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.
Exclusive Details of Pilots Rescue in Libya
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.
The U.S. Marine Corps launched its standard TRAP Mission (Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel) to rescue the pilots, sending two Ospreys, two CH-53E helicopters and two Harrier jets. The Harrier jets launched first to patrol the skies over the downed pilot and the helicopters carried 35 marines to serve as perimeter protection if needed.
Initially, the pilot thought the pro-rebel villagers that had surrounded the scene of the crash were Gadhafi supporters, and requested that the Harrier jets drop two 500-pound bombs to prevent locals from getting close. The bombs were dropped in an area between the pilot and the villagers to serve as a warning.
The other pilot was rescued by locals in the village of Ghot Sultan. He was given food and water and returned to the U.S. military. Both pilots suffered only minor injuries and are undergoing physical and mental screening.
The F-15 aircraft, based out of the Royal Air Force Lakenheath base in northern England, was flying out of Aviano Air Base in Italy in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn when it went down. It was the first reported loss of a coalition aircraft during the conflict in Libya.