Captain Erick Saks
Airmen from Bagram Airfield's 83rd Expeditionary Rescue
Squadron performed a daring mountainside rescue in
Kapisa province, Afghanistan on April 23rd, 2011, after
an Army helicopter crashed in an Afghan valley.
The airmen, deployed from the 33rd RQS at Kadena Air
Base, Japan, and the 212th RQS at Joint Base
Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, recovered one injured
pilot and one fallen hero while coming under heavy fire.
The mission began prior to daybreak, when the squadron's
tactical operations center received a report of a Fallen
Angel - the term which signifies a downed aircraft.
Within ten minutes, the Pedros of the 83rd ERQS had two
HH-60s airborne and enroute to the site where a
coalition helicopter had reportedly gone down.
Pedro 83 and Pedro 84 quickly arrived on scene,
approximately 20 miles from Bagram, and held about five
miles away as they linked up with the other air assets
in the area, including F-15E Strike Eagles, AH-64
Apaches and OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.
"When we arrived, one of the Apaches already had eyes on
the aircraft, and he lased the pilot so we could see
him," said Capt. Louis Nolting, Pedro 84 co-pilot. "At
this time, we had thought that the pilots were
collocated and that they'd egressed together from the
One pilot had climbed several hundred feet to a ridge
above the aircraft wreckage. This ridge is where Pedro
83, the lead aircraft, used the hoist to insert its
Guardian Angel team composed of Maj. Jesse Peterson,
combat rescue officer; Tech. Sgt. Chris Uriarte, team
leader; and Tech. Sgt. Shane Hargis, team member.
"Once lead got the PJs on the ground, we found out the
pilots had split up," said Major Philip Bryant, Pedro 84
pilot. "The pilot who had egressed told the PJs that the
other pilot was unconscious and at the crash site."
The PJs relayed the information about the second pilot
still with the downed helicopter, and Pedro 84 was
directed to insert their PJs near the wreckage.
Based on the information, Staff Sgt. Zachary Kline,
pararescue assistant team leader, and Staff Sgt. Bill
Cenna, pararescue team member, began preparing their
gear for their insertion near the crash site. At about
180 feet, the hoist was significantly higher than their
standard descent due to the surrounding terrain.
"It was the longest hoist I've ever been on," added
Kline. "When we got on the ground, I was still under the
impression that we were close to the other team, so we
took a knee. We were about 50 meters from the crash
site, and we didn't see the other guys so we made our
way to the site."
The team approached the pilot and assessed he had died
prior to their arrival. The PJs immediately began
preparing the fallen hero to be hoisted out.
Overhead Pedro 84's flight engineer had retrieved the
hoist cable and was getting back into position when the
aircraft began to take fire.
"Not more than two seconds after forward momentum was
executed ... pop shots," said Staff Sgt. William
Gonzalez, Pedro 84 gunner. "The first thing we start
doing is checking to see where it's coming from and
checking everybody out. And, maybe five seconds later
the [flight engineer] says 'I'm hit.'"
In addition to manning one of the Pavehawk's .50-caliber
machine guns and monitoring the aircraft's systems, the
flight engineer runs the hoist on the aircraft. Tech.
Sgt. James Davis, was the engineer on Pedro 84 when it
was first engaged by enemy fire.
"I had just turned off the hoist, and I was sliding back
into my seat when the round came through the helicopter
and hit me in the leg," said Davis. "They asked 'are you
alright Jim' and I said 'no I'm bleeding pretty good
Pedro 84 rejoined Pedro 83, but determined they were no
longer mission capable after the injury to the flight
engineer. They headed back to Bagram to get advance care
for their injured flight engineer and to pick up another
engineer to take Davis' place.
Gonzalez immediately moved over to provide medical care
for Sergeant Davis.
"I looked back, and the first thing I saw was a pool of
blood by his seat," said Gonzalez. "I went over to
assess his situation. I saw that he was still conscious
and saw that he was still breathing. I put his
tourniquet right above the wound. After I had it on, I
went over to the PJs medical kit and grabbed some gauze,
and I wrapped it around the leg trying to absorb as much
blood as I could."
When the Pavehawk landed at Bagram, the gunner, co-pilot
and a Marine lieutenant, who saw they needed assistance,
off-loaded Davis, who was brought into the Craig Joint
Theater Hospital emergency room.
The flight engineer said the timing of the shot is what
made the difference between a serious wound and a
potentially fatal one.
"I had been in the doorway with no way of protecting
myself to get the PJs on the ground," said Davis. "I got
the cable up, and as soon as I slid from the doorway to
the seat, the round came in. If I was still in the
doorway, the round would have hit me right the in the
body armor or below it, and I'd have been in much worse
As they cared for their injured crewmember, Pedro 84's
crew also worked to find a replacement for Davis so they
could get back to their PJs on the ground.
Tech. Sgt. Heath Culbertson, was sleeping at Bagram
Airfield when Davis was shot, and he was woken up by
frantic knocking on his door.
"They said get up, we need you in the TOC now,'" said
Culbertson. "I asked what's going on, and they said
Davis had been shot."
"When we taxied over from the [refueling point],
Culbertson had just walked out and was ready to go,"
said Bryant. "He came, got into the aircraft, got hooked
up, and we took off. The crew swap only took about four
The reality of the situation hit Culbertson as he
approached the aircraft.
"As soon as I got underneath the rotor, I saw the
blood," he said. "It was pretty surreal. I'd seen blood
before in the cabin, but never from any of our own guys.
That was pretty shocking to me."
Back on the ridge above the crash site, the three-man
pararescue team treated the pilot, pulled security and
prepared for extraction. As team commander, Peterson
coordinated with Pedro flight for pick-up and passed
along information about the situation on the ground.
"My job as team member was as the medic," said Hargis.
"I checked over the pilot on the ground. He was fully
alert and oriented with stable vital signs, and he had a
laceration on his jaw."
Overhead, Pedro 83 swept the area searching for the
"As we came around, I saw rounds come up so I returned
fire," said Senior Airman Justin Tite, Pedro 83's
According to the aircrew, the enemy fire originated from
a tree between the two PJ teams on the ground.
"There were no other trees on the slope except this one
huge tree right in the middle between the two teams, and
that's where they were hiding," said Tite.
Seeing that his teams were spit up by enemy positions,
Uriarte realized they were not going to be able to walk
to the PJs below.
As the enemy fire began picking up, Capt. Joshua Hallada,
Pedro 83's pilot, decided that they needed to get the PJ
team and pilot off the ground as soon as possible.
"So we set ourselves up to come in for a hover similar
when we first infilled them although much lower," said
Hallada. "Being that it was a little lighter now, we
brought it into a 20-foot hover over our team and the
As the pararescuemen and the engineer worked to get the
survivor into the aircraft, enemy fire increased,
threatening Pedro 83.
"The team started to hook up the survivor, and that's
when the pilot started to call rounds off the one
o'clock," said Senior Airman Michael Price, Pedro 83
flight engineer. "Someone called the go-around at that
point, and I sheared the cable to stop from dragging
them through the rocks."
Price used the guillotine-type device built into the
hoist to cut the cable and prevent injury to the airmen
"I had the strap around the survivor, and I was hooked
into the cable," said Hargis. "I gave them the signal to
bring up the cable, and I noticed a little more slack
coming out. I thought maybe he didn't see me, so I gave
him the signal again, and the next thing I know, the
"At first I did not realize that he had sheared the
hoist," said Hallada. "We came back around and I was
setting up to go lower and further back into the rocks
so that we could prevent them from hitting us to try to
get them out again. On short final, I was informed that
we didn't have a hoist. He had told me several times, I
was just overwhelmed with other stuff."
Pedro 83 went around for yet another pass as the crew
tried to figure out how to proceed.
"I determined we needed to one-wheel hover," said
Hallada. "It's when you just set a wheel down on the
rock next to them and hover the rest of the aircraft at
the same time, allowing them just to jump on."
According to the crew, the maneuver took 10 seconds at
most, with the PJs and survivor jumping onto the
aircraft followed by a speedy takeoff. However, the
aircraft took damage from fire they received as they
"We went back into our overwatch patterns, realizing
we'd been hit at that point," said Hallada. "And, we
started trying to figure out what to do next seeing as
we didn't have a hoist and we knew the lower [landing
zone] was hot."
Pedro 83 stayed on scene to provide overwatch for the
remaining PJs and pilot despite the damage to their
aircraft; however, running low on fuel, they were
relieved to hear that Pedro 84 was on its way back.
"We left for [Forward Operating Base] Morales-Frazier
planning to get gas, ammo and return," said Hallada.
However, once we landed the situation caused us to
shutdown and evaluate further."
At Morales-Frazier, Uriarte and Hargis transferred the
injured helicopter pilot to the field surgical team
while Peterson ran to the tactical operations center to
coordinate with the ground force commanders. Meanwhile,
Price looked over the aircraft to examine the extent of
the damage. Upon the first glance, the damage appeared
minimal. But then, the airman checked the main
"It was pretty much bone dry," said Price. "I told the
captain we couldn't fly. We really didn't want to create
another [personnel recovery] event out there."
The crew of Pedro 83 began working with their operations
team at the TOC to get back into the fight. This
entailed 1st Lt. Elliott Milliken, Pedro 83's co-pilot,
coordinating a ride back to Bagram to pick up their
Once at Bagram, the crew quickly loaded into the fresh
Pavehawk with additional pararescuemen and a small
maintenance team, and they headed back to FOB
Pedro 84 arrived back on scene to find significant
airpower had joined the fight to protect the pararescue
team and pilot still on the ground.
"While we were away, the A-10s (Thunderbolts) had shown
up," said Bryant. "We train with the A-10s to do this -
combat search and rescue. When we got back out there,
there were three Apaches and four A-10s operating in the
The enemies in the large tree continued to threaten the
aircraft and ground personnel until the A-10s and
Apaches engaged the target.
"The A-10s were using their nose guns and their rockets,
and the Apaches were using their chain guns," said
With the situation appearing to have settled down, Pedro
84 made an attempt to extract the PJs and remaining
pilot. An Army Apache teamed up with the Pavehawk to
move to the LZ.
On scene for the first time, Culbertson was able to get
eyes on the crash site and the PJs. He was guiding the
pilots down to the site when he began to hear what he
thought may be gunfire.
"I heard whistling by my head," he said. "But, I thought
to myself, 'that can't be. I've got my helmet on.
There's no way I'm hearing the hisses.'"
It wasn't until Culbertson heard the impacts on the
aircraft that he realized they were under fire, and he
began searching for points of origin.
"Next thing I know, I get thrown on my console," said
the flight engineer. "I still didn't know what was going
on at that point. But from this vantage point, I could
see under my gun, and I could see the muzzle flashes. I
remember shaking my head to clear it, and then just a
rage of fury came over me."
It wasn't until much later that Culbertson realized that
a bullet had entered his helmet on the right side,
through his visor and exited the other side of the
helmet without injuring him.
"I called for the go around, turned the gun power switch
on, and just started unleashing the .50-cal on these two
points of origin," added Culbertson.
While Culbertson remembers the event in "slow motion,"
Gonzalez said the entire engagement was very quick.
"All of this happened within four seconds," added
Gonzalez. "I hear him say 'I'm scanning, I'm scanning.
There was the pop-pop-pop from the ground, then the
guh-guh-guh-guh from his gun."
Nolting credits Culbertson's quick and collected
response to saving the aircraft.
"Without him returning that fire, there was a chance
that our right engine or hydraulics could have been shot
out," Nolting added.
Running low on fuel, and with plenty of air support on
scene to protect the team on the ground, Pedro 84
returned to FOB Morales-Frazier where they looked over
the damage to their aircraft. It was at this point that
the crew realized not only that Culbertson had been hit,
but so had Gonzalez.
"I initially counted seven rounds that had impacted the
cabin," said Gonzalez. "And then, I noticed the one that
was under my seat. It had come from under my seat and
fragged outward. One piece missed my right knee, and the
other actually bounced off my knee and went through my
Determining the aircraft was still flyable, Pedro 83 and
Pedro 84 prepared to head back to the crash site
together. Before departing, the pararescuemen who had
come in with the spare aircraft from Bagram loaded onto
"The situation being what it was, we didn't know how
long the mission was going to take," said Uriarte. "We
thought it was best to switch crews so that they could
do some work and we could pick it up later in the
THE CRASH SITE
At the crash site, Kline and Cenna assessed the
situation. With Pedro 84 off scene due to Davis' gunshot
wound and Pedro 83 on its way to FOB Morales-Frazier,
there was little they could do but wait. They hunkered
down near the aircraft and the pilot, waiting for the
Pavehawks to return.
"It was at that time when we started taking fire," said
Kline. "I didn't know what was going to happen at that
point. We were both preparing ourselves mentally to stay
there for a while."
The enemy fire was sporadic as they took cover at the
base of the mountain.
"Initially, it was just a couple shots here or there,"
said Kline. "But then, it really started to get close.
Both of us ducked and got behind a rock outcropping. I
think I saw the rounds impact before I heard them."
Unable to see the muzzle flashes, Kline requested
support from the aircraft above.
"I was basing all of my calls for fire off the impacts,"
he added. "If rounds hit here, they had to come from
there. There was no other way. We were just watching
where the dust flew and taking a reverse azimuth."
The team member began looking for escape routes should
the conditions deteriorate further.
"To me, there was just one," said Kline. "There was this
ravine. It was approximately 25 meters away."
The team eventually had to use the egress route as the
enemy fire became overwhelming for the two airmen.
"We thought we were in pretty good coverage with the
boulders and the helicopter," said Cenna. "But, I
distinctly remember looking over at [Sergeant Kline] at
multiple times seeing rounds and dirt flying right next
to him. How we were not hit was pretty amazing."
"It felt like 30 rounds were all around us all within a
two- to four-second period. They just hit everywhere,"
Kline added. "They hit the aircraft, and it went up in
flames. It quickly overtook the aircraft, and I yelled
at [Sergeant Cenna] to get the hell out of there. I had
noticed during my initial scan of the aircraft that
there was still a rocket pod with rockets in it. That
was my concern; that it was going to be like the Fourth
Sergeants Kline and Cenna sprinted for the ravine taking
cover from the aircraft fire while dodging enemy
"That's when it started exploding," said Kline. "Even
while we hunkered down, they still kept shooting at us.
The rounds were ricocheting above our heads. I have
molten metal on my kit from where the helicopter had
Kline kept in contact with the air assets throughout the
firefight, providing situation updates and receiving
information about the enemy who was closing on their
"They provided overwatch the whole time," said Kline.
"They were like 'there are these guys 300 meters to the
north of you; we're going to go hot on them.' We could
feel the concussion from the rockets."
Kline also recalled seeing an Army quick reaction force
being flown over their position as they waited.
"I could see guys sitting there in their seatbelts with
their guns," he said. "And as they were going by, I
could see a [rocket propelled grenade] whiz by. I looked
up, and I could see the burst on the western
Kline and Cenna said they would go up to 15 minutes
without a shot fired on them; however, every time they
would begin to signal that they were clear, the
firefight would start up again.
"I'd say, 'hey, it's been clear for 15'
pop-pop-pop-pop," said Kline. "It was every time I would
try to tell someone it was clear, they'd pop off a
couple of rounds."
While waiting in the ravine, Kline and Cenna overheard
the 9 line medical evacuation request for a member for
Together for the first time since Davis was shot, Pedro
83 and Pedro 84 left FOB Morales-Frazier hoping to
extract the PJs and the second pilot. However, they
received the 9 line before they arrived on scene.
A soldier had been hit and died within minutes of the
call, said Bryant. Then as the Pedros approached the
area another soldier was hit requiring immediate medical
"When we got to the scene, there was an incredible
amount of helicopter traffic in the valley," said
Hallada. "It was more than I've ever seen anywhere in
this entire country going all directions. There were
UH-60 (Black Hawks), Apaches, Kiowas, and French
Two Apaches joined the Pedros' Pavehawks creating a
four-ship rescue formation; however, the number of
enemies on the ground and the amount of firepower they
wielded resulted in several unsuccessful passes over the
medevac landing zone.
During the first attempt, Pedro 84 began descending into
the ravine as the other three aircraft provided cover.
"As we got down to about 30 feet, [Sergeant Gonzalez]
and I starting seeing muzzle flashes from this one
building 200 to 300 feet from us," said Nolting.
The flight lead determined they need to pull around, and
as Nolting worked to get the aircraft out of the valley,
the flight engineer and the pararescuemen engaged
targets in the building.
Just barely passing over some wires that were strung
along the valley, Nolting was able to safely get Pedro
84 out the zone. The aircraft formed back up for another
pass with Pedro 83 this time attempting to land and
extract the soldier.
"As we were about to set down, we were engaged, and all
of the aircraft returned fire including the Apaches,"
said Hallada. "As we took off, I immediately saw the
wires out the windscreen, and I pulled everything the
rotor system had to get over them."
On the third attempt, Pedro 84 was just feet from the
ground when they started taking fire again, according
Bryant. At that point, one of the Apaches performed a
buttonhook back toward them and began engaging enemy
"It split the formation, firing rockets and guns," said
Nolting. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen.
It was deconflicted, it was safe, and it was awesome."
Based upon the threat, the formation again pulled out of
the area to reset. At that point, the Apaches fired
their Hellfire missiles destroying a confirmed position
which had been posing the immediate threat to the
aircrews and the soldiers on the ground.
On the fourth attempt, Pedro 83 was finally able to land
and extract the injured soldier. The Pedros saw this as
the ideal time to finally extract the second pilot and
"There had been this tremendous weight on us the whole
mission since we'd left our PJs in the zone," said
Nolting. "This was our golden opportunity to get them
Nolting made contact with the PJs as Pedro 84 began to
move into position above them. They agreed on an
extraction game plan. Culbertson would lower the hoist,
the PJs would first hook the pilot's litter to the line,
then they would connect themselves on a second hoist.
But just as the aircraft made it's decent, the engineer
noticed that the hoist had broken.
"I knew that we had to get our PJs out, and this was our
opportunity," said Culbertson. "The only other option I
had was to go to backup mode. I said a little prayer,
pushed down, and it worked."
According to the flight engineer, the problem with
operating the hoist in backup mode is that the speed is
significantly slower; however, they lowered the cable
and the pararescuemen connected the pilot.
"That's pretty brave to send up a hero and not yourself
when you been there over five hours," Nolting noted.
The lack of speed in the hoist was clearly evident to
the PJs below the aircraft, according to the engineer.
"As I'm putting the hoist down there, I can see Kline
down there waiving for me to go faster," said
Culbertson. "I'm like, 'sorry brother, I can't go any
faster. The hoist is broke.'"
"By this time, I was expecting for us to get shot down,"
said Nolting. "We'd been there so long. I truly expected
we were going down."
For the first time that day, however, the aircraft did
not take any fire, and Pedro 84 was able to extract the
pilot and PJs and evacuate the area.
Kline and Cenna spent about five and a half hours in the
valley dodging bullets and the explosion of the
aircraft. And while he didn't know whether or not he
would make it out of the area alive, Kline said he knew
that he would never have left without the downed pilot.
"We were going to do everything in our power to get him
back," he said. "If I had to clip in and hold him, I
would have. There was no way he wasn't coming back."
Prior to departing to have his injuries treated at
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Davis
expressed his pride in the actions of his squadron.
"We did what we do," said Davis. "We've got a motto for
a reason, these things we do that others may live."