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Libyans inspect the wreckage of an Air Force F-15 after it crashed in an open field in the village of Bu Mariem, east of Benghazi, eastern Libya, on March 22. Both crew members ejected safely. (Anja Niedringhaus / The Associated Press)
Libyans pose with the wreckage of an Air Force F-15 fighter jet after it crashed near the village of Bu Mariem, east of Benghazi, Libya, on March 22. (Anja Niedringhaus / The Associated Press)
Marine Corps Times: Reports: Marines rescue downed pilot in Libya (March 22)
Air Force Times: F-15 crashes in Libya; crew rescued (March 22)
Obama: Libya ops to be turned over within days (March 22)
Official: 24 more missiles launched over Libya (March 22)
France: Body outside NATO should oversee airstrikes (March 22)
Gates: Rate of attacks on Libyan targets slowing (March 22)
An operation to recover the downed Air Force pilot of an F-15 that crashed in Libya just before midnight Monday involved dozens of Marines, seven Marine aircraft and two dropped bombs, a senior Marine officer said.
The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., was called to perform the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel (TRAP) mission about 12:55 a.m. local time, more than an hour after the pilot and a backseat weapons officer ejected at 11:33 p.m. It's the first high-profile TRAP mission for the U.S. military since Lejeune's 24th MEU rescued Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady in Bosnia in 1995, although other TRAP missions have occurred since, Marine officials said.
The 26th MEU responded early Tuesday by launching two CH-53E helicopters, two MV-22B Ospreys, two AV-8B Harrier jets from the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge and a KC-130J tanker from an undisclosed location. The Harriers provided close-air support, one of the Ospreys recovered the pilot and the CH-53Es carried a quick reaction force for security in case anything went wrong, the senior Marine official said, speaking at the Pentagon. The tanker was called on for refueling.
"This TRAP force is always on alert whenever there are aircraft up," the senior Marine officer said. "They were wheels up a little over 30 minutes."
The pilot is currently resting on the Kearsarge, and is in good condition, defense officials said. The weapons officer was later recovered by Libyan rebel fighters, who took him to a safe house, defense officials said. The weapons officer has been recovered by U.S. forces, although defense officials in Washington said they were not yet clear on how he was recovered.
This mission occurred quickly for the Marines. The Harriers were launched at 12:50 a.m., before the TRAP mission was approved. The aircraft called on were about 130 nautical miles from the crash site on the Kearsarge. The Ospreys were launched about 1:33 a.m., while the helicopters carrying the QRF were in flight by about 1:51 a.m. About 46 Marines from a reconnaissance platoon comprised the QRF, which did not need to land during the mission. The platoon's identity was not immediately clear.
The Ospreys arrived overhead the F-15 pilot at 2:19 a.m., and one of them landed at 2:38 a.m. to recover the pilot. The pilot was on board by about 3 a.m. and heading back to Kearsarge. The helicopters carrying the QRF Marines did not need to land, officials said.
British media reports suggested that the Osprey crew opened fire on Libyan civilians during the mission, but Pentagon officials declined to comment Tuesday afternoon. The rescue operation will be investigated, said Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa.
Marine officials said the Harriers dropped two bombs during the mission.
Specific details were not available, but officials said it is standard procedure to drop ordnance between downed personnel and need and advancing people on the ground if their intentions are not clear to warn them away.
It was not immediately clear whether anyone was harmed by the bombs.