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‘They just swarmed’

Maj. Gen. Robert Hedelund, second from left, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing commanding general, presented Maj. Michael Hutchings, second from right, and Capt. David Haake, right, both Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 MV-22B Osprey pilots, with Distinguished Flying Crosses in the squadron's hangar aboard Marine Corps Air Station New River, June 28, 2013.

When Maj. Michael Hutchings and Capt. David Haake received the third-highest medal that a flight crew member can receive — the Distinguished Flying Cross — on June 28, 2013, they became the first Marine Corps Osprey pilots to get the award.

But it almost never happened, both men recently told Stars and Stripes.

Early in his military career, Hutchings passed the pilot’s test by just one point — one he received, it turned out, in error. He got his wings, nevertheless, the 36-year-old married father of two said.

A recruiter steered Haake toward becoming a pilot after the infantry officer billets he had requested had been filled by others.

Now they are the most highly decorated MV-22B Osprey pilots in military history.

“I’m certainly proud, but I think there have been other [Osprey] pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan that potentially deserve this,” Hutchings said in April from Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., where he is still stationed as an Osprey pilot. “I kind of think of it like a team award.”

Haake, a 35-year-old father of three who is now a government contract pilot, said, “Anyone we trained with in [Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron] 365, the end result would have been the same.”

‘Close calls’

The mission Hutchings and Haake were recognized for started out like so many others. They rose at Camp Bastion in the early hours of June 27, 2012, with plans to insert a Marine reconnaissance raid force into enemy territory in Helmand province under the cover of darkness. They were to pick up the Marines at the end of their mission. Each aircraft would make two trips in and two trips out of the heavily defended hot zone.

Backed by UH-1 Huey and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, the pilots carried out the first wave without a hitch, both men said, despite the challenges of inserting Marines in darkness without a moon. But the enemy had heard them and was waiting for the second wave. They walked into a “beehive,” said Hutchings, a former EA-6B Prowler pilot from Sacramento, Calif.

“They just swarmed,” he recalled.

Medium machine gun fire ripped through Hutchings’ lead aircraft, call sign Dash-1, according to their award citations. He flew into the face of exploding rocket-propelled grenades. The flashes disrupted their night vision, according to Hutchings’ crew chief, Sgt. Matthew Belleci, who was one of five Marines to receive an Air Medal for heroic actions that day.

Hutchings directed suppressive fire.

“We took enemy fire coming in,” Hutchings recalled. “There were a couple of close calls with RPGs.”

He landed and inserted the ground force. While on the ground, he and his crew took more incoming fire, which extensively damaged critical flight control systems. In a split second, Hutchings had to decide whether they could fly out.

“We didn’t really have a choice,” he said. “There was enemy all around us, so we decided to take off.”

Immediately after they did so, there were signs of trouble in the cockpit, Hutchings said. Rounds had punctured fuel lines, there were hydraulic failures and he was having trouble controlling the aircraft.

However, the Osprey, which is a relatively new aircraft, was built with redundant systems, both pilots said. This ultimately saved both crews.

“We weren’t sure where the damage was,” Hutchings said.The Osprey “can take a lot of damage … As long as you’re not shaking violently or have an impending gearbox failure, you can fly that thing.”

Hutchings hovered momentarily to make sure the plane could fly, then he zipped back to Camp Bastion in airplane mode, even though the landing gear was stuck in the down position.

Haake learned that Hutchings had dropped off his ground element. It was imperative that he do the same, he said, or the forces on the ground would be left vulnerable.

“We knew right away we had to reinforce the guys he had dropped off,” Haake said. “We knew we were going into a pretty dangerous area, but we’d never seen [fire] at that volume before. It filled up the sky.”

Belleci said Dash-2 flew directly over a machine gun nest, taking fire through the center of the aircraft. Haake said the real hero of the day was Sgt. Shane Moreland, who laid down suppressive fire on the enemy positions. After an Afghan soldier who was on board took a round through the leg, Moreland ripped off his sleeve and made a tourniquet, saving his life.

“He probably saved us from it being completely catastrophic,” Haake said.

Haake inserted the Marines and took off, but his plane was more damaged than Hutchings’ was. A vital fuel line had been hit, and the aircraft was spewing fuel. Hutchings called the fuel line the “aorta” of the aircraft.

In addition, the right prop rotor system, hydraulic system and flight-control system were also affected. The cockpit was alive with the sounds of malfunctioning systems, he said. The plane was stuck in helicopter mode, traveling at a slower speed. To make matters worse, the damage was pushing the aircraft down and to the right. Haake fought with the controls to keep the Osprey in the air.

“I realized real fast we’re not going to make it back to Bastion,” he recalled. “I feared we’d have to make a forced landing in the desert.”

He made a snap decision that saved them. There was a forward operating base 15-20 miles away. He would try and make it there. He asked a Cobra to stay with him. The aircraft lost 2,000 pounds of fuel almost instantly after taking off on their 10-minute journey.

“The plane was very difficult to fly,” Haake said. “What was going through our minds was, ‘Is this plane going to fall apart on us?’ … It definitely was a pretty wild flight.”

The entire outside of the plane was covered in the red and orange hydraulic fuel. There were bullet holes where people had been sitting, right near where their heads had been.

“We were very fortunate,” he said.

Success

Hutchings had gone back to Bastion for a breakfast of burritos, he said. Six hours after the insertion, it was time to pick up the 40 or so Marines — this time in a new plane, with a new wingman.

As Hutchings approached the extraction point, the 16-year Marine Corps veteran could again hear the pings of bullets striking his aircraft. He flew to the smoke that the recon Marines had popped. They ran to the aircraft, firing behind them. It was all over by about 1 p.m. No one was killed in the operation.

“There was a lot of quick decisions that had to be made,” Haake said. “It wound up being a big success.”

Both men said that the tilt-rotor platform has a bright future because of its speed and versatility; there will be other Marine Osprey pilots who follow in their footsteps. But they will always be the first.

“Obviously, they’re both great pilots and instructors,” Belleci said. “I’d fly with them anywhere.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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