by Alan C. Mack
On this night nineteen years ago, one MH-47E and two MH-60 DAPS departed Task Force Dagger’s staging base at K-2 airbase, Uzbekistan. The secret mission was a key piece in America’s response to the horrific attacks of 9/11. The three helicopters were saddled with delivering Special Forces ODA 595, a team that would gain the moniker, Horse Soldiers.
I was the flight leader of this momentous mission. After crossing the first mountain range, nicknamed ‘the bear,’ our three fuel-thirsty helicopters descended into a narrow valley to rendezvous with an MC-130P tanker to extend our range. This vital jet fuel would get us deep into Afghanistan to deliver our precious cargo, ODA 595, but would not be enough to make it home without another refueling track. The weather was clear and cold. The dark sky revealed stars I’d never seen, and my favorite constellation Orion.
The temperature would only drop as we ascended the elevations in Afghanistan. The gorgeous sky and twenty miles of visibility were supposed to hold up throughout the mission timeframe. That forecast was based on a computer model built on years of faulty Soviet meteorology data. Favorable weather did not last as we crossed the Amu Daria river into the rolling dunes of Afghanistan.
Within minutes of crossing the border, the video displayed in my Night Vision Goggles turned grainy and dim. I fumbled with the eyepiece focus rings, but there was no improvement. The radar showed no precipitation, but something was causing a visual impediment. Sparks flew from the probe tip, Saint Elmo’s Fire. We’d need static electricity for that. I quick flick of the Infrared searchlight switch yielded the answer; A sandstorm, denser than any I’d ever experienced, engulfed our flight.
This was the same type of unforecast storm that thwarted the helicopters in the Iranian Hostage crisis that led to mission failure at ‘Desert One.’ Years of training, lessons learned, and equipment upgrades were about to pay dividends. I looked across the cockpit at my copilot. His eyes glowed with the green illumination of his NVGs. Without a word, I selected a Radar mode that would allow us to continue through the approaching mountains.
“I’ve selected TF with Clearance Altitude three hundred feet — Follow your cue.”
My copilot moved the controls as necessary to satisfy the flight director cues. The Chinook climbed and descended along with the rise and fall of the terrain ahead. Our attack helicopter escorts didn’t have the benefit of the multi-mode radar and tucked in tight. They were using me as their obstacle clearance, but it would only work if they could maintain sight of my aircraft. And I was disappearing in the thick dust cloud. The Blackhawk crews had guts. But bravery alone wouldn’t keep them alive if they ran into a mountain.
They didn’t last much longer – they needed to abort.
There was no way the Commander was going to let us drive on ‘single ship.’ It sounds cool for a book or movie, but in reality, with no assets overhead, and no mutual rotary-wing support, I expected to abort… not this time. The Commander asked for my opinion. “Al, what do you think?” The answer was ready at the tip of my tongue.
“Sir, we’ll just TF the entire route.”
“Okay. Go ahead,” he said.
He needn’t say more. The route continued to our destination with only a few minor events to raise the blood pressure. As my copilot acknowledged, with a George Clooney movie line, “We were in a tight spot.”
Our mission, referenced in Doug Stanton’s movie Twelve Strong, was about to reach its stated goal. We had one last ridgeline to cross before the Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) and we were still in the clouds and dust. The radar was great, but we still needed to see out the windows to identify the proper location to land.
I selected a lower radar altitude. That might help us descend below the obscurations. Yes, there it was. The landing area was just off the nose. We still had two problems to deal with. We had a lot of elevation to lose, which wasn’t too hard. But the other issue was a big one. An enemy ZPU-23-2 was eight hundred meters away from the HLZ. Only a small hill stood between us. If the enemy had even a few seconds of line-of-sight, the deadly 23 MM rounds would rip through my thin-skinned aircraft. Staying masked while making the several thousand-foot drop was a challenge. But I’m writing this, so we must have survived.
Our ‘precious cargo’ linked up with the Northern Alliance forces. We retraced our steps, air refueled for a second time, and landed safely back at K-2. Mission Complete. America’s unconventional warfare response had begun. Now all these years later, I raise a glass to the men I carried, the men I flew with, and the support personnel that made it happen. And who can forget the families that sacrificed their loved ones in the effort to bring Al Qaeda and the Taliban down.
Night Stalkers Don’t Quit!