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Reserve aircrew honored for heroic mission

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFPN) -- When the call for help came the evening of Dec. 7, the MC-130E Combat Talon crew from the 919th Special Operations Wing here, did not hesitate to fly through enemy territory to assist their fellow special operators.

The 711th Special Operations Squadron crew's actions earned them one of the Air Force Reserve's highest honors recently, the Maj. Gen. Thomas E. Marchbanks Jr. Memorial Award. The Reserve Officer Association bestows this award upon the Reserve's most distinguished flight crew each year.

"This aircrew is representative of the many reservists supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and doing a phenomenal job on a day-to-day basis," said Brig. Gen. Thomas M. Stogsdill, 919th SOW commander, at the ceremony. "It is people like you in this room who work as a team to maintain and fly the aircraft to accomplish the mission."

In the wake of Sept. 11, the 10 crewmembers were among many Duke Field reservists sent to Afghanistan to combat terrorism.

The Talon's mission is to transport and supply special operations troops in hostile territory. However, as the interim gas station of the skies, it was the aircraft's in-flight refueling capability that led to the crew's heroic feat.

MC-130 pilot Maj. Bruce (Air Force security precludes the use of last names) and his crew were on a routine five-hour mission when they overheard that four MH-53 Pave Low helicopters, returning from a flight deep inside enemy borders, were unable to refuel because their tanker's refuel hoses had been damaged.

On their own accord, the Talon crew moved up their own refueling rendezvous with the KC-135 Stratotanker so they could assist the four helicopters in distress. While the 711th crew made these arrangements, the MH-53s landed 30 miles inside enemy territory to save fuel.

As the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. The crew's KC-135 had to cancel, forcing them to find another "tanker" of opportunity. Fortunately, they were able to get the precious fuel.

Time was slipping away, and the situation for the helicopter crews was deteriorating rapidly. The helicopters had only enough fuel to lay low for an hour. With bad weather approaching and spotting possible enemy forces, the helicopter crews prepared to abandon two of the most fuel-starved aircraft. And if they had, the Air Force would have had to destroy the $45 million MH-53s with an air strike to prevent the enemy from acquiring them.

The Talon crew was determined to help. After finally refueling, the MC-130 crew rushed into enemy territory.

"With fuel as low as they had, the helicopters had one chance to come up, get on the tanker, and get their gas," Maj. Bruce said. Bruce has been a pilot with the 711th for more than four years and is an airline pilot in civilian life.

Luck was with them. The crew refueled the two most fuel-starved helicopters at 500 feet above ground and led them out of enemy territory. They then headed back for the last two Pave Lows. By the time they were refueling the last two helicopters the crew was 17 hours into the work day, and daylight was quickly approaching.

The Talon crew managed to get the MH-53s and their crews to safety before their cloak of darkness gave way to the morning sun. With the MH-53s out of harm's, the Talon, which had supplied the helicopters with so much fuel, did not have enough left to reach its home base and had to divert to Pakistan.

Despite the events of their long day, the aircrew said they did not do anything out of the ordinary.

"We did what we were trained to do," said Maj. Chris, electronic warfare officer.

"There are a lot of people doing dangerous missions over there," said Capt. Patrick, co-pilot and an air reserve technician. "We just happened to get recognized."

However, the best recognition for the crew was that of their fellow servicemembers.

"When the helicopter crews called on the radio and said 'Thanks, you saved us,' that meant the world to us because we knew they meant it," said Maj. James, electronic warfare officer. "When you can go out and save a brother in arms, that is what it is all about."

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