by Staff Sgt. John Wright
455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
9/28/2011 - BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Rescuing injured coalition forces in Afghanistan is something the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron here is accustomed to doing, but flying over 12,000-foot mountains and refueling in air presented dynamic challenges during a mission Sept. 11, 2011.
Airmen from the 83 ERQS were pre-positioned at Forward Operating Base Ghazni to support casualty evacuation operations after an attack on coalition forces in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan, when a "REDCON" call came in that two wounded Afghan National Army personnel needed to be picked up. The location was high in the Kuh-e-Nilu Mountains. Due to the nature of the injuries and the time, distance and elevation factors, it was going to require some quick and efficient planning.
The 83 ERQS crews immediately made contact with a HC-130P/N aircraft out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, to establish an aerial refueling plan, while the pararescue Airmen and the flight engineer began stripping weight off the HH-60 Pave Hawks.
They took only the most basic rescue and medical equipment and decided to limit the number of Personnel on the aircraft.
Staff Sgt. Steven Prather, 83 ERQS flight engineer, was one of the Airmen responsible for figuring out the weight and balance plan for the "Pedros."
"Knowing we had to go that high, the big challenge was fuel load and fuel burn," the Moore, Okla., native said. "I had to run numbers to make sure we could get there. It wasn't a typical mission, but this is what we train for."
As the mission plan rapidly came together, the Pedros found out they were going to get substantial air support in the form of two A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft and two Army AH-64 Apache helicopters. With heavy air support and an air refueling, Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 pushed out in less than 20 minutes.
The flight lead that day was Maj. Parkin Bryson, 83 ERQS HH-60 Pave Hawk pilot.
"The distance was so great that we had to refuel if we were going to make it," Bryson said. "Those guys made it happen. We could not have done this without them."
Bryson said aerial refueling in Afghanistan is not typical; it's a dicey affair requiring heightened concentration and skill.
"It's one of the more skill-intensive portions of what we do," the Durango, Colo., native said. "It's difficult because we were refueling at the upper edge of the refueling envelope. There is very little power. The HC-130 is basically at a stall margin, and we're going as fast as we can go. It was very sporty."
The tanker trails a hose and drogue refueling line behind and the helicopter pilot has to gently make contact with it using the pave hawk's refueling probe.
"These machines are designed for much lower altitudes," Bryson said. "It's difficult when you take them to the edge of the operational envelope. The controls become very loose."
The 83 ERQS pilots' training and dedication paid off as both helicopters successfully refueled were then able to fly over the mountain range.
Capt. Brian Carey, 83 ERQS combat rescue officer, was the pararescue team commander aboard Pedro 83. As the helicopters neared the pickup point, Carey and Tech. Sgt. Kristopher Burridge, 83 ERQS pararescue team leader, began finalizing their plans.
"We had been told it was a high-threat zone," Carey said. "It was a low-lying area in a bowl at 8,500 feet and a village all around it. There was heavy machine gun fire coming from the mountains to the east."
Bryson lead his helicopters on a couple of low passes over the area to determine the threat level as the PJs scanned their sectors.
"One of the things that's difficult about Afghanistan is that you never really know what the dynamic on the ground is," Bryson said. "When insurgents hear air power overhead, they will go to ground."
Burridge, who hails from Clearwater Beach, Fla., analyzed the situation.
"As we were coming in, I scanned the area for threats," he said. "I noticed the town was empty, which is a little unusual for that time of day; so, we had some concerns about that. My primary objective was making sure my team was safe."
Due to the overwhelming air support at their disposal, the Pedros decided to send their lead aircraft in (Pedro 83) as Pedro 84 provided security. However, landing that 8,500 feet required that Bryson perform a "roll-on landing" instead of a typical hover landing. A roll-on landing requires a pilot to skillfully land with forward momentum.
Carey and Burridge had eyes on the ANA patients as Bryson performed the landing.
"They were hunkered down on the northwest corner of a building since fire was coming from the east," Carey, a San Diego, Calif., native said. "They were packaged, ready to go and heading towards the aircraft."
Burridge and his commander were out of their tie-ins and off the aircraft in seconds as the helicopter rolled to a stop.
"Burridge and I stayed together until they came toward us," Carey said. "We then fanned out on both sides to provide security for them."
ANA personnel were carrying one patient on a litter and another piggyback style and quickly ran to the American forces waiting to airlift them to better medical care.
Burridge provided security as Carey helped load the patients into the pave hawk.
"We are moving as fast as we can to get off the ground," Carey said. "Let's land, get these guys and get out."
All told, they were on the ground less than three minutes.
"Once onboard, we started assessing and treating them," Burridge said. "We addressed the immediate life threats and from there started supportive care."
The 83 ERQS Airmen said seeing all the pieces of the mission come together was rewarding.
"We train for this type of mission a lot and to see it come together within a matter of a 10 to15 minutes and to go out and execute it was pretty awesome," Carey said. "We used assets from all over the theater. It couldn't have been more perfect."
Burridge echoed his team commander's words.
It's rewarding to be out there for there for the patients," Burridge said. "It's rewarding to train your guys and see them execute the mission. The more and more you do it and you see the faces of the people you pick up, it definitely brings it home that you are a big influence here. When I'm old and gray, I'll look back on these as some of the best days of my life."
Bryson said the mission emphasized something he see's quite often in Afghanistan.
"Lately, I've seen the Afghans really take an active part in the fighting," Bryson said. "Anything we can do to support them and take them back to the medical care they need ... it's a good thing for us to contribute to their cause."
Please note: I decided to post this impressive news story on my blog because there were at least two "Hogs" mission-involved. They belonged to the 74th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.