AWACS crew coordinates rescue in Afghanistan
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 base.
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 wreckage.
"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."
Article by Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs