Skip to comments.'Like flying through hell'
Posted on 05/01/2004 10:29:54 AM PDT by The Mayor
FOCUS: HEROISM IN IRAQ
'Like flying through hell'
The pilot of a military helicopter, an Amherst native, tells of terror and triumph in the heroic rescue of two wounded soldiers in Iraq
By CHARITY VOGEL
News Staff Reporter
Click to view larger picture
That April evening, like many nights in Iraq last year during the height of the ground war, was pitch dark and unpredictable.
Just south of Baghdad, a group of American soldiers - special operations forces - were ambushed. Surrounded by Iraqi fighters, they were trapped. Gunshots and explosions rang out all around them from the blackened city streets.
Worse yet, 10 of the ambushed men were wounded - two of them badly.
That's when, 150 miles away in the desert, Maj. Steven R. White - a helicopter pilot known to his friends as "Whitey" - got the call.
White scrambled into his helicopter, Jolly 24, a Pave Hawk - like the Black Hawk copters made famous by the movie "Black Hawk Down," but modified to run high-tech rescue missions and handle in-flight refueling.
What happened over the next few hours was amazing in two respects:
First, that White, a 1980 graduate of Amherst High School, was able to bring the two badly wounded men to safety - saving their lives by his daring actions.
And second, that he made it home himself.
For what happened the night of April 7, 2003, White and his crew will be honored with the prestigious Rescue Mission of the Year Award at a ceremony tonight in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The award is presented annually by the Jolly Green Association, an organization of retired pilots and rescue personnel affiliated with the U.S. Air Force.
The award is considered a high honor among Air Force pilots and crews.
"It's bravery," said Lee T. Massey, an officer of the Jolly Greens, describing the actions of White and his crew. "This carries on our rescue motto: "These things we do so others may live.' "
White, 42, who has family members living in Western New York, offers a humbler take on his role in saving the wounded soldiers after a dangerous mission.
"You train forever for the Super Bowl," he said, "so when the Super Bowl comes up, you don't want to sit on the bench."
Part 1: Into the darkness
What may have been the most dangerous part of the mission happened shortly after takeoff.
White, flight commander of Jolly 24, and his partner in a nearby Pave Hawk - Antonio D. Cunha, commander of Jolly 23 - had lifted off for the 11/2-hour flight from Tallil Air Base to the spot along Highway 1 in south Baghdad where the wounded Americans were located.
About 20 minutes into the trip, they encountered a nightmare: a vicious sandstorm.
Imagine riding in a car and suddenly a truckload of fine sand is poured over your windshield. Or imagine the sandstorm scene in "The Mummy."
That's what it was like, White recalled - only more frightening, because the lives of the two crews were on the line.
"It's the big churning mess of goo," he said. "You're just losing your bearings."
The two Pave Hawks were flying about 100 feet off the ground. White knew that trying to fly above the sandstorm probably would not work - earlier, he had tried rising as high as 8,000 feet to escape a sand cloud, unsuccessfully.
Inside the cockpit of White's Pave Hawk, the churning sand created a dark brown-colored atmosphere. The roar of the motors drowned out the roar of the sand hitting the metal of the copter and the windshield's glass.
"There was a little bit of extra stress going on," White said wryly. "It's the seat cushion factor - afterward, you're pulling the seat cushion out of your backside."
Then something even worse happened.
In the darkness, White and Cunha lost sight of one another, and lost electronic contact. That situation - called "lost wingman" - can be very dangerous because the two aircraft could become separated for good, or could even collide in midair.
Talking over the radio, after 15 minutes of tense communication, the two pilots managed to reunite.
They headed for Baghdad, where the city lights and burning oil fires gave them something to orient themselves by. Their vertigo, caused by the whirling sandstorm, ebbed. The sandstorm itself dropped off.
"You get your mind caged up again," said White, referring to what happens when a pilot finally sees a horizon line.
Part 2: Running out of time
As they approached southern Baghdad, the Jollys were joined by A-10s, big Warthog jets that help guide and protect more vulnerable rescue aircraft in dangerous situations.
White and Cunha piloted their helicopters through the smoky oil fires and around power lines. Street battles were taking place all over the area, so the two copters landed in a squared-off plot of grass formed by a bunch of American tanks.
"That's kind of dangerous stuff," White said. "(But) we knew where we were supposed to be going. We got lucky - no holes in the aircraft."
Once they were down, paramedics rushed to help the wounded soldiers. The two most badly wounded men were loaded onto the Jollys. The other eight men were stabilized, but they were well enough to wait for on-the-ground rescuers the next day.
The wounded soldiers were flown to an airfield 75 miles southwest of Baghdad, where they were loaded onto a C-130 and removed to safety.
Meanwhile, the Jollys took off again, headed back to Tallil Air Base, but they were down to 10 minutes' worth of fuel - for a one-hour flight. That's where another big challenge of the mission came in. The two helicopters linked up with a C-130 in midair to refuel - a couple of hundred feet above the desert sand - so that they could make it back to base safely.
"To take off into the black unknown with minimum gas, that was scary," White said.
The two crews landed safely at Tallil and finally, after a 2 a.m. debriefing, were done for the day. But they were back up in the air, returning to the danger zone to rescue the pilot of a Warthog, the next morning by 7.
"The older you get, the harder it is to do these kinds of things," White said. "You see the reality."
Steve White and his brother Jeff are both in the Air Force. A third brother, the youngest, Craig, lives in Angola.
The flying Whites
After Amherst High School, the Whites - Jeff, 44, graduated two years ahead of Steve in 1978 - went to college and then joined the military.
Jeff White, a helicopter pilot who served in Panama, Operation Desert Storm, Haiti and Iraq, is now a lieutenant colonel based in Florida.
He said he's proud of his brother, just as he's proud of other brave pilots he has known.
"It was like flying through hell," Jeff White said. "He's humble because he doesn't think he did anything different from what anybody else would do. But I was very proud of him."
Steve White, also based in Florida but at a different air base, graduated in 1986 from Rochester Institute of Technology and then joined the Marines. After 10 years as a helicopter pilot in the Marines, he lost his position in that service during a reduction of the forces in 1996. He switched to the Air Force, which is where he has been ever since.
Steve White will attend the ceremony tonight with his wife, Susan, and his son, Collin, 7.
"The squadron will get a plaque, and we'll hang it on the wall," White said in his characteristic laid-back manner. "It's an honor to get your name on that."
Sure beats my job.
Indeed! May God bless them.
Thanks for posting this article, Mayor
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