Helo Pilots Brought Home Safely With Help Of Multiple
Helping rescue downed pilots isn't something Airmen aboard an
E-3 Sentry do regularly, but that's exactly what happened to one
crew from the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Dec. 30. Two hours into
the Sentry crew's planned mission, they received a mayday call,
relayed through a KC-135 Stratotanker, from an AH-64 Apache. The
Apache pilots' wingmen had crashed in northern Afghanistan. The two
pilots were okay, but they were going to need help getting back to
That's when the E-3 Airmen diverted from their scheduled flight
plan. After all, lives were at stake, said Maj. Paul Lankes, the
mission crew senior director.
According to Lankes, rescuing the Soldiers was going to take the
combined effort from several elements, but command and control is
what Sentry crews do best. The E-3 is an airborne warning and
control system, or AWACS, aircraft. With the advanced radar and
computer systems aboard the plane, the crews are able to manage a
battlespace of more than 250 miles around them.
The Sentry Airmen coordinated actions of several crews engaged in
the rescue: the pilots on the ground, the Apache still airborne,
senior leaders at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center and
even a pair of coalition F-16 Falcons nearby.
"We knew the guys on the ground were going to need armed overwatch,
so we called in the F-16s, who were at the end of their patrol, but
they flew out to look out for the Soldiers," said Lankes, who is
assigned to the 964th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron.
"They told us they were low on fuel, so that meant we'd need a
tanker. Fortunately, there was one close and available."
The Sentry team called the KC-135 crew who took the initial
distress call to see if they were able to refuel the F-16s,
officials said. Two other tankers from the 376th Air Expeditionary
Wing took over refueling duties for other jets in the area, so the
original crew was free to help the F-16s. Once they were ready
again, the F-16s helped the remaining Apache crew provide air cover
until a convoy from a nearby outpost arrived to collect the crew.
Additional helicopters landed and troops recovered the AH-64
"Eventually the F-16s had to return to base, so a pair of A-10
(Thunderbolt II)s took their place, and then we needed an
additional tanker, so another KC-135 joined in as well," explained
Capt. Joel Doss, the E-3 electronic combat officer. "Really it all
came down to a team effort on everyone's part. We had all the
components of our crew, the folks on the ground, the CAOC and all
of the other aircrews flying in support. But that kind of
orchestration is what we do."