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An Army dust-off crew that flew 11 rescue hoists during 60 hours of combat deep in Afghanistan's high mountains last June was honored for its heroics at the 2012 Army Aviation Association of America's annual forum this month.
The Goodrich Corp., an AAAA sponsor, held the reception in Nashville, Tenn., to recognize the four-soldier Black Hawk crew of Dust Off 73 — pilot Chief Warrant Officer 4 Kenneth Brodhead, pilot Chief Warrant Officer 2 Erik Sabiston, flight medic Sgt. Julia Bringloe and crew chief Spc. David Capps — who spent nearly 12 hours in the air, extracting 14 wounded and one soldier killed in action and flying three critical resupply missions during a three-day operation.
Earlier this year, the crew received the AAAA/Goodrich Corp. 2011 Air and Sea Rescue of the Year award at Fort Rucker, Ala. Each soldier has been nominated for a Distinguished Flying Cross, the highest aviation award for valor.
"We didn't expect to receive an award for our actions," Sabiston said in an Army release. "It is a great honor, but anyone in this unit would have done the same."
On June 25-27, 2011, DO-73 supported Operation Hammer Down, an effort to find Taliban training grounds and fighters in Watahpur district of Kunar province. Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, ran missions at elevations as high as 10,000 feet and faced heavy enemy contact.
The crew was serving with C Company, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
"There were so many missions that would have, on any other day, qualified as the craziest mission we'd ever seen," Sabiston said.
A mission on the third day, in which the crew inadvertently flew in "instrument meteorological conditions," garnered the award. Instrument meteorological conditions means the weather is so opaque pilots fly by instruments, not sight or visual flight rules.
Sabiston, an 18-year veteran, said he had never heard of another unit flying and hoisting in conditions like they had.
That day, ground soldiers suffered casualties on a 10,000-foot ridgeline and were "black" on crucial supplies.
Low clouds three times denied DO-73 entry into the valley leading to the troops. Finally, the crew found a way in and dropped off medical gear, water and food before lowering Bringloe, who prepared a patient for liftoff.
"As she was doing that, the clouds were rolling in even more, and my co-pilot [Brodhead] was looking out and he couldn't see hardly anything," Sabiston said.
With Bringloe and a casualty dangling by cable 50 feet below, the pilots began a cautious climb out of the valley on their way to Bagram Airfield.
But within moments, everything went white, as if a sheet had covered the chopper, Sabiston said. Bringloe and the casualty disappeared in the atmosphere below, and the chopper kept rising.
The risks of the maneuver were massive. One tilt too far one way and the chopper could have slammed into a mountainside and crashed, as two Chinooks from the task force had about a month earlier, he said.
Without sight, Brodhead and Sabiston guided the chopper by compass and intuition.
At about 11,000 feet, Bringloe and the casualty were pulled into the aircraft.
Then the sky broke and the chopper dove through a hole in the clouds. The crew was thrilled, Sabiston said, and DO-73 headed for a forward surgical hospital, then Forward Operating Base Joyce. At the FOB, senior leaders told them to rest up and replaced them on the mission.
Until that standdown, the crew had endured countless tribulations during three days of combat.
In addition to the weather, the crew members faced enemy rocket-propelled-grenade teams and small-arms fire, hovered in a hot pickup zone for 15 minutes, escorted a bullet-riddled chopper to safety, stopped an empty body bag from blowing in tail rotors and causing catastrophic damage, spun violently on a hoist cable and smashed into trees and rocks during extraction ops, piloted while wearing night-vision goggles, and flew the chopper's tail and rotors inches from trees.
The crew is credited with risking their lives to save many comrades.
"There is no amount of training that could have prepared me for those three days of medevac," Bringloe said in a statement to the Army.