the mountains, a German provincial reconstruction team provided timely reconnaissance pictures that provided valuable information for the mission.

"Teamwork and communication between the U.S., the Germans and the Afghans was the lynchpin for this whole operation," Morales said. "Without the German intelligence, we would have been burning precious time and fuel searching for the crash site and village."

Tacheny said he regrets not being able to do a safety ground inspection of the downed aircraft, but he said the most important part of the mission -- saving lives -- was a success.

"The humanitarian piece of the mission was an absolute homerun," he said. "I'm extremely proud of the team. They did an admirable job."