It wasn’t an easy movement. Not only were they in hostile territory (though the Shuryek Valley was considerably more friendly toward US forces than the Korengal and Chichal, on the other side of the ridge), but they were facing the same brutally steep, rocky terrain that the Rangers had been moving over, in the dark. Under those circumstances, and with the loads involved, to include radios, batteries, water, ammunition, and the specialized rescue equipment they would need, footing becomes treacherous, and a single slip can result in a nasty fall, which can set back the movement at best, and result in serious injury at worst. The rescue team had to move slowly and carefully not only because of the difficulty of the terrain and the weight, but simply to avoid needlessly risking the success of the mission.

The movement, less than a mile as the crow flies, took over 6 hours. At 0330Z, with the sun already up, the PJs made contact with the Rangers, and linked up on the high ground above the bodies.

With the High Angle team on site, the Rangers, who had been holding security on the area for over 10 hours, turned the site over to the High Angle team. For security, they had apparently pulled all their men up onto the high ground; there wasn’t anything more they could do for the bodies, and down in the ravine was a decidedly tactically unsound position. Telling the PJs where the bodies were located, they then moved up to the team’s original OP.

Using the OP as a starting point, the Rangers began searching for the body of Matthew Axelson. They searched 800 meters out from the OP, following the ridge. The Rangers kept to the ridgeline, leaving the ravine to the PJs.

Meanwhile, the High Angle team got to work, and headed down into the ravine where the Rangers had found the first two bodies. They had to do some searching of their own, but found the remains, effectively for the second time. They began to prepare for retrieval, calling back to Bagram for the birds to come get the bodies. They would hold security, with the Rangers back on the high ground, until the helicopters arrived.

Back at Bagram, more problems arose. It wasn’t as simple as just sending the birds to pick up the bodies; they were in a ravine, with no usable Landing Zone nearby, and at 8600 feet above sea level. While regular forward flight isn’t too difficult for a helicopter at that altitude, hovering is another matter altogether. It becomes extremely difficult to hold the bird steady, or even maintain enough lift, hovering at that altitude. There isn’t as much air for the rotors to move, therefore less lift is generated. The fact that the terrain meant they would have to hover over a steep slope only made things more difficult; while over a flat surface, a helicopter’s rotors generate “ground effect,” where the air being forced downward by the rotors effectively “bounces back” up, creating a cushion of air and generating more lift. A steep slope denies the helicopter that ground effect, making generating lift even more difficult.

They had already decided that they had to completely strip the helo that was making the pickup of every bit of equipment possible, in order to cut down on the weight. The heavier the helicopter, the more the rotors would have to work to hold it up, and the more likely that the pilot wouldn’t be able to hold the hover at all. Since Spanky had flown the retrieval for Marcus the night before, it was Skinny’s turn to handle the hairy flying, while Spanky flew top cover. Every bit of equipment not essential to the retrieval itself was taken off of Skinny’s helo. Even the door guns and the ammunition were stripped off the bird, making the door gunners, and the rest of the crew, extremely nervous. They would have to rely entirely on the Rangers on the ground and Spanky’s door gunners to keep the Taliban off them while they flew the retrieval. They would be sitting ducks until they could get away from the mountainside. They also removed the internal fuel tanks, which was going to not only reduce the helicopter’s range, but further reduce the time they had to hover on-station. One of the PJs even removed his back armor plate from his vest. He didn’t tell anyone at the time, as it was a severe violation of theater SOP, but he figured that even that little bit of weight savings might make a difference.

Just stripping the weight wasn’t enough. The CRO and the pilots sat down to try to figure out how to minimize the hover time. The longer the helicopter hovered over the ravine, the greater chance they would lose the lift and crash. They had to come up with a plan that would allow them to get in, come to a hover, retrieve the bodies, and get out in as short a time as possible.