Nine Air Force air commandos received five Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals earlier this week. The air commandos are credited with saving the lives of 88 American and Afghan Special Forces troops in Afghanistan in September 2019.

The AC-130J Ghostrider crew of “Shadow 71,” assigned to the 73rd Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, was tasked to provide air cover for Special Forces during a particularly intense battle in Afghanistan, firing at enemies who attempted to ambush the joint American and Afghan team, 1st Special Operations Wing commander Col. Jocelyn Schermerhorn said during the award ceremony on social media.

The Ghostrider crew was awarded their medals by Lieutenant General Jim Slife the commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command during the ceremony. 

Air Commandos Awarded for Saving 88 Lives in Afghanistan
LTC Christopher McCall is decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross by LTG Slife commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command. (U.S. Air Force)

The Air Commandos Provided Uninterrupted Cover for Two Hours

The air commandos awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross during the ceremony at Hurlburt were:

  • 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 ones 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

“To the entire crew of Shadow 71, thank you for who you are; thank you for being our examples; thank you for your service to the nation; thank you for your dedication to our mission,” LTG  Slife said. 

The air commandos’ Distinguished Flying Cross (the eighth highest award for heroism in combat) citation read as follows: 

“Lt Col Christopher B. McCall, Capt Jasen K. Hrisca, Capt Tyler D Larson, TSgt Jake M. Heathcott, and SSgt Kyle W. Burden who distinguished themselves by extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as an AC-130J crew, in support of Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL, September 2019. During that mission, the AC-130J crew provided nearly two hours of continuous close air support fire against multiple enemy ambushes, saving the lives of 88 American and Afghan Special Forces members. In total, the crew engaged three separate enemy positions, provided continuous fire shielding helicopter assault forces during landing and casualty evacuation, and ultimately ensured the rescue of wounded ground forces. The professional competence, aerial skill, and devotion to duty displayed by the AC-130J crew reflect great credit upon themselves and the United States Air Force.”

Air commandos recognized for saving 88 men in Afghanistan.
Air Force AC-130J Ghostrider firing its weapons in support of ground troops. (U.S. Air Force)

During the operation, a large group of American and Afghan Special Forces was involved in pitched combat with enemy forces that had ambushed the group. The air commandos of Shadow 71 provided uninterrupted cover for helicopter assault forces during landing and casualty evacuation for over two hours, ultimately ensuring the rescue of wounded ground forces. 

“Gunships Are a Team Sport”

“I always say gunships are a team sport; you really can’t do something like this without a great team,” said Air Force LTC Christopher McCall, Shadow 71’s aircraft commander. “Shadow 71 has talent from front to back.”

The AC-130J aircraft is a highly modified C-130 that comes with an advanced avionics package. It is heavily armed with a Precision Strike Package consisting of a 105mm cannon, a 30mm GAU-23/A cannon, and wing pylons that carry a variety of GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs and AGM-114 Hellfire and AGM-176 Griffin missiles.

The AC-130 fleet traces back to the Vietnam War. It has been extremely effective at taking out ground targets while providing support for troops on the ground. The Air Force is currently testing a laser weapon on the aircraft.