My name is Aj Santiago. I was formerly Comanchero 17 back in 2002 to 2005. I wanted to share a story with you. We always hear about the helicopters we lose over hear on the news and can't help but wonder if we had a friend onboard. The outcome of these incidents is never good and often just makes our day kinda crappy. I am sure you are aware of the last Blackhawk that went down, which was on April 5th, 2007. I do not know what the news said about this incident but I will share the story with you. It is a story that resulted in the rescue of a downed aircrew and their passengers. Nothing was lost this day except a Blackhawk helicopter that can be replaced. We never get to hear a "shoot down" story like this with a good ending so here it is. I know all of my fellow Comanchero's will understand the events of this day. Feel free to post it on the site.
CW2 Aj Santiago "Joker 00"
No One Gets Left Behind
By AJ Santiago
It was the fifth day of April, 2007, a Thursday in fact. I was the Pilot in Command of aircraft 062 with fellow Joker Mark Shoemaker by my side in the left seat. SPC Matthews accompanied us on the left gun and SFC Pacheco had the right side M240. Chalk two consisted of aircraft 061 piloted by CW2 Jamie Gordon and 1LT Doleac with the door guns manned by SGT Adams and PFC Full. The Kalsu Express was our only mission of the day and we were flight lead. It was a simple flight to Iskandaria to drop off some new privates then on to FOB Yusafia. One civilian got off there and chalk two picked up a detainee dressed in a blue hospital gown and his escorts enroot to Kalsu.
All the packs were loaded and chalk two, also known as one, two gave me the beacon call indicating that they were ready to depart. We departed to the east towards Mamadiyah but our plan was to fly to the south of Mamadiyah, cross ASR Jackson then transition to the south for entry into Kalsu’s airspace. I was training Mark on my navigation techniques as I flew. He was on the map when I asked him to identify the large brown containers that were out my right door as we crossed the ASR. As first glance he did not know but once he glanced at the map he correlated them with a city that was just south of Mamadiyah. I told him he was correct and that I called them the Dairy Farm because they are at the end of Dairy Farm Road. He took another glance at his map and understood what I was relating them to.
We then turned south and proceeded to Kalsu when we noticed three blue bongo trucks stopped on Dairy Farm Road facing to the west. I asked SFC Pacheco to keep an eye on them as we approached the road. He acquired the suspicious vehicles as they were passing out the right side. I looked down at the last truck which had a person crouched down behind it that seemed to be hiding. As the road passed under us the hiding person seemed very scared. I thought to myself that it seemed very odd because I had never seen a person that scared of the aircraft before. His hands were on the ground along with his knees and moved as if he was trying to avoid something or even crawl under his truck. It just did not look right.
It was 0925 when shots rang out but for a fraction of a second it was unclear to us what was happening until we realized that the popcorn sound was in fact enemy machine gun fire. I placed the aircraft into a right diving turn in order to disable the enemy from keeping a good sight picture on us. The heavy machine gun fire seemed to be coming from the left side and lasted about 5 to 6 seconds without a single pause in it. Neither Matthews nor Pacheco could locate the origin of the fire while we were conducting the evasive maneuvers. Chalk two called me almost immediately and said one, one we have a fire in the cockpit and have to put it down then stated a grid coordinate. I responded to chalk two’s call but got nothing back but silence. I continued my turn harder to the right hoping to catch a glance of my sister ship before she went down. As we came around, about 180 degrees, they were nowhere in sight. I told my entire crew to search for them as we combed the area they should have just flown over. We attempted to call Baghdad radio but due to our position so far south we could not contact them. We continued to broadcast on Baghdad radio as we searched vigorously for the other aircraft. On our third call we were answered by a Big Guns element which is the Apache unit that works the southern area of responsibility. We passed to him that we had a Fallen Angel, our zone and that we were in the process of searching for our sister ship. He advised us that he was inbound to our location in order to assist us. Baghdad radio answered us following our call with the AH64’s and we passed them the fallen angel information as well.
Dairy Farm Road was right off the nose again when the machine gun fire started for the second time. We were traveling about 130 knots at about 75 feet above the earth when we banked right to evade the gun fire. We still had no sight of the point of origin or the aircraft as we continued around and headed back to the southwest. The total elapsed time since we last heard from chalk two was approaching 2 minutes. We were searching for a smoke cloud or anything that looked like a helicopter. The enemy machine gun fire started for the third time so I put the aircraft into a hard left turn descending turn. The gun fire seemed to be coming from all around us. I asked if anyone had sight of the enemy or our sister ship but still no sight of either. Our aircraft was performing normal and seemed to have no issues so we continued with our search. We turned to the north hoping to see something from our downed aircraft when we noticed a plume of black smoke at the 12 o’ clock position. It was about 60 to 75 feet tall and coming from a generally open field. I briefed the crew that we were going to make a pass in the vicinity of smoke. As we got closer we were able to verify that there was an aircraft in the field. I told Mark to hit the Target Store on the GPS as we flew over the site looking for the crew. The aircraft was about 300 meters away with the wheels on the ground and it looked fairly intact. The top of the UH60 was on fire and emitting the very smoke that caught our attention. We were at approximately 50 foot above the ground when we saw movement below. It was the crew along with their passengers in a defensive perimeter awaiting our arrival. I had a feeling of relief that was overwhelming but we were not home free yet. I briefed my crew that we were coming in to extract the downed aircrew and ordered them to engage any element attempting to approach the landing site or fallen angel site. Both guns where in the red status and searching for possible hostile targets.
Our wheels touched the ground, the left door opened and the nine souls climbed aboard our aircraft almost instantly. We had seats for seven more passengers but no man would be left behind. I took a look back at the cabin area and there were people everywhere. You could see the fear in the faces of the downed crew but I wondered if they could see the fear in our faces. It took about ten seconds then we were wheels up. One passenger was bleeding from his back, another had facial wounds and two of the crew had inhaled smoke from the burning aircraft. The stress level just went up a notch! All I could think about was getting the bleeding soldier to the hospital before he went into shock as they all were yelling go! With all of this known, I made the decision to depart the fallen angel location for the 28th Combat Support Hospital in central Baghdad. Flying single ship is something that we don’t ever do but on this day, with this situation, it was the right answer in order to ensure the survivability of all the occupants. We relayed to the Big Guns element that we were on our way to the CSH pad and asked him to relay that information to Baghdad Radio. He assured us that he would and informed us that he had us in sight as they approached from the north. We gave them a brief description of what we saw just before we were engaged along with a description of the engagement area and the grid to the aircraft. They replied that they would secure the area and attempt to locate the enemy. Our flight to Washington’s airspace was about 7 to 8 minutes longs as we pulled everything our aircraft had available for power. It felt like an eternity. The crew was quiet other than a constant check on the wounded personnel’s status. We arrived at the CSH pad and took the wounded inside to receive care. We notified Spearhead Mike that we had arrived safely at the CSH and had to shut down in order to conduct a Battle Damage Assessment.
I began the assessment from the nose of the aircraft in search of bullet damage from the heavy machine fire. As I made my way around the right side of the aircraft, I could not find any damage. Could this be? We were engaged three separate times with at least 100 rounds of ammunition. I continued around the stabilator at the tail of the aircraft and still nothing. I climbed the tail section and discovered a bullet hole in the tail rotor gearbox cover. I removed the cover and confirmed that the hole was indeed created by a bullet. I inspected the tail rotor blades but found no damage. How could the bullet pass through the spinning tail rotor and impact the gear box with no damage to the tail rotor? I was baffled! The round impacted the gear box one inch behind the oil level sight glass and removed the paint from the gearbox. I thought that the round would have penetrated the gearbox but it simply hit and stopped dead in its tracks. We opened the tail rotor shaft cover and found the metal jacket to the bullet along with the lead to the bullet fragments. An amazing stop to what seemed like a lucky bullet. This was the only damage to the entire aircraft. Amazing! Had we lost our tail rotor this story would be completely different.
One thing I will never forget is the hopeless feeling that I had when we turned to find chalk 2 and they had vanished. The 3 to 4 minutes it took to locate the downed aircraft felt like an eternity. Every second that ticked by was scarier and scarier as we searched for the aircraft and crew. I can’t imagine what it was like for the downed crew to have to wait 3 to 4 minutes for an extraction. After talking with the other crew on the ground at the CSH and afterwards they told us what it was like from their perspective. They informed us that there was a forth engagement when we were inbound to the black smoke. They could hear the enemy engaging us as we came inbound to the LZ. They also explained their feelings before and after they boarded our aircraft during the extraction. They feared that we had been shot down as well due to the amount of machine gun fire they heard after they evacuated their aircraft. They also described the sight of us coming over the trees during the extraction. I believe we had an angel with us on the day that evil attempted to deliver us to the lord but god granted us the opportunity to live another day. Since the events of this day some think we are heroes and others think it comes with the territory. I like to think that it was an instinctive reaction to the preservation of life. I know that if we would have gone down that day, the other crew would have reacted the same exact way.
Crew receives Air Medal with Valor for their actions April 5, 2007
I just wanted to update you with some info regarding the story I sent you about the events of the April 5th 2007 fallen angel. Myself and my crew, CW2 Shoemaker, SFC Pacheco and SPC Matthews were awarded the Air Medal with Valor for our heroic actions during the events of that day along with the Combat Action Badge for being directly engaged with an armed enemy. I have to honestly say that I never thought it would amount to anything this meaningful but I guess I wrong. Our Division Commander, Gen Fil visited us early one morning to pin our new medals upon our chests which was a complete surprise to us all. I just wanted to share the news with all who know what happened on that April morning earlier this year. I guess it proves that the system still works and no good deed is overlooked. I added a few pics from the ceremony. It is a great ending to an amazing story. Enjoy.
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