When someone from outside the military envisions a special operations forces (SOF) soldier, the image that comes to mind is a combination of many things – perhaps a bit of Sgt. Rock of comic book fame thrown in with a dash of Hollywood superhero and mixed with clean-cut looks and a triathlete’s physique. While “that” SOF soldier might exist, the reality, the real silent professional, is far more interesting and exciting, because that soldier is someone you might actually pass on the street, never knowing he was among the elite. This is a story about one such soldier.
Enter Chief Warrant Officer 5 (CW5) David Cooper. One might easily mistake him for a veteran firefighter, a job he once held in Cincinnati, Ohio, years ago before entering the Army in 1985. What you might not realize in passing this average fellow is that Cooper is among the very best helicopter pilots in the Army, currently the senior regiment warrant officer for the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), known as the Night Stalkers, or that on Nov. 27, 2006, one single but desperate word tested his skill, training, and mettle to the limit and beyond: “Mayday!”
The day began like so many others in a combat zone like Iraq. A mission long in the planning was given a green light and the assigned elements began their final briefs and equipment checks. For Cooper, this meant reviewing meteorological reports, poring over route maps, and thoroughly checking every inch of his sleek AH-6 “Little Bird” helicopter. Developed during the Vietnam War as a light observation craft, the OH-6 Cayuse helicopter gained its fame operating in the dangerous hunter-killer world of “pink teams.” A pink team was composed of one OH-6 helicopter and two AH-1 Cobra helicopters. While the two Cobras hovered at a distance, the lightly armed OH-6 would drift just above treetop level as if searching for enemy positions; in essence, act as bait. If the enemy bit by firing at the OH-6, the Cobras would sweep in and destroy the position. Flying the OH-6 in Vietnam took skill, courage, and a bit of insanity, but the soldiers who flew them were professionals.
Fast and nimble, the AH-6 of today, while it is essentially the same airframe of 40 years ago, features a more powerful engine and improved avionics, including an embedded Global Positioning System (GPS)/inertial navigation system and forward-looking infrared (FLIR). The AH-6 can be armed with two seven-tube, 2.75-inch rocket launchers and a pair of six-barreled M134 7.62 mm “miniguns,” each with up to 2,000 ready rounds. The 160th SOAR is the only unit in the Army to fly them and their crews are as skilled, courageous, and professional as their Vietnam predecessors. In fact, the Night Stalkers may be the finest combat aviators in the world today, given their training, experience, and constant flying of combat missions.
Because of his experience, Cooper was scheduled to fly as the lead pilot for the mission, something for which he was eminently qualified. He was originally flight-qualified in AH-64 attack helicopters with the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry at Fort Hood, Texas, the first Apache unit to operate in Europe in the 1980s. He later served in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and led the airborne escort for Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf during the armistice negotiations at Safwan Airfield following the cessation of hostilities. In late 1994, Cooper applied for and was selected for training in the AH-6 Little Bird, and was assigned to the 160th SOAR at Fort Campbell, Ky. Cooper has seen extensive combat while flying Little Birds for the Night Stalkers, including providing support for the 75th Ranger Regiment during its spectacular seizure of the Haditha Dam complex in April 2003.
This day, Cooper was leading a flight of six Night Stalker helicopters: his flight of two AH-6s, two MH-6 troop-carrying Little Birds (each with four SOF ground personnel aboard), and two MH-60 Black Hawks, the latter also loaded with SOF ground troops. They were going after a known terrorist leader in a house north of Baghdad, officially tagged as a “foreign fighter facilitator.” As the flight lifted from the pad at its base near Baghdad in the early afternoon the sky was clear and blue, ceiling and visibility unlimited, with the temperature comfortably in the high 80s. As the flight swung north, the SOF raiders checked their equipment, while in the cockpits all seemed in order – the Night Stalkers and their passengers were on the prowl.
As the flight crews busied themselves with cockpit management tasks, the mission was jolted to action by the unexpected cry of “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!” from the AH-6 on Cooper’s right.
“Other than in the movies,” Cooper said, “I had never heard that on the radio.”
Below, an insurgent had launched an RPG at the flight and struck a lucky blow at the passing Little Bird – lucky for the insurgent because such a shot is difficult – and for the Little Bird because the warhead failed to detonate. Still, the AH-6 had lost its tail rotor, making control difficult and requiring the crew keep their airspeed high to keep the helicopter flying in a straight line and to land immediately. Fortunately, the landscape below was mostly flat, open desert, so the pilots were able to make a “running landing” at 60 to 65 knots.
The remainder of the flight quickly landed near the downed Little Bird and set up a protective perimeter while Cooper loitered overhead to ensure the area was secure. The special operators quickly exited the helicopters and established a defensive position as the aircrews extracted their comrades from the damaged ship. All told there were 20 special operators on the ground, along with the four MH-6 pilots. The injured Little Bird crew was loaded aboard one of two MH-60s and then both Black Hawks returned to base. The rest of the mission force would wait for the downed aircraft recovery team to extract the damaged aircraft for return stateside for repairs.
By this time, Cooper had landed with the rest of the flight to await the recovery team. The small team was on the ground for about 40 minutes when a number of trucks with anti-aircraft machine guns mounted in their beds approached their location. The senior ground force non-commissioned officer (NCO) asked Cooper to get airborne and check them out to see whether they were “friendlies” or not. As if on cue, the gun trucks began to fire on the small U.S. force. Cooper and his copilot took off and quickly realized the jarring extent of the threat: There were six gun trucks mounting twin-barreled, ZPU-2 14.5 mm heavy anti-aircraft machine guns about 800 to 1,000 meters away from the crash site. Each gun truck was crewed by four or five men – the enemy force totaled between 20-30 men.
“They were small pick-up trucks with a huge gun in the back that looks like it’s launching volleyballs at us – and there are six of these trucks,” Cooper said.
As Cooper and his copilot swept across the desert avoiding enemy fire, the situation grew worse. More than two dozen men occupying a small house about 800 meters from the downed helicopter began to fire at Cooper’s AH-6 and the team on the ground with everything from AK-47s to rocket propelled grenade launchers (RPGs). So completely focused was Cooper on the threat from the gun trucks that he didn’t notice the new threat at first.
“My copilot was pointing out the guys in this house – ‘Hey, they’re shooting at us!’ I thought he was talking about the trucks [and said] ‘Yeah, I know they’re shooting at us, I can see them.’ He said, ‘No. Look down. Them! Them are shooting at us.’”
Opposing them, the U.S. troops were armed only with light infantry weapons that could engage the enemy fighters in the house, but not those in the gun trucks. The flat desert terrain made the situation worse, as it offered little cover for the beleaguered Americans. So desperate was the situation that Cooper’s copilot was shooting out the right side of the helicopter with his rifle.
It was immediately apparent that Cooper would have to defend the ground force from the more distant gun trucks with his lightly armed Little Bird. As soon as the AH-6 had lifted into view, the enemy fighters on the trucks directed all their fire toward his aircraft. Cooper knew his job was to draw fire, but was equally aware that the 14.5 mm rounds thrown out by the ZPU-2s would easily shred his ship. Still, the Little Bird was not without talons, and Cooper soon turned his two six-barreled, 7.62 mm miniguns that fire about 3,000 rounds per minute and 2.75-inch rocket pods loaded with a mixture of flechette, high-explosive, and smoke rounds on the enemy positions. “I was making multiple runs at the trucks and multiple runs at the house, taking calls for fire from the ground forces,” Cooper said. Meanwhile, the senior ground force NCO had already called back to their base asking for the Quick Response Force (QRF) to be launched. While the QRF began to organize immediately, it took a while to get Night Stalker aircrew out of crew rest and ready to fly.
Cooper heard over his radio that a U.S. Air Force F-16 Falcon was circling overhead at about 12,000 to 15,000 feet above ground level, but could not from his high altitude separate friendly forces from enemy or non-combatants from combatants. Cooper was convinced that he and his copilot were the only support available to defend the ground force. Maneuvering his ship aggressively at very low level, Cooper could see and hear the enemy’s fire. “When those rounds go past they sound like a snap, but this sounded like – and I’m not making this up – this sounded like being on the inside of a bag of popcorn in the microwave,” Cooper said. “I was initially scared, but then you calm down, you’re getting your job done, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be killed this day. This is it, this is how it ends. All right? Got it.”
After roughly 15 minutes of grueling cat-and-mouse combat, Cooper was low on ammunition and slipped back to the American position. “I came back around and landed at the crashed AH-6. We left the helicopter running and me and the copilot jumped out and began taking rockets from the crashed AH-6 and putting them into our rocket pods,” Cooper said. The other four Night Stalkers jumped up to help them reload in a hail of gunfire from the house and gun trucks. Then the Little Bird was airborne again. There were no orders sending them up, but Cooper and his copilot knew it was their duty to protect the men and aircraft on the ground.
Once again the AH-6 flicked around the battlefield, playing hide-and-seek against the enemy force. “Varying altitude and airspeeds, banking left and right, again I’m just acting like a crazy man in that helicopter so they cannot get a bead on us,” Cooper said. “I’m flying anywhere from five feet to 75 feet, 10 knots to 120 knots, doing whatever I can.”
After another 15 minutes of continually attacking through a curtain insurgent fire, Cooper was again low on ammunition and now also on fuel. Back on the ground, the special operations troops were furiously defending their ground and covering the grounded MH-6 crews as they transferred the ammo from their ships and the downed AH-6 to Cooper’s Little Bird – an action that would earn each of them a Bronze Star with “V” device for valor. “They were able to get the machine gun rounds … they were able to get more rockets out for me. I had help so it went much faster, and this time I’m able to take some minigun ammo with me. We transferred about half of it, because I was scared to death that I was going to crash way out there somewhere and take all of that good minigun ammo with me,” Cooper said, “and I did not want that to happen, because the ground guys can use that same ammo in their machine guns.”
Cooper’s Little Bird turned skyward again, skimming over the desert floor, guns roaring at the insurgent stronghold in the house. The ground force was low on ammunition, and Cooper’s AH-6 had almost used up the full combat load of all the Little Birds, but after landing yet again, loading the last of the minigun ammunition and with the other Night Stalkers carrying out a hot refueling as well, Cooper was ready to enter the fight one more time. About this time the QRF, more AH-6s (one flown by the two injured aviators who had originally crashed, after they dodged the flight surgeon and ran to the first available ship) and more F-16s were inbound, when Cooper and his copilot sighted another truck, this one headed north toward the house. Now accompanied by the newly arrived AH-6s, Cooper rolled in on the truck, putting guns and rockets on the target, obliterating it and its passengers. With the QRF now on site, an exhausted Cooper and his copilot flew the war-weary ship back to their base, amazingly undamaged from their trials of the past several hours. That night an aircraft recovery team, escorted by Cooper flying his sixth and last sortie of the day, safely extracted the damaged AH-6.
As the fight began to wind down, high above the battle in his F-16, Air Force Maj. Troy Gilbert finally got a bead on the now withdrawing gun trucks, and decided to drop well below accepted altitude and get his Viper into the fight. As he roared down to 3,500 feet he spotted two trucks racing from the house. Gilbert twisted around and strafed the lead truck, then turned and went after the second. In normal conditions, this kind of high-angle strafing attack would have started at about 5,600 feet, but Gilbert likely felt he did not have time to climb and hit the second truck in time, and started the second attack at only about 2,800 feet. Tragically, he was too low to recover, and the F-16 slammed into the ground, killing Gilbert. Gilbert was later posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Roughly seven months after the fight, Cooper was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor. His copilot was earlier awarded the Silver Star. Cooper’s award is the first ever presented to a Night Stalker in the regiment’s distinguished history, and was the first since Vietnam that was not posthumous. At the ceremony, Lt. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said of Cooper’s actions that day, “Imagine what would have happened had he not defied all odds and heroically flown into a heavily armed gauntlet attracting fire to himself in order to divert deadly enemy fire from his teammates and then, most courageous and heroically, rearming and refueling on site to continue the fight. Unbelievable courage, brilliant presence of mind, selfless saving acts under the most demanding combat conditions … a true hero in every sense of the word.” Cooper accepted the award as one might expect of a silent professional. He did not forget those Night Stalkers who were on the battlefield with him, as he thanked them for working together that day. “I accept it on behalf of all Night Stalkers, past, present, and future.”
Editors’ note: Anyone who understands the roles and missions of the 160th SOAR knows that they often operate in a clandestine world that is totally incompatible with the public telling of their stories. This story is a rare exception to that rule, and a special thanks is owed to Lt. Col. John Clearwater, Carol Darby, Walter “Ski” Sokalski, Kimberly Tiscione, and, most of all, CW5 David Cooper for making it possible to tell. This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2009 Edition.