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NEWS | July 15, 2022

Washington Guard Aircrew Honored for Actions in Afghanistan

By Sgt. 1st Class Jason Kriess, Joint Force Headquarters - Washington National Guard

CAMP MURRAY, Wash. – On the night of Nov. 20, 2020, high above the southern desert of 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, Staff Sgt. Ben Kamalii, Sgt. Andrew Donley-Russell and Sgt. Ty Higgins, all members of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 168th General Support Aviation, were on a routine mission.

With the drawdown in Afghanistan in motion, bases were being consolidated and living spaces needed to be moved to accommodate the increase in troop movements. Their mission was to sling-load relocatable buildings (RLB) beneath the aircraft from Kandahar to contingency location Dwyer – the site of the consolidated base in southern Afghanistan.

It was a nighttime flight with night-vision goggles and low illumination. Two CH-47s had already delivered RLBs to Dwyer and were on their second turn with another pair of housing units. They had been flying almost seven hours that night.

“We had just started our approach – we were flying over the Helmand Valley at about a thousand feet,” recalled Schwend. “When a loud thunderous bang was heard in the aircraft – louder than anything I have ever heard in a Chinook.”

The aircraft immediately jolted into a right bank.

“It felt and sounded like I got hit in the head with a hammer,” crew chief Donley-Russell said.

Higgins screamed into the internal communications system, “Jettison, jettison, jettison!” as he released the load.

Co-pilot Park promptly stabilized the aircraft by taking control after the violent impact. A quick glance at the instruments told him the aircraft was now under immense strain. The controls were soft and mushy, like driving an old car without power steering.

Schwend and Park maintained control as they approached the perimeter of Dwyer. Schwend took the flight controls and radioed to the lead Chinook to get out of their way as they needed as much space as possible to troubleshoot the problem.

Park radioed to the tower to declare an emergency and ask for a ground response team.

The crew in the back ran through the cargo hook release emergency checklist to try to find out what happened. They saw the load had not completely jettisoned and was pinned to the bottom of the aircraft in a mangled mess. It was determined they could not fully land the aircraft because it could roll over, causing further damage or injuries.

According to the final report of the incident, the side wall of the RLB on the sling load collapsed, which “allowed air to enter into and push the load horizontally to the left and upward, making impact with the aircraft.” 

What the crew didn’t know at the time was that as the load hit the aircraft, it also made contact with the rear rotor system, causing unseen damage to the blades. However, they were still able to keep the aircraft flying.

As Schwend struggled to maintain a steady hover, the response team was beneath the aircraft, trying to dislodge the mangled wreckage. After several attempts, they cut the load from beneath the fuselage and the crew moved to land and shut down the helicopter.

During the shutdown procedure and as the rotors were slowing, Higgins noticed the blades were beginning to sag. Earlier, during the impact from the load swinging up, the blades sustained severe damage. They were being held straight out by the centrifugal force. As the blades slowed after shutdown, they began to sag before hitting the airframe, causing further damage before coming to an abrupt halt.

For their calm and collective actions, the entire crew was awarded the U.S. Army Aviation Broken Wing Award in a ceremony at the Army Aviation Support Facility #1 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord June 18, 2022. It was a rare honor, as the award is usually given only to pilots.

The Broken Wing Award was established in 1968 and is rarely bestowed. According to the U.S. Army’s criteria for the award, “an aircrew member must, through outstanding airmanship, minimize or prevent aircraft damage or injury to personnel during an emergency situation.”

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 Commendation Medal. And for their heroic and selfless actions on the ground below the damaged Chinook, helping to dislodge the mangled load, four Washington, Oregon and Utah Army National Guard members were awarded the Army Achievement Medal.

“This particular aircrew, including CW3 Schwend, is to be commended for their actions,” said Col. Scott Meyers, the commander of Task Force Ivy Eagles and the senior aviator in Afghanistan at the time. “Which, had they not completed deliberately and calmly, could have led to a greater loss of equipment and quite possibly loss of life.”



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