By TSgt Shawn David McCowan, 455th Air Expecitionary Public Affairs
/ Published August 22, 2012
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN -- BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN -- EDITOR'S NOTE: While dramatic in nature, the following is a true account of recent events. Due to the currency of this story, names may have been changed or removed in the interest of Operational Security.
Coalition troops were recently attacked by insurgents in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Air Force A-10s provided close air support while many other organizations cooperated to help the troops complete their mission. Military men and women deployed to Bagram Airfield normally consider such a situation ordinary. But in the summer of 2012 a perfect storm of complications forced ordinary heroes into extraordinary circumstances.
During the morning of June 28, 2012, approximately 90 coalition servicemembers were working toward their planned point of recovery after completing a late night mission in eastern Afghanistan. Their destination was the flat top of a mountain ridgeline about a mile above the ten-mile wide crater-like valley below. The ridgeline and valley were entirely surrounded by massive, craggy 12,000-foot peaks.
High above the coalition troops, a pair of A-10s provided close air support. The Thunderbolt IIs were assigned to the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Bagram Airfield. The pilots flying overhead were deployed from the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Wing, one of the two deployed Air Guard flying units. The deployed 175th Airmen had just a week left in their deployment.
During their trek the coalition troops discovered enemy forces were in the area and were aware of their location. While they maneuvered toward better cover on the side of the ridgeline they began to receive sporadic incoming fire from farther down the ridge. As the group found cover and returned fire, gathering clouds began to darken the sky.
When incoming fire seemed to increase, coalition troops prepared themselves for extended combat. Over the next hour the growing exchange of bullets seemed to correspond with the building clouds and rising winds. The group's Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) contacted the two A-10s above and began communicating the situation.
The coalition troops knew thickening clouds would soon complicate things for aircraft support. Gusting winds had already forced a waiting UH-60 Blackhawk to depart earlier than planned. Above, the pair of A-10s supporting them already needed relief.
At Bagram Airfield, two more of the squadron's pilots, "Zucco", the flight lead, and his wingman, "Metro", were in their mission brief. Army 1st Lt. Jared Bachelder, a Ground Liaison Officer with 4th Battlefield Coordination Detachment, had been monitoring the conflict in the valley since it began. He dreaded his next brief more than any before it.
"I've never had a brief like that one, and I probably never will again. I knew I was sending these pilots into an increasingly difficult situation. Four other pilots had already gone into the area, and it was only getting worse. It was nerve-wracking. But I know this is why we're here, and I was confident in all of us to do our jobs," said Bachelder.
Normally the weather forecast is a formality during a mission brief. This time the elements were threatening to be as hazardous as the enemies on the ground. One particular mountain range just north of the embattled valley and ridgeline provided the ideal environment for an especially dangerous kind of storm.
SSgt. Olivia Updike, a weather forecaster with 455th Expeditionary Operational Support Squadron, had the stressful task of monitoring the tenuous conditions.
"Weather can obviously be unpredictable. But we can look at local patterns and other evidence and get a pretty good idea about what to expect. There was really no doubt about this situation. A very strong storm system was building just north of the mission area. But, as the morning went on, thunderstorms were rapidly building over the whole region. It was so widespread and the indicators were so blatant... This was going to be a bad day," said Updike.
Updike echoed many other briefers' sentiments that morning.
"I don't like briefing things like this because I know it isn't going to stop the mission, and I know how it will impact the mission. All anyone can do is make sure we are as accurate as possible, so everyone knows what to expect and how to prepare for it. It's so important to really know your job at times like this; even in weather."
Zucco and Metro finished their pre-mission preparations and headed toward their aircraft in the early afternoon Afghanistan heat. They would soon relieve two other A-10s from their squadron already providing support at the site of the conflict.
The ground battle continued as JTACs coordinated with their A-10 support to target incoming fire. Despite the return fire from coalition troops and air support, the insurgent attack from the valley somehow continued to intensify. The ground forces held their ground on the ridge as long as possible, hoping for additional help from an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter nearby.
But, the massive storm building above the 12,000-foot-high northern mountain range was forming its own kind of assault on the troops. The combination of afternoon temperatures topping 100 degrees and the expanding storm front caused the Apache support mission to divert away from the attack site. The weather had also diverted the UH-60 Blackhawk scheduled to pick them up. Even far above the ongoing battle, a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft waiting to refuel a pair of F-16s had to change course to avoid the weather.
Zucco and Metro checked in at the scene and received situational information from the pilots they were relieving. The clouds had gotten thicker and lower in just the short time since they arrived. This forced the jets to operate at a lower altitude and burn more fuel.
They soon got their first request for support from the JTACs below. Their target was below coalition forces near the bottom of the ridgeline. The pilots began to coordinate their strikes.
But the insurgent attack escalated even further.
The pilots knew they were running out of time and would need fuel sooner than planned and their relief was not scheduled to arrive for some time. They were forced to decide on a plan to both protect the troops and find a way to refuel. Zucco elected to remain on station and sent Metro to refuel.
As Metro departed, the massive developing storm front breached the mountains from the north. He worked his way around the giant system, but soon discovered that the refueling tanker had moved from its scheduled position - to the other side of the storm.
Zucco prepared to begin his first strike on his own. But within minutes the massive thunderstorm poured into the valley.
Back at Bagram, SSgt Updike and her officer, Capt. Angela Joy-Radden, anxiously watched the storm create a worst case scenario. Pressure from the storm's building layers caused it to collapse within itself when it hit the valley, creating a Microburst.
"Microbursts release a lot of energy. Downdrafts cause wind funnels that fill the valley with rain and then dust. It also generates lots of lightning and electricity that interferes with equipment. There is zero visibility and no way to know where anyone is on the ground," said Joy-Radden.
Coalition ground forces remained under increasing fire as the torrential downpour arrived, engulfing the entire area around the troops. Wind, heavy lightning, and driving rain overpowered the valley. Waves of airborne sand mixed with rain, obscuring everything.
Just moments after the storm began, the coalition forces were ambushed. They suddenly found themselves vastly outnumbered by enemy forces advancing from below. The massive insurgent army moved toward the middle of the coalition troops, dividing them. They began taking fire from a mountainside across the rain-soaked valley. The ambush had escalated into a full battle. Above the battle, Zucco's visibility decreased and forced him to a lower altitude.
"The ceiling dropped to maybe 3,000 feet, but I still had 12,000-foot cliffs all around the valley. I could barely see through the sides of my cockpit, and I could barely see anything out of the front," said Zucco.
In addition to depending on his moving map display to remain clear of the terrain and being forced to maneuver against insurgent gunfire, the relentless storm conditions caused him to expend more fuel than planned. He also knew he was running low on ammunition.
While Metro avoided the storm and managed to rendezvous with the tanker, he heard Zucco's increasingly urgent requests for his return change from trained operational communication to plain English, "where are you?" and "Get here as soon as you can." Metro knew the situation was degrading, but he no longer had enough fuel to both support the fight and return home.
Static became more and more of a problem for radios on the ground and in the aircraft. The storm seemed to affect communication more than usual. But the weather team at Bagram discovered the probable source of the radio issues, and could only shake their head in disbelief.
Energy released from a recent solar flare was beginning to arrive in Earth's atmosphere, disrupting electronics and radio signals.
Zucco continued providing close air support while receiving hostile fire under heavy rain and low visibility as he carved a path between mountain peaks, the valley, and heavy dust. Finally, although the battle raged on below, Zucco fired his last 30mm round. He also no longer had enough fuel to meet the tanker on the other side of the storm. Even though his radio squawked with highly animated communications from below, he was forced to leave the battle and pass his target area info to Metro as best as he could.
Zucco returned to base, but Metro was still eight minutes away from the target area.
The massive insurgent march continued up the ridgeline, completely splitting the coalition group in half. The JTACs, also divided, were trying to contact Zucco, when both of them were shot. One was able to continue some of his duties, but the other suffered a more serious wound and could not continue. In the usual personnel configuration for mission support, losing both JTACs was a limitation that could mean the already desperate situation had become unmanageable.
But this mission happened to include an additional junior JTAC just out of training.
Although tense, it was his turn to control the fight help his brothers in arms as Metro checked back in.
Metro had refueled and approached the target area, but everything had changed.
"When I left, it was just a low ceiling. This looked completely different, and the storm was incredible. This was the worst weather I had ever flown in. I would never purposefully fly my jet into weather like that," said Metro.
Metro reached the beginning of the valley and radioed the JTACs. The coordinates he received were confusing.
"The last location of our friendlies that I got from Zucco was exactly the same place the JTAC was telling me to target. I had very limited visibility outside. The guy on the radio was not the one I was used to hearing. I was really having doubts about being able to help."
As Metro began planning for what amounted to a "Hail Mary" pass with his 30mm, several more troops had been injured on the ground including the unit medic. They were impossibly outnumbered. And there was only Metro and his A-10 left to help them. The friendly forces were communicating more and more frantically, urgently calling for support as if the situation seemed too far gone.
Metro worked with the new JTAC to isolate a small target area between the divided coalition groups. But the combination of heavy storm conditions and the chaos of the battle caused communication delays that made it nearly impossible to manage a precise strike to break contact. To play it safe, Metro launched a targeting rocket to mark the target area. He made his rocket pass, and waited for corrections.
"That's a good mark!" the JTAC shouted. There was still a delay in communication with the JTACs. The delay was enough to cause problems and question the accuracy of the mark.
Then reinforcements arrived. Two more A-10s arrived from Zucco and Metro's unit checked in, ready to help. Metro directed the coalition forces farther up their ridgeline to a safer position. Then the three aircraft coordinated and began a series of strikes. They accounted for the limited conditions, each following the pilot's strike ahead of him to
hone in on the enemy's position.
Moments later the three aircraft dove down just above the friendly troops and hundreds of 30mm rounds from the trio of Thunderbolts showered onto the enemy position on the ridgeline. The effect was instantly noticeable. The three aircraft coordinated another strike. The JTACs confirmed the rockets created a good mark, and relayed the results to the A-10s.
"That's it! Shoot the ridge! Shoot the ridge!"
The insurgents were tightly targeted, and everyone on both sides of the battle knew it was only a matter of time before hundreds of exploding incendiary rounds would finish off the remaining enemy combatants. Once again the ground beneath the insurgents erupted from A10 gunfire.
Metro was again low on fuel, and it was time for him to turn support over to his wingmen behind him. Two A-10s remained for close air support and Metro returned to base. The enemy attack had quieted enough for an HH-60 Pave Hawk to pick up the most seriously injured troops.
Helicopters continued to pick up injured personnel from the ridgeline as rescue and recovery operations were underway. Above them pairs of A10s continued to provide close air support and armed escort for the helicopter rescue operation. As the remaining troops were recovered from the valley, the A10 pilots donned their night vision goggles as the sun set on the 13-hour fire fight.
The weather team was amazed that the mission succeeded and everyone survived. They were also amazed at the pilots' willingness to risk everything under those conditions.
"In the middle of that chaotic sky and that chaotic mess on the ground, that whole Air National Guard unit went in there and really blew us all away. That was really impressive," said Joy-Radden.
Back at Bagram, Zucco climbed out of his aircraft. He saw his crew chief, SrA Wes Pool, but his mind was on getting fuel and returning to help the troops in the valley.
"Hey, I think I was shot at." said Zucco, as he glanced back at the aircraft. "We should have a look."
Pool carefully walked around the aircraft and quickly had a response.
"Yes, sir. You got one... make it two," said Pool. He shook his head and got to work. The strikes meant Zucco was done flying for the day.
Later that night after Metro landed, the two pilots went to Bagram's Craig Joint Theater Hospital to find the injured JTACs and coalition troops. Some of the other members of the battle were already there. Zucco and Metro asked about the injured. One of the troops paused and shook his head.
"I tried to help the JTACs out of the helo. They wouldn't let anyone help. They walked into the hospital. One with a bullet in his shoulder, and the other with a bullet in his side. He just did a one-arm pull-up on the helo door, stood up and walked in," said one of the troops.
Zucco and Metro eventually found the JTACs in the hospital. One of the controllers' eyes lit up when he saw the pilots.
"Were you the ones that stayed when the weather got bad? You saved a lot of lives out there."
In the end, 12 A-10s from the 104th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron supported the battle with only one aircraft sustaining battle damage... two bullet holes. Metro said he and Zucco later shared a sentiment about that day.
"That was the pinnacle of my military career. Everything went wrong. But we all did our jobs, no one died, and we're back in the fight."
And Pool had Zucco's aircraft ready to fly within 24 hours.