20th Anniversary of Sky King Rescue

  • Published
  • By 23rd Wing Historian
  • 23rd Wing

On April 16, 2004, the 41st Rescue Squadron and Pararescuemen from the 38th Rescue Squadron fought bad weather and faced enemy surface-to-air threats to save the lives of five U.S. Army CH-47D Chinook aircrew who had crashed in a sandstorm on the desert plains of Iraq.

On April 14, 2024, several crewmembers from the 41st RQS and one Pararescuemen from the 38th RQS met in a hotel near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to recreate the mission on paper of what happened that night.

Like a “callsign” naming ceremony, some would say the 10 percent rule applied to the truth in the story told about that night. It was intriguing to watch the crews come together and pull data from each other to piece that night together after 20 long years. Many facts were cleared up that night, to include two interesting ones. The two rescue helicopters were callsign Jolly 21 and Jolly 22, not Jolly 11 and Jolly 12. And the CH-47D from Charlie Company 193rd Aviation Regiment was Sky King 64, not Sky King 61.

Throughout the years, the community has heard the stories from individual crew members about the Sky King rescue that earned them the Mackay Trophy, but no one has heard the story from Sky King crew’s perspective. Sky King’s Flight Engineer, retired U.S. Army Master Sgt. David Vanburen, flight engineer, was on hand that night at the hotel near Wright-Patterson AFB and told everyone what caused their CH-47D to crash. His helicopter was chalk two in a formation of three CH-47D Chinook helicopters.

Keep in mind, the CH-47D is a massive helicopter. Their formation moved personnel from forward operating base to forward operating base. 

This allowed military personnel to avoid taking roads that were riddled with improvised explosive devices planted by insurgents. On April 16, 2004, their formation of CH-47Ds got caught in a sandstorm and their formation lead pilot suggested they fly in a tight formation so they could see each other better. 

But this also gave little to no room to maneuver out of each other’s way if something bad happened. 

The lead CH-47D turned to the right in front of Vanburen’s helicopter and his helicopter descended to avoid hitting the lead helicopter. As this all was happening, the third CH-47D in the formation flew directly over Vanburen’s helicopter. Vanburen’s crew decided to land their helicopter to avoid hitting the third helicopter in their flight.

During the decent, Sky King 64 inadvertently sheered one of their four landing gear when they inadvertently impacted the ground. Their pilot pulled the helicopter back into a hover to prevent a catastrophic crash, but experienced severe brownout conditions.  Vanburen said the sandstorm was so thick that he could only see the dried cracks in the desert floor.

Once the helicopter set down, Vanburen’s crew realized that one of four landing gear were missing.

But it was too late to recover.

The helicopter rolled, the blades of the helicopter impacted the ground and began to tear the helicopter apart.

After the violence settled, the Sky King crew counted heads and realized everyone was alive. A little banged up, but thankfully alive. The five-person crew exited their destroyed CH-47D and proceeded to distance themselves from the wreck.

Vanburen realized that they were leaving a trail of gear, weapons, and ammunition on the ground like breadcrumbs and ordered everyone to stop, secure their gear, and dump what was not needed. They then found a hole-up spot away from the wreckage and proceeded to try to communicate with rescue assets with Vietnam era equipment.

Although some of their equipment did not function correctly, they did receive Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training when they arrived in theater that proved vital to their rescue.

An F-15E Strike Eagle flew over and never saw the wreckage or the crew because of the thick sandstorm. This show-of-force fly-by accomplished two goals: 1) it kept enemy forces at bay, and 2) it reassured the Sky King crew that friendly forces knew they were out there and were looking for them.

Back at Balad Air Base, Iraq, the crews of Jolly 21 and 22 were listening to the tower frequency and learned from the returning CH-47Ds from Charlie Company that they had lost one of their helicopters. Jolly 21 Flight quickly scrambled, departed Balad Air Base, and found themselves in the same sandstorm that caused Sky King 64 to crash.

Retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Vincent Eckert, 38th RQS pararescueman, stated that he and the other Pararescuemen brought five body bags, because they did not know what they were in store for that night.

No one was able to contact the crew of Sky King 64 after the crash.

Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Patrick Ledbetter, 41st RQS flight engineer on Jolly 21, was the first to spot the downed aircrew and talked Jolly 21 to their location.

After passing over the survivors, Jolly 21 climbed to 300 feet and entered a steep turn to provide cover for Jolly 22 while vulnerable on the approach.

In that turn, Jolly 21 flight encountered the same zero visibility which brought down Sky King 64.

The ensuing spatial disorientation put Jolly 21 in a severe unusual attitude. At one point in the turn, Jolly 21 flight lead. Air Force Col. Bryan “Shrimp” Creel, at the time a first lieutenant, remembered his copilot, U.S. Air Force Capt. Joe Galletti, both 41st RQS pilots, announcing the aircraft was at 100 feet, 45 degrees of bank, and zero airspeed.

Creel briefed on April 15, 2024, at the U.S. Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio, he had to remember, “I need to fly the helicopter and stop looking for the survivors. Let the crew find them again.”

While Jolly 21 was in the turn, Air Force Capt. Robert Wrinkle, 41st RQS aircraft commander of Jolly 22, started his first approach. Unfortunately, both aircraft lost sight of the ground and each other, and had to split the formation for safety spacing. One important fact was now known. Jolly 21 flight realized this was a rescue and not a recovery. In other words, the CH-47D crew was alive. Another important fact was also discovered during Wrinkle’s first approach, the sandstorm started at 35 feet above the ground, and he could see below that altitude.

While the formation was separated, Jolly 21 Flight realized they needed to fly really low and really slow if they were going to safety rescue the five soldiers in extremely limited visibility conditions. Each aircraft descended to below 35 feet where they could see, then rejoined as a formation using distance measuring equipment and visual ques with infra-red lights.

Each helicopter flew below 35 feet and maintained around 35 knots airspeed. Even though they were below the sandstorm, the illumination was still very degraded with only 200 meters visibility; therefore, they used their infra-red search lights to illuminate the desert floor.

Once again, Ledbetter spotted the survivors and called out their position.

Jolly 21 landed with the survivors at the helicopter’s right front or two o’clock position and was quickly engulfed in a dust cloud but landed safely.

Creel later said that he never saw the survivors on the approach. He just let Ledbetter guide him to the ground.

Jolly 22 came back around to land offset from Jolly 21 to provide 360-degree security and sent their Pararescuemen team out to join the PJ team from Jolly 21. Air Force Staff Sgt. Vincent Eckert, 38th RQS pararescue team leader from Jolly 21, was the first to come up to the survivors and took control of the situation.

The crew members of Sky King 64 were found in a non-hostile position, and no one was injured. This made Eckert’s job a little easier.

No need for the body bags and no need to extricate survivors from the wreckage.

Eckert took three members of the crew to Jolly 21 and the PJ’s on Jolly 22 took the other two crew members. Once everyone was on board and secure, Jolly 21 flight departed from the landing zone. 

They climbed up above the sandstorm and someone said, “Yeah!  We did it!” to which Creel replied, “It ain’t over yet.”

Ten minutes out from Balad Air Base, Jolly 22 started taking ground fire and surface-to-air missile launches. Jolly 21’s flight engineer told Creel that Jolly 22 was dispensing flares and seemed to be engaged.

Creel circled back to provide mutual support to his wingman when Jolly 22 then transmitted they were engaged.

At that time, Jolly 22 was receiving heavy, accurate ground fire from small arms, rocket propelled grenades, SA-7s, and SA-16 Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). Creel ordered his flight engineer and aerial gunner (AG) to shoot to draw fire from Jolly 22. Ledbetter and Tech. Sgt. Tom Ringheimer, 41st RQS aerial gunner from Jolly 21, shot their .50 caliber machine guns to clear areas and the engagement of Jolly 22 ceased.

Approximately five minutes later, Jolly 21 became engaged by similar MANPADS, and responded to that engagement with the use of flares and the mutual support provided by Jolly 22’s flight engineers. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike Preston, 41st RQS aerial gunner, similarly returned fire. Jolly 21 flight successfully evaded the engagements they encountered with missiles coming withing a few feet of the aircraft.

Thankfully, the countermeasure system that had been recently installed on all HH-60G Pave Hawks functioned as advertised. Those paired with the countermeasure procedures flown by the crews at that time saved their lives. Jolly 21 flight landed five minutes later at Balad Air Base and were credited with saving the lives of five U.S. Army CH-47D crew members.

For their bravery that night, Jolly 21 flight was awarded the Mackay Trophy for 2004.

The Mackay Trophy is awarded for the “most meritorious flight of the year” by a U.S. Air Force person, persons, or organization. The U.S. Air Force determines the winner, and the National Aeronautic Association presents the trophy to the winner.

This award has been given annually since 1912 with 2nd Lt. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold being the first recipient. 

In 2021, the U.S. Air Force started replacing the aging fleet of HH-60Gs with the new HH-60W Jolly Green II helicopters.  Michael Rowland, Curator at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (NMUSAF) reached out to the 23rd Wing historian to gather data on the most historic HH-60G Pave Hawks to request for static displays at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia; Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona; Hurlburt Field, Florida; and the National Air Force Museum, Dayton, Ohio.

HH-60G tail number 92-26463, flown by Jolly 21 on April 16, 2004, was selected to represent rescue in the museum. On April 16, 2024, crew members from Jolly 21 flight and two members of Sky King 64 got a private tour of the NMUSAF. This included a private viewing of the newest addition to the museum, the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter.

The museum personnel, including Mr. Rowland were on hand and opened the doors of the helicopter for the aircrew members and family members to look inside and sign the aircraft. A plethora of photos were taken, and stories told.

Memories from that night 20 years ago came rushing back for several Airmen and Soldiers.

The events that took place on April 16, 2004, echoed the motto by Brig. Gen. Richard T. Kight, “That Others May Live.” 

Members from the 41st and 38th Rescue Squadrons risked their lives that night, that others may live.

Col. Bryan Creel stated, “Rescue is ready all the time. We have people on alert right now. If this crash would have happened on another night, other crews would have done the same thing, but that night we (41st and 38th Rescue Squadrons) answered the call.”

This rescue mission is hard to forget for some of the crewmembers of Jolly 21 flight and Sky King 64. Some have battled with PTSD.  Some have raised their hand and said, “I need help,” and are still here today.

Post- traumatic stress disorder is not something that Airmen and Soldiers need to suffer alone.

The military offers services for active duty, retired, and veterans. If you or someone you know needs help or someone to talk to, below is a list of assistances that are available to them.

Military Crisis Line – OCONUS 1-800-273-8255 Press 1.  CONUS 988 Press 1.

Military OneSource – 1-800-342-9647

Employee Assistance Program – 1-866-580-9078