By Josh Phillips.
On the evening of 21 March 2011, MV-22 Osprey pilot Marine Capt. Joe Andrejack and his crew from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) were conducting night boat landings from USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) in the Mediterranean Sea in anticipation of air strikes on the Libyan coast in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. As AV-8B Harriers were involved during first night of strikes, Kearsarge‘s assault support aircraft were ready to serve as a quick reaction force in the event of a downed allied aviator.
“You hit home runs not by chance, but by preparation,” baseball Hall of Famer Roger Maris once famously said. It was this preparation that allowed Andrejack and his crew to hit the long-ball with their recovery of a downed Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot.
The F-15 was on a mission targeting Moammar Gadhafi’s missile capabilities when the aircraft, dubbed “Bolar 34,” from Aviano Air Base in Italy, suffered an equipment malfunction that caused the crash about 25 miles east of Benghazi in eastern Libya. Two airmen ejected from the F-15 before the crash, with the weapons officer being rescued by rebel forces and brought to a hotel in Benghazi. The pilot, however, had to rely on the Marines for his extraction.
At the same time, Andrejack’s aircraft suffered a mechanical problem during its boat landing practice, and it had to be shut down to get fixed. “While I was filling out my postflight paperwork, the squadron’s acting commanding officer told me not to go anywhere—there may be a U.S. Air Force F-15 down in Libya.”
Two Ospreys, two Harriers, two CH-53E Super Stallions, and a KC-130J Hercules eventually were deployed in search of the pilot. A Harrier launched from Kearsarge proceeded to the objective area and dropped several laser-guided munitions at the request of the downed pilot as he was evading, according to Andrejack.
Two hours after receiving the notification, Andrejack and his crew, along with another Osprey, were sent to the area with orders to rescue the pilot. Although Andrejack kept in constant contact with the Harriers, as well as with several Air Force F-16s that were relieving the AV-8Bs as they proceeded to the tankers for fuel, the details of what had happened were spotty.
“We did not know the reason the F-15 crashed or the condition of the other aviator from the downed F-15,” Andrejack said. “We knew the approximate location of the downed pilot when we took off and were passed a more accurate location during our transit towards the beach. We were also told the second downed aviator was picked up by locals and was assumed safe.”
As the Osprey closed in on the downed pilot’s location, the crew saw a signal flare light up that then quickly extinguished. Andrejack confirmed the visual with his section leader, Maj. B.J. Debardeleben, and then prepared the MV-22 for landing to rescue the downed aviator.
“We landed our Osprey about 50 yards in front of the pilot,” said Andrejack. “He was in our plane within seconds, before the majority of our [crew] had a chance to debark. We spent less than 90 seconds on deck before we had everyone back on board and were flying back towards the Kearsarge.”
The total time of the rescue mission was just under two hours.
While Andrejack attributes the mission’s success in part to constant training for these scenarios, he acknowledges the advanced capability the MV-22 brings to the fight.
“The MV-22 proved why it was the primary choice over other possible recovery vehicles the military had available that evening,” he said. “We conducted a thorough route study prior to launch and utilized the aircraft’s navigation system to use the terrain and mask ourselves from any potential threats.”
The Osprey saw its first combat operations in Iraq in 2007, when 10 MV-22s from the VMM-263 Thunder Chickens aboard USS Wasp (LHD 1) supported U.S. troops in Al Anbar province. Since then, the MV-22s has continued operating overseas, flying in support of theater security cooperation events, conducting medical-evacuations from ship-to-shore, as well as performing logistics flights.
The MV-22’s speed and functional ability has made it the “go-to” support aircraft for Marines overseas. According to Andrejack, the Osprey was a difference-maker in the rescue of the downed F-15 pilot.
“The V-22 flew more than twice as fast as a helicopter,” said Andrejack. “Bolar-34 was in friendly hands more than twice as quickly as he would have been otherwise.”