AC-130 Gunship Crew Gets Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medals for Saving 88 Lives in Battle

The crew of Shadow 71 pose after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The crew of Shadow 71 pose after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal during a ceremony at Hurlburt Field, Florida, June 22, 2021. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)

An Air Force AC-130J Ghostrider gunship crew was awarded multiple medals this week for providing cover and close-air support for special forces personnel during a September 2019 battle in Afghanistan.

Five air commandos from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, received the Distinguished Flying Cross, which is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement during an aerial flight. Four others received Air Medals, given for a single act of heroism to those who perform exceptionally while in aerial flight, the service said in a news release.

The crew, operating as "Shadow 71," flew nearly two hours supporting American and Afghan special forces troops who were ambushed and engaged in a firefight, according to the release. Shadow 71 targeted crucial positions below to fend off the enemy's advancement, it added.

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Those awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross during a June 22 ceremony at Hurlburt included:

  • Lt. Col. Christopher McCall, aircraft commander
  • Capt. Jasen Hrisca, weapon systems officer
  • Capt. Tyler Larson, combat systems officer
  • Tech. Sgt. Jake Heathcott, lead special missions aviator
  • Staff Sgt. Kyle Burden, sensor operator

The members awarded the Air Medal were:

  • Maj. Brian D. Courchesne, co-pilot
  • Staff Sgt. Alex Almarlaes, special missions aviator
  • Senior Airman Brianna Striplin, special missions aviator
  • Senior Airman Thomas Fay, special missions aviator

Courchesne was unable to attend the presentation.

"I always say gunships are a team sport; you really can't do something like this without a great team," McCall, Shadow 71's aircraft commander, said during the ceremony. "Shadow 71 has talent from front to back."

Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, presented the airmen with their awards.

Together, the nine air commandos saved the lives of 88 American and Afghan special forces members. They also contributed uninterrupted "cover for helicopter assault forces during landing and casualty evacuation, ultimately ensuring the rescue of wounded ground forces," according to an awards citation provided to

The 73rd was activated at Hurlburt in 2018 as the first Ghostrider squadron. Along with the 105mm cannon sported by its cousin, the AC-130U model, the fourth-generation AC-130J is equipped with a 30mm cannon. The model reached initial operational capability in September 2017.

The service plans to buy 37 of the aircraft through 2024.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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