Members of AFSOC’s 20th Special Operations Squadron, also known as Green Hornets, responded to events at Ground Zero in the best way they could: by going where others could not.

 

AFSOC in Motion

When the planes hit the twin towers and the Pentagon, the Green Hornets from the 20th Special Operations Squadron were in Fort Bragg, NC, for a training exercise with their Army counterparts. As events began to unfold, these operators knew their skills would be needed. They rushed to the base from their off-base accommodations, trying to beat the lockdown. 

Once there, they immediately went into standby mode. With airspace closed across the country, they awaited the orders they knew would come. They were directed to fly their MH-53 Pave Low helicopters to McGuire AFB in New Jersey and standby to provide support.

Their orders were clear: “Go help Americans,” Brigadier General Brad Webb recalled later. Webb was then a Pave Low pilot with the 20th Special Operations Squadron, participating in the bilateral exercise at Fort Bragg. The next morning, a flight of Pave Lows began assisting with urban search and rescue efforts at the Pentagon. Realizing the need in New York, the next morning saw them over New York City.

 

Pave Lows Respond

Then-Lt Col Webb contacted the curator of the USS Intrepid museum in Manhattan, prior to arrival, to coordinate a landing area for the helicopters. The Intrepid staff moved static aircraft displays to the sides of the flight deck to accommodate the Pave Lows, providing the Special Operation Wing warriors with a ready base of operations.

Ironically, while the Pave Lows of the 20th Special Operations Squadron were flying over Ground Zero, the other components of AFSOC were grounded along with the rest of America’s aircraft.

AFSOC 9/11 MH-53
An MH-53, Air Force Special Operations Command helicopter from Hurlburt Field, FL, lands on the USS Intrepid Sea and Air Space Museum in Manhattan from McGuire Air Force Base, NJ, September 13, 2001. The aircraft were used for relief operations to lower Manhattan, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. (Photo by Gary Ell/USAF)

Civilian aircraft are hampered by smoke and debris in the air. So, the Pave Lows and their crews from the 20th Special Operations Squadron were uniquely suited to be the eyes in the sky over the wreckage that was once a symbol of America. 

Fitting infrared cameras to the helicopters and flying where others could not Pave Low crews were able to see the wreckage in ways ground responders couldn’t. With overhead and oblique infrared imagery, the 20th was able to map open areas, pockets of fire, and possible survivor locations. They coordinated with local authorities and used this imagery to assist rescue operations. The Green Hornets would come to symbolize America’s resolve.

 

The Efforts of 20th Special Operations Squadron

The 20th Special Operations Squadron worked search and rescue at Ground Zero for seven days. They knew their efforts were appreciated, but that’s not why they were there. As they made their way back to Hurlburt Field, FL, they were undoubtedly thinking of the immediate future and where and when they would be deployed. They had just spent probably the longest seven days of their lives supporting efforts at the scene of the worst attack on U.S. soil in history. They didn’t know if more attacks would come and if the situation would worsen. No matter what, they would be ready, and their country would support them.

Retired Lt Gen Frank Kisner recalled a high school football game near Eglin AFB, FL, in the aftermath of the attacks. AC-130s at Eglin range were training nearby and the entire stadium stopped to listen to the gunships raining fire on targets. The stadium went crazy when the announcer called over the PA system, “Hear that folks, that’s AFSOC getting ready to strike back.”

20th Special Operations Squadron Patch. (1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs)

The efforts at Ground Zero were officially designated Operation Noble Eagle on September 14. Less than a month later, Operation Enduring Freedom began with airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan. The 20th Special Operations Squadron was there before there was even a name for “there.” 

Webb described their time at Ground Zero in AFSOC terms: “For us, our main mission was to go in and get the people there the help they needed.”

Their actions embody the AFSOC motto, “Any place. Any time. Anywhere.” 

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