Rescue Airmen engage hostile forces to retrieve 'Fallen Angels'

  • Published
  • By Capt. Erick Saks
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Airmen from Bagram Airfield's 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron performed a daring mountainside rescue here April 23 after an Army helicopter crashed in a hostile Afghan valley.

The Airmen, deployed from the 33rd Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and the 212th RQS at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, recovered one injured pilot and one fallen hero while coming under heavy fire.

The mission began prior to daybreak, when Airmen at the squadron's tactical operations center received a report of a Fallen Angel, the term which signifies a downed aircraft. Within 10 minutes, two 83rd ERQS HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters were airborne and enroute to the site where a coalition helicopter was reportedly down.

Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 quickly arrived on scene, approximately 20 miles from Bagram, and held about five miles away as they linked up with the other air assets in the area, including F-15E Strike Eagle fighters and AH-64 Apache and OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters.

"When we arrived, one of the Apaches already had eyes on the aircraft, and he lased the pilot so we could see him," said Capt. Louis Nolting, the Pedro 84 co-pilot. "At this time, we had thought that the pilots were collocated and that they'd egressed together from the aircraft."

One pilot had climbed several hundred feet to a ridge above the aircraft wreckage. This ridge is where Airmen on Pedro 83, the lead aircraft, used the hoist to insert their Guardian Angel team composed of Maj. Jesse Peterson, a combat rescue officer; Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte, the team leader; and Tech. Sgt. Shane Hargis, a team member.

"Once lead got the PJs on the ground, we found out the pilots had split up," said Maj. Philip Bryant, the Pedro 84 pilot. "The pilot who had egressed told the PJs that the other pilot was unconscious and at the crash site."

The PJs relayed the information about the second pilot still with the downed helicopter, and the Pedro 84 aircrew was directed to insert their PJs near the wreckage.

Based on the information, Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline, the pararescue assistant team leader, and Staff Sgt. Bill Cenna, a pararescue team member, began preparing their gear for their insertion near the crash site. At about 180 feet, the hoist was significantly higher than their standard descent due to the surrounding terrain.

"It was the longest hoist I've ever been on," Sergeant Kline said. "When we got on the ground, I was still under the impression that we were close to the other team, so we took a knee. We were about 50 meters from the crash site and we didn't see the other guys so we made our way to the site."

The team approached the pilot and discovered he had died prior to their arrival. The PJs immediately began preparing the fallen hero to be hoisted out.


Overhead, Pedro 84's flight engineer had retrieved the hoist cable and was getting back into position when the aircraft began to take fire.

"Not more than two seconds after forward momentum was executed ... pop shots," said Staff Sgt. William Gonzalez, the Pedro 84 gunner. "The first thing we start doing is checking to see where it's coming from and checking everybody out. And, maybe five seconds later the (flight engineer) says 'I'm hit.'"

In addition to manning one of the Pave Hawk's .50-caliber machine guns and monitoring the aircraft's systems, the flight engineer runs the hoist on the aircraft. Tech. Sgt. James Davis, was the engineer on Pedro 84 when it was first engaged by enemy fire.

"I had just turned off the hoist and I was sliding back into my seat when the round came through the helicopter and hit me in the leg," Sergeant Davis said. "They asked 'are you all right Jim' and I said 'no I'm bleeding pretty good here.'"

Pedro 84 rejoined Pedro 83, but the Pedro 84 aircrew determined they were no longer mission capable after the injury to the flight engineer. They headed back to Bagram to get advance care for their injured flight engineer and to pick up another engineer to take Sergeant Davis' place.

Sergeant Gonzalez immediately moved over to provide medical care for Sergeant Davis.

"I looked back, and the first thing I saw was a pool of blood by his seat," Sergeant Gonzalez said. "I went over to assess his situation. I saw that he was still conscious and saw that he was still breathing. I put his tourniquet right above the wound. After I had it on, I went over to the PJs medical kit and grabbed some gauze, and I wrapped it around the leg trying to absorb as much blood as I could."

When the Pave Hawk landed at Bagram, the gunner, co-pilot and a Marine lieutenant who saw they needed assistance off-loaded Sergeant Davis, who was brought into the Craig Joint Theater Hospital emergency room.

The flight engineer said the timing of the shot is what made the difference between a serious wound and a potentially fatal one.

"I had been in the doorway with no way of protecting myself to get the PJs on the ground," Sergeant Davis said. "I got the cable up, and as soon as I slid from the doorway to the seat, the round came in. If I was still in the doorway, the round would have hit me right the in body armor or below it, and I'd have been in much worse shape."

As they cared for their injured crewmember, the Pedro 84 crew also worked to find a replacement for Sergeant Davis so they could get back to their PJs on the ground.

Tech. Sgt. Heath Culbertson was sleeping at Bagram Airfield when Sergeant Davis was shot, and he was awakened by frantic knocking on his door.

"They said 'get up, we need you in the TOC now,'" Sergeant Culbertson said. "I asked what's going on and they said Davis had been shot."

"When we taxied over from the (refueling point), Sergeant Culbertson had just walked out and was ready to go," Major Bryant said. "He came, got into the aircraft, got hooked up and we took off. The crew swap only took about four minutes."

The reality of the situation hit Sergeant Culbertson as he approached the aircraft.

"As soon as I got underneath the rotor, I saw the blood," he said. "It was pretty surreal. I'd seen blood before in the cabin, but never from any of our own guys. That was pretty shocking to me."


Back on the ridge above the crash site, the three-man pararescue team treated the pilot, pulled security and prepared for extraction. As team commander, Major Peterson coordinated with Pedro flight for pick-up and passed along information about the situation on the ground.

"My job as team member was as the medic," Sergeant Hargis said. "I checked over the pilot on the ground. He was fully alert and oriented with stable vital signs, and he had a laceration on his jaw."

Overhead, Pedro 83 swept the area searching for the enemy.

"As we came around, I saw rounds come up so I returned fire," said Senior Airman Justin Tite, Pedro 83's gunner.

According to the aircrew, the enemy fire originated from a tree between the two PJ teams on the ground.

"There were no other trees on the slope except this one huge tree right in the middle between the two teams and that's where they were hiding," Airman Tite said.

Seeing that his teams were spit up by enemy positions, Sergeant Uriarte realized they were not going to be able to walk to the PJs below.

As the enemy fire began picking up, Capt. Joshua Hallada, Pedro 83's pilot, decided that they needed to get the PJ team and pilot off the ground as soon as possible.

"So we set ourselves up to come in for a hover similar when we first infilled them, although much lower," Captain Hallada said. "Being that it was a little lighter now, we brought it into a 20-foot hover over our team and the survivor."

As the pararescuemen and the engineer worked to get the survivor into the aircraft, enemy fire increased, threatening Pedro 83.

"The team started to hook up the survivor and that's when the pilot started to call rounds off the one o'clock," said Senior Airman Michael Price, the Pedro 83 flight engineer. "Someone called the go-around at that point, and I sheared the cable to stop from dragging them through the rocks."

Airman Price used the guillotine-type device built into the hoist to cut the cable and prevent injury to the Airmen below.

"I had the strap around the survivor and I was hooked into the cable," Sergeant Hargis said. "I gave them the signal to bring up the cable and I noticed a little more slack coming out. I thought maybe he didn't see me so I gave him the signal again and the next thing I know, the cable's sheared."

"At first I did not realize that he had sheared the hoist," Captain Hallada said. "We came back around and I was setting up to go lower and further back into the rocks so that we could prevent (the enemy) from hitting us to try to get (our team) out again. On short final, I was informed that we didn't have a hoist. He had told me several times, I was just overwhelmed with other stuff."

Pedro 83 went around for yet another pass as the crew tried to figure out how to proceed.

"I determined we needed to one-wheel hover," Captain Hallada said. "It's when you just set a wheel down on the rock next to them and hover the rest of the aircraft at the same time, allowing them just to jump on."

According to the crew, the maneuver took 10 seconds at most, with the PJs and survivor jumping onto the aircraft followed by a speedy takeoff. However, the aircraft was damaged from fire they received as they lifted off.

"We went back into our overwatch patterns, realizing we'd been hit at that point," Captain Hallada said. "And, we started trying to figure out what to do next seeing as we didn't have a hoist and we knew the lower (landing zone) was hot."

Pedro 83 stayed on scene to provide overwatch for the remaining PJs and pilot despite the damage to their aircraft.  Soon, running low on fuel, they were relieved to hear that Pedro 84 was on its way back.

"We left for (Forward Operating Base) Morales-Frazier planning to get gas, ammo and return," Captain Hallada said. "However, once we landed, the situation caused us to shutdown and evaluate further."

At Morales-Frazier, sergeants Uriarte and Hargis transferred the injured helicopter pilot to the field surgical team while Major Peterson ran to the tactical operations center to coordinate with the ground force commanders. Meanwhile, Airman Price looked over the aircraft to evaluate the extent of the damage. Upon the first glance, the damage appeared minimal. But then, the Airman checked the main transmission fluid.

"It was pretty much bone dry," he said. "I told the captain we couldn't fly. We really didn't want to create another (personnel recovery) event out there."

The crew of Pedro 83 began working with their operations team at the TOC to get back into the fight. This entailed 1st Lt. Elliott Milliken, Pedro 83's co-pilot, coordinating a ride back to Bagram to pick up their spare aircraft.

Once at Bagram, the crew quickly loaded into the fresh Pave Hawk with additional pararescuemen and a small maintenance team, and they headed back to FOB Morales-Frazier.


Pedro 84 arrived back on scene to find significant airpower had joined the fight to protect the pararescue team and pilot still on the ground.

"While we were away, (A-10 Thunderbolt IIs) had shown up," Major Bryant said. "We train with the A-10s to do this, combat search and rescue. When we got back out there, there were three Apaches and four A-10s operating in the area."

The enemies in the large tree continued to threaten the aircraft and ground personnel until the A-10s and Apaches engaged the target.

"The A-10s were using their nose guns and their rockets, and the Apaches were using their chain guns," Captain Nolting said.

With the situation appearing to have settled down, the Pedro 84 aircrew made an attempt to extract the PJs and remaining pilot. An Army Apache teamed up with the Pave Hawk to move to the landing zone.

On scene for the first time, Sergeant Culbertson was able to get eyes on the crash site and the PJs. He was guiding the pilots down to the site when he began to hear what he thought may be gunfire.

"I heard whistling by my head," he said. "But, I thought to myself, 'that can't be. I've got my helmet on. There's no way I'm hearing the hisses.'"

It wasn't until Sergeant Culbertson heard the impacts on the aircraft that he realized they were under fire and he began searching for points of origin.

"Next thing I know, I get thrown on my console," the flight engineer said. "I still didn't know what was going on at that point. But from this vantage point, I could see under my gun, and I could see the muzzle flashes. I remember shaking my head to clear it, and then just a rage of fury came over me."

It wasn't until much later that Sergeant Culbertson realized a bullet had entered his helmet on the right side, through his visor and exited the other side of the helmet without injuring him.

"I called for the go around, turned the gun power switch on, and just started unleashing the 50 cal on these two points of origin," he said.

While Sergeant Culbertson remembers the event in "slow motion," Sergeant Gonzalez said the entire engagement was very quick.

"All of this happened within four seconds," Sergeant Gonzalez said. "I hear him say 'I'm scanning, I'm scanning. There was the pop-pop-pop from the ground, then the guh-guh-guh-guh from his gun."

Captain Nolting credits Sergeant Culbertson's quick and collected response to saving the aircraft.

"Without him returning that fire, there was a chance that our right engine or hydraulics could have been shot out," he said.

Running low on fuel, and with plenty of air support on scene to protect the team on the ground, the Pedro 84 aircrew returned to FOB Morales-Frazier where they looked over the damage to their aircraft. It was at this point that the crew realized not only that Sergeant Culbertson had been hit, but so had Sergeant Gonzalez.

"I initially counted seven rounds that had impacted the cabin," Sergeant Gonzalez said. "And then, I noticed the one that was under my seat. It had come from under my seat and fragged outward. One piece missed my right knee, and the other actually bounced off my knee and went through my knee pad."

Determining the aircraft was still flyable, Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 prepared to head back to the crash site together. Before departing, the pararescuemen who had come in with the spare aircraft from Bagram loaded onto the Pave Hawks.

"The situation being what it was, we didn't know how long the mission was going to take," Sergeant Uriarte said. "We thought it was best to switch crews so that they could do some work and we could pick it up later in the night."


At the crash site, sergeants Kline and Cenna assessed the situation. With Pedro 84 off scene due to Sergeant Davis' gunshot wound and Pedro 83 on its way to FOB Morales-Frazier, there was little they could do but wait. They hunkered down near the aircraft and the pilot, waiting for the Pave Hawks to return.

"It was at that time when we started taking fire," Sergeant Kline said. "I didn't know what was going to happen at that point. We were both preparing ourselves mentally to stay there for a while."

The enemy fire was sporadic as they took cover at the base of the mountain.

"Initially, it was just a couple shots here or there," he said. "But then, it really started to get close. Both of us ducked and got behind a rock outcropping. I think I saw the rounds impact before I heard them."

Unable to see the muzzle flashes, Sergeant Kline requested support from the aircraft above.

"I was basing all of my calls for fire off the impacts," he said. "If rounds hit here, they had to come from there. There was no other way. We were just watching where the dust flew and taking a reverse azimuth."

The team member began looking for escape routes should the conditions deteriorate further.

"To me, there was just one," Sergeant Kline said. "There was this ravine. It was approximately 25 meters away."

The team eventually had to use the egress route as the enemy fire became overwhelming for the two Airmen.

"We thought we were in pretty good coverage with the boulders and the helicopter," Sergeant Cenna said. "But, I distinctly remember looking over at (Sergeant Kline) at multiple times, seeing rounds and dirt flying right next to him. How we were not hit was pretty amazing."

"It felt like 30 rounds were all around us all within a two- to four-second period. They just hit everywhere," Sergeant Kline said. "They hit the aircraft, and it went up in flames. It quickly overtook the aircraft and I yelled at (Sergeant Cenna) to get the hell out of there. I had noticed during my initial scan of the aircraft that there was still a rocket pod with rockets in it. That was my concern; that it was going to be like the Fourth of July."

Sergeants Kline and Cenna sprinted for the ravine taking cover from the aircraft fire while dodging enemy bullets.

"That's when it started exploding," Sergeant Kline said. "Even while we hunkered down, they still kept shooting at us. The rounds were ricocheting above our heads. I have molten metal on my kit from where the helicopter had exploded."

Sergeant Kline kept in contact with the air assets throughout the firefight, providing situation updates and receiving information about the enemy who was closing on their position.

"They provided overwatch the whole time," he said. "They were like 'there are these guys 300 meters to the north of you; we're going to go hot on them.' We could feel the concussion from the rockets."

Sergeant Kline also recalled seeing an Army quick-reaction force being flown over their position as they waited.

"I could see guys sitting there in their seatbelts with their guns," he said. "And as they were going by, I could see a (rocket propelled grenade) whiz by. I looked up, and I could see the burst on the western mountainside."

Sergeants Kline and Cenna said they would go up to 15 minutes without a shot fired on them; however, every time they would begin to signal that they were clear, the firefight would start up again.

"I'd say, 'hey, it's been clear for 15' pop-pop-pop-pop," Sergeant Kline said. "It was every time I would try to tell someone it was clear, they'd pop off a couple of rounds."

While waiting in the ravine, sergeants Kline and Cenna overheard the 9-line medical evacuation request for a member for the QRF.


Together for the first time since Sergeant Davis was shot, Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 left FOB Morales-Frazier hoping to extract the PJs and the second pilot. However, the aircrews received the 9 line before they arrived on scene.

A Soldier had been hit and died within minutes of the call, Major Bryant said. Then as the Pedros approached the area another Soldier was hit and required immediate medical evacuation.

"When we got to the scene, there was an incredible amount of helicopter traffic in the valley," Captain Hallada said. "It was more than I've ever seen anywhere in this entire country going all directions. There were UH-60 (Black Hawks), Apaches, Kiowas and French helicopters."

Two Apaches joined the Pedros' Pave Hawks, creating a four-ship rescue formation; however, the number of enemies on the ground and the amount of firepower they wielded resulted in several unsuccessful passes over the medevac landing zone.

During the first attempt, Pedro 84 began descending into the ravine as the other three aircraft provided cover.

"As we got down to about 30 feet, (Sergeant Gonzalez) and I starting seeing muzzle flashes from this one building 200 to 300 feet from us," Captain Nolting said.

The flight lead determined they need to pull around, and as Captain Nolting worked to get the aircraft out of the valley, the flight engineer and the pararescuemen engaged targets in the building.

Just barely passing over some wires that were strung along the valley, Captain Nolting was able to safely get Pedro 84 out the zone. The aircraft formed back up for another pass with Pedro 83 this time attempting to land and extract the Soldier.

"As we were about to set down, we were engaged, and all of the aircraft returned fire, including the Apaches," Captain Hallada said. "As we took off, I immediately saw the wires out the windscreen, and I pulled everything the rotor system had to get over them."

On the third attempt, Pedro 84 was just feet from the ground when they started taking fire again, according Major Bryant. At that point, one of the Apaches performed a buttonhook back toward them and began engaging enemy targets.

"It split the formation, firing rockets and guns," Captain Nolting said. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen. It was deconflicted, it was safe and it was awesome."

Based upon the threat, the formation again pulled out of the area to reset. At that point, the Apaches fired their Hellfire missiles destroying a confirmed position which had been posing the immediate threat to the aircrews and the Soldiers on the ground.

On the fourth attempt, the Pedro 83 aircrew was finally able to land and extract the injured Soldier. They saw this as the ideal time to finally extract the second pilot and their PJs.

"There had been this tremendous weight on us the whole mission since we'd left our PJs in the zone," Captain Nolting said. "This was our golden opportunity to get them out."


Captain Nolting made contact with the PJs as Pedro 84 began to move into position above them. They agreed on an extraction game plan. Sergeant Culbertson would lower the hoist, the PJs would first hook the pilot's litter to the line, then they would connect themselves on a second hoist. But just as the aircraft made it's decent, the engineer noticed that the hoist had broken.

"I knew that we had to get our PJs out, and this was our opportunity," Sergeant Culbertson said. "The only other option I had was to go to backup mode. I said a little prayer, pushed down, and it worked."

According to the flight engineer, the problem with operating the hoist in backup mode is that the speed is significantly slower; however, they lowered the cable and the pararescuemen connected the pilot.

"That's pretty brave to send up a hero and not yourself when you been there over five hours," Captain Nolting said.

The lack of speed in the hoist was clearly evident to the PJs below the aircraft, according to the engineer.

"As I'm putting the hoist down there, I can see Kline down there waiving for me to go faster," Sergeant Culbertson said. "I'm like, 'sorry brother, I can't go any faster. The hoist is broke.'"

"By this time, I was expecting for us to get shot down," Captain Nolting said. "We'd been there so long. I truly expected we were going down."

For the first time that day, however, the aircraft did not take any fire, and the Pedro 84 aircrew was able to extract the pilot and PJs and evacuate the area.

Sergeants Kline and Cenna spent about five and a half hours in the valley dodging bullets and the explosion of the aircraft. And while he didn't know whether or not he would make it out of the area alive, Sergeant Kline said he knew that he would never have left without the downed pilot.

"We were going to do everything in our power to get him back," he said. "If I had to clip in and hold him, I would have. There was no way he wasn't coming back."

Prior to departing to have his injuries treated at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Sergeant Davis expressed his pride in the actions of his squadron.

"We did what we do," Sergeant Davis said. "We've got a motto for a reason, these things we do that others may live."