363d ISR Wing Airmen honored with Distinguished Flying Cross for ’21 Afghanistan withdrawal efforts

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. AJ Hyatt
  • 363d Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing

Ten aircrew members were recognized at Hurlburt Field, Fla. with the Distinguished Flying Cross during a ceremony Nov. 17, 2023.
Of the 10 individuals, two were Airmen from the 363d Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Wing: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Zachary Schweigl, instructor Tactical Systems Operator (TSO) from the 306th Intelligence Squadron, and Senior Airman Max Sohlberg, instructor TSO from the 25th Intelligence Squadron.
The U-28A Draco aircrews earned the honor from their efforts in support of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
Presiding over the ceremony was Col. Allison Black, 1st Special Operations Wing Commander.
“Today we recognized ten U-28A crew members who displayed incredible leadership and Airmanship in August of 2021 during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Col. Allison Black, 1st Special Operations Wing commander. “For its entire existence, the U-28 community has lived in the shadows of recognition, but today there were no shadows. Today, the U-28 community, AFSOC, and the Air Force was proud to have these deserving crew members stand at center stage and be recognized for their contributions to our mission success.”

This DFC presentation marked a milestone for the U-28A Draco community as it was the first ever DFC presented to a Draco aircrew. The U-28A is a modified, single-engine Pilatus PC-12 aircraft and is part of the Air Force Special Operations Command manned, airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance fleet. Operational squadrons include the 319th, 34th and 318th Special Operations Squadrons, and the 5th and 19th SOS conduct the airframe’s formal training.
“I feel humbled to receive this award,” said Schweigl. “I am super grateful for the leadership and people who submitted us for this medal. They put in a lot of work over the past two years to make sure everyone who flew on August 15th and 16th got recognized for the risk they took.”
The decisive actions and courage from Schweigl, and the exemplary knowledge and outstanding airmanship from Sohlberg, displayed by both Airmen under extremely hazardous conditions, saved the lives of their crews, United States Military personnel, friendly forces and Afghan civilians as Kabul fell to the Taliban.
On August 15, 2021, while conducting his pre-flight duties for a mission supporting the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, a firefight erupted on a ramp 100 meters from Schweigl’s aircraft. During this time, Afghan security forces opening fire on their own pilots attempting to commandeer the aircraft in a bid to escape the country, according to Schweigl’s citation.
Schweigl’s crew unanimously chose to continue with their mission, agreeing that their duty to protect U.S. citizens superseded their own safety.
“There was chaos on the airfield as the ATC tower vacated and I remember our crew scrambling to find someone to give us clearance to take off,” said Schweigl. “Once we did take off, I remember seeing the tracer fire all around the city.”
Following departure, at 1,500 feet above the ground, Schweigl visually identified a rocket fired at his aircraft from a nearby mountain peak and he immediately directed an evasive maneuver away from the threat. Following an unprecedented and hazardous landing in a gap among crowds of people, Schweigl joined his crew in arming themselves before working through the mob to the safety of friendly lines.
The preceding night’s chaos still gripped Kabul and on August 16, 2021, Sohlberg was tasked to coordinate defense of the airfield perimeter, a mission set that he was not trained for. However, Sohlberg rose to the occasion, using on- and off-board systems to reach beyond line-of-sight air and command assets, building their situational awareness and helping route assistance to overburdened ground forces.
Sohlberg was then able to synthesize information from nonconventional sources, disseminating important detail that allowed his crew to accurately identify enemy combatants hiding in crowds of refugees.
When his crew responded to friendly troops in contact, Sohlberg took on several extra radios in addition to his normal duties, allowing the sensor operators to focus on assisting ground forces.
“We immediately accepted the same level of risk as those Marines, dipping back into range of the tracer fire that had attacked us on takeoff,” Sohlberg said. “We were going as low as it took to try our best to help them, to try anything to dissuade those people from attacking those Marines.”
With their aircraft below emergency fuel, no wingmen to assist, no divert options, and a horde of unidentified personnel and burning vehicles occupying the runway, Sohlberg helped facilitate a perilous landing on a taxiway and coordinated for rescue on landing. Aware of the grave danger facing his crew, Sohlberg armed himself, barricaded the cargo door against the masses, and assisted in defending his aircraft until a security detail could reach and escort them to safety.
“The silent understanding between our crew that we were going to do whatever it took to help the guys on the ground get home [is what will stick with me the most],” said Sohlberg. “There didn’t need to be a discussion, we already knew what had to happen and we were all willing to do it. Being able to help those taking the most risk and the camaraderie we built in our crew is the best part about my job.”
When presented with extremely hazardous conditions, Sohlberg’s and Schweigl’s training kicked in, displaying professional outstanding heroism and selfless devotion to duty.
“There is a lot of different skills to master and acquire in this career and I enjoy the learning it involves,” said Schweigl. “You are given the opportunity to execute those skills very quickly.”
The Distinguished Flying Cross medal is awarded to any officer or enlisted person of the armed forces of the United States for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. The heroism or achievement must be entirely distinctive, involving operations that are not routine. It is not awarded for sustained operational activities and flights. The DFC is the fourth highest award for heroism and the highest award for extraordinary aerial achievement.
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