USAF Special Operations – Somalia

Philip D Chinnery reports on Spectre missions and Special Tactics Squadron heroics in Mogadishu.

ONE OF THE LAST foreign policy decisions mode by President George Bush, before his election defeat by Bill Clinton, was to send American troops to Somalia, under the auspices of the United Nations. Located in the horn of Africa, bordering the Indian Ocean, Somalia is a country suffering from famine and disease. Ruled by despotic warlords, the country was in dire need of outside help. The United Nations decided to step in and Operation Provide Relief was launched.

The multi-national security and airlift operation began in August 1992 and 78,000 tonnes of food had been delivered to Somalia by November 1. However, the various warring factions were preventing the aid convoys from reaching the people who needed them most, so on December 3, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 794, authorising members to ‘establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia’. The same day, Operation Restore hope began with the arrival of ships from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force off the coast of Somalia. Six days later, the first of 16,000 Marines and 10,000 infantrymen came ashore and moved into the country to try to suppress the warlords. Troops from other countries such as France, Canada, Belgium and Italy were sent to Somalia as well.

Operation Restore Hope had been superseded by Operation Continue Hope when Spectre appeared on the scene on June 11. Three AC-130Hs from the 16th SOS took part in the initial air strike in the United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM II) attack directed against Somali warlord General Mohammed Farah Aidid. The aircraft, using the call signs Reach 67,68 and 69 flew from the nearby Republic of Djibouti to Mogadishu, Somalia, and refuelled there, taking-off at 10,000lb (4,536kg) above normal peacetime maximum allowable gross weight.

Reach 68’s primary mission was to destroy Radio Mogadishu, a Somalian radio station used by General Aidid to broadcast propaganda, while Reach 67 engaged targets to the north. Despite problems with the fire control system computers, the crew of Reach 68 did an outstanding job of manipulating the 50lb (22kg) 105mm rounds in the blacked-out cargo bay and arming the fuses as directed by the Fire Control Officer. The gunners would have the next round ready to fire as the preceding round was impacting the target. In total, 96 105mm high explosive rounds were delivered on the target, destroying the four power generators and the radio equipment and causing massive damage to the buildings in the complex.

Reach 69, which was tasked to destroy an armoured tank compound, also suffered multiple mission computer malfunctions and the crew was forced to manually fire the 105mm gun using a band-pulled lanyard. This rarely used procedure requires exceptional co-ordination between the pilot, fire control officer and gunners. To complicate matters, the aircraft received several infra-red surface-to-air missile launch warnings, which required defensive manoeuvres, even though the signals were later determined to be false alarms. All three crews were eventually recommended for the Air Medal following the missions.

On June 16, Reach 67 was in action again, attacking several weapons caches plus General Aidid’s compound and guardhouse. Ground personnel also directed attacks on several other targets, including roadblocks and ‘technical vehicles’ before the aircraft headed for Mogadishu to assist another gunship which experienced an in-flight emergency.

Reach 66 was the unlucky aircraft concerned. Taking off from Mogadishu airport, again weighing 165,000lb (74,844kg), 10,000lb (4,536kg) over normal maximum allowable peacetime gross weight, the aircraft had climbed to 100ft (30m) above the ground when the number three engine fire light illuminated. The right scanner confirmed that flames were coming from the aft portion of the engine. The flight engineer began dumping fuel as the electronics warfare officer disarmed the automatic defensive flare dispensing system — a false alarm would have ejected flares into the clouds of fuel.

Because of the marginal aircraft climb performance, the crew kept the engine running until reaching 1,000ft (300m), then it was shut down and its fire extinguisher activated. Since no operational instrument approaches into Mogadishu airport existed, the navigator began giving vectors for an airborne radar approach (ARA). However, while the flight engineer was carrying out the post-engine shutdown procedures for the number three engine, the co-pilot discovered the throttle for the number four engine was stuck in the maximum power position. The marginal weather conditions and the problem with the number four engine precluded landing on the first ARA, and in addition, cockpit indications revealed an engine bleed air leak continuing to bum wire bundles in the right wing, despite the number three engine being shut down, the number four engine bleed air valve being closed and the flight engineer isolating the right wing from all bleed air sources.

The crew set up for a second ARA and at 10 miles (16km) out they initiated shut down of the number four engine. The co-pilot and flight engineer anticipated the possibility that the malfunction jamming the number four engine throttle cable could also affect the operation or the condition lever. The co-pilot placed his free hand on the fire handle as an electrical back-up to the condition lever. When the condition lever would only go two thirds of the way to the ‘feather’ position, the co-pilot immediately continued the shutdown with the fire handle. Had the propeller failed to feather, the AC-130 would have probably crashed.

The crew prepared to perform a two-engine no-flap landing, with a 15kts (28km/h) tailwind and the pilot executed a flawless approach and touchdown. Due to the tailwind, and having no capability to use engine reversing, the aircraft experienced hot brakes, but nevertheless taxied bock to the parking area to keep the runway clear for the other gunships still in the air. With the lives of 16 crewmembers and a $70 million aircraft at stake, the crew displayed exceptional teamwork and co-ordination to overcome an extremely dangerous aircraft malfunction in combat conditions.

Combat conditions on the ground in Mogadishu on October 3 and 4, 1993, led to the award of two Silver Stars and an Air Force Cross to three NCOs from the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, based at Pope AFB, North Carolina. The squadron, comprising combat controllers and para-rescue men was part of UNOSOM II/Task Force Ranger, a joint-service team sent into Aidid-controlled territory to capture militia leaders, blamed for attacks on US and UN troops. In the ensuing gun battle, 18 Americans were killed and 84 others wounded in what would become the longest fire-fight involving US troops in 20-years.

Somali casualties were put at 312 dead and 814 wounded. The American public would be shocked by reports of dead troopers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, while a captured helicopter pilot was displayed on television.

The battle took place in a maze of streets, alleys and multi-story buildings; a soldier’s nightmare, SSgt Bray was a part of an aerial assault force that deployed into the centre of Mogadishu to capture 24 militia leaders believed to be responsible for recent attacks on US and UN troops. As Bray and his team fast-roped into Hiwadag Street they came under fire and he began to perform his combat controller duties by calling in a Black Hawk gunship to provide covering fire. Eventually, the assault force rounded up the suspects and was waiting for extraction when tragedy struck.

A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) struck a Black Hawk, call sign Super 61, and the helicopter, together with its five passengers, crashed into a narrow alleyway 300 yards (274m) from Bray’s position. The C2 (Command and Control) bird, instructed him to move to the crash site immediately.

Para-rescue men MSgt Scott Fales and TSgt Timothy Wilkinson were already aboard a search and rescue Black Hawk, Super 68, circling nearby. At 3.39pm they and the rest of their 15-man search and rescue security team were told they were going in. Hovering 40ft (12m) above Freedom Rood the team fast-roped to the ground from the Black Hawk. Suddenly there was an explosion as another RPG struck Super 68 just below the main rotor blades. The pilots managed to hold their aircraft in the hover until the last of the team got to the ground, then nursed the stricken craft out of the immediate area.

Despite the small arms fire coming at them from three directions, Fates, Wilkinson and the rescue team worked their way to the downed helicopter to extract the wounded and dead crew members. They arrived to discover that the pilots were dead and others were injured or trapped in the wreckage. Suddenly, the Somali gunmen sent a borage of small arms fire towards he crash site and Fales was hit in the leg. He took out his scissors, cut open his trousers and applied a dressing to the wound. As Wilkinson and an army medic removed the wounded crew chief from he wreck the shooting intensified, and Wilkinson’s face and arm were hit by metal fragments. Both para-rescue men began treating the wounded behind the aircraft as the Rangers laid down a protective fire.

In the meantime, combat controller Bray ond other Rangers were working their way towards the crash site under intense enemy fire. With an increasing number of Rangers getting wounded, Bray set up a casualty collection point in a nearby courtyard Somalis swarmed through the streets, firing rifles and RPGs at pockets of Americans now taking cover in several buildings along Freedom Way. Soon Bray’s position would become a focal point for directing gunship fire at the advancing militia.

The cry of «Medic! Medic! We need a medic here» from Bray’s group reached Wilkinson at the crash site. He grabbed his medical rucksack and dashed up the narrow alley. He found four wounded Rangers in the courtyard, one badly wounded. However, there were not enough medical supplies to go round, so he ran back to the crash site, collected some more and once again made his frantic dash across the street.

Eye witness Ranger Captain A Scott Miller stated; “It should be noted that these trips across the open street were at the peak of the battle when enemy fire was at its most intense. We were receiving intense and accurate small arms and RPG fire. His repeated acts of heroism saved the lives of at least four soldiers.”

The battle raged on through the evening and into the night. Two Block Hawks had been shot down by RPGs and two others were severely damaged — and the Rangers’ casualties were mounting. Task Force Ranger did not have night vision goggles (NVGs) with them so they were on the same terms as the Somalis who probed their positions in groups of three or four. Fortunately, the gunships circling overhead did have NVGs and were called in to targets by Bray and other combat controllers. Bray developed an ingenious marking system so gunships could hit the enemy without injuring the friendlies. Often he called in support fire ‘Danger Close’, within (33ft) 10m of his position and gunships fired 60,000 rounds and 63 rockets at targets in the area. His ingenuity and coolness under fire saved countless lives.

Although Fales had been shot in the leg during the rescue, he managed to tend to his more seriously wounded comrades during the 18-hour ordeal, often throwing himself over the wounded during frequent grenade attacks. Wilkinson performed a similar service for others across the street, despite direct hits on the building by RPGs. Eventually the long night came to an end and a relief force reached the area around 7am the next morning.

Wilkinson received the Air Force Cross and Fales and Bray the Silver Star on January 31, 1994, from Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill A McPeak. Wilkinson is the first enlisted man to earn the Air Force Cross in 19 years. Fales and Bray join nine enlisted men who were awarded Silver Stars during Desert Storm.

Eight other members of the 24th STS were presented with Bronze Stars with Valour, or Bronze Stars, for their action during the firefight.

Readers may well recall the television pictures of injured helicopter pilot Michael Durant, captured by the Somalis and held until his release could be negotiated a few days later. His was the second Black Hawk to be shot down by RPG fire that fateful day. It now transpires that after his aircraft crashed to the ground, two Delta Force troopers jumped out of another helicopter to try to assist the crew. Members of Special Forces Operational Detachment — Delta, Master Sergeant Gary I Gordon (33) and Sergeant First Class Randall D Shugart (35) were able to drag Durant out of the wreckage and arm him with a sub-machine gun. They and other helicopter crew members fought overwhelming numbers of Somali guerrillas until they ran out of ammunition and were killed. Durant was taken prisoner. Both Gordon and

Shugart were awarded the posthumous Medal of Honor by President Clinton in a White House ceremony on May 25, 1994. It was the first award of the Medal of Horror since Roy Benavidez belatedly received his for actions during the Vietnam War.

Sadly, the last days of Air Force Special Operations involvement in Somalia ended in tragedy. On March 14, 1994 a 16th SOS AC-130H, call sign Jockey 14, crash landed 200yds (183m) off the coast near the town of Malindi, Kenya. The aircraft was flying at 9,000ft (2,743m) and the crew were firing rounds for proficiency. Suddenly, a 105mm shell exploded in the howitzer gun tube and shrapnel from the explosion hit the propeller on engine number one and mode holes in the fuel tanks. A fire started in the area of number one engine and it was shut down. However, a fire then started in the number two engine and this was also shut down, making level controlled flight impossible.

The gunship could only be controlled in descent, but it was too low for the crew to lighten the load by throwing out ammunition etc and regain level flight. The aircraft hit the water at about 140kts (260km/h), wings level, and the nose slightly raised. The impact broke away the cockpit and forward fuselage from the rear. Of the 14 crew members, three bailed out before impact and three survived the crash landing. Eight others perished. They were: Captain David J Mehlhop, navigator; Captain Anthony Stefanik, fire control officer; Captain Mark A Quam, electronic warfare officer; SSgt Wlliam C Eyler, sensor operator; MSgt Roy S Duncan, loodmaster; TSgt Robert L Daniel, sensor operator; SSgt Brian P Barnes, aerial gunner; SSgt Mike E Moser, aerial gunner.

By the end of March, the three remaining AC-130Hs and the last United Slates combat troops had departed from Somalia.

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