Released: May 27, 1998
HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. (AFNS) -- An Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130H Combat Talon II crew will receive the Mackay Trophy for rescuing 56 people from destruction and civil war in the Republic of the Congo last year.
The crew, assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Group at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, England, also delivered 12 Army and Navy special forces personnel to survey and assess the situation in the capital city of Brazzaville after fighting broke out between rival political factions.
The National Aeronautic Association presents the Mackay Trophy annually to the Air Force member, crew or organization that made the most meritorious flight of the year. This is the sixth time that a special operations crew has earned the Mackay Trophy, established by Clarence H. Mackay, a former industrialist, philanthropist and aviation enthusiast.
The Talon II crew's June 1997 mission took more than 21 hours and three in-flight refuelings to retrieve the 30 Americans, 26 foreign nationals and a dog, held by an adolescent boy. The violence eventually destroyed both Brazzaville and the infrastructure of the Congo, said Pentagon officials.
Crew members included Lt. Col. Frank J. Kisner, mission commander; Maj. (Dr.) Robert S. Michaelson, flight surgeon; Capt. John C. Baker, pilot; Capt. Reed Foster, aircraft commander; Capt. Mark J. Ramsey, electronic warfare officer; Capt. Robert P. Toth, navigator; Master Sgt. Gordon H. Scott and Tech. Sgt. Tom L. Baker, loadmasters; Staff Sgt. John H. Hensdill, direct support operator; and Staff Sgt. Jeffrey A. Hoyt, flight engineer. Since the mission, Ramsey has been reassigned to AFSOC headquarters at Hurlburt Field and Hensdill is now at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Also aboard the MC-130, but not part of the Talon II crew, were: Capt. Bill Collins, and Senior Airmen Eric Nielsen and Dave Risnear, special tactics team; Capt. Ben Jones, logistics planner; Staff Sgt. John McAlister, dedicated crew chief; Senior Airman Bryan Zdancewicz, turbo prop specialist; and Airmen 1st Class Ernest Burghardt and Mark Evans, security forces. These individuals contributed much to the mission's success, said Kisner during a telephone interview from Mildenhall.
"Without the professionalism of all involved, this mission would not have succeeded. This was truly a team effort," Kisner said.
"If there's a down side to getting this award, it's the fact that the (nonaircrew members) were left out," said Scott, who is also still at Mildenhall. "The STS guys did as much as we did. They also helped the European survey and assessment team get set up and then made sure we were cleared to depart Brazzaville."
The security forces airmen also did an outstanding job, said Kisner. "They were recalled in the middle of the night and deployed with us to Germany, Brazzaville and Libreville, Gabon. The mission was their introduction to AFSOC and their first ride on an Air Force aircraft."
Kisner said besides their normal duties, the airmen helped man the ADHOC command post at Libreville.
Ramsey, the electronic warfare officer on the mission, also had high praise for the 100th Air Refueling Wing at Mildenhall.
"Getting refueled was a long, slow process and those guys stayed with us all the way," he said. Ramsey explained that because the MC-130 was carrying 116 percent of its gross maximum weight, each refueling took more than two hours of precise formation flying.
The mission began June 9 when two MC-130H aircraft from the 7th Special Operations Squadron flew from Mildenhall to Stuttgart Army Airfield in Germany.
As the situation in Brazzaville deteriorated, Special Operations Command Europe prepared to send additional forces to augment the small Marine Corp security detachment already at the American Embassy. By June 10, the plan changed. Only one MC-130H would travel to Brazzaville.
The aircraft departed with 30 people, two heavy, high-mobility multiwheel vehicles, fuel and other equipment. The extra weight and slow speed of the Talon II meant refueling had to be done at a descending angle so the MC-130 could keep pace with the KC-135 tankers, said Toth. As navigator, it was Toth's job to calculate how much fuel was needed as well as map out the route.
By the time the MC-130 reached the airport at Brazzaville, the crew had about 20 minutes to off-load the vehicles, ESAT team and their equipment, board the evacuees and depart the area.
Hostile gunfire near the control tower delayed the first attempt to land. As time passed, officials in Germany left it up to the crew to decide if they wanted to risk another try.
"There was no question in anyone's mind," said Foster, the aircraft commander who performed the actual landing. "There were people down there, some of them Americans, who needed our help. It took maybe a second to make up our minds."
As the MC-130 came around the mountains north of the airfield, French ground forces in charge of securing the control tower diverted the aircraft toward a concrete building at the opposite end of the airfield. As it turned out, the evacuees were laying face down in the building for safety.
One of the female evacuees later told Ramsey, "When I saw you coming around the mountain, I just knew you had to be Americans. It was just everything I could do not to jump up and cheer, 'We're saved!'"
"It really meant a lot to the Americans to be rescued by Americans," said Ramsey.
The MC-130 was only on the ground about 23 minutes. While the ESAT team off-loaded, every available person helped to reconfigure the aircraft to take on passengers. The crew had been told to expect 40 people.
Meanwhile, the French forces formed a human wall around the evacuees and walked them to the Talon II. Toth, who was in the rear helping evacuees get on the aircraft, noticed that about 16 other evacuees were headed back to the building.
"I asked where they were going and the guy in charge said, 'You can only take 40 people, there's 40 on the airplane,' Toth recalled.
Toth remembers saying, "'No. We're taking everyone. We're not leaving anyone behind.' No one argued."
The crew laid bulletproof mats on the floor for the second group of passengers and made sure they had something to hold on to.
"Then we got out as soon as we were cleared," said Toth.
Though they had already flown about 15 hours, the crew departed on the two-hour flight to Libreville where State Department officials took charge of the passengers.
The Talon II crew spent the next eight days on alert at Libreville.
"The hardest part of the mission was waiting," said Foster.
The crew set up a 24-hour command post in case they had to go back to Brazzaville to evacuate the ambassador and the rest of his staff.
They were also standing by to re-supply the ESAT team with food and water, if needed.
When the aircraft, whose call sign was Whiskey 05, returned to Brazzaville June 18 to pick up the ESAT team, most of the fighting had been confined to the city. The ambassador and his staff had left by other means, but there was an extra passenger, a woman.
"She had been working in the jungle when we picked up the first group," said Toth. "Everyone knew she was missing, but no one knew where to look."
Toth said the woman made her way back to the embassy and stayed with the ESAT team.
For one woman, said Foster, the mission changed the way she viewed the U.S. military. The woman told Foster she and some of her friends had never liked the military.
According to Foster, the woman was moved when they saw the Marines putting themselves between the evacuees and the bullets.
"We were wrong about you," said the woman, according to Foster. "You aren't just a bunch of John Wayne cowboy-type reckless individuals. You risked your lives to take care of us, and I love you for it."
* KC-135 Stratotanker
* MC-130 Combat Talon
* Air Force Special Operations Command
* Hurlburt Field, Fla.
* State Department
* U.S. Army
* U.S. Navy
* Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.