Pilots recall night battle behind enemy lines
April 17, 2003
U.S. ARMY AVIATION BASE CAMP, Central Iraq — The instant the bullet slammed into his throat, 1st Lt. Jason King and everyone in his squadron knew he must be dead.
King, the front-seat pilot and gunner in the AH-64D Apache Longbow, had been talking on the radio when the automatic rifle round pierced his cockpit during a battle late on the night of March 23. Everyone heard the bullet hit, they heard him choke out a curse, and then they heard the quiet.
King felt like the entire front of his throat had been shot off. He was bleeding badly, and he couldn’t talk to his back-seat pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mike Tomblin.
“I could hear what everybody was saying, but I couldn’t say anything,” he recalled. “I pretty much thought my number was up.”
All of the Longbows from King’s Germany-based unit, the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, had come under heavy ground fire about 20 minutes after they left their base camp in central Iraq.
The 6-6 Cavalry and its two sister squadrons, the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment and the 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, flew from Camp Udairi, Kuwait, to a deserted Iraqi airstrip southwest of An-Najaf around sunset.
The 1-227th Aviation’s small fuel and ammunition convoy had just reached the airstrip, which had not yet been secured by U.S. ground forces. The regiment’s supply convoy had been held up by battles and invasion traffic and would not arrive until the next morning.
The fuel supply had been miscalculated. The 1-227th Aviation was able to send all 18 Longbows against its targets, but the 6-6 Cavalry could gas up only 13. At the last minute, the 2-6 Cavalry’s mission was postponed for tactical reasons. But there wouldn’t have been enough fuel, anyway.
“Everything was very confused,” said Lt. Col. Scott Thompson, 42, of Bellevue, Neb., the 2-6 Cavalry’s commander. “We were trying to refuel a regiment’s worth of aircraft [about 60] in complete blackness.”
A few dozen pilots and refuelers nervously set up a defense line with only their M-16s to protect them. They prayed the Iraqis wouldn’t attack, because their aircraft lacked sufficient fuel for them to escape.
The mission ran into trouble from the start. The Longbows, heavy with fuel and weaponry, struggled to take off around midnight in the thick desert dust. One of 6-6 Cavalry’s aircraft crashed on takeoff, and five others nearly did. Luckily, no one was hurt.
Apaches and other helicopters aren’t well suited to urban warfare. They are excellent in the desert, where they hug the ground to evade radar and can see targets clearly, even at night, and fire at them from a distance. But working in cities nullifies that advantage and magnifies their weakness: a vulnerability to ground fire.
Still, V Corps had expected to surprise the Iraqis with this strike against the Republican Guard’s Medina Division 20 miles northeast of Al-Hillah, far behind enemy lines. They surely never anticipated gunfire seemingly from every house and building.
“We weren’t nearly as nervous as we should have been,” said King, 29, of Bellaire, Mich.
Well into the trip, the sporadic fire started to pick up. It surprised the pilots that so many people had their lights on so late at night. Then something happened that made them realize they faced a well-prepared opponent.
“As we were turning [toward the targets], all the lights in the city went out for about two seconds,” King said. “Then they came back on, and [the gunfire] just erupted.”
Every light in the city seemed to be shining directly upon them. The Longbows used their 30 mm rifles to try to suppress AK-47 and anti-aircraft fire that was so thick pilots later called it a “wall of steel,” but they could hardly tell where it came from.
“It looked like a laser light show,” Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeffery Crownover, 32, a Troop B pilot, wrote the next day in a journal of the battle. “You could see the tracers with the naked eye passing within feet of the canopy and the aircraft. I continually made high-energy maneuvers to avoid being hit.”
A bullet damaged the hydraulic system of King’s and Tomblin’s aircraft and took out the flight-management system, making it hard to handle.
About 65 minutes into the mission, a bullet punched through the cockpit and hit King in the throat.
In Apaches and Longbows, typically, the back-seater flies the aircraft while the front-seater fires the weapons. Now Tomblin, under intense fire and believing his partner dead, had to handle both jobs.
“I could hear the wind going through his cockpit,” he said. “I had this picture in my head that his cockpit was decimated.”
Apaches always fly at least in pairs, and Tomblin called on his wingmen — Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Duffney and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Bill Neal — to help lay down suppressing fire. He thought about landing and transferring King to the UH-60 Black Hawk accompanying them, the policy in the case of serious injuries. But that seemed exceptionally risky in such hostile territory.
“You could tell he was very calm and collected,” said Crownover, who was listening to Tomblin on the radio. “He didn’t let the situation get to him.”
About five minutes after King was hit, the shock began to wear off. His voice came back a little. He told Tomblin he had managed to bandage his neck, and he started calling out sources of fire.
“I was real happy once he started talking,” Tomblin recalled. “We had been flying for a long time, and we were still under fire. I said, ‘This is not fun anymore!’”
The gunfire didn’t subside for 45 minutes, until after King and Tomblin had reached open desert west of An Najaf. They landed, and waited for their buddies to come home.
“I was really mad at that point,” King said. “I got out and I started cussing, because I was a Longbow pilot who just got shot by small-arms fire. That was unacceptable.”
King told the doctor at the camp he needed just a few stitches. But the doctor replied “‘No, son, you need surgery,’” King recalled.
But he refused to leave until the battle was through. He heard the bad news: The 1-227th Aviation had been mauled. One of its aircraft had been forced to land, and he later learned the two crewmen had been taken prisoner.
The 6-6 Cavalry had fared a bit better. All its aircraft returned to base and no one had been injured, but all of the aircraft had been damaged.
A Black Hawk took King to the 86th Combat Surgical Hospital at Camp Udairi, where doctors operated to remove shrapnel from his neck. Some of it, though, was so close to his carotid artery they had to leave it.
King found out they planned to send him to a hospital in Rota, Spain, to recuperate. His wife, Robin, made reservations to meet him there, but King insisted on returning to his squadron instead.
“I told my wife, I need to finish what I started,” King explained. “One big thing was for [my squadron mates] to know that I’m all right, and for me to know that they are.”
Also, he said, pointing at Tomblin, “I feel like I owe it to that guy over there.”
King returned to Iraq a week later, and flew in combat again with Tomblin a few days later. Last weekend, they flew a daytime mission into the same neighborhood where they got shot at during the March 23. This time thousands of people waved as they flew over. They heard no gunfire.
Climbing back in the cockpit wasn’t easy.
“It was pretty unnerving. I was still jumpy,” King said. “But I knew I had to do it, and I know I’d be better off once I did.”
This week, the battle missions have ended. Eager two weeks ago to get to war, King now is thinking about home.
“I’ll be glad when this is completely done,” he said, “and I’m home again with my wife.”