Capt. Boyd Smith. (AIR FORCE)
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Weapons systems officer Capt. Kaylene Giri. (AIR FORCE)
Flying more than four miles above southern Afghanistan, the crew of the B-1B Lancer got the message: Soldiers at an outpost in eastern Afghanistan were taking heavy fire and needed close-air support.
For the next hour, the four crew members of Bone 23 — the Lancer's call sign — would focus on protecting the Waygul Valley outpost, dropping bombs aimed to strike 250 yards from the soldiers' fighting positions.
Though nine soldiers died and 27 U.S. and Afghan troops were wounded in the July 13, 2008, firefight, Bone 23's crew earned praise for slowing the Taliban onslaught, helping open the door for re-enforcements to arrive and drive back the attackers.
On Nov. 2, pilot Maj. Norman Shelton, co-pilot Capt. Boyd Smith and weapons systems officers Capts. Kaylene Giri and Louis Heidema received the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious Air Force flight in 2008. Previous recipients include Henry "Hap" Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle and Chuck Yeager.
Bone 23 was about halfway through its 12-hour mission when the combined air operations center radioed that the crew needed to respond to "troops in contact," Smith told Air Force Times.
"They gave the order to a B-1B because of our ability to get there quickly," Smith said.
At that moment, the crew didn't know just how desperate the situation was at Combat Outpost Kahler near the village Wanat on the Pakistan border. Forty-three soldiers, most from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 24 Afghan troops and their two Marine Corps trainers were trying to keep 200 Taliban insurgents from swarming over the lightly fortified base.
As Shelton turned the bomber toward Wanat at 500 mph, Smith began setting up a rendezvous with a tanker and clearing the way for the B-1B. Bone 23 would need to refuel close to the battle zone if it was going to stay on station there.
Giri and Heidema, in a compartment behind the pilots, began setting up the bomber's targeting systems and preparing to record target locations once they were in radio contact with the Army joint terminal air controller, who would call in the airstrike.
As the jet flew north at several hundred miles per hour, it took about 20 minutes to come into radio contact with the JTAC, the crew members recalled.
"We were eight to 10 minutes out when we heard the JTAC," Heidema said. "Once we got comm, it was fairly good."
From the JTAC's radio, the airmen heard gunfire.
"The JTAC was stressed but forcing himself to remain calm," Heidema said. "He was going by the book."
Not wasting a second, the JTAC explained where bombs needed to hit and where the friendly troops were.
Giri punched the coordinates into the bomber's targeting system as Heidema used a laptop screen to see where the coordinates positioned the troops, Taliban and targets.
Cloud cover prevented the crew from seeing the outpost more than 20,000 feet below them, but Bone 23's ground radar gave the crew a live image of the battlefield and good understanding of where the bombs needed to hit.
The JTAC requested a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions, but the aircrew knew dropping such a large bomb only about 250 yards from lightly sheltered friendly positions put the soldiers in danger, Smith said. The crew advised using 500-pound JDAMs. The JTAC concurred.
As the pilots lined the jet up for the bomb run, the weapons systems officers rechecked their calculations.
"Cleared hot" is what the JTAC declared, Heidema recalled, clearing the way for the bombs to drop.
Giri pushed a button, releasing one satellite-guided bomb.
"It's like throwing a dart," Heidema said about the bomb drop. "It has to be released miles away."
‘The longest minute of your life'
A minute passed before the bomb struck.
"That is the longest minute of your life," Heidema said. "Your heart is up in your throat."
The JTAC radioed in: "Good hit," Giri recalled him saying.
The blast didn't stop the Taliban attack, though.
"Ready with another nine-line," Heidema recalled the JTAC declaring.
That second request for bombs was when Heidema realized the severity of the Taliban onslaught. Usually, a 500-pound bomb shuts down the incoming fire, he said. This time, the shooting continued.
As the bomber turned in a circle no more than 20 miles across, the crew prepared for a second pass.
Less than nine minutes after the first bomb was let loose, two more 500-pound JDAMs struck.
And then the crew circled back to drop a fourth bomb.
This time, the B-1B couldn't come back for another strike, "Our fuel was at ‘bingo,' " Giri said.
The four-engine bomber was close to running out of gas and had to break away to rendezvous with a KC-10 tanker. When Bone 23 left to refuel, a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles arrived to fly close-air support.
As the B-1B readied to refuel, new orders arrived, Smith said. The B-1B was needed for a new "troops in contact" call and couldn't return to the ongoing battle.
The new orders didn't sit well with the crew members, who knew soldiers had already died. They could still hear the battle's radio calls over their headphones.
"It was very frustrating," Giri said.
"It was really irritating having to leave," Heidema said.
Then, he added, "You follow your orders."
The next assignment turned out to be less threatening than originally thought, with Bone 23 not dropping any bombs. As the crew members reached their ninth flying hour, it was time to head home.
The battle continued.
After Bone 23 left, Bone 11 arrived over Afghanistan. That B-1B's crew dropped 11 bombs, earning them the Air Force Association's LeMay Award for best bomber crew.
After a dozen hours in the air, Bone 23 touched down at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, its home base.
It wasn't until a day or so later that the crew saw news reports about the battle and learned nine soldiers had died and more than two dozen had been wounded. The Battle of Wanat remains the single deadliest attack against U.S. forces since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, apart from incidents involving helicopter crashes.
The airmen said they wonder if they could have done more but have pride in what they accomplished.
"It gave the soldiers the breathing room they needed," Smith said.
Today, Heidema is back flying missions over Afghanistan with the 37th Bomb Squadron from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D. Giri, with Ellsworth's 34th Bomb Squadron, expects to deploy in a few months. Shelton, who declined interview requests, attends Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Smith flies remote-controlled MQ-9 Reapers over Afghanistan for the 42nd Attack Squadron at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
While Smith's aircraft changed, the mission hasn't.
"For me, close-air support is what combat aviation is all about," Smith said.