The United States Marine Corps captains who rescued two U.S. Air Force pilots in Libya said today they feared hostile fire during the rescue mission but describe an otherwise smooth operation that lasted about an hour and a half.
"After it was all over we felt very good," said USMC Capt. Erik "Brillo" Kolle. "Getting a guy out like that and have everything go the way it was supposed to is very satisfying. It was personally very satisfying."
The two rescued pilots had ejected from their U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle after an equipment malfunction caused their plane to crash 25 miles east of Benghazi, Libya, Monday night.
The F-15 had dropped its bombs just before the mechanical problems occurred, and the pilots ejected at 22,000 feet. The F-15 pilots have not yet been identified by the Air Force.
Kolle and USMC Capt. Joe "Angry" Andrejack were part of a team of fighter jets, helicopters and two Ospreys -- which can land and take off like a helicopter -- that flew into eastern Libya to rescue the downed pilots. For both, it was their first time conducting a rescue operation.
Andrejack describes a bright night with a full moon, which normally makes such an operation more challenging.
"We knew the general area where he was within a few hundred meters," Andrejack said. "We knew where the bad guys were and we went around them. And it was a very bright night and a lot more quiet than we thought it was going to be."
The first Osprey didn't see the pilot, but Andrejack and Kolle saw a flare on the ground and were able to locate the missing pilot. Another airplane above their Osprey was able to shine a laser in the vicinity of the downed pilot and saw him hiding in a small "desert shrub type bushes," Kolle said.
The pilot was not wearing any night vision goggles, they noticed, and communicated with the rescue team over radio.
Even before they were on the ground, he bolted toward the Osprey aircraft with his hands above his head so no one would think he was hostile.
"He had no idea what was around him," Andrejack said.
The pilot was uncertain whether nearby villagers were friendly to Americans or to Gadhafi. He sounded "frazzled," Kolle and Andrejack said.
"He was wondering when we were going to be there what direction we were coming from and how many were coming," Andrejack added. "He was understandably a little frazzled and that was coming through on his communications over the radio, but other than that he didn't have much to say, just that he was ready to go."
When he got on the aircraft, the crew told the pilots, "We got him" and the rescue team flew back to the USS Kearsarge in the Mediterranean.
"It was awesome when they said we got him. And he wasn't hurt," Kolle recalled.
The two U.S. Marine captains say the F-15 pilot was grateful and thanked them when they met each other in the medical unit.
"It was pretty anticlimactic," Andrejack said. "It was something we train to so often and everything went as planned and I'm just happy how it all went down."
The entire rescue mission was 45 minutes each way, and a total of 15-160 miles.
"We maneuvered a little bit to avoid some threat areas that we knew about but we were over land about 10 minutes and then most of the rest of the time was over water," Kolle said.