JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska --
As the commander of 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, Lt. Col. Joshua Armstrong, Alaska Air National Guard, determined he would be the last Airman in the squadron to board an HC-130J Combat King II bound for refuge from an impending Iranian attack.
He said he didn’t know what form the attack was going to take nor did he know the time, but he knew the scope and scale was going to be unprecedented in its threat to the base and to his Airmen. He had to ensure all of his people were onboard before he could look after his own safety.
Once every squadron member was accounted for, Armstrong boarded the aircraft out of breath, but full of relief everyone could find room on the crowded floor of the King’s cargo hold. Loaded to capacity, landing gear struts bottomed out, the aircraft taxied down the busy airfield before being cleared for takeoff, bound for an alternate location.
The evacuation was only part of a very long crew day for the aircraft under the command of 26th ERQS pilot Capt. Matthew Soukup.
Airmen of the 26th ERQS, in partnership with their regular Air Force counterparts, were responsible for standing alert to provide combat search and rescue/personnel recovery for U.S. and allied service members in the Iraq area of operations in 2019 and 2020. At the time, most of the Airmen in the unit hailed from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and their home unit of the Alaska Air National Guard’s 211th Rescue Squadron.
The crew comprised Soukup as pilot/aircraft commander, along with pilot Capt. Ben Van Alstine, combat systems officer Maj. Anthony Waliser, and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Dustin Brown and Tech. Sgt. Michael Cashman.
The HC-130J uses its speed, range and advanced sensor suite to find isolated personnel and deliver pararescue Airmen by parachute to conduct rescues. Additionally, the HC-130J works with HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters to extend their range, provide communication support and forward reconnaissance.
On the night of Jan. 8, 2020, Soukup said he was given orders different than what he expected on a combat deployment. His team had full crew rest and were prepared for a long day of flying.
“We were told to prep the aircraft for max floor loading personnel and equipment,” he said. “We were focused on where we were going and what we were going to do once we got in the air.”
Brown, who along with Cashman is responsible for everything that happens on the floor of the cargo compartment, said he was ordered to re-arrange the aircraft from a search-and-rescue profile to a maximum-capacity airlift configuration.
“’Stop what you’re doing and move everything to the front,’” Brown recalled being told when he was informed the crew would be taking on dozens of passengers. “’They’re going to sit on the floor.’”
Normally when set up for carrying people, fold-out nylon seats spring from the sides, and centerline seats are installed. But the urgent need to evacuate as many Airmen as possible in the face of an impending Iranian attack meant the passengers would have to sit on the floor.
Waliser said based on Iranian-stated threats, an attack was anticipated, but he couldn’t predict when or in what form.
“We were expecting that at some point we could perhaps launch-to-survive, which was to launch airplanes to get them out of whatever was going to happen because airplanes can be vulnerable whereas people can go into hardened structures,” he said. “I don’t think any of us were expecting direct action from Iran, so something else could have come up that was a lower threat level than what we experienced.”
But the threat level indeed required an urgent push to quickly move service members out of harm’s way.
Soukup said they received a quickly drawn-up crew manifest to accurately account for those evacuated.
Both loadmasters, who were responsible for safely loading the aircraft, were also veteran loadmasters with the Marine Corps’ KC-130 Hercules. Based on previous experience, Cashman said he was confident in the aircraft’s ability and their knowledge to safely move the heavy load.
“We were both in the Marines, so we work well together,” Cashman said. “In the Marine Corps, we would take loads across the ocean up to 175,000 pounds, so we plan to take off heavy.”
Based on the same platform as the Air Force’s C-130J Hercules airlifter, the HC-130, though not tailored for the airlift mission, has many of the cargo capabilities of its “slick” counterpart.
Still, the load needs to be balanced to ensure the flight characteristics of the King aren’t disrupted. Brown said the loadmasters estimated 200 pounds per passenger and approximated the center of mass for the huddled group.
“We have the mission computer, so we can do weight-and-balance calculations on the fly,” Brown said.
With everyone onboard who could fit, Soukup and Van Alstine lifted the heavy King into the inky desert sky. While they were in the air on their way to the alternate location, they got word on the radio they would be coming back for a second lift.
Eight minutes. Eight minutes was the total time the HC-130 was at the alternate location offloading Airmen and cargo before heading back to Al Asad.
In the 1996 film Independence Day, the heroes are driving into Washington D.C., under threat from a massive attack ship, on an empty inbound lane of the highway while the outbound lanes are jammed up.
“Everyone in the world is trying to get out of Washington,” Judd Hirsch, as Julius Levinson, says. “We’re the only schmucks trying to get in.”
Soukup’s crew returned to Al Asad not knowing when an attack would occur, an attack that could very well have happened while they were taxiing on the endangered runway.
The Al Asad air traffic control tower was shut down, and airfield operations were now being handled by a field-expedient ground control party. With aircraft carrying anxious passengers clamoring to escape the impending attack, someone trying to get back in the pattern was a curious outlier.
“I remember calling, and they said ‘You know this field is closing, right? You sure you want to come in here?’” Van Alstine said before recalling his response. “’Yeah, there are some people we have to pick up.’”
With no runway illumination to light the way, it was up to Waliser to find the Airmen they were looking to evacuate. As CSO, Waliser is responsible for navigation, operating the air-to-air refueling system, computing airdrop solutions, and using the aircraft’s suite of sensors including the electro-optical infrared sensor system – a rotating ball that allows Waliser to see in the dark.
“I saw a bunch of people on the EOIR that were just off one of the taxiways, so we figured that must be them,” he said. “So, we taxied over and loaded them up.”
The last Airman to step on the aircraft was the commander. He cleared out all of the bunkers to ensure no one was left behind.
“He was out of breath,” Soukup explained. “We could hear him on a hot mic panting because he was running around making sure everyone was out of there.”
With the rear ramp retracted, and each passenger claiming a small plot of the cargo floor, the King was ready to get underway, but there was a traffic jam.
What unfolded in front of them looked like a nighttime version of the Apocalypse Now helicopter air cavalry raid. About a dozen helicopters hovered in formation during their choreographed evacuation sequence.
“That’s when we woke up and knew something was imminent,” Waliser said.
Finally, the HC-130 – landing gear sagging under the weight – lifted off with its precious cargo secured.
“On the climb out, we heard the first impact via radio at a nearby base” Soukup said.
Eleven Iranian Qiam 1 precision theater-ballistic missiles – far more accurate than Iraqi Scud missiles launched during the Gulf War – hit the base, damaging bunkers and aircraft but fortunately taking no lives.
A third bite of the apple
It wasn’t until they arrived a second time that the gravity of what happened dawned on them thanks to a television in the air terminal blaring the details of the attack.
“They had the news on,” Soukup said. “That was our first realization of what was happening.”
The attack over, the crew was detailed to return a third time to recover mission-critical items. They were given a few hours to rest in an open bay crammed with cots occupied by Al Asad evacuees.
“We tried to sleep in that hangar for two, maybe three hours,” Soukup explained though Armstrong said it was closer to 90 minutes due to mission requirements. “There was no sleep going on, especially with what happened.”
Though they were fatigued, Van Alstine said they could count on each other to power through an unusually long crew day.
“We all back each other up,” he said. “We just left a base that had a theater-ballistic missile attack. More was going to be asked of us than normal, but we all knew what we were doing.”
They would return two more times to recover rescue equipment.
Though they wanted to line haul some rescue equipment, people took priority. A shipping container, called an ISU-90, ended up on the chopping block.
“We bumped one ISU off the aircraft,” Soukup said. “Sergeant Brown came up and let us know we were basically sitting on the struts of the airplane. We didn’t have solid weights on these items we were loading.”
Once they completed their last mission and returned to the alternate location, the crew had endured 30 hours of operations.
“Longest day I will ever fly,” Soukup said. “I hope.”
With their last turn, the rescue mission continued at the alternate location. Thanks to their successful evacuation efforts, more than 250 Airmen weren’t left behind.
Editor’s note: The joint effort to evacuate Al Asad involved numerous units representing several military services and components. The efforts of 26th ERQS represented a part of a large operation to get service members to safety.