The Oct. 3 mission: Did you have a sense it was coming on before, prior to being briefed about it? Or did it come fairly quickly?
Well, it actually came on fairly quickly. I was at the JOC because we were going to go do a training hop the next day. So we were trying to get a plan together to that. And we got word that a mission was developing and … because I was the flight lead of my element, I was one of the key players who got briefed on the operation right away. We could tell this was not going to be quite as straightforward as any of the others. The city was dangerous at any time, and this was in a particularly bad part of town. It was also daytime, and we couldn’t land the Black Hawks anywhere close to the target. So we knew there were some intricacies to this one that were going to make it more of a challenge.
You were carrying how many?
In that little thing?
Combat loaded, yeah. So, we were pretty heavy … according to the ground commander’s assessment, that fight called for maximizing his assault capabilities, and that’s why we exist, to support that ground commander, so we went in with everything we could bring to the fight.
So, guys with guns on the ground for that one?
So, it wasn’t a case of not wanting to take them along or being restricted. It was a matter of what you wanted to do with what you had to do it with?
So, you worked with the same group of Rangers you’d worked with previously?
On that mission, yes.
So we were up and going in fairly short order. Initially, it all went as planned. A well-orchestrated event.
Obviously you launched late. What do you remember of the day? What kind of day was it?
Typical day. A light breeze blowing, a few scattered clouds. We’d gone running already once that day. It was the middle of the afternoon. Some of the guys were out there on the ramp playing volleyball; just an ordinary Sunday.
What do you remember from load up to launch to dropping your guys?
It did develop quickly. The intel sources that were out there had pretty good comms with the operations center and we met the criteria for launch. So we were up and going in fairly short order. Initially, it all went as planned. A well-orchestrated event. One Little Bird had to go around, because the dust was pretty bad in this particular part of the city. They couldn’t see their landing area and they circled around, but again, it’s a contingency that’s planned for, so no real big deal. The first major contingency occurred when Todd Blackburn fell from the aircraft. He was on the fourth aircraft in my flight. So as we moved in to put the Rangers into position, Ranger Blackburn fell from that aircraft. Once that occurred, we had a critically injured guy and he was separated from the force. You have to put help on him, and unfortunately he’s not where he’s supposed to be because he didn’t fall in the landing zone. So right away, much more so for the ground forces, but for everybody involved, this thing is starting to unravel. You got that first thread you start pulling on.
In the meantime, me and the rest of my flight put our guys in. Again, super dusty and impossible to see, but I had enough visibility to see out the window to get the Rangers where they needed to go and circled on out of there and went north.
And they were using you as a fire support element for this?
No. I was done. I brought my 18 guys in and the rest of the flight and I led everyone north of the city and we were, at that point, a contingency force, because we weren’t going to extract them by air. We were going to take them out by ground.
So what happens then, there are two Black Hawks over the target. And they are fire support from the air. That’s Super Six One and Super Six Two.
That’s Cliff Wolcott’s bird and the other one?
That’s Wolcott and [Donovan] Briley flying one and Mike Goffena and Jim Yacone flying the other one. Six One gets hit by an RPG and this is where the whole thing really starts to come apart. We think they were hit in the tail and they crashed. I didn’t see it, but I could hear the traffic and knew they had gone down. But in my mind, then again, you know, you fly in the sky, you feel somewhat invincible.
In my mind I’m thinking, “OK, they set on the ground somewhere, we’ll send an aircraft in to pick them up.” I didn’t know they’d been killed until I was released from captivity. So, in a few minutes, the search and rescue bird went in, they took an RPG round, and they made it back to …
I’m sorry, but you wish there were a decoration good enough for that kind of a rescue.
Well, you know, I’ve said it publicly. I thought Karl Maier and Keith Jones deserved Medals of Honor. They were flying a Little Bird, and unlike the SAR bird, they were able to land in the street. Keith got out of the aircraft and helped get critically injured operators from Super Six One onto his aircraft, while Karl was firing rounds down the alleyway to keep the bad guys off long enough for them to get back in the air. I say they deserved the Medal of Honor because not only did they go in there, but then they also came into my crash site later. Same two guys.
Wolcott’s down, and, as you say, things are starting to unravel.
And the commander calls us and says he needs us to replace Six One.
So you go in, you start doing your fire support orbit. How long are you there before you get hit?
Well, he calls me to replace Six One and we go around the target maybe three times. And the reason we’re doing that is No. 1, to keep moving. No. 2 is to figure out where everybody is, because nobody is where we put them at this point, and they’re all trying to move because the order has been given for everyone to consolidate around the crash site. So they’re moving. I don’t know for sure if the order was given at that point, but the bottom line is you’ve got a ground convoy, you’ve got all the ground force, and now you’ve got the crash site. And we don’t really know where anybody is.
I mean, if we had not landed on the wheels, we’d be toast.
So there’s a little situational awareness shortage.
And I try to make people understand that if they’ve never been in the situation, the best thing I’ve come up with is this: Go to NYC and drive down Fifth Ave. about 75 miles per hour and look into the side streets and see if you can try to figure out what’s going on in those side streets. That’s what flying a helicopter fast and low over a city is like. You don’t have enough time to see what’s happening in these alleyways to make any sense of it. It’s just going by like flashes. So it’s very difficult to sort out what’s happening in these densely-populated urban environments unless you have a chance to look down the long axis of a street or you’re trying to see something with some space around it.
So, we’re having a heck of a time sorting out where everybody is. We’ve got these mini-guns that’ll fire over 4,000 rounds a minute. We don’t want to just go crazy, hosing down the countryside until we know where all the friendlies are. So, in the end, we never fired a round. And I don’t regret that at all. We never had sufficient understanding of the tactical situation to do it. I armed the crew chief’s guns, but we all talked about how we weren’t going to shoot until we all agrees we had it all figured out, because there were just too many friendlies down there. And at that point, after that third pass, we were hit by the RPG. I was flying the helicopter and it felt like a speed bump, like when you’re going too fast in a parking lot. It hit the tail, just below the tail rotor, and it blew the gearbox apart. The tail rotor didn’t leave the aircraft immediately, but it decided to go pretty quickly, and when it did … we started to spin violently. We were in a flat spin and the only way to stop it is to shut the engines off. And when you do that you’re not much better off. You have more control but you no longer have engine power, so we hit the ground in a partially powered spin, a spinning flat condition, and the only reason any of us survived is we landed on the wheels.
I know Sikorsky and the other manufacturers all like to talk about impact tolerance and such. How well did the structures on the aircraft do at protecting you?
I think they did a great job. I mean, if we had not landed on the wheels, we’d be toast. We came down pretty hard. It all worked as advertised. There was still quite a bit of vertical G forces imparted on my body. It was enough to snap my right femur in half. It crushed vertebrae in my spine, not the discs but the bones themselves were crushed. That takes a fair amount of G forces to do that to a 32-year-old guy training for a marathon. Ray Frank had similar injuries, not exactly, but similar. My crew chiefs were hurt worse, but their seats weren’t as good as ours, something that’s being addresed in newer versions of the aircraft.
Do you have a sense today of how many of them were alive?
Everybody. Now, I will tell you I don’t think the crew chiefs would have survived or how long they would have lasted. They probably would have died within minutes. But they were alive when we hit the ground. Ray Frank was actually able to get himself out of the seat and kind of sit in the doorway of the aircraft right about the time Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart arrived. We’d probably been on the ground 7 minutes. I don’t know for sure, I was knocked out, so I’m just guessing. Based on the timelines I’ve read, I’d say we were on the ground 10 minutes when they arrived at the side of the aircraft.
Did you have any sense of what the situation was on the ground around you before they arrived?
When you regain consciousness from being knocked out and you get a sense of your injuries, there’s a shock aspect to it. So, you’re somewhat confused, but I recall this gradual clearing of the haze, and starting to really, really understand what was going on. To give you some sense of how I was thinking, for some reason I took my wristwatch off and set it on the center console. Now, why would I do that? Why, to this day, I can’t explain it, but I remember doing it. I took my helmet off – my flight helmet. I picked up my MP5, and I decided if I was gonna make it out of there, I was going to have to try to defend myself. But I couldn’t get out. I imagine if a few rounds had started coming through the cockpit I would have changed my mind, but at that point, because of my femur injury and my back injury, I didn’t feel I could get myself out. So, I felt like we were somewhat secure being in the middle of this fairly large task force and I don’t think I had a true sense of what was happening on the ground, how much resistance they were encountering. I almost assumed that an aircraft or some element of the ground force was going to come and help us and we were going to get out of there.
And I think part of that comes from the fact that you knew the kind of people we were working with and fighting with. They would have done anything possible for us. Gary and Randy arriving really reinforced that, because I didn’t know there were just the two of them. So, I was thinking: All right. They’re already here. You know, get me out of this cockpit, throw me in the back of a truck, and get me out of here, and take me back to the rear, because I can’t do much more here.
Had you known Gary and Randy before? Had you worked with them before, known them from other places?
I didn’t personally know them, but I did know them from interacting from within Task Force Ranger. We were briefing the flight routes when we had the time, so they ground guys would know where we were going. I had had some one-on-one interaction with those guys previously. But I didn’t know them personally. I knew them by face and what organization they were with.
And what did they say to you when they got to you? Did they …
According to Mark Bowden’s research, the word got passed through the Somali channels that there was a lightly defended crashed helicopter down at this location and large groups of people and supporters of Aidid made their way down there.
Not a whole lot. They asked me what my injuries were. I remember that. I told them I thought my leg was broken and I thought there was something seriously wrong with my back, but I had no idea what. And together they lifted me out of the cockpit and … I just remember … it’s a testimony to them … of their unit and their training … and everything about the whole community.
They were not stressed. They knew I was hurt and they were taking their time to make sure they weren’t hurting me worse while they got me out on the ground. They put me in a place where I was somewhat concealed and gave me my weapon and then moved off and did the same with everybody else. I could tell they were trying to figure out how to get out of there. Because they basically had four litter patients. How would they move? And if they couldn’t move, how could they get some other asset in to get us out of there?
So, they weren’t panicked, they were working the problem?
That’s it. I mean, they were textbook special ops guys.
What kind of shape were the other guys in? And did they bring them to you, or did they kind of spread the guys out around a perimeter, or what were they doing?
To be honest with you, once I was out of the aircraft, the only other person I saw after that point, other than Randy and Gary, was Bill Cleveland, the crew chief on my side behind me. I was lying on my back on a survival kit facing the front of the aircraft. I couldn’t see and I really couldn’t turn because of my back. But just out of the corner of my eye, I could see the leg of Bill’s trousers and they were covered with blood and he was moaning back there. So I knew he was hurt pretty bad.
Ray Frank, as soon as I was pulled out of the aircraft cockpit, I lost track of him. He was somewhere on the left side of the aircraft, and Tommy – I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to Tommy in terms of what they did with him or where they moved him.
Do you have any sense of how long the fight lasted after that?
Probably 15 minutes. Then again, that’s an estimate. It was long enough where there were one-on-one exchanges for a while and I fired a few shots and we were holding our own, at least initially. And then, according to Mark Bowden’s research, the word got passed through the Somali channels that there was a lightly defended crashed helicopter down at this location and large groups of people and supporters of Aidid made their way down there. And you could tell, over time, that the fire increased, and eventually Gary Gordon went down over on the left side of the aircraft. I didn’t see him, but I did hear him. Then Randy came back up around the nose of the aircraft and he was almost out of ammunition and I was already out of ammunition and he asked about weapons in the aircraft. The crew chiefs had M16s, so I told him where those were and he came back out and he gave me what I believe to this day was Gary’s weapon. He made a quick call on the survival radio and we were told that a reaction force was en route, but what we didn’t know was that it was going to take 7 hours to get there.
So Randy went back around the nose and it was about at that time that the main resistance arrived and he’s just outnumbered. It was like being at the range when there’s a company or battalion of people shooting. There was a huge volume of fire and it lasted for a couple of minutes and then it went quiet except for that crazed mob that started to overrun the site.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.