They join the ranks with notorious names such as Charles Lindberg, Amelia Earhart, Chuck Yeager, Jacqueline Cochran and Orville and Wilber Wright. They have the right stuff: the same stuff that Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable had. But namedropping and glory is not why they did it. They were only doing their job, but they did it well.
Captain Matthew J. Kaplan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ross D. Lewallen, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Randy L. Huff, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher N. Wright and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Gary H. Wingert, all AH-64D Apache pilots assigned to 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, are the newest recipients of the Distinguished Flying Cross from 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. They were task organized to 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment when anti-Afghan forces launched a massive, complex attack on Combat Outpost Keating, Oct. 3, 2009.
Despite chaos and destruction going on around them, the pilots maintained effective communication with ground troops and with each other in order to help identify more than 300 anti- Afghan forces.
Due to a series of fortuitous, though seemingly disastrous events, including an incoming storm that would prevent flight operations, as well as both AH-64 Apaches damaged by enemy fire, they were able to eliminate about 50 percent of the enemy troops within 12 hours.
Lewallen, who was in the lead aircraft of the attack weapons team, said he and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Chad L. Bardwell, his copilot, had just sat down to breakfast when he received the call that a medical evacuation was getting launched to COP Keating. About halfway to his aircraft, they were notified that COP Keating was taking on significant small arms and rocket powered grenades fire, he said.
Within 20 minutes, they were off the ground in the lead AH-64 Apache. Huff and Wright lifted off at the same time in a second AH-64 to provide cover.
“Almost never would we have our four most experienced pilots working the same shift,” said Lewallen, of the first of many fortunate events. “We had just come back from leave and decided to give our junior guys a break. They’d been worked nearly to death, and they needed a break. Otherwise, it would have been them out there.”
Outpost Fritsche could not offer protection to its neighboring outpost as they were cut off by heavy enemy machine gun and RPG fire from within the valley. This constituted a problem for the helicopter teams since the regular avenue of approach to COP Keating was through that valley. They needed a new plan.
To mask their inbound route and to minimize attack by enemy fire from the valley floor, they decided to fly directly over the mountains instead, Wright said. This allowed them the element of surprise, the second lucky incidence.
When they approached COP Keating, anti-Afghan forces had done a significant amount of damage.
“As we came over the mountain, all we could see was a big column of smoke coming from Keating,” said Lewallen. “We were looking at Keating, and it was just a massive fire. Everything was burning down.”
“It was a sinking feeling,” he said. “I thought we’d gotten there too late.”
Wright had been trying about every five seconds to get in touch with COP Keating, but had no luck. He started feeling worried, he said. Finally, after about a minute and a half of trying, he was able to make contact.
“Ninety seconds doesn’t seem like a lot of time to most people, but it was a very long time to me,” Wright said. “We had contact with them for about three minutes, just enough time to relay what we could see from the air.”
“The commander said enemy forces had blown their final defensive line and that there was enemy in the wire. Anyone outside of the wire was considered hostile,” Lewallen added.
Near the breach point, they were able to identify about 30 enemy forces and quickly destroyed them. This single act helped COP Keating regain control of its perimeters.
In the meantime, the MEDEVAC aircraft from Forward Operating Base Bostick tried to extract casualties, but the landing zone was too hot with enemy fire.
Both lead and wing Apaches took enemy fire, and despite heavy damage and failing systems, coupled with a shortage of fuel and ammunition, they continued engaging the anti-Afghan forces that posed the greatest threat to COP Keating ground forces.
After about an hour and a half of continuous coverage and enemy engagements, the pilots were forced to fly their damaged aircraft back to FOB Bostick so they could swap out aircraft and return to the fight. They did not leave, however, until they had given the ground troops some relief.
“That first hour sort of set the conditions for the rest of the day,” said Lewallen.
Two downed aircraft was the third lucky break for Coalition Forces that day.
On the ground at Bostick, commanders were planning their positions and attack strategies of an air assault to secure COP Keating.
Then, the fourth fortuitous event happened.
“Normally we stay with the aircraft, but this time we ran in, and we got out the maps and the pictures. We were able to relay where the majority of the fire was coming from. We were able to show the battalion commander where to start clearing targets,” said Lewallen.
The pilots were able to inform troops of what they had seen from the air, and noted that enemy contact was eminent if they stuck to their original plan. Their birds-eye view allowed them to give good information that led to a successful operation to secure the base.
Before taking off a second time, the two attack teams checked with Wingert, a maintenance test pilot. He offered support, and within minutes, he and Kaplan were in the air, joining in the fight.
While a third attack weapons team is highly unusual, it proved instrumental to the distressed troops at COP Keating.
On their second turn to the engagement area, they engaged enemy fortifications, one just outside a mosque and one at an overrun Afghan police station. The entire time, all attack weapons teams were taking machine gun and RPG fire. They were able to eliminate the anti-Afghan forces at both the police station and the mosque, where about 25 enemy personnel, including a high-ranking AAF officer, were bunkered.
As luck would have it, a severe thunderstorm was approaching, which helped the pilots identify muzzle flashes of enemy troops, and report the locations to coalition personnel. They knew time and the weather were working against them though. They had to get out.
“Once clouds cover the valley, then you’re stuck in there, like a bowl,” said Huff.
The pilots returned to FOB Bostick until weather improved. The aircraft were refueled and checked. About one hour later, a timely but marginal window of weather opened up to allow the air assault force to make several more runs into OP Fritsche.
The day’s events continued, but more of the same. One lucky stroke after another allowed a victory against anti-Afghan forces on that day at COP Keating.
“All day, it was just a series of events that put us in the right place at the right time, just by happenstance,” said Lewallen.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to any officer or enlisted member of the United States Armed Forces who distinguishes himself or herself in support of operations by “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight, subsequent to Nov. 11, 1918.”
The extraordinary achievement of these five pilots resulted in Coalition Forces regaining control of COP Keating, and saving the lives of hundreds of troops.