It is clichéd and overused, but the expression “perfect storm” is apt for the day when Lt. Col. Paul Zurkowski and Maj. Christopher Cisneros dazzled under the toughest of circumstances in their beloved Warthogs and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross — one of the highest medals of valor for feats performed while flying.
The challenges encountered by the two Maryland Air National Guard A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots on June 28, 2012, in eastern Afghanistan kept piling up: thunderstorms, poor visibility in high terrain, troops pinned down and under fire, shaky ground communications, low fuel.
But Cisneros and Zurkowski would play a critical role in keeping alive 90 coalition troops ambushed in a river valley. The weather forecast had been favorable, but thunderstorms moved in and visibility fell to near zero in a mountainous valley near the Pakistan border.
By the time Zurkowski and Cisneros had flown 20 minutes from Bagram, their surveillance mission had changed into close-air support for “troops in contact.”
Events would soon test the Warthog pilots’ capabilities more than any mission during multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.
When Zurkowski and Cisneros arrived, they replaced two A-10s and assisted other aircraft providing close-air and surveillance support, including an AC-130 gunship, an MC-12 and a B-1 bomber. AH-64 Apache helicopters had already departed.
Zurkowski and Cisneros spent about 40 minutes surveying the land — a rugged river valley buffered by an 8,000-foot mountain to the east — and locating “friendly” forces.
The ceiling below the clouds began to drop, diminishing visibility and forcing the other aircraft to check out one by one.
The Warthogs, nimbly able to maneuver at low altitudes, stayed on. Coalition troops were spread out over a ridgeline, hoofing it toward a helicopter landing zone where they planned to get picked up.
At lower altitudes the A-10 burns more gas, so Zurkowski cleared Cisneros to depart on a refueling run to a tanker about 30 minutes away. The tanker was delayed due to weather, so Cisneros returned; he headed back a short while later, leaving Zurkowski as the sole close-air support aircraft.
Around the same time, a thunderstorm rolled in and it began to rain. As if on cue, the enemy opened fire from two directions. The soldiers were pinned down on the ridgeline.
The soldiers radioed a request for “a show of force,” a low pass to let the enemy know the menacing A-10 is overhead in hopes they’ll recoil and scatter.
Zurkowski dipped below the clouds to make two passes across the valley, quieting the enemy guns from the west, but small arms fire from the north persisted.
The coalition troops needed more than a show of force. The Warthog’s 30 mm, 7-barrel Gatling-style gun can fire up to 4,200 rounds per minute — a distinct battlefield edge.
Zurkowski decided to drop a white-phosphorus rocket to confirm whether he was targeting the right location.
Dropping down to release the rocket, Zurkowski saw tracers from machine-gun fire. The enemy punched two holes in his A-10, a discovery Zurkowski would make after he returned to Bagram.
After the rocket released a white cloud of smoke, the soldiers corrected the location on the ridgeline by about 100 meters.
Zurkowski began four strafing runs, even though he was running low on fuel.
Immediately after the runs, he had to depart for Bagram; Cisneros was about six minutes away after refueling. Zurkowski, out of ammunition, declared “emergency fuel,” putting Bagram on alert and giving him incoming priority. He had just enough fuel to make it back.
Before leaving, he relayed to Cisneros: “There’s a lot going on here. You need to get back here as soon as possible.”
Through updates from Zurkowski, Cisneros knew that the situation “had significantly deteriorated.” The weather was also getting worse.
“I basically had serious doubts about being able to help because of how poor the weather was,” he said.
He had to fly underneath a thunderstorm to reach the soldiers, who were still under intense fire.
“They wanted my weapons down in short order,” Cisneros said.
Cisneros tried to sort out their locations while keeping away from high ridgelines obscured by the heavy rain.
“I said, ‘Hey fellows, I’m not going to be able to help you for a few minutes. We’ve got to wait for this weather to pass.’ ”
But Cisneros said he realized something had to be done because the soldiers were getting hammered.
He tried a rocket pass to verify the target area, but with the combat controllers on the ground under heavy fire, no one could respond fast enough. He was passed to a third combat controller when the first two were injured in the firefight.
Cisneros received word that two more A-10s were en route. Cisneros had to exit the valley and find clear air space to join the others. They returned to the area together and Cisneros laid down rockets to hone in on the precise target area.
“I had some serious doubts as to where they were and what the situation was,” he said.
Once they knew where the soldiers wanted the ordnance, they put down 30 mm strikes. The combat controller’s “demeanor changed immediately,” he said. “ ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s it.’ ”
They executed three strikes each per aircraft in about 30 minutes, he said. “They were able to break contact with the enemy at that point.”
The helicopters swooped down and pick up the wounded. Though coalition forces sustained some injuries in the epic 13-hour fight, every servicemember on the ground survived, the pilots said.
The medal is “a great reminder of the good work that we do,” Zurkowski said. “I’m pretty proud that we were able to get 90 guys off the ridgeline that day.”