JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — The dilemma of Capt. Erik Kolle’s job as a pilot on a Marine Corps search-and-rescue team is that while he likes to use his extensive training, getting the call means that somewhere, an American is in serious trouble.
But for their willingness – and skill – in answering such calls, Kolle and his fellow crew members will each receive the distinguished Air Medal during a ceremony Monday morning in Jacksonville.
Drinking a cup of coffee in the officers’ mess hall on the USS Kearsarge late on the night of March 21, 2011, Kolle wasn’t itching for a chance to show off his skills. It had been a busy deployment, starting with the Kearsarge’s departure in August – a month ahead of schedule, so Marines could help provide humanitarian aid in Pakistan, where flooding had covered a fifth of the country with water.
Kolle’s unit, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 266 – based at Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville – was on the Kearsarge with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), based at Camp Lejeune. Kolle’s specialty is flying the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey, the craft that can take off and land like a helicopter, then roll its rotors and fly like a plane.
After helping out in Pakistan, the Kearsarge sent Marines ashore at Djibouti, Africa, in October, to train in the mountains. In January, it sent troops and aircraft into Afghanistan to help fight insurgents.
Then came the Arab Spring, and the Kearsarge was sent to the waters off Egypt. Kolle (pronounced “Coal”) and others on the TRAP teams – Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel – were on alert in case the situation turned hostile, and U.S. Embassy personnel needed to be evacuated.
As Egypt began to calm down, Libya heated up, and the Kearsarge was positioned off the Libyan coast to help rebel fighters push back against the forces of then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Harrier jets from the Kearsarge were among the first to go into Libya when the campaign began. While the Air Force attacked Gadhafi’s surface-to-air missiles and radar installations, the Marines’ Harriers went after the ground forces that were shelling civilians in Benghazi and elsewhere.
“Our jets were going out hitting tanks, artillery pieces – that kind of thing – to push the pro-Gadhafi forces away from the city,” Kolle said. “They would go in, hit the target, come back, get gas and go back out.”
A jet down
As Kolle drank his coffee and a pair of the jets got ready for another sortie, news came that something had gone wrong.
Kolle’s executive officer shouted at him, using his nickname.
“Brillo! Get your butt in the ready room. We’ve had a jet go down.”
Kolle and others got a quick briefing: An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle had crashed inside Libya minutes before. It wasn’t known whether the F-15E had been shot down or had suffered a mechanical failure. Both the pilot and his weapons officer had ejected, and the weapons officer had been picked up by rebel forces. The pilot was still out there, being pursued by people in trucks. He didn’t know if they were rebels or pro-Gadhafi forces – or what they’d do with him if they caught him. He didn’t plan to find out.
Air Force jets were headed to the area, and the two Harriers from the 26th MEU were redirected to go there. The Kearsarge also would send two CH-53E helicopters full of infantry and two V-22s with TRAP teams.
The Harriers need the ship’s whole flight deck to take off. Once they had left, the helicopters would be pulled onto the deck, unfolded and launched.
But there was another problem. Of the four V-22s on the ship, two were undergoing scheduled maintenance. One of the other two was awaiting a starter-motor replacement, a job that normally takes about two hours.
‘I had no qualms’
Versatile and fast, the V-22 Osprey proved itself highly valuable in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it is also remembered for a series of deadly crashes during its developmental years.
And there was no time to dispatch anyone else; the next-closest aircraft were on a ship 45 minutes away.
A maintenance crew replaced the motor in 20 minutes.
“I had no qualms.” Kolle said. “When the maintenance Marines tell me they’ve made a fix, I trust them.”
With only the location of the pilot, the last known location of Gadhafi’s anti-aircraft threats and a rescue force of 15 Marines, Kolle said, “We grabbed our gear, grabbed our weapons and got on the plane.”
Kolle, 34, joined the Marine Corps in 1998 and has flown V-22s since 2007. He had flown the Osprey in Iraq, where the biggest threat was small arms fire – machine guns – that could be avoided by flying high.
But in Libya, as long as any of Gadhafi’s radar system was still intact, “We couldn’t fly that high. We liked to come in low and fast,” about 500 feet above the ocean, and 200 feet over the ground.
The F-15E had gone down about 40 miles inland, near Benghazi – more than 130 miles from the Kearsarge. When the Ospreys left the ship at 11:32 p.m. with Kolle flying the second aircraft, the F-15E pilot had been on the ground for about two hours, and his situation was tense. Using a survival radio, he could communicate with Air Force pilots now circling above him. As Kolle and his team flew toward him, Kolle could hear the Air Force guys directing the pilot where to run, using remote sensors to scan the scan the dark ground below.
“There’s a ditch 50 yards to your east. Go there, now,” Kolle could hear them say. “There’s a little bush 100 yards the other way. Go there. Now.”
When his pursuers started closing in on the pilot, the Marine Corps Harriers dropped a pair of 500-pound bombs. One reportedly hit a vehicle, and the other was enough to make a second truck turn around.
Meanwhile, the Ospreys were coming in as fast as they could, about 300 mph.
Onboard, “We were preparing ourselves,” Kolle said. They weren’t sure whether there would be government forces trying to attack them when they landed.
This part of Libya, Kolle said, is rolling land, but dry and dusty. “Sort of like a piedmont, but with no grass or trees.” During landings in sandy terrain, he said, Ospreys often experience “brownouts,” in which the wind from their own rotors kicks up so much dirt, it’s impossible to see.
Kolle backed off the lead aircraft to give it room to land and to see how badly it was going to brown out before he chose a spot to land. The first Osprey circled out and was getting ready to land when Kolle spotted the pilot on the ground. He landed about 50 feet away from him.
“He was ready to get out of there,” Kolle said. They got him on board and gathered up the rest of the team.
Count and count again
“OK, count everybody,” Kolle told the team, because the last thing he wanted to do was leave somebody there. “Now count everybody again.”
They were on the ground for about a minute before taking off and tucking in behind the lead Osprey for the flight back to the ship. It had taken 47 minutes from the time they launched until they had pilot safely on the plane.
Kolle says that because of the way Marines train and the way they integrate with other forces, the only variables in the mission to retrieve the F-15E pilot were his location and that of the last-known threats.
“There’s a lot that goes into a mission,” he said, “But because there are so many standard operating procedures, it’s just: Here’s him, here’s the bad guys, everything else is SOP; let’s go.”
Anybody on the flight schedule that night could have done what his team did, Kolle says, but the military believes it’s worth noting. Kolle, along with Staff Sgt. David Potter and Sgt. Daniel Howington will receive the Air Medal with the combat distinguishing device for valor during a ceremony at 8 a.m. Monday at the New River Air Station. The mechanics who got the Osprey ready to fly on short notice also have been commended.
“I don’t see it so much as a personal award but a validation of the squadron and the things the V-22 can do,” Kolle said.
After the ceremony, it’s back to work. Kolle will deploy on the Kearsarge again in a couple of months. At the end of the year, he’s been told, he’ll transfer to Washington to fly for the presidential squadron, which is getting V-22s this summer.