John Phalon Interview
Lt. Colonel John Phalon was one of the HH-60 helicopter pilots that assisted in the rescue of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell and was later involved in removing the remains of Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz , & Matt Axelson from the mountains of Afghanistan. Phalon was in the lead aircraft flying cover for the chopper that took Luttrell off the mountain.
In this e-mail interview Phalon discusses his background as a pilot and gives a detailed account of his involvement in Operation Redwings.
LoneSurvivor.net: Tell everyone a little bit about your background….your name, hometown, some info on your military career and pilot training, etc. Just however much you feel comfortable talking about.
John Phalon: My name is John “JP” Phalon. Although currently on active duty, at the time of the rescue I was a traditional reservist in the 305th Rescue Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ. The “traditional” means that I was one of those part time, “one-weekend-a-month-and-two-weeks-a-year” guys, although anyone in a flying unit in the Air National Guard or the Air Force Reserves knows that particular characterization of service is a false one. We are charged to keep just as proficient and maintain the same exact currencies as our active duty counterparts, and thus are required to put in much more time with the unit than that commonly assumed by the public.
Before entering the reserves in the 305th, I was an Active Duty Air Force pilot, a T-38 instructor pilot in the beginning of my career, and thereafter a C-130 pilot. I was flying EC-130s at Davis Monthan in the 43rd Electronic Combat Squadron in September of 2001. I left active duty in 2003 and signed into the 305th. The unit sent me to helicopter school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and after a short rotary-wing conversion course, I was sent to Kirtland AFB in New Mexico to be trained in the HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopter.
Shortly after basic and advanced training, I started training at Southwest Airlines (I was only part-time in the reserve unit, after all) and then began my parallel career as an airline pilot. It was tough being the new guy at both places, but both my employers were extremely understanding, patient and helpful as I struggled to get the basics down in my two new missions.
By the time of the deployment in March of 2005, I was still one of the “younger” helicopter pilots in experience, and because of that, I was assigned as copilot to Jeff “Skinny” McCrander, the squadron Director of Operations and a scion of the HH-60 community.
LSN: You said you were in the 305 RQS. Tell us a little about what that the responsibilities are for that squadron.
JP: The 305 RQS flies the HH-60 PAVEHAWK, an extensively modified version of the UH-60 BLACKHAWK the US Army flies. Although the US Army has its own variants of the basic aircraft, the USAF HH-60 is specifically tailored to the role of Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). The PAVEHAWK is air-refuelable, extending its range and endurance. It has radar, allowing it some all-weather capability and the ability to map terrain features if necessary. It has a Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) camera system, which augments our helmet-mounted night vision devices and allows operations in very low light levels indeed. Because of our equipment and training, we were “authorized” to fly in conditions slightly darker than some of our US Army counterparts. As a result, we were allowed to augment some of their missions throughout the deployment, rather than simply sit on alert until a mission came down that was more strictly in our lane. Let me explain that:
The classic role of Combat Search and Rescue (in an old-fashioned, cold war sense) is to go into enemy territory and rescue a pilot who was shot down. The history of missions like this goes back to the Korean conflict (probably before), but most people associate the mission with the “Jolly Green Giants” of Viet Nam fame (see http://www.jollygreen.org/ Note: Many of us still bear the traditional “Jolly Green Feet” tattooed on various places of our bodies.). In recent years, and in no small part due to the rescue of Marcus, the mission of the HH-60 has extended to include all manner of overt and covert support roles, (like supplementing Army Medevac missions in Afghanistan and Iraq) and the very name for our job has transformed from “CSAR” to “PR” (Personnel Recovery). Although resource pressures, common sense, and a lot of hard work on the part of our tactical experts had been pushing the community in that direction for some time, the Redwing Rescue validated a lot of work that was already expanding the mission set for the HH-60.
LSN: How long had you been stationed in Afghanistan before “Redwing” happened?
JP: We deployed some time in April, and were at the very end of our mission time. Since we were a reserve unit, we worked a deal with our sister squadron stationed at Patrick AFB, Florida, to swap crews at at the 60-day point. I was actually all packed and ready to go home when the call for the mission came.
LSN: Were you stationed at the same base as the SEALs or Nightstalkers that participated in the mission? If so, did you know any of them and do you have stories or memories about any of them?
JP: The task force that the SEALs and the 160th guys were assigned to was, to the best of my knowledge, based at or near Bagram Air Base. My unit was deployed to Khandahar Air Base, some hours flying time to the south. I did not know any of the SEALS or the Nightstalkers until the mission. As an outsider though, I want to share two vignettes I observed that affected me greatly and will forever.
I attended a memorial service for the crewmembers of the MH-47 that was shot down while inserting the QRF sent to aid Murph, Danny, Axe, and Marcus. There was a unit role call. Everyone called, “Here” or “Present” “or “Yo” or something like that, and then they called one of the guys who were lost. Silence. The last name is repeated. Silence. Finally the full name of the missing member was called. Nothing. To call silence deafening is poetry until it shouts out the absence of a beloved comrade. I don’t think anyone made it through “taps” without a noticeable reaction to the loss.
The second story relates to an e-mail sent by the wife of one of the lost crew members. I accidentally saw this email while working in the operations center, preparing for the mission to rescue Marcus. Quoted text would be impossible for me to remember and inappropriate to relate, but the tone of the email was a letter of condolence from the spouse, so recently widowed, to the rest of the Nightstalkers, her sympathy for their grief, her support of their mission, her assurance that her husband would not have changed positions with any of them to escape his lot, just as all of the Nightstalkers, she was sure, would have sacrificed themselves for him if given the chance. Such is the strength, the bond, the sense of family and mutual support in the 160th SOAR.
LSN: When did you first hear about Redwings and the SEAL team that was trapped?
JP: Our last few days of alert were actually pretty eventful. Several days before the events of 28 June, we had been called to Bagram to support another PR event. Spring thaw had swollen the river Pech, and a US Marine patrol was driving on an uncertain road when their HMMV slid into the river. All escaped but one, and for fear he might be injured or (worse) captured by insurgents, we were called to perform a Search and Rescue mission. After about two days of flying up and down the valley of the Pech River, even inserting PJs with SCUBA equipment to search the rushing spring waters, the search was abandoned. Upon exiting the Op Area, one of our helicopters was fired upon by an RPG; we wrongly thought it was one final “Up yours” from the valley we would soon be very familiar with.
That soldier’s remains were later retrieved from well outside our search area, some miles downstream. Locals, upon being asked where drowning victims would normally turn up, led searchers directly to the location. We returned to Khandahar, where our relief was already waiting to accomplish the short local familiarization period that would qualify them to take over the alert.
Less than a day later, the evening of our last night of alert, we were called once again to the operations shack. There was a helicopter down in the same area we had just been, do it was easily decided that our familiarization with the area and our experience in the theater outweighed the need to allow us to go home. We knew the operation was serious mainly because the information we were getting was so screwed up.
For the second time in less than a week, we arrived at Bagram Air Base. We were sent to the Joint Operations Center and told of the real mission. There was no expectation of survivors of the helicopter crash, but the SEAL team they were supporting was still out there, and perhaps two of the four were still alive and isolated.
We met with an A-10 pilot. He was “Sandy” qualified, meaning he was specially trained in the conduct of Search and Rescue. A hasty plan was developed, and the flight of two HH-60G Pave Hawks went to a forward base while the Sandy flew directly to the area of the missing team, attempting to contact the SEALs by radio.
As the night wore on, the A-10s were running low on fuel, and before returning to base, they gave us three separate coordinates where they reportedly might have seen an Infra-Red strobe light, a commonly-used emergency locator device. We launched to take a closer look, taking each of the points in turn, attempting visual or radio contact with the missing team. Night turned to dawn. Dawn to morning. No contact. On the radio, we did get some indications that our transmissions were heard. At certain times and certain locations, a “Tsk” was heard, possibly responding to our queries. Was it the team? Or was it more insurgents drawing us in, eager to get another helicopter? We returned to the forward operating area to refuel, hope for more intel, and await the cover of night.
It was during that day the elder from Sabray (Gulab’s village, I think it might have been his uncle or dad or something) turned up at the Marine compound to tell of Marcus’ survival. He gave a very detailed description of Marcus, and was able to describe Marcus’ particular tattoo. This gave him enough credibility to warrant in-depth questioning by the Joint Task Force, and we were told to go get him.
We spent the next whole night trying to fly to the Marine Camp. We were hampered by thunderstorms overhead and storms along the entire river valley, but we were finally able to make it to the camp and retrieved the gentleman for a thorough debrief.
He was quite simply the oldest looking human being I’ve ever seen. Thin, haunched, wrinkled. These are weak words indeed to describe the appearance of this man who had traveled miles untold over the roughest terrain I’ve ever seen in my life, just to let us know Marcus was safe. His courage in delivering the news was as remarkable as the sheer strength and endurance that comes from a lifetime in those mountains. We flew the elder out to a coalition compound, then on to our intermediate base as dawn approached.
The morning came with a call for the helicopters to return to Bagram. The elder’s story was validated, and even as friendly forces approached the area, we were set to work a retrieval plan. We had to be very careful. The insurgents had all the time in the world to move everything they had in the region to put up against us. If the elder was to be believed, they knew Marcus was in Sabray also, and they simply did not want to give him up. The Mountain people have their own code though: An injured traveler will be given shelter and will be kept safe. End of story. That ethic, by Marcus’ estimation, was a greater factor to his rescue than all the efforts and risks any of the rest of us undertook. I agree with that position 100%.
Because of the threat to and importance of the mission, it was planned with all the thought and provided with all the resources that the limited time would allow. In short, a land force would establish a perimeter around which known and suspected insurgent positions would be clobbered with suppressive fire from the A-10s. There might have been support from the AC-130s too, but I don’t quite remember. At a particular time, the helicopters would wind our way through the valley, make the pickup, and escape across the valley (in a different direction) to safety.
Timing was critical. We needed to arrive at the objective area while friendly forces were delivering enough suppressive fire to keep our enemies heads down, and that proved to be a pretty tight window. Flight paths and time-on-target determinations had to be de-conflicted in both time and place in order to maximize firepower and the (hopefully) covert nature of our operation.
We were also worried about the mechanics of how to land a helicopter that high up. Helicopter performance is dependent on a lot of things, but about the only thing we could really affect was weight. A lightweight helicopter performs better than a heavy one, all other factors being equal, and we needed every bit of performance to hover and land in the high, thin air of the Shurauk Valley. The problem was, we needed at least enough fuel to get there and get away, at least to a safe enough area where we could safely refuel. We planned and planned all day, and I was more than ready to get in the air rather than stare at computer screens and satellite photos when the time came to fly once again from Bagram to make the pickup.
Skinny McCrander was the lead pilot. I was his copilot. Spanky Peterson was the pilot of the number two bird, and Gonzo Gonzales was his copilot. The flight engineers were Jason Burger and Mike Cusick. The Aerial Gunners were Josh Donnelly and Ben Peterson. The PJs were John Davis, Brett Konczal, Josh Apel, and Chris Pierchicci. Attitudes spanned the gambit between grave and giddy. I can remember thinking how fortunate we were to be able to do something really profound. I also can remember how much I didn’t want to f*** up.
The path we took to the objective area was pretty well known to us by then, and unfortunately we knew it was pretty well known to the insurgents also. Fuel was planned pretty tight because of the high altitude of the recovery. Winding through he same valley for the something-th time, we were just about to make the timed entry onto the area where the village of Sabray was, when I got a call over the SATCOM (Satellite Communications) net: “The pickup area has been changed by 2 kilometers.” This was a problem. I took the new coordinates and tried to figure out a new vector and distance to the modified objective area, but my navigation computer wasn’t showing any change in location. This was strange and concerning to me because the area for the pre-arranged suppressive fire was less than 2 kilometers distant from the original LZ (Landing Zone), so flying into, near, or through that stuff would not be healthy. I confirmed the “new” coordinates one more time, confirmed that the track and distance was inexplicably identical, and Skinny said, “Well, we gotta go.” So we went.
Aside: It turned out that the LZ didn’t change by 2 kilometers, it changed by about 20 meters (Probably less). In the days of hyper-accurate GPS fixes, you can see differences of a few feet and sometimes that’s important. But if you look at the numbers wrong, you can think there’s a big difference there when there really isn’t. Some guy in ops (I know him, he denies the whole thing to this day) looks at some MGRS coordinates and saw they were different than the ones used for planning, so he shouts it out over SATCOM in the middle of a Combat Rescue without verifying the difference in location or using judgment to decide whether that type of interruption of the mission is appropriate. I guess he interpreted the difference to be a lot bigger than in reality, and it caused some real confusion for a bit.
Back to the story, we flew towards the objective area on our final run-in. I remember the final right turn to the LZ, and to me it looked like we were trying to land on a sheer cliff face. As we got closer, we saw some signaling devices set out by the guys that were protecting Marcus and went in to mark the position for Spanky’s aircraft, which was making the pickup. When we dropped our markers and spun out, I think Skinny said something like “It’s gonna be a little tight.” To Spanky, then we started our protective orbit, scanning for threats as Spanky went in for the pickup.
About the objective area and the LZ: The LZ had been picked for us as a suitable place to land a helicopter by the guys who went in to secure the village. The village is a series of terraces cut into the side of the mountain and used to grow what crops were hearty enough to the climate and conditions. During the day, it looks pretty neat and pastoral. At night under NVGs, it looks like a flat cliff face with some blurry lines in it until you get really close, then you can see the stair-stepped areas where the villagers grow crops. The houses too are very basic. I’m pretty sure they don’t have plumbing for water or sewers or anything. Most people sleep on the rooftops during the summer. The place is pretty dusty. Not the “Wow, there was some dust on the LZ…now it’s gone-” dusty. The kind of dusty that keeps on coming and circulating in your rotor blades turning everything into a chocolate ping pong ball during the daytime, and a green ball of I-can’t-see-crap at night. Except for at night the interaction between the dust and our rotor blades creates some sparky static-electricity stuff that you can see on NVGs.
To me, it seemed like Spanky was taking a long, long time to land. It seemed like he was just hovering right over the LZ, but actually he was moving the aircraft foot by foot in order to find a safe place to put the helo on the ground. A few feet to the right, and the rotor blades would be into the next-up terraced level of crop stuff. A few feet to the right and the wheels would be off of the terrace entirely. Visibility was very poor in the dust cloud, and it took all four flying crew members to manage the landing. We could see when the aircraft finally settled because the sparky rotor stuff changes intensity a little bit. It’s actually noticeable from the air. Not that it was the only thing to look at. To the north and east, the A-10s were making their own light show on the ridgelines and slightly below where the insurgents were thought to be preparing for their own move on Sabray. Because of that support and our own good tactical doctrine, we were not engaged by the enemy during that or any other flight in support of the rescue and recovery of Operation REDWING.
Spanky was on the ground, and Josh Apel and Chris Piercecchi gathered up Marcus and they lifted off with “Precious Cargo plus one,” meaning Marcus and someone else. We didn’t know until later that it happened to be Gulab, the guy from Sabray that kept Marcus safe for the days prior to our arrival.
Our next stop was Asadabad for fuel. As light as we were, getting over the mountains and using a more-or-less straight path was shorter and tactically sound. No retracing of steps. We got fuel and Marcus had to part with Gulab. I’m not quite sure why this was necessary, but that’s what was decided. With fuel we were able to make it back to Jalalabad, where an MC-130 was waiting to take Marcus back to Bagram Air Base.
I never saw Marcus in person, but I’m very happy that I was able to take part in the mission that saved him. And we still had the mission to complete.
Following Marcus’ initial debrief, the remains of two teammates were found and secured. I’m pretty sure they were Lt Michael Murphy and PO Daniel Dietz. PO Matt Axelson was also located, but his remains were not recovered until 10 July. For us, it was the Fourth of July, and we had some fireworks to prepare. We were already pretty much at the edge of our capability envelope , but the next objective area was a magnitude of difficulty greater indeed. Located in extremely barren and steep terrain, higher even than Sabray Village, they could not be carried home, neither could we land anywhere near. The only answer appeared to be hover a helicopter above the area and use the aircraft’s hoist system to bring the boys up in litters. So how do you get an HH-60 to hover above 40-foot trees on a 50-degree slope at 8,800 feet? You strip it down to the skin. Our 7.62mm miniguns? Gone. Our auxiliary fuel tanks? Out. Nothin’ to shoot back with and no gas to get home. Nice. The Commanding General (actually the CENTCOM J-3) approved the mission, with two provisions: We had to have extra ground support, provided by the guys who were looking after the MH-47 crash site, and more air support, provided by MQ-1 Predators and AC-130 gunships.
Getting to the objective area was becoming routine, except for it being so close to where another helicopter was shot down one week prior, and that we were going to be hovering for around 5 minutes, as exposed as anyone could think of being. Loud, unarmed, unmoving. At least it was at night. The only way to describe this terrain through NVGs was freakish. It really looked like something out of science fiction, except that if you saw this terrain in some SF movie, you’d blast it for not being realistic enough. It was that “other-worldly.” The trees were numerous and tall, but they didn’t have a lot of leaves. The ground was so steep that hovering forty feet above the treetops meant being pretty much level with trees a few yards to the side. Rocks were man-sized and pointed like they were put there on purpose to make the terrain even more difficult to navigate. We had an adequate fix on the area, but despite radio contact with the ground force, we couldn’t lock on to the specific point where we needed to be for the pickup. Skinny called for the AC-130 to illuminate the area with an infra-red spotlight, and the whole mountainside was lit up like a stage in a darkened theater. We were talked right over the point using what ground references we could see, and the recovery operation commenced.
We used the hoist to lower some supplies to the waiting ground forces (about 200 pounds of food and water, plus a four-pack of Red Bull for one of our own PJs embedded with the team) and waited for the guys on the ground to attach the two SEALs to the cable. To keep the bundles from spinning, the procedure is normally to attach a “tag line,” normally some 550 chord, to the load to help stabilize it from the ground. Just as we had the bundles in the doorway, the tagline broke and the remains started spinning wildly. The Flight Engineer operating the hoist worked to dampen the twirl and identify the place where the tagline snapped. If there was a long piece of line dangling from the bundle, it could easily get caught up in our main or tail rotor system, and that would not be a good thing. A couple seconds of frantic looking and securing the load and the door was shut. We were hoping there was no damage to the rotors, but there was no way to assess at this point.
After another fuel stop at Asadabad we flew back to Bagram. Our crewmembers had purchased flags to adorn the remains of the fallen. It was an appropriate way to show respect and properly give over the SEALs to their brothers. We landed at Bagram, taxied over to a specific hanger where the other SEALs were waiting. Inside was brightly lit, and the SEALs that came out were silhouetted by the back lighting. They were silent. They didn’t shake hands or nod. At attention, they saluted the remains and took their brothers back just as the sun was rising on July 5th.
The last SEAL to return home was (I’m pretty sure) Matthew Axelson. Marcus was unsure of his position because of the series of frantic running gun battles that punctuated their last moments together. He was found and returned on July 10th, but that was already several days after we departed, having been replaced by our relief both at Bagram and Khandahar.
About bodies & stuff, I never got close enough to the ground to see any friendly or enemy casualties just lying around. I’d heard that the Taliban had gone over the bodies of those in the original helicopter crash pretty thoroughly before friendly forces secured the site. They got some IDs and some personal belongings and tried to act like there were survivors. I’ve seen scenes like that; different places, different crashes, but not then and there.
LSN: I assume you read Lone Survivor….what are your thoughts on the book?
JP: I read the book. It’s honest and patriotic and probably exactly what Marcus wanted to say. As an autobiography, you can’t say better than that. If there are any historical or factual errors, they were not in any way self-serving or calculated to create bias. It was just what Marcus’ reality was at the time. I have no problem with that. I betcha my story is full of holes too.
LSN; What are your thoughts about the upcoming movie? Are you in favor of it or rather it wasn’t made?
JP: If they could make the movie like they made “Blackhawk Down,” they’ll have a winner. I’d be totally in favor of that. Get Skinny & Spanky to play themselves.
LSN: Is there anything you can tell us about your experiences since then?
JP: It’s been almost seven years. I had three kids then, now I have four. I was a reservist living in Tucson and flying for Southwest Airlines then, now I’m back on Active duty and living in Hawaii. I don’t do anything with rescue directly, but I did have a lot to do with the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the nuclear power facility outside of Tokyo last year. No direct operational stuff, but a lot to do with remotely-piloted rotary wing stuff and how they could help with damage assessment and mitigation. I’m just a junior staff officer like a lot of other guys around here keeping the administrative side of the Air Force going. Hawaii’s wicked cool though. I think my old squadron is back in Khandahar, if Facebook can be trusted. I miss deployments. Correction: I miss operational deployments. The only deployment I would be up for here is some command post PowerPoint Ranger job. I get enough of that right here and now. I’ve been out of flying completely for over a year and a half. After 22 years, I was due for a break. I’ll be ready to go back to flying when this is over, but it’s OK to spend a little time on the beach too.
LSN: Were you involved in any more SEAL missions or rescues that you can talk about?
JP: 2005 was my first deployment with the rescue squadron, and I revisited Afghanistan twice since then. In 2007 my unit deployed again in support of the CSAR Alert mission, but in 2008 we had a very welcome change to our mission parameters. In addition to CSAR, we were tasked to augment the Army’s own MEDEVAC forces. This allowed us to fly much, much more than in the past. We flew with the “Dustoff” aircraft (the UH-60s with the red crosses on them, unarmed and decidedly unafraid), often providing armed escort, but just as frequently picking up patents ourselves. We flew more risky missions (those for which it was too dark or too high a threat level to allow the use of regular 60s) escorted by AH-64 attack helicopters. We flew as gunned escort and embedded CASEVAC (CASualty EVACuation? Maybe) for resupply missions involving any number of other helos of differing types all over Afghanistan. Our patients were a pretty even mix of US troops, coalition forces, and Afghani military, and civilians alike; whoever needed a ride to an appropriate treatment facility. There were IED victims, gunshot wounds, snake bites, poppy overdoses, strokes, post-partum complications, and countless other situations where the ability to transport patients in minutes or hours rather than days upon days of slogging it through the mountains saved countless lives.
LSN: What lies ahead for you now? Do you plan to stay in the Air Force until retirement?
JP: Although I’m on active duty now, I plan on finally retiring and going back to work full-time at Southwest Airlines. By the time my tour of duty is over here, I’ll retire from the Air Force and have a pension, so that’ll be a good thing regardless of what happens at my old job.