You can read part one here.
There I was, ready to do a nighttime combat High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jump in Afghanistan with a bunch of Ranger pipehitters without having any Freefall training at all.
Delta Force Lieutenant Colonel Jim Blaber squared me away with an impromptu class and his HALO rig. I was pumped, to say the least, and when I told Jim so he laughed out loud, “You will be the only Warrant Officer helo pilot with a combat HALO jump, you motherfucker!”
The Air Force got wind of this and pleaded with the mission commander that a Combat Controller (CCT) needed to go on the mission so he could test the runway. My reply to the Air Force colonel was that if there is a freaking Boeing 707 parked on the ramp, then the runway is capable of handling an MC-130!
I lost and was bumped: an Air Force CCT was put on the mission. I was pissed and the Rangers did not like the decision. Karma: The Ranger Recce team was one minute out from jump point when the CCT’s parachute mysteriously opened in the airplane. The CCT didn’t make the jump and to this day the Rangers have no idea how his chute opened one minute out — Rangers Lead The Way!
But now I had to find another role. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment’s (SOAR) helos and the ground force prepared to head to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk from where we would launch the largest special operations raid since the Second World War.
I was given an AC-130U gunship and my mission in the early days was to recce a route for the helos to the target, gain intel, recce Objectives Rhino and Gecko, and engage targets of opportunity to set the conditions for our raid. The logistics alone made my head spin.
It was a three-hour trip to the battlespace, and we had to be feet wet, flying over the water, and by sunrise head back to Masirah, Oman. But the AC-130 crew was truly amazing. “Swede,” the AC-130 aircraft commander, played football at the Academy, and the “CO,” co-pilot, was a brand-new second lieutenant, still wet behind the ears. The gunners knew their job along with “Ricochet,” the navigator. We were all very focused and happy to kill as many targets as possible. We would fly out with 100 rounds of 105mm, 256 rounds of 40mm and 3,000 rounds of 25mm for the Gatling gun. We would engage tanks, armor, and personnel and we would return empty every morning after a long night of hunting.
On our first mission into Afghanistan, we departed early to “tweak” the gun systems, boresight so to speak, to ensure the optics and guns are dialed in and accurate. Before we took off, during the mission brief, the fire control officer said we would tweak over water. I asked him if he had checked the location on the ocean for friendly submarines. My worst nightmare was that after we shot the 105mm a dark oil slick would float on the surface of the Indian Ocean. We all laughed, and I put a restricted operating zone where we would shoot the guns, ensuring that all Navy ships had the area located.
After returning, I would spend my nights with LTC Pete Blaber, Major Scott Miller — now the General in-charge of Afghanistan — and COL Schwitters discussing my AC-130 missions. I was told that COL Schwitters was the last soldier to receive a battlefield commission at the Desert One mission. He is an interesting man, loves to work with metal and we would discuss techniques for running a mill and lathe. I conducted five missions in the AC-130 in Afghanistan prior to D-Day, 19 October 2001.
I had a solid route planned for the helo assault force on which the 160th pilots agreed. The force moved to the Kitty Hawk and prepared for our mission into Afghanistan: Objective Rhino, was establishing a landing strip southwest of Kandahar, and Objective Gecko, assaulting the Mullah Omar’s residence west of Kandahar — he was the Taliban leader. It would be the longest Air Assault in history, 1,000 miles, over 10 hours of flight to the target. I hoped that my brother Night Stalkers have plenty of piss bottles because it would be a long night.
I made three trips to the ship in an S-3 Viking for updates — it is pretty cool getting “shot” off a carrier. During the last mission brief, I recited Psalm 91, shook hands with the fellas, and bid them farewell and good hunting. Leon would be on the ground with the force controlling fire support. I told Leon I would check in with him on comms, clear the helo route, clear the OBJ and provide overwatch for him and the ground force.
“Love ya, Coke!” he responded, while I prayed God would give them speed and accuracy.
D-Day, 19 Oct 2001.
Read Next: Air Force Combat Controllers the ‘Under the radar’ Special Operators
This mission would take place in total darkness. the conditions were set, and I was pretty excited, to say the least. I was responsible for 100 aircraft: The helo assault force consisting of MH-47s and MH-60 DAPS (Beef would lead the 47’s and Casey the DAPS — these dudes are the best in the world) and the fixed-wing support (B-1, B-2, B-52, F-15, F-16, F-18, Harriers, British Tornados, MC-130, AC-130s). This was probably one of the most complicated and intricate plans in military history, and I was truly proud to be a part of the Team and history. I briefed my AC-130 crew and we said the Lord’s prayer.
As we walked to our aircraft, a short, cocky dude walked up to me and said he would be joining us. His callsign: Monkey. “You got that right, ya little prick,” I thought. We had never seen him; he had not been to any of the briefs or prior missions. He said that he was an F-18 pilot and the SEAL Team 6 liaison (aka, Task Force Blue). I told him he was not needed since Blue was not on the mission. But he mouthed off, (Napoleon Syndrome), and the Fire Control officer grabbed him and told him to keep his mouth shut and sit in the corner of the aircraft’s command center. Monkey got on board and pouted.
We departed at 1254 Zulu with a crew of 16, the mission was time-driven with a Time Over Target (TOT) of 1845 Zulu, the H-Hour. The Night Stalker motto is plus or minus 30 seconds on target, and we live by that standard. We were a flight of five AC-130U gunships, three ACs would go to Gecko and two to Rhino for fire support and we were the Lead. Our Quick Reaction Force (QRF), which was comprised of four MH-60s and 3/75 Rangers, was going to a Laager site in Pakistan.
Aircraft were taking off from all over the world to meet at one small point on the earth at the same time. The helo assault force would take off from Kitty Hawk and assault OBJ Gecko; the 3/75 Rangers would depart from Masirah to conduct an airfield seizure at OBJ Rhino. It was a three-hour trip to the objectives, and the AC-130s would have to get fuel en route in order to give us the station time at the objectives. We had also coordinated to link up with three Air Force KC-135 tankers over the Indian Ocean at a specific time (keep this in mind).
It was my job to manage the helo assault force and fixed-wing to ensure everyone was on-time at their objectives and targets. Easy peasy. But Mr. Murphy was about to raise his ugly head. The ACs arrived at our designated point a little early to conduct aerial refuel and proceed to the targets. The Air Force tankers did not show. “WTF, where are the tankers?” I thought. Swede was livid and called them every word in the book. We have to stay on the timeline, or I would have to delay the helos. Crap. I got on the radio and tried to call the tankers on every frequency we had. I even called the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and asked them to “tell the Air Farce LNO to get on the phone and find out where they are.”
We orbited and orbited in the middle of nowhere. I heard a squawk on the radio. Could it be? Why yes! It was the tankers and they were late. How hard can it be, Mother Mary of God! Here comes Murphy… nothing but static on the radio, yep wrong fill for the secure comms. Crap! I had to go unsecure to talk to the lead tanker, no problem, only God can hear us. Swede tells me I have the comms, so I call the tanker with the correct call sign and a female voice comes back and tells me to identify. You are face fucking me! Here are five AC-130s in the middle of nowhere at the same place as your KC-135s, and she asks me to use the Challenge/Password to confirm it is us? Lord, give me strength! I calmly and professionally responded with the day’s challenge and password — did she think we were the Russians? I was livid by now, and she replied, “negative, that is not the correct password.” I told Swede to shoot her out of the sky.
I responded to her, “Look, what are the chances that five AC-130s would be at the same place you are? We need fuel NOW, and this mission is time-driven!” We got our gas and departed, 50 minutes late. Now I had to make the decision to bump the TOT, so we could make it. The whole crew jumped in, Swede pulled the guts out of the AC-130 and she was running in the red. Me, Ricochet, and the FOCO started nagging out pilot shit, airspeeds, winds, times, crap. I got on the map really quick to mark a drop-dead point. If we did not make it to this point at this time, I was going to have to call the helo assault force and make them hold over water, not to mention the other 88 planes.
Ricochet was using his electronic flight computer and I was using the old E6B pilot “whiz wheel” manual gizmo we use to calculate all these unknowns; it was old school, but I am fast. We would write down numbers, the FOCO and sensors operator would send their calculations; Ricochet was about to blow up; Swede was giving her all she’s got. I was praying for a crosswind or tailwind. We continued our calculations, all the while Mr. F-18 Blue was sitting in the corner asleep, I would deal with him later…
Stay tuned for the third and final part.
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