Tuesday 26th May 8.00pm
The documentary series examining historic helicopter operations continues. In this instalment, a group of US Air Force reservists relive a perilous mission that saw them sent into the Afghanistan war zone to rescue a stranded Navy SEAL.
In the summer of 2005, a four-man Navy SEAL team was on a covert mission to assassinate an Al-Qaeda leader high in the mountains of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. When the mission was ambushed and the men surrounded, a Chinook helicopter packed with special-operations troops was sent to assist – only to be shot down by Taliban insurgents. With no options left, the US Air Force called upon the reservists of the 920th Rescue Wing.
When Col Jeff ‘Skinny’ Macrander received the call, he and his two helicopter crews were nearing the end of their tour in Afghanistan and preparing to return to their civilian jobs in the US. However, it was now up to these men to succeed where the best had already failed. Their mission was to fly deep into the war zone to rescue any SEALs that might have survived the ambush. Before he set out, Skinny’s confidence was high. “If there was somebody there and they were alive, we were going to find them,” he recalls.
Instead of the lumbering Chinook, the reservists would be using one of the most sophisticated search and rescue helicopters in the world – the MH-60G Pave Hawk. This machine is capable of flying non-stop for 18 hours in virtually any weather conditions and features colour radar, infrared cameras and anti-missile defences. “It’s a very awesome helicopter,” says pilot Jeff ‘Spanky’ Peterson. If they were to succeed, the 920th Rescue Wing would need every one of the Pave Hawk’s special features.
Shortly before nightfall on June 29, Skinny’s two crews set out into the Kush mountains. With very limited information regarding the location of the stranded SEALs, the men were forced to hug the ground as they searched using night-vision goggles and infrared cameras. After eight hours, there was still no sign of the SEALs. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” recalls Capt Dave ‘Gonzo’ Gonzales. But the men could not give up – if they did not find their comrades soon, the Taliban surely would.
After returning to base as dawn removed the cover of darkness, the men made a breakthrough. An old Afghan man delivered a hand-written note from a Navy SEAL hiding out in a mountain village. The only survivor from the covert mission, the badly injured Marcus Latrell was now in desperate need of medical attention.
Using satellite images of the mountain village, Skinny devised a rescue plan. He would pilot the lead chopper into the landing zone and drop a glow stick, allowing a second craft to follow on and pluck Latrell from under the noses of the Taliban. However, when the crews set out, a heavy cloud layer meant that the glow stick did not work. With a fierce gun battle between US ground troops and the Taliban taking place below, it was impossible for the Pave Hawks to land. Eventually, a supporting Warthog attack craft came through and pinpointed the landing zone using a targeting laser. “It was like the finger of God,” says Gonzo.
Despite the rough terrain and blinding clouds of dust, Spanky eventually managed to land the chopper – with just feet to spare from the rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Despite gunfire all around, the crew’s two highly trained pararescuemen managed to make contact with Latrell and bring him safely on board. With all crew members back in the chopper, Spanky was able to flee back to base where the rescued SEAL could receive medical attention. Only after talking to his wife back in the US did Spanky realise what he had achieved. “It was a great feeling to know that I did what I’d been training for for ten years,” he says.
However, for the men of the 920th Rescue Wing, there was one last job to complete – to fly back into the war zone to pick up the bodies of the SEALs that did not survive.