Apache

For once, the deadliest helicopter in the world was tapped to save a life.

The U.S. Apaches (background) fly without their Longbow Radars in Afghanistan and Iraq, swapping their weight for more weapons. (Boeing)
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After 22 years in the British army, which included a tour in Afghanistan, Ed Macy was eager to begin civilian life, but because of a shortage of experienced weapons officers on the Apache AH Mk.1, he was recalled. In 2007, as part of an effort to contain a resurgent Taliban, Macy was sent on a raid on Taliban headquarters in the Helmand province, farther south than any British troops had ever been.

From This Story

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Magowan’s battle group mapped the Taliban main supply route from Pakistan, locating five staging areas where fighters and supplies were concentrated. These became the primary targets for the Army Air Corps’ Operation Glacier. Macy’s company, the 656 Squadron, Apache helicopter company—call sign “Ugly”—was tasked with destroying the route, beginning with a site near the village of Koshtay and moving steadily north. The success of the first raid paved the way for the second part of Operation Glacier.

The following excerpt is from Apache, by Ed Macy (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009). In a few instances, names of individuals have been changed to protect their safety.

For the first time the taliban were on the defensive. The brigadier wanted to keep it that way. The Royal Marines had taken a pasting from the Taliban in the three months since they’d arrived in September 2006. Now we’d given a bit of the pasting back. The order came down to launch Operation Glacier 2 as soon as possible.

The mission was to destroy the Taliban’s main forward operating base in southern Helmand. It was a giant, high-walled rectangular compound, 200 meters long by 100 wide [220 by 110 yards], on the banks of the Helmand River where the Green Zone borders the Desert of Death in the west. It was extremely well fortified, with stone and adobe walls 10 feet high and three feet thick, and guard towers at each of its four corners. It was known locally as the Jugroom Fort.

The assault would be done by the 120 Royal Marines of Zulu Company, 45 Commando, with supporting fire from 105-mm light guns and the Scimitar armored vehicles of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons.

Colonel Magowan, commander of an intelligence unit, planned the operation, and it was an excellent one.
First, the place would be pummeled relentlessly with a massive bombardment from fast air and artillery. It would begin at midnight and last for four hours. An incredible total of 100,000 pounds of bombs dropped by B-1s would test the Taliban’s resolve. If they still wanted to stay around and defend it after that, the fort would be every bit as significant as the colonel thought.

Then, at 4 a.m., he would launch a ground assault, move into the fort, and effectively plant an International Security Assistance Force flag on its ramparts—a red flag to the Taliban’s raging bull. They would counter-attack with all available manpower—probably with their trademark encirclement maneuver. Zulu Company would then withdraw swiftly just before dawn—leaving the Taliban fully exposed. Magowan’s pièce de résistance would be to send in the Apaches (call signs Ugly Five Two and Ugly Five Three) to pick them off and identify any hidden bunkers they attempted to escape into, so fast air could close them down—forever. 

We were flying the Westland WAH-64 Apache, a British modification of the Boeing Apache Longbow equipped with two 2,100-shaft-horsepower Rolls-Royce engines. Most impressive of all the Apache’s cutting-edge technology was how it found its prey. Its Target Acquisition and Designation Sight system (TADS) was made up of an array of cameras housed in a double-headed nose cone that looked like a pair of giant insect eyes. At night, the thermal camera was so powerful it could identify a human form from a distance of four kilometers [2.5 miles], and spots of blood on the ground from a kilometer up.

The TADS monocle sat permanently over a pilot’s right iris, and a dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it. At the flick of a button, a range of other images could also be superimposed underneath the green glow of the instrument symbology, replicating the TADS’ camera images and the Longbow Radars’ targets.

The monocle left the pilot’s left eye free to look outside the cockpit, saving him the few seconds that it took to look down at the instruments, then up again—seconds that could mean the difference between our death and our enemy’s. New pilots suffered terrible headaches as the left and right eye competed for dominance. They started within minutes, long before takeoff. If you admitted to them, the instructor grounded you immediately—so none of us ever did.   

As the eyes adjusted over the following weeks and months, the headaches took longer to set in. It was a year before mine disappeared altogether. During a sortie I once filmed my face with a video camera as an experiment. My eyes whirled independently of each other throughout, like a man possessed.
“That’s disgusting,” my wife Emily said when I showed her the tape. “But does it mean you can read two books at once?”
I tried it. I could.
 
I would remain behind, stationed at the base as part of the incident response team. Judging by the amount of stuff they were going to be chucking at Op Glacier 2’s target before the assault, we reckoned that there was only a slim chance that the four of us would have anything to do with it.

But at 7:05 a.m., the radio crackled into action. In 20 seconds we were in the Ops room. The watchkeeper was waiting for us.

“It’s a casualty evacuation, guys. A single Apache to protect a CH-47 down to Garmsir.” He gave me a grid with the Chinook’s landing site.

“How many casualties?”

“Five.”

That wasn’t good. They shouldn’t be taking casualties more than three hours after the ground assault was supposed to have gone in.

“Why aren’t the two Apaches down there going to protect the CH-47?”

“They’re busy fighting.”

The Taliban weren’t giving up Jugroom Fort without a fight.

I ran the final 500 meters to the flightline. Carl, the pilot, threw forward the engine power levers and our rotors began to turn. A minute later, he radioed the Ops Room.

“Ugly Five One, ready.”

“Ugly Five One, this is Ops. You will be joined by Ugly Five Zero. You are now going to RIP [relief in place] with Five Two and Five Three down in Garmsir. RIP time is 0820 hours.”

We rarely did unplanned RIPs on deliberate attacks. There just weren’t the spare aircraft or crews. It meant only one thing: Life was under immediate threat down there.

Billy and Geordie, the second Apache crew, flashed up in record quick time: “Ugly Five Zero flight airborne at 0801 hours.”
Fifteen minutes into the flight, the Chinook shot right under us on the way back. It was a mighty quick turnaround, and they were bombing it, flying low and straight. It meant the casualties were in a bad way.

At 15 miles to go, I checked in with Widow Seven One, the Joint Terminal Attack Controller, or JTAC. “Widow Seven One, this is Ugly Five One, how do you read?”

“Ugly Five One, this is Widow Seven One. No longer five casualties. Now four casualties and one MIA.”

I felt the rush of adrenaline, and the all-too-familiar taste of metal flooded into my mouth. It was preparing me for fear.

“All other troops have withdrawn, but the MIA is still the objective. Repeat, the MIA is still the objective.”

I tried to think it through. How the hell had they lost someone at the fort, and then all withdrawn without him? The Taliban were clearly still holding the place. Now they might have one of our guys too.

Widow Seven One checked back in. “Ugly Five Two flight have only got enough fuel left for a direct flight back to base. They’re going off station now. We need you on station immediately to help locate the MIA. Send ETA.”

“Ugly will be with you in 10 minutes.”

From Ugly Five Two we learned what had happened. The ground assault was delayed, and didn’t go in until just before 7:00 a.m. The marines’ 12-strong column of Viking tracked armored vehicles crossed the river, but dawn was already breaking. Their vehicles stopped in a line adjacent to the point where one of the B-1’s 2,000-pound bombs had blown a gaping hole in the fort’s southern outer wall.

As soon as the marines got to the wall, five of them were hit by machine gun fire. Small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire cascaded down the canal and from the village to the west. It was mayhem.

Ugly Five Two continued. “The first we knew of the MIA was a few minutes ago, after we pulled off target. He was one of the casualties. We’ve no idea where he is or how it happened.”

“That’s all copied. Thanks.”

“Ford—that’s the MIA’s name. Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. Good luck guys. I’m sorry.”

He had nothing to apologize for. Getting the marines out of that hornets’ nest without any more casualties was a miracle in itself.
Colonel Magowan now faced every commander’s worst nightmare. There was no point in the marines going back in without knowing where Lance Corporal Ford was. With the fire from the fort and the surrounding villages, a search would have been suicide. The marines were still firing from the ridge in a desperate attempt to suppress the enemy. It was all they could do for Ford until they knew where he was.

Plumes of dark smoke were now clearly visible on the horizon directly in front of us. The Taliban would try to get Ford into a building and obscure him from our optics as soon as they could.

Even though it had only just been announced, Ford had been officially MIA for 30 minutes and word had spread. Every man and his dog was asking what was going on. Widow Eight Three, a second JTAC working with the gunners, was asking for situation reports to better his targeting. I could make out at least three different levels of command on the secure radio, including Zulu Company’s commanding officer, Colonel Magowan, and the Helmand Task Force’s headquarters in Lashkar Gah.

A Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and a Nimrod MR2 circled somewhere above us. Their downlinks were being pumped into every HQ, fueling the frenzy.

I focused my TADS on the corner wall of the fort. The image gleamed in the bright sunshine. I moved the camera slowly down the towpath south in the direction that Mathew Ford would have aimed to withdraw. Carl saw where my TADS was headed in his monocle and tracked east towards the bomb crater where the wall had been demolished.

Twenty seconds later: “Ed, I’ve got an unusual shape. It’s about 40 meters along the wall, on the southern side.”

“Okay, stand by.”

I shifted the TADS onto Carl’s line of sight. A large, S-shaped blob lay sprawled on a raised bank about 10 meters shy of the crater, two feet away from the wall. It looked like a body, lying on its side.

We dropped and I studied the body throughout Carl’s 180-degree turn to the northwest. It was lying on its left side, thighs up at 90 degrees to the torso, feet slightly apart, arms outstretched. It was a natural position to lie in, not contorted, and that was a good sign.
We’d found our man. But was he still alive? The moment I announced we’d found him the whole world would want to know.

We came round again, higher. I could not detect any dark patches on his clothing, so no heavy blood loss—as far as we could see. His helmet was on, fastened tight and without deformation. His face was intact, eyes closed and mouth just slightly open. I felt a rush of relief. He looked peaceful, as if he was sleeping. No obvious signs of wounding. Had he collapsed through exhaustion? The marines carried an awesome amount of kit into battle these days.

“Ugly Five One, this is Widow Seven One. Is he alive?”

“Ugly Five One can confirm he is warm but has not moved. There are no obvious signs of death; assumption is, he’s alive.”

An immediate response from a new call sign: “Ugly Five One, this is Wizard.”

Wizard? It was the Nimrod MR2, 20,000 feet above. They only relayed messages from way up the food chain. That morning, it was the task force commander.

“Ugly Five One, Sunray says do not let anyone get anywhere near the MIA. Ground troops will re-cross the river and recover Lance Corporal Ford ASAP.”

The commander had given the order. The rescue was on.

I called the JTAC and asked for permission to engage the western village, which was still almost entirely intact.

“Ugly Five One, this is Widow Seven One. You’re cleared hot onto the village. Destroy the position in preparation for the rescue.”

“Copied. The buildings have multiple rooms and look pretty strong. Hellfire may not be best suited. Request fast air to assist ASAP.”

“I have called for close air support. Do what you can in the meantime. But do not—I repeat, do not—let anyone get near the MIA.”

We divided up the workload between the two Apaches. I glanced up from my TADS to see Billy’s cannon rounds tearing into the first of the 15 huts and buildings. Billy got off four good 20-round bursts. Every 10 seconds, another three 105-mm shells pounded down on the village. On his second and third runs, Billy planted Hellfires and raked two barn-like buildings with 30-mm, collapsing their stone roofs on the fighters inside.

We swapped over. I could see a series of holes dug into the eastern wall of one of the barns at ground level—little holes a few inches wide, enough to poke a muzzle through. I smacked a Hellfire into the wall and took it down.

Billy broke in as Carl began our third run on the village.

“Ed, I’ve got an idea. Ford needs to be moved now. He’s alive, but clearly badly injured. He could be dying right now.”

“Affirm.”

“Well, we could pick him up.”

“Say again?”

“We could rescue him. You stay up, we’ll go down. One of us gets out and straps him to the side of the aircraft. You know, like our downed-aircraft emergency drill.”

I thought it through. It was ludicrous. I’d picked up unconscious bodies before. There was no way one person could shift Mathew to the Apache and strap him on alone. I consulted Carl and he agreed.

Billy called our commanding officer, Major Christopher James, on the secure frequency-modulated net.

“Negative,” was the Boss’ response.

I said to Billy, “I’ve got a better plan. Let’s go and collect two marines each and fly them into the fort to collect the casualty. It’ll be much quicker. You coordinate the fire plan and 3 Flight can give us top cover.”

“Stand by.”

I looked at Mathew Ford’s body. Strapping someone to the side of the aircraft was an emergency drill only to be used to rescue downed Apache aircrew. We’d rehearsed it as part of our escape-and-evasion training, but only on the ground and never with engines on or the rotors actually turning. That contravened Ministry of Defence health and safety guidelines. In 23 years of Apache operations, the Americans had never lifted any ground troops on the wings. 

However, it was theoretically possible. We were all carrying our emergency straps as routine equipment, and the grab bars were right there behind the canopy. The only other aircraft we had available were the Chinooks, and they’d just set off back to base, low on fuel, after dropping more ammo at the gun line. Besides, a great big flying cow like that would get shot down there. Unlike the Apache, it wasn’t designed to take rounds.

We were the only airborne option. It was possible. Maybe it could work.

That was all Billy needed. He was straight back onto the Boss.

“Listen, sir, the ground troops are nowhere near ready to cross. I want to get two men on each aircraft and fly them into the fort to recover the casualty. Can you send 3 Flight down to assist?”

“Billy, listen to me,” the Boss said. “We’ve been on the phone to headquarters at Lashkar Gah and they have said it will be a ground rescue.”

“Okay, sir. If I land, just confirm I will be disobeying a direct order.”

“Affirmative. You will be. You can’t land both aircraft, you have no top cover.”

There was a five-second silence.

Then the Boss came back on. “I am launching 3 Flight to come and assist you. Don’t do anything until the other aircraft arrive. I have no situational awareness and you have the bigger picture. If you think it will work, you’ll need permission from the ground commander.”

I was straight onto Widow Seven One. The JTAC’s response was swift. “Negative. That request is denied, Ugly Five One. Zulu Company is going to rescue him.”

Widow Seven One had more bad news. “Be advised, Ugly Five One, Zulu Company will be a further 30 minutes. Keep suppressing for their assault.”

It was now 9:48 a.m., and we’d been on station for an hour and 11 minutes. It
wasn’t just our ammunition that was running out. At 10:02 a.m., Carl called “Bingo.” We were running low on gas. In 30 minutes we’d only have enough fuel left to get back to base.

We looped over the firebase and took a peek at Zulu Company. They were sitting on their rucksacks, waiting for the order.
It was time to talk to Colonel Magowan. As we spoke, it dawned on me that this was the first time Magowan had heard of our plan. I explained the whole thing as succinctly as I could.

“Give me two minutes to think.”

“We don’t have two minutes, sir.”

“Give me 20 seconds then.”

Utter silence. For the first time all day, the mission radio net went quiet. Half of Helmand province was listening in now, and everybody was waiting for Magowan’s answer.

“Ugly Five One, this is Magowan. Your plan is approved.”

We headed for the command post, six kilometers west of the fort. Four volunteers were waiting. I grabbed the first man I reached and pulled him up to the right side of the aircraft while I pulled out my strap.

“You’ve got to strap yourself on because if you get shot while you’re on the wing, you need to stay on it. Lots of things might happen out there. I’m not going to go into them all.”

I pointed to the grab bar beside Carl’s door.

“This bar here is what you’re going to strap onto.”

I demonstrated. We were one strap short. I went around to the fourth man.

“There’s no strap for you.”

He looked at me in disbelief.

“Put your arm through the grab bar and  force your hand in under your body armor. That way you won’t fall off if you get shot. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Carl pulled on the collective and we began to lift steadily into our own swirling dust cloud. The plan was simple. The
B-1’s 2,000-pound bomb would kill most of the Taliban in the village and stun the rest. After the B-1 dropped his bomb, we’d have two minutes on the ground. Thirty seconds to get to Mathew, a minute to get him back, and 30 seconds to tie him onto the aircraft.

Yes, it was doable. 

Ed Macy has more than 3,900 hours flying helicopters, 645 of them in the Apache.

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