Nine air commandos who received five Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals Tuesday are credited with saving the lives of 88 American and Afghan special forces troops over nearly two hours of combat in September 2019.

The AC-130J Ghostrider crew from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida, was tasked to provide air cover for special forces in Afghanistan, firing at unnamed enemies who ambushed the American and Afghan team, 1st Special Operations Wing commander Col. Jocelyn Schermerhorn said on Facebook.

In the ensuing firefight, the “Shadow 71” airmen “provided continuous fire to shield helicopter assault forces during landing and casualty evacuation, and ultimately ensured the rescue of wounded ground forces,” she said.

The five air commandos who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross include: aircraft commander Lt. Col. Christopher McCall; weapon systems officer Capt. Jasen Hrisca; combat systems officer Capt. Tyler Larson; lead special missions aviator Tech. Sgt. Jake Heathcott; and sensor operator Staff Sgt. Kyle Burden. The Air Medal awardees are co-pilot Maj. Brian Courchesne and special missions aviators Staff Sgt. Alex Almarlaes and Senior Airmen Brianna Striplin and Thomas Fay.

“The DFC is awarded to any officer or enlisted person of the U.S. armed forces for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight,” according to the Air Force. “The Air Medal is awarded to U.S. and civilian personnel for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievements while participating in aerial flight.”

AC-130Js began flying combat missions in June 2019, making Shadow 71′s wild ride one of the earliest tests of the new gunship’s real-world prowess.

Toting guns, cannons and laser-guided bombs, Ghostriders were built to handle the same close-air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions as their predecessor, the AC-130U Spooky. They boast improved avionics, navigation systems and weapons, and better speed, range and altitude in flight.

“Gunships are a team sport,” McCall said in a release. “You really can’t do something like this without a great team.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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