KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — As Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Woolley eased the giant Chinook down into the mud-walled compound, Special Forces troops on the ground dashed to form a perimeter to protect the helicopter, a prize target for Taliban insurgents.
The landing zone in the western Afghan province of Badghis wasn't under fire when U.S. Special Forces called for help to evacuate five wounded U.S. soldiers. But seconds after the Chinook, call sign Flipper 76, touched down, generating its trademark cloud of khaki-colored dust, the attack began.
Woolley, of Sanford, N.C., and the other pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eric Slover, of Hope Mills, N.C., noticed a puff of smoke maybe 175 yards away up a slope and the chopper, immediately lurched like a car hit in a fender-bender.
As a medic began rushing the wounded men to the rear ramp, the thin-skinned helicopter, unbeknownst to its crew, now had a live rocket-propelled grenade aboard — a weapon capable of disabling an armored vehicle.
The incident, which turned into one of the biggest medical evacuations of the Afghan war, occurred on Nov. 4, and Thursday, the commanders of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., cleared the crew to tell the story of a miracle that came within inches of becoming a disaster.
The story began when two paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, also based at Fort Bragg, went missing in a nearby river in a mishap during a resupply mission.
A massive U.S.-Afghan manhunt turned into a fierce firefight with insurgents. Four Afghan soldiers, three Afghan police officers and an interpreter were killed, and 22 men were wounded, including the five Americans.
NATO is investigating whether some of the friendly casualties were a result of errant fire from U.S. aircraft that were called in to help.
The body of one of the missing soldiers has been found, but the other was still missing.
The crew of Flipper 76 didn't know any of that when the medevac call came at about 4:30 p.m. It had just finished dropping off troops and supplies at a small nearby U.S. base, along with Flipper 13, another Chinook, which stayed put while Flipper 76 headed for the compound, which was in a rural community with several other compounds.
The rocker-propelled grenade punched through the nose of the helicopter and zipped between Woolley and Slover, and down a short passageway, striking door gunner Sgt. Roger Rathbun in the back of his head.
The impact ripped away a palm-sized chunk of his flight helmet, and propellant from the rocket scorched his neck as it deflected up into the ceiling of the cargo area. Rathbun was spun halfway around as he was knocked to the floor.
Chinook pilots can't hear much of what's going on around them, but after hundreds of hours flying helicopters, they develop a musician's ear for any odd sound, or change in the tone of their engines and rotor blades. Pilots quickly learn to recognize the "tink" of small arms fire hitting the fuselage. This hard slap and shudder was new for Woolley.
Slover, too was startled. "What the ---- was that?" he said.
Woolley saw damage to the nose of the chopper and immediately guessed that it had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, the weapon that brought down the helicopters in the famous Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia.
Slover was wondering why they were still alive.
"I think we both knew, even though I was trying to convince him it possibly might have been something other than an RPG, because I was trying to convince myself there was no way we had just been hit by an RPG but survived it," Slover said.
Rathbun, of Bunnlevel, N.C., crawled up the short passageway and motioned to the pilots that he could hear them, but that his microphone had been torn away. His injuries turned out not to be serious, but he was shaken.
Then the pilots saw puffs of dust around the helicopter as the insurgents began firing small arms at them.
"The biggest thing was sort of sticking it out when they started engaging us with small arms fire," Woolley said. "Fortunately the ground guys did return fire, which helped us.
"We were kind of scrambling inside the aircraft in the front, trying to assess Sergeant Rathbun to see what his status was, and also taking a look at the aircraft to see what kind of damage we had sustained.
"All the while the ramp gunner was continuing to load casualties, and he said 'Ah, they're shooting sir, there's rounds popping,'" Woolley said. "I could see 'em, and I said I know, just stick it out, and get these (wounded) guys on."