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 yesterday, 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."
It took maybe two or three minutes to get everything sorted out in the helicopter, call in close air support to help suppress insurgent fire, and get the other wounded men aboard, but it felt like two or three hours, Woolley said.
Then began a long odyssey to get the five wounded Americans — and later the wounded Afghan troops — to safety, and also get the dead out of the combat zone.
They weren't sure the helicopter could fly. Their luck held, though, and they zoomed back to the small nearby base and put it down inside. Woolley badly wanted to know where the exit hole was and whether the RPG had hit anything vital.
When the crew couldn't find a second hole, he told them to start looking for something worse: a live grenade inside the chopper. After two or three long minutes, one of the soldiers found the grenade on the floor between a helmet bag and a set of goggles.
The pilots shut the chopper down, and Slover dashed off to find explosives experts and medical help for the wounded soldiers.
The rest of the crew started pulling the wounded off Flipper 76, and transferred them to Flipper 13 for the flight to a military medical facility in Herat.
En route, they learned that the RPG had been removed, so after they unloaded the casualties they headed back. Casualties had mounted during the search for the missing paratroopers, and both choppers were needed. For the second trip, they loaded 14 wounded Afghan troops and six dead.
They headed back to Herat, but there wasn't room for the wounded there, so they pushed on to another base, where they dropped off the casualties.
Finally, after a long night of flying back and forth across western Afghanistan, they headed for a small staging base.
The 82nd CAB crews are all flying a new model of the Chinook, and after Flipper 76's RPG miracle, a standard joke among them now is that the new version has been equipped with a secret device that disarms enemy munitions.
No one had to tell the Flipper 76 crew how lucky they were. Even when RPGs don't explode, they can tear through a person, and this one passed inches from both pilots and grazed Rathbun.
It wasn't Woolley's first brush with death. A Chinook he was flying in Iraq once took 32 bullets. Another, in an earlier stint in Afghanistan, caught several rounds in the plexiglass windows of its bulbous nose. In 2007, he was just five helicopter lengths behind another Chinook that was hit by a Stinger anti-aircraft missile and went down, killing all five crew members and a British military cameraman who was aboard.
This time, when he got back to base he called his wife to tell her what had happened.
"Boy, you are crazy," she said. "Quit using those lives up!"
Then she asked if they'd evacuated all the wounded men. He said he had.
Woolley told McClatchy Thursday that there's some question in the unit about whether it's a bad idea to fly with him, or really, really smart.
"Either they want to or they don't, the jury's still out on that, he said. "Either I'm lucky or I'm unlucky."
(Price reports for the Raleigh News & Observer)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2009