26th MEU (SOC) Marines recover downed CH-46E in Northern Iraq

27 Apr 2003 | Capt. Edward R. Fergus

*Editor's Note - Capt. Edward R. Fergus is the Air Officer for Battalion Landing Team 1/8, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), and is currently deployed in Mosul.  Much of this article is his first-hand account of a rescue mission that he and 11 other Marines of BLT 1/8 conducted April 22 to retrieve a downed CH-46E in Northern Iraq following a mechanical failure on that aircraft. 

"Around 7:30 p.m., April 22, I was preparing to assume the duties as the Battalion Watch Officer when an urgent message was passed over the Battalion Tactical radio.  The message said that a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced) had made an emergency landing a few miles east of the small town of Makhmur, Iraq due to a hydraulic system failure," Fergus said. 

"The Battalion Landing Team 1/8 Commander, Lt. Col. David Hough, told me to put on my gear and be prepared to launch an immediate [Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel] mission.  After a quick glance at the downed aircraft's suspected position, my radio operator, Sgt. Don L. Zaegel, and I drove to the [26th Marine Expeditionary Unit's Command Post] to meet with 2nd Lt. Douglas P. Krugman, the Alpha Company, BLT 1/8 TRAP team platoon commander.  When I arrived, Lt. Krugman told me that we were going in 'light,' because we were only taking in one helicopter.

"We departed with 12 Marines including Lt. Krugman and me, as opposed to our normal 40 Marine TRAP package.  As I boarded the CH-46E, I was told that we would have three Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters in support during our mission.  Lifting off from Mosul International Airport, we headed southeast."

For the pilots and aircrew on the ground, things were growing a little more tense.
Maj. James M. Garrett, III, a native of Six Mile, S.C., and pilot of the downed CH-46E helicopter with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Reinforced)., first learned of a potential problem with his aircraft when his crew chief, Sgt. Matthew F. Fredrickson, 22, of Long Beach Island, N.J., informed him of a sudden high-pitch whining noise coming from the rear of the helicopter.

"The hydraulic line blew a pinhole leak, which caused the cabin to fill with hydraulic mist," said Fredrickson.  "As I investigated further, I quickly recognized that we had a significant problem developing.  With the loss of the hydraulic fluid, the auxiliary hydraulic pump was running dry and heating up rapidly.  In a matter of minutes, the intense heat melted a pressure line and our greatest fear was for the hydraulic pump to explode, causing a fire."

While Fredrickson and the other member of the aircrew, Cpl. Chris J. DeJulio, "Jules," 21 of Frisco, Colo., dealt with the mechanical problem, Garrett assessed the situation and knew that he had to get away from the small town of Makhmar below.  Meanwhile, his two Marines in the back looked rapidly for a suitable landing spot.

"Our flight path took us along a ridgeline to the right with the city to my left," Garrett said.  "Up ahead, I could see a gap in the ridge that I thought could hide us from observation in the town, if we had to make an emergency landing.  It was very hilly terrain and there was very little illumination as well.  While I was optimistic we could make it there, my co-pilot, Major Greg Bryant, said that we weren't going to make it."

The problem, Fredrickson explained, was that in a CH-46E, "the hydraulic fluid is cooled on the top of the aircraft and is then pumped throughout through these high pressure lines.  When the auxiliary pump ran dry, that's when it heated up well over 149 degrees Fahrenheit, setting off a utility hot light and a utility pump failure light, telling Major Garrett there was a major problem back here."  Fearing an imminent fire, Fredrickson told Garrett that they needed to land immediately. 

"I trust Freddie [Fredrickson] completely, so when he said that we needed to land right then, I found the most isolated piece of ground that I could and set the plane down," said Garrett.  "We did an immediate shutdown to guard against the fire threat, but that also meant that we lost everything - the power, the radio, everything," he said.

With the aircraft safely shut down, Fredrickson and Bryant sprinted to the rear of the aircraft to immediately assess the problem and to compile a parts list of the parts that they would need to fix it while the second aircraft circled overhead.  Meanwhile, Garrett and DeJulio grabbed their M-16 A2 service rifles and ran out to provide security.

As soon as they got on the ground, DeJulio spotted someone about 200 meters in front of them carrying a flashlight and headed their way.  After a few tense moments, the man turned away and reentered his home and the Marines assessed their situation.

"After a few minutes on the ground and a couple of close calls with people or vehicles, I realized that I was a downed aviator in Iraq," said Garrett.  "There was some apprehension certainly.  Given where we were, this could be good or it could turn out bad," he said.

After his 'wingman' landed his CH-46E behind Garrett's, the two pilots got a quick face-to-face about the problem and Garrett gave him his parts list before the second helicopter was airborne again. 

The 'wingman' provided cover with his two M2 .50 caliber machineguns as long as he could before he had to return to the airbase in Mosul for fuel.

"I'm 'bingo' for fuel," the pilot said.  "But, [close air support] is on the way," he assured Garrett and his Marines as he turned the helicopter away.  And then it went silent.

"When it went silent, that was both good and bad," DeJulio said.  "It was good in that it made my hearing that much better and I could hear the slightest movement if someone was headed our way, but it also reminded us that we were very much alone now."

Nearly 35 minutes passed before three AH-64 Apache helicopters arrived overhead and Garrett switched to a discreet frequency to give the lead pilot the ground orientation and general situation.  "After we got the business out of the way, the pilot asked how we were doing," Garrett said.  "Feeling a whole lot better now that you're here!" Garrett replied.

Off in the distance, Garrett heard his 'wingman' returning, this time with reinforcements - "me with my 11 infantry Marines of the TRAP team" said Fergus.

"After a brief 40-mile trek, our helicopter touched down beside the downed aircraft and we immediately sprinted out of our helicopter to find our security positions.  I found the helicopter's lead pilot, Major Jim "Levi" Garrett, who was one of my instructors in flight school and a fellow former member of the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor program. 

"The irony of the situation was immediately apparent as there we were - Major Garrett, Major Bryant and I, all three of us former members of the MV-22 Osprey program, in the heart of 'bad guy country,' with a broken down CH-46E!  Major Garrett briefed me on their situation and told me they had already been on the ground for over an hour.  The crew was in good spirits and obviously pleased to have a squad of Marines protecting their perimeter," Fergus said.

"The terrain was very rocky with rolling hills to the North and East, and Makhmur to the West.  When I found a good observation post on one of the eastern hills, I took one of the fire teams with me for security and headed that way.  Once established, I contacted the Apaches flying overhead and received a situation report.  They reported a T-55 tank hull to our South along with numerous Soviet-made armored personnel carriers and construction equipment.  The Apaches reported no enemy movement in the area. 

"Knowing that we were undermanned, I radioed Major Garrett and asked him if he had ammunition for the CH-46's .50 caliber machine guns.  He replied that they did and that they would begin to man the position.  Sgt. Eric Vazquez, the TRAP team's senior enlisted Marine, tied them into our perimeter and they provided the required security to guard the Western flank," he said. 

"As the crew chiefs attempted to fix the helicopter, they realized they did not have the required part with them and headed back to Mosul to retrieve it.  Once that aircraft had departed, we hunkered down into our positions and sent a few Marines to observe the area.  When they returned, they reported a multitude of heavy equipment and an intricate tunnel system.  This only made our lengthy stay more nerve racking.

"An hour and a half later, the CH-46E returned with the required part as well as two of my radio operators.  Shortly thereafter, a flight of two USAF F-15E Strike Eagles arrived overhead, to replace the now departed Apaches, and within twenty minutes, the CH-46E crew had the motors turning and we collapsed our security and boarded the aircraft.  After an uneventful thirty-minute return flight, the reality of the situation struck me.  Although Mosul International Airport is clearly no paradise, I was ecstatic to be back," Fergus said. 

For more information on the Marines and Sailors of the 26th MEU (SOC), visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.