Pilots Shot Down in Iraq Tell of Dramatic Escape
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
"We're taking fire!" Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steven Cianfrini, 27, yelled to his co-pilot as he looked out the helicopter door and saw tracer rounds flying his way.
It was the first ominous sign Monday morning as their OH-58D Kiowa attack helicopter banked over palm groves, fields and canals on a reconnaissance mission to flush out Sunni insurgents in rural areas south of Baghdad.
It was also the opening salvo of what participants described as a dramatic ordeal of combat and survival, with two Army pilots crash-landing their aircraft, taking cover in neck-high water and reeds in a canal, avoiding insurgent fire, and dashing to a helicopter that lifted them to safety.
Hearing Cianfrini's warning, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Mark Burrows, 35, banked right to evade bullets from a heavy machine gun that had opened up across a field. Then a second machine gun began firing at them. Burrows turned again, only to face a heavier barrage.
"The whole world just opened up on us, it seemed like," Cianfrini said in a telephone interview from Iraq. "We zigzagged, whatever we could do, to get out of the guns' target line. Then we started taking rounds from behind. That . . . took the aircraft down."
Insurgents attack military helicopters in Iraq about 100 times each month. They manage to hit about 17 of the aircraft, using weapons such as heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired missiles, according to U.S. officials. Since January, at least 10 American helicopters, including two belonging to contractors, have been shot down. Since October 2001, the Army has lost 33 helicopters to hostile fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a new tactic that has downed several U.S. helicopters in recent months, insurgents use guns mounted on trucks to fire at the choppers from multiple directions. The U.S. military has targeted cells conducting such attacks; on May 31, northwest of the Baghdad airport, U.S. attack helicopters spotted and destroyed insurgents in five trucks outfitted with 14.55mm machine guns.
On Monday, though, insurgents struck again. This account of the events that followed is based on U.S. military interviews, unclassified documents and video footage from the responding aircraft.
"This was a deliberate air ambush," said Brig. Gen. Jim Huggins, assistant commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which oversees the volatile region where the helicopter was downed, several miles east of Mahmudiyah.
As it lost altitude, the Kiowa started to shake violently, its main rotor damaged. Burrows said he decided to head into the field but the aircraft began to spin uncontrollably, and at about 20 feet above the ground he had to cut the power. The helicopter hit the ground tail first, bounced over an irrigation canal, crashed nose down and slid into a ditch beside a dirt road.
Cianfrini climbed out one door and Burrows got out the other. They met at the nose and discovered that they had suffered only scratches, they said. The Kiowa was by then on fire, its engine blowing up inside. Insurgents were shooting from across the field, and the pilots could hear rounds hitting the burning helicopter.
"Where's your weapon?" Burrows yelled to Cianfrini.