8 heroic pilots who flew into Hell to save ground troops

Very little can tip the battle like great air support can, but it takes brave pilots willing to fly into the worst of enemy fire. The pilots below heard the calls for assistance and decided there was nothing that would stop them from saving guys on the ground.

1. Capt. Scott Campbell earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses in just four days

F-15 pilot close air support Afghanistan valor

Photo: Courtesy US Air Force

Capt. Scott Campbell was over Takur Ghar, Afghanistan, flying his first combat mission on March 4, 2002.

A group of SEALs had been hit during an infiltration and were stranded on a mountaintop. The Rangers sent to get them were also shot down. The next day, Campbell and another A-10 were sent to the area to provide air support for the troops in contact. Nine years later, then-Col. Campbell described it to an Air Force journalist.

“Troops in contact’ was being screamed over the radio by everyone. We didn’t have anyone telling us who needed help the most, so we had to listen to the radio and whoever was screaming the loudest or sounded like was in the most dire need was who we would support first. For our first real combat mission, it was pretty hairy. It was a good feeling to know that you’re helping these guys break contact with the enemy.”

Campbell began engaging targets with his own weapons and directed the attacks by other air assets. His flight delivered six bombs, 500 incendiary rounds, and an unspecified number of rockets during the 11-hour engagement and was credited with 200 to 300 enemy kills, according to his award citations.

On March 6, he coordinated air assets during a capture and extraction of an Al-Qaeda leader, netting his second award. The next day, Campbell was sent to a firefight in progress during an icy thunderstorm and took over control of air assets, dropped six bombs, and fired 550 rounds from his 30mm cannon, for which he was recognized a third time.

2. Capt. Kim N. Campbell flew into the teeth of anti-air missiles to save ground troops.

A-10 pilot damaged airplane hostile fire female woman veterans Air Force A-10

Photo: Courtesy US Air Force

Air Force A-10 pilot Capt. Kim N. Campbell was assigned to attack a group of tanks being used as a command post in Baghdad on April 7, 2003. That mission was put on hold when a forward air controller with ground forces requested immediate assistance. When Campbell and her wingman arrived on station, they saw friendly troops under heavy fire.

Flying low to avoid the cloud cover, the A-10s began firing rockets and 30mm cannon fire into the Iraqi elements, saving the ground forces but exposing themselves to enemy fire. Campbell’s plane was hit by a missile and suffered a total failure of the hydraulics. She had to fly the A-10 using manual controls, but managed to land and park the jet. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

3. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Steven T. Wells flew through the streets of Sadr City under enemy RPG fire.

OH-58 Kiowa Warrior Helicopter flying over Baghdad, Iraq

Photo: US Army

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Steven Wells watched his sister Kiowa helicopter get struck by an RPG on Aug. 8, 2004, and go down hard over Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq. Wells immediately circled back to check on the crew and was engaged by heavy enemy fire. Wells began engaging enemy formations attempting to reach the downed crew, fighting from an altitude of less than 200 feet.

He also made repeated attempts to land despite obstructions on the ground and in the air. He finally manage to reach the ground by cutting engine power to the helicopter blades and using autorotation to reach the ground, landing with less than 10 feet of clearance around the helicopter blades.

Wells also flew his helicopter between the aircrew and enemy fire three times to act as a shield, according to his Silver Star citation. The downed aircrew made it to friendly forces and were evacuated.

4. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher P. Palumbo tried to rejoin the fight after taking 50 hits to his airframe.

Blackhawk helicopter approaches during a training exercise in Africa

Photo: US Army Sgt. Taresha Neal Joiner

On April 11, 2005, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Christopher P. Palumbo piloted a Blackhawk helicopter and dropped off Special Forces soldiers near an insurgent position that had attacked coalition forces in Afghanistan. The enemy force was much larger than anticipated and the troops took two casualties. The ground was too steep for the helicopter to land and pick up the soldiers, so Palumbo and his crew began flying the helicopter between the ground forces and the enemy, taking numerous hits while doing so.

Only after both his fuel cell and his crew chief were hit by some of the more than 50 rounds that struck the bird did Palumbo finally return to base. After dropping his crew chief at the hospital, Palumbo refueled, rearmed, and tried to rejoin the fight. His bird gave out though and began spraying gas before it got off the ground. Another bird successfully retrieved the wounded later that day. Palumbo received the Silver Star for his work.

5. Chief Warrant Officer James Woolley ignored the RPG in his Chinook and kept taking on passengers.

Chinook Rangers training exercise

Photo: US Air Force Staff Sgt. Clay Lancaster

In 2009, Chief Warrant Officer James Woolley flew his Chinook into western Afghanistan for a casualty evacuation. They were forced to take evasive action during the approach, but Woolley pressed on to the landing zone.

On the ground, the helicopter immediately started taking fire while five wounded service members were loaded onto the bird. Less than a minute after the helicopter landed, an RPG entered through the nose of the aircraft, passed between the pilots, struck the flight engineer in the back of his helmet, and fell to the ground without detonating. Woolley kept the helicopter on the ground until the wounded could be loaded anyway. After taking that load of soldiers to base, he determined the helicopter was still flyable and returned to the battle to pick up another load of casualties.

He was awarded a Silver Star in 2010 for his efforts.

6. Capt. Jeremiah “Bull” Parvin and 1st Lt. Aaron Cavazos saved a surrounded group of Marines.

Pilot distinguished flying cross valor for close air support A-10

Photo: US Air Force Airman 1st Class Ceaira Tinsley

The two A-10 pilots were flying in Afghanistan in 2008 when they got a call to fly 300 miles to Baghdis Province, Afghanistan. Special Operations Marines were in a heavy firefight with insurgents and the air support in the area, two F/A-18 Hornets, couldn’t get below the cloud cover safely to support. The A-10s flew with their own tanker to the fight and began a four-hour support mission, fighting from below 400 feet while under night vision.

The A-10s expended nearly all of their ammunition to get the insurgents off the 17 Marines who had been cornered in a building before the A-10s arrived. One aircraft left with about 100 rounds left in his plane. He took off with 1,350 cannon rounds as well as bombs and rockets. The pilots were awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses in separate ceremonies.

7. Lt. Col. Mike Morgan flew between small arms and RPG fire to protect engineers.

OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter

Photo: US Army Staff Sgt. Shane A. Cuomo

Lt. Col. Mike Morgan was acting as the air mission commander for two OH-58 Kiowa helicopters when they were called to provide support to a route clearance patrol under fire near Kandahar City, Afghanistan, August 24, 2009.

The engineers of the RCP were hit by an IED and then immediately began taking heavy fire as part of an orchestrated ambush. When the OH-58s arrived, the engineers were taking effective fire from RPGs and small arms fire. Morgan piloted his aircraft through the enemy fire multiple times to engage the enemy, destroying their positions and allowing the friendly forces to withdraw. He was awarded the Silver Star in a joint ceremony with Chief Warrant Officer James Woolley, below.

8. Maj. Mike S. Caudle interrupted an Iraqi ambush.

F-15 Strike Eagle

Photo: US Air Force Senior Airman Brett Clashman

Elements of the 3rd Infantry Division were approaching Baghdad and a flight of F-15E’s were redirected April 2, 2003, to provide armed reconnaissance of the route the ground troops would take. During the recon, a hidden Iraqi force suddenly ambushed the 3rd Inf. Div. soldiers while anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles targeted the jets.

Maj. Mike S, Caudle piloted his jet to cover his flight lead and the two jets began emergency close air support. Caudle and his flight lead began high-angle strafing and bomb runs. They hit the anti-air elements but also struck hard against the Iraqis attacking the ground troops. When the immediate threat was suppressed, the pilots dropped a couple of laser bombs near the friendly forces’ flanks, just to keep the enemy from getting any closer. Caudle received his second Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts. His first was awarded for actions in Desert Storm.

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