TIRANA, Albania — The father of the United States, George Washington said, "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."
Anyone who has worn a military uniform soon learns that preparedness is an effective deterrent, but it can also involve risk. Men and women of the United States military understand and have accepted that risk. Men and women like those of Task Force Shadow.
An Air Force MC-130H Combat Talon II aircraft, call sign Wrath 11, crashed on a mountain ridge March 31 about 35 miles southeast of Tirana, Albania. The airmen from the 7th Special Operations Squadron, part of the 352nd Special Operations Group at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, England, were participating in a two-week training exercise with the Albanian military when the plane crashed about 11 p.m. local time.
The crash site was on hazardous terrain about 5,500 feet above sea level. Albanian Special Forces made the ascent up the mountain by foot to look for survivors. Although the weather was degrading and the Albanians were ill-equipped to remain in those conditions, they refused to leave the site until the bodies of their American comrades could be recovered.
Within hours Task Force Shadow received the call.
"We were notified of the mission on the evening of 31 March and had assets on site the following day," said Army Lt. Col. Daniel Stefanowich, commander of Task Force Shadow.
Task Force Shadow was tasked to provide helicopter support to the U.S. Air Force in order to assist them in their recovery operation and accident investigation.
"Essentially, the only feasible way for recovery workers to get to and from the crash site was by helicopter. Task Force Shadow provided that support with two UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters," said Stefanowich.
Air Force and Army members from the United States, England, Germany and Italy began arriving at the Tirana International Airport, Albania, the very next day. The first order of business for the Air Force was to establish a base of operations; they dubbed it Camp Talon Pride.
"The mission of Camp Talon Pride was to support the safety investigation board as well as recovery of the crew and equipment," said Air Force Lt. Col. Suzanne Kumashiro, deputy commander of the 31st Mission Support Group. "We could not have accomplished the mission without the air crews from Task Force Shadow. Their crews assisted with mission planning and strategies for safely extracting personnel and equipment."
"I met with the Air Force commanders here on the ground and worked out what our mission flow was going to be and explained to them our capabilities; basically what we were going to be able to provide each day, things like the number of flight hours we can provide … and what they can expect from us," said Army Maj. Joel Allmandinger, D Company commander, Task Force Shadow.
For the Soldiers of Task Force Shadow, the initial coordination was a bit challenging. After the first 48 hours of operations, they worked through many of the details needed to conduct the mission effectively.
The main issue was simply a mutual lack of familiarity with how each branch conducted specific operations. Once everyone involved established an understanding of what the mission and expectations were relative to the flight crew's capabilities, those involved agreed the operation went extremely well.
"They (the Air Force commanders) briefed us on what we could expect from them logistically for support," said Allmandinger. "They provided for all of our logistics here such as food, fuel, transportation, lodging and basic services. In return we provided them a way up to the mountain."
Kumashiro, the Air Force on-site commander, explained the conditions at the crash site were difficult at best.
"We refer to the crash site as Guardian Site," she said. "The conditions were pretty treacherous because there was snow, melting snow and the cold; it made for icy conditions."
Typically at night, the temperature dropped below freezing, and during the daytime it reached the high 30's. Deep snow and the steep mountainous terrain made the ability to reach the site by foot or vehicle extremely dangerous.
"Staying dry was the most important and hardest thing to do with the snow melting and the rain coming down," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Sarah Merklinger, 31st Security Forces Squadron. Merklinger explained the fog, rain, snow and 50-mph winds were almost a daily occurrence.
"When we first arrived, the snow was about six feet deep; we were working in arctic conditions, but we realized the mission must be completed," she said.
Another challenge facing the air crews from Task Force Shadow was the precarious landing at Guardian Site.
"The spot is pretty tight, and it's on a pinnacle at about 5,500 feet and covered in snow," said Allmandinger. "Landing there is something that we are trained to do. It just requires the full coordination between the pilots and the crew chiefs."
A pinnacle landing is where at least two sides of the terrain slope down away from the aircraft, creating a place where the wind could come up the gorge and cause one side to be extremely turbulent. The Blackhawk crews were landing in a geographic saddle with barely enough room to accommodate the aircraft. The crew chiefs were responsible for clearing the tail and landing gear of the aircraft as it settled down. They monitored the sink rate of the landing gear in the snow and soil so that the aircraft would remain stable. In addition to the restricted landing area, there were other considerations that impacted safe maneuverability.“When we first arrived, we chose an LZ (landing zone) that was on top of a ridge about 400 meters from the crash site,” said Army Spc. Chad Phillips, a crew chief with B Company, Task Force Shadow. “The snow on this LZ ranged from six inches to six feet. We found this out when we first landed and the helicopter started sinking.”
For the passengers climbing out of the Blackhawk, the deep snow and narrow landing zone proved to be challenging as well.
“There was enough room in the LZ for one helicopter, and even then it was tight,” said Phillips. “When personnel exited the aircraft, they would sink up to about their knees and one poor guy sunk to about his chest.”
As the passengers exited the helicopter they had to navigate a 75-80 percent slope to the crash site.
“The Air Force ground crew would exit the aircraft, take three steps and slide down the hill on their bags [about 40 feet down] to their operations tent,” said Army Sgt. Maximilian Geise, a crew chief with B Company, Task Force Shadow. “It was pretty funny to watch. After the snow melted, the LZ was nothing but mud.”
The crews and aircraft were responsible for transporting personnel to and from the crash site as well as re-supplying the forward base at the crash site.
“During my tenure at the site we moved mortuary affairs personnel in and out as well as EOD (explosive ordnance disposal), recovery and security teams,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Huttle, a platoon sergeant with B Company, Task Force Shadow. “With our aircraft background, we were also useful in entering the wreckage and identifying and recovering items.”
Besides transporting service members to the site, the aircrews retrieved radios, sensitive equipment and some of the explosives the aircraft carried.
“If the item was too heavy to load it internally, then we would sling load it off the mountain,” said Allmandinger. “The 787th Ordnance Company was responsible for destroying all remaining wreckage for the Air Force.”
“Our role was to provide the explosives and to conduct a joint operation with Air Force EOD to de-mil (reduce the aircraft to small pieces) the MC-130H in small enough pieces so that it could be removed from the mountain with ease and to ensure that all classified and sensitive items were either recovered or destroyed and to eliminate any other hazardous components,” said Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Olaires, first sergeant of the 787th Ordnance Company, Task Force Falcon.
“The entire Air Force operation down there was outstanding,” said Army Staff Sgt. Charles Gross, a team leader with the 787th Ordnance Company, Task Force Falcon. “The Air Force EOD team, headed by Staff Sgt. Josh Gidcumb, had been on the scene from crash day plus two. Despite fatigue and mental strain, they were still professional and motivated throughout the time we operated with them.”
The Soldiers’ respect for their Air Force counterparts was mutual.
“They are a good group of guys,” said Gidcumb, an explosive ordnance disposal team leader with the 31st Civil Engineer Squadron. “Without them, we couldn’t do our job as easily.”
“We meshed really well” said Army Cpl. Anthony Salvo, a team member with the 787th Ordnance Company. “EOD techs speak the same language regardless of what branch we’re in.”
The spirit of cooperation by all involved and the determination to accomplish the mission were forged on the mountain, regardless of the bitter cold and jagged stone. Army and Air Force alike were driven by the desire to return their fallen comrades home.
“All of the service men and women involved in the recovery refuse to refer to their fallen comrades as HRs or human remains instead preferring to call them VIPs,” said Stefanowich. “Each time a VIP was brought down from the mountain, the entire base camp stopped to hold a service in honor of the fallen service member.”
“It’s a good feeling knowing you brought those guys home and that maybe you brought their families a little bit of peace,” said Phillips. “It’s also good knowing that if it ever happens to me that someone is going to bring me home for the last time.”
“The job we perform is a very important one,” said Gidcumb. “In the end everyone pays a price and sacrifices some part of themselves to mission and country. These gentlemen heroes paid the ultimate price with their lives.”
If to preserve peace we must be prepared for war, our preparedness can come with a very high price. The Airmen and Soldiers involved with recovering the crew of Wrath 11 found out how much it could cost in the shadow of a mountain.