Libyans inspect the wreckage of an Air Force F-15 after it crashed in on March 22, 2011. Three Marines with an MV-22B Osprey squadron will be honored next month for their heroics during a rescue mission last year in which they recovered the pilot, who ejected from teh aircraft. (AP)
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Three Marines with an MV-22B Osprey squadron will be honored next month for their heroics during a rescue mission last year in Libya in which they recovered a downed Air Force pilot.
Capt. Erik Kolle, Capt. David Potter and Sgt. Daniel Howington are scheduled to receive the Air Medal with combat distinguishing device on Jan. 7 at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., Marine officials said. They were involved in one of the Libya campaign's most high-profile missions.
The Marines were assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and are credited with quickly preparing and launching their Osprey from the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge with a 30-man recovery force. Under cover of darkness, they flew 150 miles to the crash sight of an Air Force F-15E near the city of Benghazi as part of a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel mission on March 22, 2011.
The Marines recovered Air Force pilot Maj. Kenneth Harney, who along with his weapons system officer, Capt. Tyler Stark, ejected from the aircraft into uncertain circumstances. Heavily armed forces were advancing on the port city in support of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who later died after he was captured by rebel forces. Armed rebels held the territory east of Benghazi at the time, but the pilots didn't know if they posed a threat, too.
Harney followed Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training "perfectly," evading Libyans while on foot for nearly four miles, until the Marines could reach him, the MEU commander at the time, Col. Mark Desens, told reporters in July 2011 at a Washington think tank, the Institute for the Study of War. 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.
That left the Marines to recover Harney. Those involved said last year 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 Kolle, who piloted the Osprey that picked up Harney. "We were planning for the worst case."
Dozens of Marines, two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters, two Ospreys, two AV-8B Harriers and a KC-130J tanker were involved in the TRAP mission.
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 crash occurred on the third night of NATO forces bombing military targets in Libya, as Gadhafi's forces laid siege to rebels fighting to overthrow him. The plane was based at RAF Lakenheath, England, but was flying out of Aviano Air Base, Italy.
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, Marines involved said last year. 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.