Kadena airmen recall ‘intense,’ Mackay Trophy-winning rescue
January 8, 2006
KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Two Kadena airmen recently had their names included among some of the most renowned aviators in history.
Pararescuemen Staff Sgt. John Griffin and Tech. Sgt. Michael Rubio and 11 fellow crewmembers received the Mackay Trophy last month in Washington honoring their rescue of five Army aviators in 2004 as the most meritorious flight of the year.
Previous winners include Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and World War II five-star Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, who won it twice.
But awards were the farthest thing from their minds the night in April 2004 that the crew took off from Balad Air Base in Iraq in two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters just after midnight.
Reports said an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter had gone down. Griffin came prepared with body bags.
“We didn’t know if they were alive or not,” Griffin said. “A lot of possibilities run through your mind on the flight.”
An ambush by insurgents attracted to the fire — or even causing the fire — was another possibility, he said.
Within miles of the crash site, it became apparent that no one would know for sure what was going on until they were right on top of it.
A massive sandstorm limited visibility to less than 50 feet in front of them, even with advanced night-vision goggles, Rubio said.
“The air was the consistency of pea soup,” he said.
“I couldn’t see anything out of the aircraft,” Griffin said. “And if I couldn’t see anything, what could the pilot see?”
The pilots of both helicopters were flying based on their instruments. Through the soup, the crew spotted fires rising from the crash site, along with a strobe light about 100 yards from the fire.
Once on the ground, Griffin headed toward the strobe light, where he found five downed Army aviators.
Peering through the gritty air, he attempted to positively identify them over the whirring chopper noise.
“I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” Griffin said. “But apparently, the Army air crews weren’t briefed on [the authentications].”
Griffin saw an identification card taped to one soldier’s helmet. After asking if she was being coerced or held at gunpoint, he asked her to identify the others.
“You want to be off the ground in as little time as possible,” Griffin said.
The longer the rescue crew stays, the longer it is a target. The crews collected the downed soldiers, pulled away and headed back to base. There was enough time for a sigh of relief — but not much more.
On their way out, surface-to-air missiles shot by the helicopters. Rubio fired chaff and flares to detour the missiles.
But the countermeasures didn’t stop one of the missiles from slicing through the air within feet of the helicopter’s rotor path.
“I felt like my life was flashing before my eyes,” said Griffin, who had more than five years’ experience as a pararescueman prior to the flight. “This was the closest I ever came to dying. I’ve never been in a flight so intense, scary and unpredictable.”
The flight was Rubio’s first nontraining mission, and easily his most memorable. But at the time, it didn’t seem like a very big deal.
“When you’re doing your job, you feel really good about it,” Rubio said. “The mortality part of it hits you later.”