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A drone pilot’s view of the mission to find “Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell

A Predator drone. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)
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On June 28, 2005, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell—subject of the movie “Lone Survivor”—was stranded on a mountainside in eastern Afghanistan. His SEAL team had been killed. The quick reaction force sent to retrieve Luttrell and his men had returned to base after one of its helicopters had been shot down.

Above him, though, was a Predator drone flown by Air Force Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley.

McCurley’s Predator was the only aircraft on the scene, as the first two drones had vanished into a band of thunder clouds that had quickly moved into the area, McCurley recounts in his recently released book, “Hunter Killer: Inside Unmanned Air War” co-authored by Kevin Maurer.

[Air Force struggles to keep pace with explosion in the use of combat drones]

As the gunmetal gray aircraft slowly scanned for any signs of life in the wooded valleys and draws of Kunar Province’s Pech Valley below, McCurley said he sat thousands of miles away in an operations center on the outskirts of Las Vegas.

As the Predator closed in on Luttrell’s last known position, McCurley’s sensor operator fixed onto the wreckage of the MH-47 Chinhook that had been hit by a rocket propelled grenade hours before, killing everyone aboard.

“The helicopter had fallen into a wooded area and exploded,” McCurley writes. “The broken rotors and downed trees glowed in the light from the fire. There could be no survivors.”

Soon after, McCurley’s aircraft picked up a garbled radio transmission on an emergency frequency.

All he could make out was, “Come in.” It was a man’s voice and he was whispering. Then there was nothing. McCurley writes that he kept trying to contact whoever had called, circling the Predator over the patch of mountainside where they had received the call.

After an hour, McCurley’s shift manning the drone’s sensors ended, and a new crew took over with no luck. McCurley passed on the coordinates where he had heard the radio calls, but Luttrell was still out there, escaping and evading from the Taliban. In the days following, he would be taken in by a local Pashtun tribe who would shelter him until he was rescued by an element of Army Rangers a week later.

“SEAL Team Five was still out there,” McCurley writes. “I left the ops cell and walked to my car. The sun was rising and I knew most of Las Vegas was shaking off their Saturday night hangover. I felt the same way, but for a different reason. I’d really wanted to find the SEAL team, but I’d failed.”

[‘Unrelenting’ need for drones will prompt changes in Air Force]

McCurley joined the Air Force’s drone program in 2003 before deploying five times in support of various operations around the globe, including those in Yemen and Pakistan.

McCurley told The Washington Post in a recent interview that participating in the operation to find Marcus Luttrell was “one of the highlights” of his career.

“We were one of the groups of guys that helped triangulate his position and helped guide friendly forces in,” McCurley said. “Whatever we can do to save lives, that’s what’s important to us. Those stories are just as important as the ones of when we take out a terrorist.”