Helo pilot awarded Silver Star for Afghanistan rescue mission

Helo pilot awarded Silver Star for Afghanistan rescue mission

12-Apr-2012 Source: US Air Force

With chaos erupting around him, rounds narrowly missing his aircraft, frantic crew members barking directions and a pair of wounded troops waiting for salvation in a sequestered landing zone below, then-Capt. Charles McMullen did what he was trained to do — adapt, lead and overcome.

McMullen, a rescue pilot deployed to Afghanistan from the 41st Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., was guiding a combat search and rescue mission Dec. 28, 2009, when his team came under fire from insurgents in a village nearby. Despite miscommunication and the threat of rocket propelled grenade attacks, McMullen led his four-ship task force to the successful extraction of two wounded British soldiers.

As a result of his gallantry and bravery under fire, McMullen, now a major, received the Silver Star from Gen. Mike Hostage, the commander of Air Combat Command, in a ceremony at Langley AFB, Va., April 3.

The nighttime recovery mission came as a group of 160 British Special Forces troops began to sweep a village near Nad E Ali, Afghanistan. An injury to one soldier put the lives of the entire unit in jeopardy, and McMullen’s team, which consisted of two U.S. HH-60 Pave Hawks and two British WAH-60 Apache attack helicopters, was dispatched in to complete the urgent CSAR mission.

After the British cleared a landing zone for the HH-60s, McMullen directed his wingman to ascend and recover the injured soldier while he and the Apaches provided cover. As the Pave Hawk began its final approach, insurgents ambushed using small arms, heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft artillery fire from 200 meters away. In response, McMullen cleared his aerial gunner to engage the enemies, allowing his wingman to withdraw.

The British Apache crews notified McMullen that the landing zone was again clear, and McMullen ordered the second attempt at recovery.

However, insurgents were waiting beyond the tree line to strike again. As the aircraft descended, enemies armed with RPGs encroached on the landing zone, and the anti-aircraft and small arms fire resumed. The rounds came within 15 feet of the helicopter.

“They can’t take off because they’re boxed in, rounds are coming over the top of their aircraft. I was ready to turn hot toward them, and all I saw was three guns. I was convinced they were being shot,” McMullen recalled.

“We were coming over the trees beginning our ascent into the landing zone, and really intense fire came from the left side,” said Capt. Evan Roth, the co-pilot of the HH-60 attempting the rescue. “As soon as we dropped below the trees, we got engaged. [McMullen] saw it and directed us to egress. It was then I saw the rounds above us and below his helicopter.”

“I remember thinking how I was on my seventh deployment, and I hadn’t lost anybody yet … hadn’t lost a patient, hadn’t lost a crew member,” McMullen said.

Running out of options, McMullen made his decision. He accelerated his HH-60 into the line of fire between his wingman and the incoming rounds, drawing enemy fire away from the pinned-down aircraft and providing a means for escape.

“I called for my flight engineer to engage the targets, and he replied that they were out of range and couldn’t get a shot. At that point, the only thing I could think to do was dive through the tracer fire,” he explained. “I figured if they started shooting at me, they weren’t going to take out my wingman, who had no way to defend himself.”

According to Roth, it was just enough for them to get away.

“I don’t know how we didn’t get hit with fire that night,” he said. “I’ve been in a couple engagements and that was probably the most scared I’d ever been. We were able to evade because Chuck made a great call.”

McMullen continued dodging rounds from three gun positions. With fire coming in from both sides, his crew members gave conflicting directions to strafe left and right.

“Had it not been for my co-pilot, we probably would have gotten shot, as both guys in the back both yelling to break a different direction – ‘break right, break left,'” McMullen recalled. “We were flying with the doors off, and my co-pilot said he could almost feel the rounds coming up. [The rounds] were so close on our left side tracking toward the helicopter, they almost hit the rotor disk.

“I called out, ‘Hey guys, give me a way to go!’ My co-pilot was the calmest he ever was during the deployment. He said ‘go right,’ put his hand on the stick and pushed it to the right a little bit. Immediately, we broke away and continued going through the maneuvers,” he continued. “It felt like the longest engagement I’ve ever been in.”

After escaping the threat, McMullen learned of a second soldier in need of extraction at the landing zone. The British Apaches did another run, eliminating several insurgents. On the third attempt, McMullen ordered his wingman to ascend and attempt casualty evacuation.

This time, the operation went without incident, and the formation evacuated with the wounded soldiers aboard.

In retrospect, McMullen attributed the mission’s success to training and communication. He thanked his British allies for their support, and honored the Air Force pararescue jumpers who worked so closely and diligently with his flight crews.

“The communication with our wingmen was rehearsed — there were no questions about what needed to be done. Even during training at Red Flag, when we’d go out to the range on Moody, I would push them, telling them “This is what you gotta do. When the time comes, you can’t think about – you just gotta do it.”

Roth said while training ensured everyone knew their role in the heat of battle, McMullen’s leadership and bravery saved the mission – and their lives.

“He made the right call, and got our mission done. He got put in a very tough situation as the flight lead. There wasn’t a point where he called and said, ‘I don’t think we do this,'” Roth said. “With all the risks, he did his best to mitigate them to the best of his ability for us to accomplish our mission.”

Even with one of the nation’s highest military honors bestowed upon him, McMullen, who is currently training as a test pilot, said his actions are indicative of what any rescue Airman would do.

“This isn’t a one-time event unfortunately. This is what every in Rescue does, day in, day out,” he said. “When we were there, we did seven or eight missions a day, every day, with no days off. You’re on your alert for 12 hours. You fly a mission, get out to use the bathroom, then jump back in and do it again.”

“It’s what we do as Combat Rescue,” added Roth. “These things we do that others may live.”

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