C-17 Crews Deliver Under Fire

November 28th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: C-17 Crews Deliver Under Fire

Columbia (SC) State
November 26, 2006 Dangerous Skies: Cheston-Based Supply Planes

By Chuck Crumbo
U.S. soldiers holed up in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan were running out of ammunition and rations.
It was up to the Charleston-based C-17 transport plane crew to ride to the rescue.
When the plane approached the drop zone — a grassy patch on the slope — Taliban fighters fired on it with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
“It was a full-on ambush,” said Capt. Pat Farrell, a crew member.
The hulking transport planes are becoming key players as commanders seek more efficient and safer ways other than truck convoys to resupply troops at remote bases.
In Iraq alone, C-17s, which hold enough cargo to fill four 18-wheelers, have taken 3,300 convoy truck missions a month off the dangerous roads, according to a Defense Department Web site. No estimate for Afghanistan was available.
The extra duty, though, has its risks.
U.S. Air Force planes that fly troops, supplies and fuel in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan came under fire 215 times — an average of four times a week — during the 2006 fiscal year.
The only planes shot at more frequently were the smaller turbo-prop C-130 transports, which drew fire 65 times.
C-17 transport planes, like those based at Charleston Air Force Base, were shot at 25 times or once every two weeks, from Sept. 30, 2005, to Oct. 1, 2006.
Seventy percent of the attacks happened as the planes were flying below 5,000 feet, said Maj. John Sheets, spokesman for the Air Mobility Command. The majority of incidents involved small arms, such as rifles and machine guns.
Since the war on terrorism began five years ago, five “major” hits on C-17s have been reported, according to the Air Force.
One of those happened in December 2003 when a C-17 taking off from Baghdad International Airport was hit by a shoulder-fired missile.
The missile hit one of the plane’s four engines, causing it to explode. The plane, from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., landed safely.
It was the only C-17 to be hit by enemy fire until June 6.
An inviting target
The 29-year-old Farrell, of Pittsfield, Mass., had spent three days planning the Afghanistan mission when Charleston’s 17th Airlift Squadron was deployed to the Middle East last summer.
The crew was to drop supplies to four separate forward operating bases of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, up in the Afghanistan mountains near the Pakistan border.
Before they took off, a military intelligence officer told crew members they would “be engaged” by the enemy, Farrell said.
She then corrected herself, offering a more qualified and official “likely to be engaged.”
Because the mission was risky, commanders increased the number of crew members.
A C-17 crew usually consists of two pilots and a loadmaster. But on this flight, three loadmasters were on board and four pilots were “upstairs” on the flight deck.
Farrell and an officer of Britain’s Royal Air Force went as observers, keeping their eyes peeled for enemy attacks. Farrell also handled radio communications with soldiers manning the drop zones so the pilots could concentrate on flying.
In the back, Senior Airman Ben Christensen, 24, of Port Orchard, Wash., and two other loadmasters dropped pallets of gear and food, ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 pounds each.
One of the crew’s concerns was that evasive measures would be limited if they came under fire, Farrell said. That’s because an airdrop requires the pilot to fly straight, slow and low, making the unarmed C-17 with its 170-foot, 9-inch wingspan, an inviting target.
“It would be like shooting at a car driving by,” Farrell added.
Since it was daytime, the crew couldn’t see the muzzle flash of a rifle or machine gun or the fiery tail of a rocket. And they couldn’t hear anything inside the plane.
But down below on the ground, soldiers radioed that they could hear gunfire directed at the plane.
The attackers were four Taliban fighters using small arms — rifles or machine guns — and three using rocket-launched grenades.
The Taliban fighters were organized and appeared to have a plan, Farrell said.
“They’ve had 10 years of practice shooting at the Russians,” he said, referring to the Soviet Union’s ill-fated effort to overturn the Afghanistan government in the 1980s.
In the plane’s belly, Christensen was too busy dropping two pallets, equipped with parachutes, to notice.
“I just know that if it was me on the ground (running out of ammunition), I’d want somebody to do the same,” Christensen said.
'A lucky shot'
Not until they landed a few minutes later and inspected the plane did the crew members know they had been hit.
Two bullet holes, probably made by rounds fired from AK-47 rifles, were discovered in the leading edge of the left wing, between the two engines.
“Wow, we got shot and we didn’t even know it,” Christensen said.
News spread rapidly, and within minutes senior commanders were looking over the damage.
The plane stayed on the ground for about 12 hours as maintainers dug out the bullet fragments to make sure they wouldn’t jam the controls.
Before they could fly again, the holes were covered with “speed tape,” the same kind of tape that NASCAR crews use to patch up cars during a race, Farrell said.
“I still feel it was a lucky shot,” Farrell said. “They (the Taliban) don’t have the equipment to be particularly effective, which is good for us.”
Being only the second C-17 ever to be hit by enemy fire “was disquieting for sure,” Farrell said. “But it was a small thing compared to what all the Army guys are going through.”
The crew, though, didn’t spend much time dwelling on the incident. “We knew that we’d have to keep going back out,” Farrell said.
It wasn’t until a few months later, after the squadron returned to Charleston, that Farrell and Christensen said they got a greater appreciation of what they had survived.
On Oct. 15, the crew’s co-pilot, 1st Lt. Tommy Jackson was struck by a car and killed while crossing a street in Athens, Greece, where he was on assignment.
The 28-year-old aviator was buried five days later in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala. A C-17 flew over Tuscaloosa Memorial Park in his honor.
“I think it bothered me more after Tommy got killed,” Farrell said. “He gets through this and then he dies walking across the street.
“It makes you value things a little more. I want to spend time with my family and make sure everything is in order before I go back out.”

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