(Volume 24 Issue 12)
By Colonel Bernd Horn
On June 1, 2005, a JTF 2 Special Operations Task Force (SOTF) redeployed to Afghanistan. Despite the meticulous planning and expert training, the environment and enemy together proved to be dynamic and challenging foes. One of these missions required courage, tenacity and superior martial skills.
Jackson, the assault element commander, recalled, “In the CH-47, the pilots gave me ‘one minute out’ [i.e., one minute from touch down at the LZ (landing zone) to allow the chalk to prepare for disembarkation].”
“As we approached the LZ, I saw that the LZ was not good and the pilots started looking for an alternate LZ. They over flew the LZ, turned around and exposed themselves to a ton of fire,” continued Jackson in disbelief. “We then received a burst of bullets from the rear to the front and the C-6 [machine-] gunners opened up.”
Chaos was not far behind.
“We then heard ‘fire in the back,’” Jackson said. “I turned around and confirmed fire in the rear port side of the bird.”
The squadron medic recalled events similarly. “I was seated first man port side near the C-6 gunner,” he explained. “As the chopper was flaring and we were inserting into our initial LZ, word was passed that it was not suitable to land.” He continued:
Once I heard that, the C-6 gunners on both sides opened fire. I also heard what sounded like small-arms fire coming through the chopper. Seconds later, I attempted to look out the ramp, but could not see due to large flames coming out the port side of the aircraft. The message was passed up that there was a fire, and that’s when the aircraft started its quick descent. I prepared for a crash landing by bracing myself.
Key to the operation was the reliance on a Blackhawk helicopter to insert a team onto the high ground before the arrival of the CH-47s into the target area. This would allow the CH-47s to come in supported by observation and some covering fire from the ground. However, this did not transpire as planned.
“Right from the beginning things were fucked up,” asserted the JTF 2 linguist.
There was hesitation to land the small team because of the enemy contact. But finally they were put down, albeit too late to help the first Chinook coming in to land. The American pilots struggled to maintain orientation, although they were under fire as they waited for the troops to unload. Things didn’t improve. Once the CANSOF (Canadian Special Operations Forces) operators got out of the helicopter, they were pinned down by enemy fire almost immediately.
“We were taking fire from everywhere,” explained the CANSOF linguist, “the villagers were on their roofs firing everywhere.”
The linguist and the snipers he was with did not know what was going on. The communications were pretty much blocked as everyone was trying to communicate their individual dramas happening across the small valley battlefield. The enemy was equally communicating but in a different context.
“Brothers,” encouraged a Taliban leader, “you will be rewarded for your work this day.”
At that point the small isolated team realized something big was going on. Then they saw huge black smoke and the AH-64 Apache helicopters firing everywhere. It was not until Jason Ashburn, the sniper detachment commander, and the rest of the snipers crawled forward to the edge of the cliff that they were able to get “eyes-on” the objective and the calamity that was transpiring below them.
At the same time, the second Chinook was in the process of dropping off a number of CANSOF operators (call sign (C/S) 11) at HLZ Hotel, to form the south block. However, they too ran into problems. The loading of the all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) had not been optimized, and as a result, the pilot reported, “with the ATV in the way, a few passengers took as long to offload as it does a full manifest of passengers — way too long.” The CH-47 then proceeded to “bunny-hop” to the vicinity to the west of HLZ Golf to insert the remaining CANSOF and ANA (Afghan National Army) elements on board. It then loitered, waiting for word that the landing zone was clear for insertion. The aviation commander reported over the radio that he observed RPG fires and instructed the second Chinook helicopter to drop off the passengers into the objective area without delay.
Blair Sturgeon, the detachment commander of C/S 11, and his men, who were responsible for the southern block, had made their way off the helicopter with difficulty because of the obstruction. They adopted a defensive position and waited until the Chinook departed. Immediately after the helicopter was out of ear shot, “we were able to hear noise other than the helo [helicopter] itself,” reported Sturgeon, “we heard MG [machine gun] fire.” He added, “All of the fire was coming from the north of our location. As we were not under contact, we carried on with our primary task.” The detachment commander explained:
At this point it was clear that the AH-64s were engaging something to the North. After observing to the north we saw large amounts of black smoke approximately five hundred to seven hundred metres away. About five minutes later, I received on comms [radio] what I thought was “a chopper is down.” At this point I decided to push my C/S north and forego the blocking position. After establishing comms with the assault force commander, it was clear that a helo had been downed, and this was the cause of the black smoke. As briefed in orders, this was now the primary mission.
The Apache gunship that had escorted the second CH-47 helicopter to HLZ Hotel for its first insertion observed, as they were in the process of moving to their second drop location (i.e., HLZ Juliet), the first Chinook helicopter turn around after over-flying HLZ Juliet and head back south toward their originally intended landing zone. They then noticed four enemy in the river firing and running towards the second CH-47, while another six enemy were running towards the first Chinook helicopter, which was now on fire.
“I engaged the enemy with 30mm killing ten as they were firing on both Chinook helicopters,” recalled the aircraft captain. “We continued to observe and cover the burning CH-47 as it landed on fire near LZ Juliet.” He added, “All personnel exited the stricken helicopter before the aircraft was completely engulfed in flames.”
The first Chinook helicopter itself did not notice any RPG fire while it was being engaged. The helicopter’s left fuel pressure light illuminated and the ramp aircrew member reported a fire in the cabin. Crew members extinguished the flames but they flared up again. At the same time, the aircraft started to vibrate heavily, as the controls were getting stiff due to loss of hydraulics.
Jackson remembered, “The CH-47 clearly lost power and dropped a little bit before going back up for few seconds and then lost all power and crashed.”
Luckily, the mortally wounded CH-47 was able to make a controlled crash landing in a field near its original HLZ.
The tragedy unfolded, taking mere minutes, while the command and control helicopter was orbiting the battlefield, trying to bring order to the spiralling chaos. Both the aviation commander and Picard were on board the C2 bird. As the first Chinook helicopter was turning south towards HLZ Juliet, the aviation commander and his right crew chief witnessed enemy running into the treeline. Subsequently they saw an insurgent emerge with a tube on his shoulder. The Taliban fighter then adopted a crouching position and raised the tube to his shoulder, aiming it at the first Chinook helicopter as it flew by. As the right crew chief began to inform the aviation commander of the impending engagement, the enemy fired the RPG. The crew chief saw a puff of smoke come from the tube on the Taliban’s shoulder and, subsequently, flames coming from the bottom of the first Chinook helicopter at its five o’clock position. The flames were at the rear of the aircraft and began to travel up the left side of the fuselage. The aviation commander quickly looked out of his UH-60 Blackhawk and saw that the first CH-47 helicopter was indeed on fire.
“From my vantage point in the UH-60,” said Picard, “it seemed as if it [the first Chinook] was travelling in slow motion as the flames engulfed the rear of the CH-47.”
Unfortunately, the pilots flying the C2 bird did not have the same vantage point, so they brought the helicopter around to the right. As the Blackhawk made its sharp turn, more ACM (anti-coalition militia) emerged from the treeline and another tube-launched weapon was aimed skyward, but this time at the C2 Blackhawk carrying the two key on-site commanders. The crew chief could not verify the exact type of weapon that was being aimed at them since they were at approximately one thousand feet above ground level (AGL), but he immediately yelled, “RPG at five o’clock” into the intercom. At the same time, the CMWS (common missile warning system) aboard the aircraft expelled flares from the dispenser on the right side of the helicopter. Both the aviation commander and the right crew chief saw a plume of smoke emit from the weapon and a smoke trail coming menacingly towards them. The crew chief saw the missile narrowly miss the aircraft and fly towards the flare location. The aviation commander and his crew chief later acknowledged that the missile passed underneath the right side of the aircraft at a distance of approximately five to ten feet.
Simultaneously, the pilot banked sharply to the left and away from the missile. The right crew chief also heard what appeared to be a loud “boom” or “thunder clap” as the missile went by. The crew chief had been unable to return fire due to the aircraft’s height and the presence of friendly forces in the vicinity.
As the command helicopter came around, they could see that the burning Chinook helicopter had made a controlled emergency landing and everyone was exiting the aircraft. The scene was surreal, more akin to a scene from the film Apocalypse Now than what one would expect from a mission based on a tempered risk assessment.