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Libyans inspect the wreckage of an Air Force F-15E fighter March 22 after it crashed near Benghazi. Members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which rescued the pilot, discussed the mission recently at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. (Anja Niedringhaus / The Associated Press)
Minutes after an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Libya late on March 21, the pilot of the downed aircraft made a simple radio plea: "Tell my wife I love her."
Air Force pilot Maj. Kenneth Harney and his weapons system officer, Capt. Tyler Stark, ejected safely but faced uncertain danger on the ground. They landed in rebel-held territory east of Benghazi, far from the heavily armed forces advancing on the port city in support of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, but didn't know if the armed rebels posed a threat, too.
Harney followed Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training "perfectly," evading Libyans while on foot for nearly four miles, until a team of Marines rescued him in an MV-22B Osprey, Marine Col. Mark Desens, whose 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit responded from the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, said during a June luncheon at a Washington think tank. Stark "did everything by SERE training wrong," Desens said, and ended up in a Benghazi hotel that night after being taken in by Libyan rebels.
For the F-15 pilot, the fear was real, Marine officers said. It spiked when he heard dogs barking and guns firing, and saw vehicles with searchlights roaring toward him, said Marine Capt. John Grunke, an AV-8B Harrier pilot who responded to the call for help.
"Initially, when I made contact with him, I could see the vehicles he was talking about," Grunke said. "I looked out … and I could see their searchlights on as they were making their way through the desert trying to find him."
Grunke said he promised to assist the downed pilot. He dropped a GBU-12, a 500-pound laser-guided bomb, on an advancing vehicle after a low-flying show of force. He dropped another when other vehicles didn't stay away from the airman.
"At that point, after two impacts, I got the indications that, ‘Hey, let's take a step back,'" Grunke said. "I started soaking in the whole objective area, seeing if there were any other movements coming inbound of other vehicles."
The comments about that night were made at the Institute for the Study of War, providing a better understanding of the situation as the 26th MEU, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., launched a daring Tactical Recovery of Aircraft Personnel, or TRAP, mission.
Grunke and other officers with the unit said they were concerned they would face anti-aircraft fire, especially because they weren't sure why the F-15E had crashed. The Air Force later determined an engine malfunction brought it down.
"That area was still contested," said Marine Capt. Erik Kolle, who picked up the pilot in his Osprey. "We were planning for the worst case."
‘Fearing for his life'
Dozens of Marines, two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters, two Ospreys, two Harriers and a KC-130J tanker were involved in the TRAP mission, which remains one of the highest profile incidents in the U.N.-backed military intervention in the Libyan civil war.
The crash occurred on the third night of the operation, as NATO planes bombed military forces advancing on Benghazi. The plane was based at RAF Lakenheath, England, but was flying out of Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Stark, the weapons system officer took an unconventional path to safety, accepting shelter and medical treatment from Libyan rebels. He eventually left the country after resting in a Benghazi hotel room and rejoining U.S. forces, Desens said. Harney followed the conventional route, communicating his position to U.S. forces and searching for cover until he could be rescued.
The Harriers launched at 12:50 a.m., joining an F-16 already over the downed pilot and communicating with him by radio, Grunke said. The gravity of the situation quickly struck him when the tactical air-control squadron linked him with the radio frequency being used by the pilot.
"As I made my way to the target area and I took over, the F-16 [ahead of me] had just done a couple of gun attacks to deter the pursuers, and at that point, I took over as on-scene commander. I was probably 60 miles from his position, and I could hear him whispering to the other aircraft that were on station ahead of me about how he could see the pursuers," Grunke said.
"That was really the first moment where I said, ‘This is really no longer training. That's really a guy on the ground down there that is fearing for his life,' " Grunke said.
After dropping the two 500-pound bombs, Grunke ordered other Air Force pilots in the area to search elsewhere along the ground for intruders. He selected a possible landing zone for the TRAP mission, but had to leave shortly afterward because he was low on fuel.
Into the fray
At that point, the TRAP team was scrambling to reach the pilot. The Ospreys — each carrying about 15 reconnaissance Marines with Lejeune's Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines — launched at 1:33 a.m. from the Kearsarge, about 130 nautical miles from the crash site. They crossed the beach line at about 300 mph, flying just 200 feet off the ground all the way to the landing zone, Kolle said.
The Osprey pilots could hear Grunke reassuring the downed pilot by radio that Marines were on the way. Sensing urgency, they "started cutting the corner a little bit" on the original route they had planned to avoid possible surface-to-air missiles, Kolle said.
The first Osprey — reportedly flown by Maj. B.J. Debardeleben — took the lead, but its personnel were unable to find the pilot before the aircraft was out of position to land. It circled back as Kolle landed his Osprey at 2:38 a.m. with the help of a laser designator from an F-16 overhead.
"I landed in front of him maybe 50 yards," Kolle said. "We were on deck about five seconds and the crew chief said, ‘Hey, we got him.' So I was like, ‘Roger that, we're getting out of here!' and they said, ‘Hold up, all the recon guys are off the back!'"
It took about 30 more seconds to get all the Marines on board and to take off, he said. The two Ospreys turned back toward the Kearsarge. The CH-53s, carrying a quick-reaction force from Lejeune's 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, never needed to land.
The QRF Marines had been on the Kearsarge only a matter of days, after being called in to supplement the MEU. They were needed because most of BLT 3/8, the MEU's ground combat element, was in Afghanistan after being called off the ships in January.
Desens, who has since stepped down as the MEU's commander, said uncertainty about the Libyan rebels complicated the mission, especially for the rescued pilot.
"If you're that pilot and you'd just had a bad event with your aircraft, you probably didn't have reason to believe" they didn't mean him harm, he said. "It was terrifically uncertain early on."
Staff writer email@example.com?subject=Question from MarineCorpsTimes.com reader">Scott Fontaine contributed to this report.