Washington Guard aircrew honored for actions in Afghanistan | Article
CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – On the night of November 20, 2020, over the desert of southern Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Ryan Schwend and his CH-47 Chinook helicopter crew found themselves in a sticky situation .
Schwend and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Eugene Park, Master Sgt. Ben Kamalii, sergeant. Andrew Donley-Russell and Sgt. Ty Higgins, all members of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation, were on routine duty.
With the withdrawal to Afghanistan underway, bases were being consolidated and living spaces had to be moved to accommodate increased troop movements. Their mission was to sling load relocatable buildings (RLBs) under the Kandahar aircraft at the Dwyer Contingency Location – the site of the Consolidated Base in southern Afghanistan.
It was a night flight with night vision goggles and low lighting. Two CH-47s had already delivered RLBs to Dwyer and were on their second round with another pair of housing units. They had flown nearly seven hours that night.
“We had just started our approach – we were flying over the Helmand Valley at about a thousand feet,” Schwend recalled. “When a loud clap of thunder was heard on the plane – louder than anything I’ve ever heard in a Chinook.”
The plane immediately tipped over to the right bank.
“It felt like I had been hit in the head with a hammer,” team manager Donley-Russell said.
Higgins shouted into the internal comms system, “Drop, drop, drop! as he released the load.
Co-pilot Park quickly stabilized the aircraft by taking control after the violent impact. A quick glance at the instruments told him that the plane was now under immense pressure. The controls were soft and mushy, like driving an old car without power steering.
Schwend and Park kept control as Dwyer approached the perimeter. Schwend took flight controls and radioed the lead Chinook to pull away as they needed as much space as possible to fix the problem.
Park radioed the tower to declare an emergency and request a ground response team.
The crew in the rear went through the cargo hook release emergency checklist to try to find out what had happened. They saw that the load had not fully jettisoned and was stuck at the bottom of the plane in a mangled mess. It was determined that they could not land the plane completely because it could flip over, causing further damage or injury.
According to the final report of the incident, the side wall of the RLB on the sling load collapsed, which “allowed air to enter and push the load horizontally to the left and to the high, causing impact with the aircraft”.
What the crew didn’t know at the time was that when the load hit the plane, it also made contact with the tail rotor system, causing unseen damage to the blades. However, they were still able to fly the plane.
As Schwend struggled to maintain a steady hover, the response team was under the plane, trying to dislodge the mangled wreckage. After several attempts they cut the load under the fuselage and the crew moved to land and stopped the helicopter.
During the shutdown procedure and as the rotors slowed down, Higgins noticed that the blades began to sag. Previously, during the impact of tipping the load upwards, the blades suffered severe damage. They were held back by centrifugal force. As the blades slowed after stopping, they began to sag before hitting the airframe, causing further damage before coming to an abrupt stop.
For their calm and collective actions, the entire aircrew received the U.S. Army Aviation Broken Wing Award during a ceremony at Army Aviation Support Facility #1 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 18, 2022. It’ was a rare honor, as the award is usually only given to pilots.
The Broken Wing Award was established in 1968 and is rarely awarded. According to the U.S. Army criteria for the award, “A crew member must, through exceptional airmanship, minimize or prevent damage to aircraft or injury to personnel during an emergency situation. ’emergency”.
For their actions in the air leading to a safe landing and minimizing damage to the aircraft and saving each other’s lives, all five crew members were awarded the Army Medal of Honor. And for their heroic and selfless actions on the ground under the damaged Chinook, helping to dislodge the mutilated load, four Army National Guard members from Washington, Oregon and Utah were awarded the Medal of honor of the army.
“This particular aircrew, including CW3 Schwend, is to be commended for their actions,” said Col. Scott Meyers, Task Force Ivy Eagles commander and lead airman in Afghanistan at the time. “Which, had they not accomplished deliberately and calmly, could have resulted in greater loss of equipment and most likely loss of life.”