CAMP TAJI, Iraq – An "all-pro" medical evacuation crew from the 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment received Air Medals for conducting two urgent air evacuations on a single day during "red weather" conditions that had grounded aircraft across Iraq.
The Air Medal is awarded for meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
Army Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, deputy commanding general for U.S. Forces-Iraq, flew into Camp Taji on Aug. 11 to personally present the Air Medals to pilots Chief Warrant Officer 2 Alex Engelson and Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Labbe; crew chiefs Staff Sgt. Richard Flach and Pfc. Corey Davis; and flight medic Sgt. Cassandra Kennedy.
On that blistering August afternoon, Helmick stood on the Camp Taji flight line in front of the crew's HH-60M Black Hawk helicopter as a gathering of Soldiers from the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade looked on. Helmick dubbed the crew a "Super Crew" and an "All Pro" team and lauded them for their skill and wealth of experience, and for successfully performing their mission under difficult conditions.
The flight crew belongs to Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment (Air Ambulance), an Army National Guard unit based in Westfield, Mass., and Burlington, Vt.
For much of its deployment in Iraq, Charlie Company was attached to the 1-171 GSAB, which falls under the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade. The 40th CAB is conducting full-spectrum aviation operations in Iraq in 2011 in support of Operation New Dawn.
On June 30, a dust storm blew into central Iraq, turning the sky a steel gray and sharply reducing visibility to less than half a mile. Meanwhile, a Soldier at Joint Security Station Loyalty in Baghdad was suffering from shrapnel wounds in his leg received during an attack on his convoy. The Soldier needed urgent care and immediate evacuation to a medical clinic. The 3-126 medical evacuation crew was on standby at Camp Taji and ready to go.
"We had the best crew available for that day in that aircraft," said 1-171 commander, Army National Guard Lt. Col. Richard Wilson.
The decision to launch a medevac aircraft into such poor weather conditions fell to brigade commander, Army National Guard Col. Mitch Medigovich, who evaluated the situation and gave the thumbs up "based on the experience of the crew, the urgency of the mission, the confidence in their ability and in their aircraft," he said.
The crew launched without hesitation in their HH-60M Black Hawk. Medevac aircraft typically fly in pairs, but this mission was single ship to avoid collisions in the low visibility conditions.
"It was bad weather, but the guy needed help," Flach said.
The HH-60M is an advanced version of the Black Hawk. It has a digital cockpit with such extras as a moving map display and satellite imagery linked to GPS that give it increased situational awareness and an advantage over standard Black Hawks in low visibility conditions.
"This aircraft makes it a lot easier," said Labbe, who was copilot that day with pilot in command Engelson. "Nobody had any issues about going out. Nobody second-guessed it."
The crew flew into Loyalty and picked up the wounded soldier and headed across Baghdad to a medical clinic at Sather Air Force Base.
"He had shrapnel in him and was in a lot of pain," said Kennedy, the flight medic. "I assessed the Soldier, took care of his injuries and kept him comfortable."
As the crew was flying across Baghdad, they were informed that equipment problems at Sather meant the Soldier could not be treated there. The pilots turned their aircraft north and headed for Joint Base Balad, which is about 40 miles from Baghdad.
The aircraft followed the Tigris River as it wound through Baghdad, Flach recalled. "The weather continued to deteriorate," he said, explaining that visibility fell to less than a quarter mile, so the pilots climbed to 5,000 feet and flew under instrument flight rules to avoid the many obstacles in Baghdad, such as radio towers, smokestacks and aerostat balloons.
They arrived safely at Balad ,where the Soldier was handed over to medical personnel and treated for his wounds.
The crew was then grounded at Balad because of the dust storm, but soon received another urgent call. A Soldier at Camp Taji needed immediate evacuation due to appendicitis. Again, the decision to launch fell to Medigovich and he gave the OK. The crew flew back to Camp Taji, picked up the patient and delivered her to Balad without incident.
Kennedy said that although the weather was bad, multiple missions in a single day are not out of the ordinary. She said the crew's accomplishments were only one part of a larger effort. "This is for all you guys," she said to the gathering of soldiers on the Camp Taji airfield after Helmick pinned her with the Air Medal.
"It's a really good feeling," Engelson said after receiving his medal. He attributed the award to the constant training and battle drilling conducted by his unit.
"It's been an honor being over here with all of you guys," Labbe said to the crowd.
"Helicopter pilots across the board in this country do extraordinary things every day," Helmick said. "I admire the professionals in this organization. To this super crew, well done."