By Staff Sgt. Katie Spencer, 459th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 10, 2013
PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- The 920th Rescue Wing's motto, "These things we do, that others may live," embodies the wing's noble search-and-rescue mission. While rescue is the primary goal, life-saving operations can turn into life-threatening situations in the blink of an eye. For one 920th RQW reservist deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, the sound of a siren turned his mundane day turned into a dangerous emergency.
In summer 2012, Senior Master Sgt. Scott Spangler, a special-missions aviator on HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, was at Bagram on his fifth deployment. He spent most of his time there transporting patients between different forward operating bases throughout the country. Things were calm overall until the day his team received an alert for a rescue mission.
"The alert call was to go into the Bamyan Province and pick up seven patients," recalled Spangler. "The terrain was very steep, and we had to maneuver our way through the valleys ... it was then I suggested we call in for tanker support."
Pave Hawks have a fuel capacity of 4,500 pounds and aerial refueling capability. Spangler's job entails ensuring the aircraft has adequate fuel throughout the mission, as well as navigating the pilots to the rescue points. Prior to the mission, Spangler reached out to an HC-130 P/N King unit out of Camp Bastion with the call sign "fever" to provide aerial refueling for rescue helicopters.
The helicopters traveled in pairs for safety purposes. As the team arrived on scene, New Zealand Special Forces operators assisted them in finding a safe place to land. When the wheels of the Pave Hawks touched the warm grounds of the Afghan terrain, the pararescuemen deployed, picked up and treated the patients, six New Zealanders and one Afghan National Army soldier.
Spangler said deciding where to take the patients was challenging due to the rescue location. The team decided to take the patients to Regional Command North, but traveling there would to be difficult due to the distance and fuel levels; the tankers were not able to reach the choppers fast enough.
The helicopters landed at RC-North with little fuel to spare, offloaded the
patients, refueled and were dispatched again to the same location to rescue
more injured combatants.
In Afghanistan, the air temperature and altitude are high, causing the air to be denser and aircraft to become heavier. With a full tank, the engines cannot retain enough power to maintain a hover in this case, so the crews had to dump fuel to decrease weight, Spangler explained. Then Spangler said he directed the pilots to get the tail of the helicopter within feet of a rock cliff to perform the rescue, so close that they could not back up without risk of losing the tail propeller.
"We held our hover position while I got the two PJs on the ground and sent down a liter so they could package up the patients," he said. "After that, we took off and flew around so we didn't become a sitting target for the enemy."
Spangler said it took approximately 10 minutes for the PJs to get the patients ready for transport.
"As we came back down into our hover position, we took on fire," he said. "I remember one of the newer guys [who was on his first deployment] saying 'Why are they shooting at me?' not realizing they were shooting at the chopper. So I told him to just shoot back," Spangler said.
Dust from the muzzles on the ground gave away the enemies' position, so Spangler's crew shot toward the dust. After a few passes at that position, the threat was suppressed, and the crew continued on to pick up the injured on the ground.
Because the rescue team had to dump fuel to hover and suppress enemy fire, their gas level was decreasing. But, since Spangler had called in tanker support before the mission, "fever" was in place and ready to refuel.
"Without the tanker, I think we would have run out of gas," Spangler said.
Spangler and his team received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for their efforts on that summer day. Spangler received his during a commander's call at Patrick Sept. 8., from Maj. Gen. William B. Binger, 10th Air Force commander.
Col. Jeffrey Macrander, 920th Rescue Wing commander, said he was proud of Spangler's hard work, dedication and achievements.
"Receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross is a significant achievement for even an officer, but it's an unbelievable achievement for an enlisted member," Macrander said. "I congratulate Sergeant Spangler on this very rare, career-changing event."
"I am surprised to be honest," Spangler confessed. "I am honored, but I didn't expect it. I don't think I did anything that spectacular because I just did my job."
The 920th RQW trains and equips its people for missions just like the one Spangler encountered. For him, that day's mission success was a direct result of training.
"You hear it a thousand times when people say the training takes over, and to some extent it really does," said Spangler. "If something happens, the brain reverts back to reacting like you did while in training."