Survival in Iraq, 24 March 2003

     The sky was black and brown. We were enveloped by smoke from oil wells that Saddam had ordered set afire. The further we moved Northward the worse the weather got. The winds were blowing dust so hard that it was difficult to see much farther than the aircraft in front of us, which wasn’t more than 100 feet. We felt obligated to continue though, because we were carrying heavy metal boxes hung below our aircraft that contained Apache helicopter parts desperately needed at their destination. The winds picked up even more and the aircraft became almost uncontrollable. My aircraft was flung past the aircraft in front of me by winds in excess of 70 knots. And at one point while being tossed about, the load beneath our aircraft came within 10 feet of the ground! We climbed and the load became so unstable that I had to jettison it before it caused us to crash.
      As we climbed above the blowing dust I looked down at the fuel gauge and my heart sank – the gauge read less than 500 pounds of gas! That isn’t much for such a big aircraft. I decided that the best thing to do was to turn into the wind and begin a controlled descent in an attempt to land. At 1100 feet the ground came into sight but then disappeared. We picked it back up again at around 100 feet and safely landed. Once on the ground there was a collective sigh of relief from all crewmembers.
     The problem now was that we were still 25 km from our destination, fuel critical and unable to talk with the other aircraft in our flight. We decided to continue toward our destination hovering forward low to the ground, and at times, rolling on our wheels across the desert! Every inch closer to friendlies was one less inch we had to walk and that much closer to rescue! We had only a couple of minutes of fuel remaining and had only moved 6 km.
     Heath, my co-pilot, attempted to contact our unit on the long range High Frequency (HF) radio to give our position. As he was making contact we were creeping forward at about 15 feet above the ground when the #1 engine flamed out and almost immediately the #2 engine flamed out too. I performed a hovering autorotation and floated the aircraft safely to the ground. I immediately started the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) so that our radios would have power. Heath reset the HF radio because of the power fluctuation and tried to send our position again but it didn’t get through. Then our APU flamed out. We sat there for a few seconds contemplating what to do next.
     We were still 19 km from our destination according to our Global Positioning System (GPS). The visibility was no more than 200 yards due to blowing dust and sand. We thought that we saw enemy vehicles moving toward us but, thank God, they turned out to be bushes that were being shaken by the extremely high winds.
     We discussed walking to our original destination and joked that since it was over 12 miles we could get credit for the annual 12 mile road march training requirement. We were serious about walking to friendly forces but decided that we should wait until after dark when it was cooler because we remembered that BK Fox had taught us, “conserve sweat, not water”. It was 12:30 p.m. local time so we would have to wait at least 5 hours before starting our trek.
     We sat there keeping a vigilant watch for enemy vehicles. At one point the visibility picked up to about 500 yards and to our North we saw what appeared to be a small convoy and a possible encampment. Later we discovered that it was only more bushes.
     We moved away from the aircraft. Two of us manned the M60 door guns while the other two dug hasty fighting positions in the bushes and low ground a safe distance from the aircraft. As we moved the last of our equipment to our positions I took the hand-held survival radio out of my vest and attempted to call for help. No answer. I tried a few more times and then turned the radio off to save the battery. Later I climbed onto the top of the aircraft to try for better reception. I was a bit nervous in this because being up there I would be in a pretty vulnerable position should we get attacked. After a couple of tries I finally reached a friendly aircraft. We authenticated each other (made sure the other was friendly) and I told him that we were a downed aircrew with both engines flamed out and all 4 crewmembers are safe with no injuries. We set up a communication schedule so that I could conserve battery power on my radio.
     The wind was still blowing very hard and visibility was still poor. We thought we heard vehicles approaching but the sounds turned out to be the wind whipping through our aircraft. Isolation in a hostile environment sure makes for an active imagination!
     We were relieved when we were finally able to give the aircraft we were talking with our position using an encryption code. It meant that friendlies could now start working their way to us. About 5 minutes later two F-15’s flew overhead. They got down to about 100 feet above the ground and flew over top of our position rocking their wings and giving us a thumbs-up. We all stood up and waved and returned the greeting. Heath said, “he was so low I could almost read his nametag.” Our new best friend did a climb straight up and then said he had to go for fuel and would be back in 30 minutes. Around sunset we talked to our friend again and told him we were planning to walk to our destination after dark. He told us to maintain current position that someone was on the way. We were positive that we’d be picked up soon.
     When it was my turn for guard shift I grabbed my Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) and started roving. I spoke with another pilot who told me he had 2 helicopters and was guiding them to our position. I looked out to the horizon and saw their infra-red search lights coming right for our position. I awakened the crew to prepare for recovery and about then the lights, which were about 8-10 miles away, turned and disappeared into the distance. Disappointed again.
     As the night progressed I noticed that my crew members were getting cold. The temp had dropped and we didn’t have much warm gear in the fighting positions. I woke SPC Phelps and asked him to come to the aircraft to help me find the sleeping bags and bring them back to the fighting positions. We continued pulling shifts and monitoring the radio. At sunup the next morning a team of infantrymen from the Rakkasans showed up to provide a covering force for us. We were greatly relieved to have friendly faces show up.
     When we returned to the unit area one of the first things I wanted to do was find BK Fox and thank him for the survival training. Everything he taught us worked and facilitated our being found. I credit our survival and safe return to the training we received from BK.

Thanks BK!

Mark Ilg
CW3 (RET)

 


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