WASHINGTON -- Air Force Tech. Sgt. David Shea sensed no danger as he stood with his .50 caliber machine gun ready at the open ramp of his CV-22 Osprey coming in to land on a small, rutted airstrip in Bor, South Sudan.
A crowd of up to 10,000 people milled about a United Nations compound 200 feet below, where 30 U.S. citizens were waiting that sunny Sunday morning for the Ospreys to evacuate them from a country slipping into civil war.
The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) crews and 21 Navy SEALs on board to protect the operation had been told they were flying into a "permissive environment." Gunfire had brought down a U.N. helicopter the day before in the same area but the U.N. compound was under the control of Indian peacekeeping troops. Shea heard what sounded like "popcorn popping." Suddenly, a bullet smacked into Shea’s chest and knocked him flat on his back in the cabin, one of at least 119 rounds that struck the three Ospreys as they came in.
The pops were rounds from AK-47 assault rifles and heavier caliber machine guns (we’re pretty sure they were .50 caliber but no one will confirm that), wielded by enemies thought to be anti-government rebels. The bullets started peppering Rooster 73 and the other two Ospreys in the flight as they made their final approach. When Shea got up, he didn’t feel injured, but parts of his uniform were soaked in blood. He quickly realized the blood was from some of the SEALs on the aircraft, who had been hit when rounds pierced the CV-22′s fuselage.
Over the next couple of hours that morning of Dec. 21, 2013, Shea – unharmed thanks to his body armor — and the other 11 crew members of those three Ospreys would prove not only their own mettle but that of their aircraft. They flew those severely damaged CV-22s five hundred miles south to a safe landing at Entebbe, Uganda — saving both the lives of four wounded SEALs aboard Rooster 73 and three $89 million aircraft.
On Wednesday those 8th Special Operations Squadron crews will be recognized by the National Aeronautics Associationwith the MacKay Trophy for 2013, bestowed for the "most meritorious flight of the year" in military aviation. Previous recipients of the silver, gold and mahogany prize, kept at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, include aviation heroes such as Capt. Edward Rickenbacker (1918), Lt. James Doolittle (1925), Brig. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold(1934), and Capt. Charles "Chuck" Yeager (1947).
"Even being considered to have our names on a trophy with those guys is just completely humbling," said Capt. Brett Cassidy, who was copiloting the lead aircraft as Maj. Ryan Mittelstet, the flight commander, flew Shea’s plane, Rooster 73. Cassidy and others on the mission have no doubt the Osprey itself also deserves recognition for the way the three CV-22s performed that day.
"Not another aircraft in the world that could have done what we did that day."
"This mission to South Sudan is a testament to the survivability and versatility of the V-22," said Maj. Taylor Fingarson, who was flying Rooster 75, the third aircraft in the formation at Bor. "There is not another aircraft in the world that could have done what we did that day." Fingarson flew F-16 fighter planes for three years and U-28A special operations reconnaissance aircraft for three years before switching to the Osprey. Since 2010, he has logged more than 450 hours in AFSOC CV-22s, including combat missions in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Africa.
AFSOC primarily uses the Osprey to carry special operations troops on raids, and usually at night. Lt. Col. Mark Newell, operations officer for the 8th Special Operations Squadron, said his unit was chosen to evacuate the Americans in South Sudan on short notice because of the Osprey's speed and range. The V-22, primarily flown by the Marine Corps, tilts two large rotors on its wingtips upward to fly like a helicopter and forward to fly like an airplane, allowing it to cruise roughly twice as fast as most military helicopters and fly up to five times as far on one tank of gas.
The three CV-22s of Rooster 73 Flight refueled once during the three and a half hour trip to Bor, covering nearly 900 miles after launching at 0600 that Sunday morning from Djibouti, where Camp Lemmonier serves as operational headquarters for the U.S. African Command's Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa. As they arrived in Bor, "They decided to make an overhead pass just to kind of get eyes on the situation," said Newell, who was listening over radios from one of two MC-130 Combat Shadow aerial refueling planes that accompanied the Ospreys.
As lead pilot Mittelstet led the CV-22s in a final turn to a landing, simultaneously beginning to convert his Osprey's wingtip nacelles – pods that hold the Osprey's engines and rotors – from horizontal to vertical and transition to helcopter mode, Rooster 73 copilot Cassidy heard bullets hit their aircraft. "We're taking fire!" Cassidy heard ramp gunner Shea warn. Then someone in the back reported that some of the SEALs on board were hit and bleeding badly.
Cabin Awash With Blood From SEALs; Filled With Stench of Fuel
Fingarson, piloting the third Osprey in the formation, heard flight lead Mittelstet in Rooster 73 radio, "Taking fire! Taking fire! Go around! Go around!" Then Fingarson saw what appeared to be smoke or fluid spewing like a contrail from the aircraft in front of him, Rooster 74. Fingarson, flying with his Osprey's rotors still pointed forward in airplane mode, immediately banked sharp left, jinked right and left to evade any surface-to-air missiles, then flew to a predetermined "egress point." He and his crew knew that they had taken a few rounds, too, but as it turned out, only 10, and their Osprey's self-sealing fuel tanks worked as designed. All other systems were fine.
As the three Ospreys linked up and began flying toward their designated “divert location" at Entebbe, however, the other two CV-22s reported severe damage. Each had fuel leaks their self-sealing tanks couldn't prevent because the fuel lines had been hit. Each plane had lost one of the Osprey’s triply redundant hydraulic systems. Rooster 73 suffered damage to its flight controls and had an electrical system failure as well. Its cabin was awash with blood from the wounded SEALs and filled with the stench of JP-8 fuel.
The pilots quickly decided that Rooster 73 and 74 would hit the MH-130 tankers first. Rooster 73′s fuel leaks required Mittelstet to refuel a second time in flight as well during the roughly two hour trip to Entebbe. Rooster 73′s damaged hydraulics also required its crew to hand crank the CV-22's refueling probe, a rigid tube, to meet the tanker's drogue, a device resembling a badminton shuttlecock attached to a flexible fuel hose because the automatic system had been damaged.
A medic in Rooster 74 assessed the wounds suffered by the SEALs in Rooster 73 by radio and organized a "mobile blood bank," drawing blood from others on his flight with blood types matching the wounded so they could be transfused quickly at Entebbe. 8th SOS operations officer Newell arranged for a C-17 Globemaster transport to rendezvous with the Ospreys at Entebbe and evacuate the wounded to Nairobi for treatment. All four of the SEALs survived. The Americans at Bor were evacuated the next day to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, in U.N. and civilian helicopters, the U.S. State Departmentannounced on Dec. 22, 2013. The three Ospreys were later brought back to Hurlburt Field, Fla., for repairs. The least damaged of the three is back in service; the other two are still being repaired but are scheduled to return to service as well.
Participants in the mission said that while the crews could not land at Bor, the Osprey's performance in getting them home safely proves the value of the aircraft, which took 25 years to develop at a cost of $22 billion and 30 deaths in crashes. The Osprey’s resilience, they said, proves wrong those critics who have contended for years that the V-22 would be doomed if it flew into a "hot zone."
But Rex Rivolo, perhaps the best-credentialed of the Osprey's critics, said he remained unmoved.
"It certainly is a survivable aircraft, with lots of redundant systems, so when it gets shot up, you're still able to fly," conceded Rivolo. But the Bor incident, he contended, "says the V-22 cannot operate in a hostile environment."
Rivolo, who flew F-4 Phantom fighter planes in Vietnam and HH-3 "Jolly Green Giant" rescue helicopters for the Air National Guard later in his career, was assigned to assess the Osprey during its development as an Institute for Defense Analyses expert. He said the way the CV-22s were hit proves that the Osprey is too vulnerable as it approaches a landing zone to be used in combat missions.
"Rex is ignorant in his assessment," said AFSOC pilot Fingarson. "You'd have to go back decades to see a formation that was shot up the way we were."
Rivolo contended few Ospreys have taken fire because they are mainly used in “combat circulation” missions rather than tactically. Several V-22 pilots said Rivolo’s information was dated.
The Marines and Air Force have flown Ospreys into "hot zones" in Afghanistan for several years now, and this is far from the first time the Osprey has demonstrated impressive survivability. Two Marine Corps Osprey pilots, Maj. Michael Hutchings and Capt. David Haake of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365, received the Distinguished Flying Cross last year for a June 2012 mission in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in which they came under heavy fire while inserting Marines and Afghan troops into an objective area to conduct a raid against Taliban forces. Their MV-22s suffered damage similar to that suffered by AFSOC’s Rooster 73 and Rooster 74 in the Bor mission. Hutchings and Haake also got back safety both their aircraft and the troops, who completed an operation that lasted hours.
Capt. David Austin, who as copilot to Hutchings received an Air Medal with Combat V for the Helmand Province mission, said that while Marine Corps Ospreys inserting troops in Afghanistan were usually escorted by heavily armed AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey helicopters when landing in dangerous areas, they also flew during daylight on some missions and were shot at routinely.
"The amount of redundancy that's built into the aircraft, the beefiness of the airplane – it's a strong bird, and it can take some licks and keep on ticking, and get you to safety," Austin said. "That's what saved my ass and got me out, and it saved those guys in Sudan. I wouldn't want to fly any other aircraft in combat."
Those being honored with this year’s MacKay Trophy are:
Crew Members of Rooster 73:
Maj. Ryan P. Mittelstet ; Capt. Brett J. Cassidy; Tech Sgt. David A. Shea; Staff Sgt. Christopher Nin
Crew Members of Rooster 74
Capt. William J. Mendel; Capt. Arjun U. Rau; Staff Sgt. James M. McKay; Staff Sgt. Kenneth E. Zupkow II
Crew Members of Rooster 75
Maj. B. Taylor Fingarson; Capt. Daniel J. Denney; Master Sgt. Alberto L. Delgado; Master Sgt. Jeremy D. Hoye