Tag Archives: U.S. Air Force

The Time I Found a Formerly Top Secret D-21 Supersonic Drone in the Arizona Desert

In the Back Lot of the Pima Air & Space Museum You Can Discover History.

1547 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air & Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

Most of what is lying around in the dusty expanse of the aircraft graveyards around Tucson, Arizona is readily identifiable and not entirely remarkable.

Ejection seats from old F-4 Phantoms. An old CH-53 helicopter hulk. An interesting find over there is a fuselage section of a Soviet-era MiG-23 Flogger. No idea how it got here. Other than that, it’s just long rows of old, broken, silent airplanes inside high fences surrounded by cactus, dust, sand and more sand. An errant aileron on a dead wing clunks quietly against the hot afternoon breeze as if willing itself back into the air. But like everything here, its days of flying are over.

But there… What is that strange, manta-ray shaped, dusty black thing lying at an angle just on the other side of that fence? It may be an old airfield wind vane or radar test model. But it also may be…

Once I found an opening in the fence I could walk right up to the D-21. It had been recovered by the museum from the AMARG Boneyard at Davis-Monthan AFB and was awaiting restoration. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist)

I had only read about it and seen grainy photos of it. I know it’s impossible. The project was so secret not much information exists about the details even today. But I stand there gawking through the chain link fence as the ruins of the other planes bear silent witness. It’ like the corpses of the other airplanes are urging me to look closer. To not leave. Their silent dignity begs me to tell this story.

After nearly a minute of studying it through the fence I realize; I am right. It is right before my eyes. Ten feet away. Despite the 100-degree heat I get goosebumps. And I start running.

I quickly locate a spot where the entire fence line opens up. I skirt the fence and in a couple minutes running around the sandy airplane corpses I’m inside. There, sitting right in front of me on its decrepit transport cart and dusted with windblown sand, abandoned in the Sonoran Desert, is one of Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich’s most ambitious classified projects from the fabled Lockheed Skunk Works.

A previously classified photo of the Lockheed D-21 drone at the Skunkworks manufacturing facility. (Photo: Lockheed)

I just found the CIA’s ultra-secret Mach 3.3+ D-21 long-range reconnaissance drone. The D-21 was so weird, so ambitious, so unlikely it remains one of the most improbable concepts in the history of the often-bizarre world of ultra-secret “black” aviation projects. And now it lies discarded in the desert. The story behind it is so bizarre it is difficult to believe, but it is true.

July 30, 1966: Flight Level 920 (92,000 ft.), Mach 3.25, Above Point Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Center, Off Oxnard, California.

Only an SR-71 Blackbird is fast enough and can fly high enough to photograph this, the most classified of national security tests. Traveling faster than a rifle bullet at 91,000 feet, near inner-space altitude, one of the most ambitious and bizarre contraptions in the history of mankind is about to be tested.

“Tagboard” is its codename. Because of the catastrophic May, 1960 shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers’ Lockheed U-2 high altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union the CIA and is in desperate need of another way to spy on the rising threat of communist nuclear tests. Even worse, the other “Red Menace”, the Chinese, are testing massive hydrogen bombs in a remote location of the Gobi Desert near the Mongolian/Chinese border. It would be easier to observe the tests if the Chinese did them on the moon.

The goal is simple, but the problem is titanic. Get photos of the top-secret Red Chinese hydrogen bomb tests near the Mongolian border deep inside Asia, then get them back, without being detected.

Lockheed Skunkworks boss Kelly Johnson and an elite, ultra-classified small team of aerospace engineers have built an aircraft so far ahead of its time that even a vivid imagination has difficulty envisioning it.

Flat, triangular, black, featureless except for its odd plan form as viewed from above, like a demon’s cloak, it has a sharply pointed nose recessed into a forward-facing orifice. That’s it. No canopy, no cockpit, no weapons. Nothing attached to the outside. Even more so than a rifle bullet its shape is smooth and simple. This is the ultra-secret D-21 drone.

An Air Force photo of the D-21 mounted on the M-21 launch aircraft. The M-21 launch aircraft was a special variant of the SR-71 Blackbird. Only two were produced. (Photo: USAF)

The D-21 is truly a “drone”, not a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Its flight plan is programmed into a guidance system. It is launched from a mothership launch aircraft at speed and altitude. It flies a predetermined spy mission from 17 miles above the ground and flashes over at three times the speed of sound. It photographs massive swaths of land with incredible detail and resolution. And because of its remarkably stealthy shape, no one will ever know it was there.

Today the D-21 rides on the back of a Lockheed M-21, a specialized variant of the SR-71 Blackbird, the famous Mach 3+ high altitude spy plane. The M-21 version of the SR-71 carries the D-21 drone on its back up to launch speed and altitude. The it ignites the D-21’s unique RJ43-MA20S-4 ramjet engine and releases it on its pre-programmed flight.

Chasing the M-21 and D-21 combination today is a Lockheed SR-71, the only thing that can keep up with this combination of aircraft. It is the SR-71’s job to photograph and film the test launch of the D-21 drone from the M-21 launch aircraft.

There have been three successful launch separations of the D-21 from the M-21 launch aircraft so far. In each of these flights, even though the launch was successful, the D-21 drone fell victim to some minor mechanical failure that destroyed the drone, because, at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, there really are no “minor” failures.

Today Bill Park and Ray Torick are the flight crew on board the M-21 launch aircraft. They sit inside the M-21 launch aircraft dressed in pressurized high altitude flight suits that resemble space suits.

Once at predetermined launch speed and altitude the M-21/D-21 combination flies next to the SR-71 camera plane. Keith Beswick is filming the launch test from the SR-71 camera plane. Ray Torick, the drone launch controller sitting in the back seat of the tandem M-21, launches the D-21 from its position on top of the M-21’s fuselage between the massive engines.

Something goes wrong.

The D-21 drone separates and rolls slightly to its left side. It strikes the left vertical stabilizer of the M-21 mother ship. Then it caroms back into the M-21’s upper fuselage, exerting massive triple supersonic forces downward on the M-21 aircraft. The M-21 begins to pitch up and physics takes over as Bill Park and Ray Torick make the split-second transition from test pilots to helpless passengers to crash victims.

The triple supersonic forces rip both aircraft apart in the thin, freezing air. Shards of titanium and shrapnel from engine parts trail smoke and frozen vapor as they disintegrate in the upper atmosphere. There is no such thing as a minor accident at Mach 3+ and 92,000 feet.

Miraculously, both Bill Park and Ray Torick eject from the shattered M-21 mother ship. Even more remarkably, they actually survive the ejection. The pair splash down in the Pacific 150 miles off the California coast. Bill Park successfully deploys the small life raft attached to his ejection seat. Ray Torick lands in the ocean but opens the visor on his spacesuit-like helmet attached to his pressurized flight suit. The suit floods through the face opening in his helmet. Torick drowns before he can be rescued. Keith Beswick, the pilot filming the accident from the SR-71 chase plane, has to go to the mortuary to cut Ray Torick’s body out of the pressurized high-altitude flight suit before he can be buried.

The ultra-secret test program to launch a D-21 drone from the top of an M-21 launch aircraft at over Mach 3 and 90,000 feet, is cancelled.

The D-21 program does move forward on its own. Now the drone is dropped from a lumbering B-52 mothership. The D-21 is then boosted to high altitude and Mach 3+ with a rocket booster. Once at speed and altitude the booster unit drops off and the D-21 drone begins its spy mission.

After more than a year of test launches from the B-52 mothership the D-21 drone was ready for its first operational missions over Red China. President Nixon approved the first reconnaissance flight for November 9, 1969. The mission was launched from Beale AFB in California.

Despite a successful launch the D-21 drone was lost. In the middle of 1972, after four attempts at overflying Red China with the D-21 drone and four mission failures, the program was cancelled. It was imaginative. It was innovative. It was ingenious. But it was impossible.

So ended one of the most ambitious and outrageous espionage projects in history.

1604 Hrs. December 20, 2009. In the Back Storage Yard of the Pima Air & Space Museum Outside Tucson, Arizona.

I pet airplanes when I can. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe to be able to say I did. Maybe to try to gain some tactile sense of their history. Maybe to absorb something from them, if such a thing is possible. Maybe so that, when I am old and dying, I can reflect back on what it felt like to stand next to them and touch them. I don’t know why I touch them and stroke them, but I do.

The D-21 is dusty and warm in the late afternoon Arizona sun. Its titanium skin is hard, not slightly forgiving like an aluminum airplane. It gives away nothing. Silent. Brooding. After I touch it my hand came away with some of the dust from it. I don’t wipe it off.

Sometime later in the coming years, the D-21B drone, number 90-0533, is brought inside the vast restoration facility at the Pima Air & Space Museum and beautifully restored. Now it lies in state, on display inside the museum.

But when I first found it sitting abandoned in the storage yard, dusty and baking in the Sonoran Desert sun, it felt like its warm titanium skin still had some secret life left in it.

The fully restored Lockheed D-21 drone at the Pima Air & Space Museum outside Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Pima Air & Space Museum)

Before Deploying To Latvia, Two USAF A-10s from 107th FS Flew Over Normandy For D-Day 74 Ceremonies

Before deploying to the Baltic region, two A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft flew over the beaches of Normandy, France, as part of the commemoration ceremonies for D-Day 74.

Eight A-10C attack aircraft from the 107th FS of the 124th Fighter Wing Michigan Air National Guard, from Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan, arrived on stopover at RAF Mildenhall, UK, on Friday May 31, 2018. The Warthogs of the “Red Devils” were on their way to Latvia where they are scheduled to take part in Saber Strike, an annual exercise in the nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe.

One of the aircraft, 81-0994/MI, is a “unique” special-colored A-10C unveiled at Air National Guard Paint Facility in Sioux City, Iowa, on Aug. 3, 2017. The aircraft is painted with a special livery that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Red Devils of the 107th Fighter Squadron, that is inspired to the P-51 (F-6A) of the 107th TRS, that flew the Mustang over Normandy during WWII.

The special colored A-10C lands in a cloudy RAF Mildenhall on May 31, 2018. Six aircraft continued to Latvia on Jun. 1, whereas two remained in the UK to take part in the D-Day 74 flyover. Image credit: Tony Lovelock

One of the eight A-10C with the 107th FS about to land in RAF Mildenhall on May 31, 2018. Image credit: Tony Lovelock

On Jun. 3, 2018, along with another 107th FS “Warthog”, the “full special color” A-10 flew over the French coastline and Omaha Beach, Normandy, as part of the commemoration ceremonies for D-Day 74 – the 74th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. The 107th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flew multiple missions over Normandy during the lead up to D-Day and during the invasion itself. The flyover during the commemoration represents the first assigned mission for the 107th in France since World War II.

The shadows of two A-10 Thunderbolt II are seen on a French farm field during the D-Day 74 commemoration ceremony in Normandy, France, June 3, 2018. The A-10s are flown by the 107th Fighter Squadron, which participated in the D-Day invasion in 1944. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Following the demonstration, the two aircraft continued to their destination in Latvia with the support of a KC-135 tanker.

A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft from the 107th Fighter Squadron, Michigan Air National Guard, fly over the beaches of Normandy, France, as part of the mo ceremonies for D-Day 74 — the 74th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. The 107th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron flew multiple missions over Normandy during the lead up to D-Day and during the invasion itself. The flight during the commemoration represents the first assigned mission for the 107th in France since World War II. The unit also served in France during World War I. The 107th is assigned to Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

Cockpit Video Of An A-10 Warthog Flying Over Miami Beach During Salute to American Heroes Air and Sea Show

This cool footage shows what it looks like to fly an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft.

Filmed on May 26, the following footage shows Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Schriever, a pilot in the 303rd Fighter Squadron, flying an A-10 Thunderbolt II alongside his wingman, Air Force 1st Lieutenant Tanner Rindels, over Miami Beach, Florida during the 2nd annual Salute to American Heroes Air and Sea Show, a two-day event showcases military fighter jets and other aircraft and equipment from all branches of the United States military in observance of Memorial Day.

The clip shows the two A-10s maneuvering close to an HC-130 “King” involved in a HAAR (Helicopter Air-to-Air Refueling) mission with two HH-60G Pave Hawks from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Dubbed Warthog, Hog or just Hawg, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the “airplane built around the GAU-8 Avenger 30-mm hydraulically driven seven-barrel Gatling-type cannon” to fight the Soviet tanks in the European battlefields during the Cold War, is considered one of the most durable and lethal combat plane in the CAS (Close Air Support) mission. Interestingly, on May 25, 2018, the day before the video was shot, the U.S. Air Force released the official request for proposals for an A-10 Thunderbolt Advanced-Wing Continuation Kit (“ATTACK”) program under which it could buy as many as 112 sets of new wings for the service’s remaining, so-called “thin wing” A-10 Warthog attack aircraft.

Remembering Three of the Fallen F-105 Thunderchief Heroes of the Vietnam Era

The Remarkable Exploits of Three Thunderchief Pilots Are a Must-Read on Memorial Day.

It’s Memorial Day in the United States, part of a long three-day weekend where people in the U.S. reflect on the high cost of freedom and liberty as they remember those who sacrificed their lives for it. While it is a somber holiday it is also a celebration of heroes. Heroes who set the highest bar for selflessness, honor and sacrifice. It is a day when we recalibrate what it means to be an American.

There are a remarkable number of great American stories to be told on Memorial Day. Realistically, far too many to tell in a single day. I find these stories daily in research about military aviation history. Even after years I unearth new names and heroic exploits every week. It is a seemingly endless tablet of remarkable tales etched into the bedrock of freedom’s foundation. And as history arcs forward into the future, the foundation is expanded by more and more heroes.

There is one era that produced images that are particularly iconic to me. Images that shaped my boyhood impression of what it means to be a hero. It was the era of the early U.S. involvement in the air war over Vietnam. In particular, one group of pilots repeatedly shows up in photos of medal winners and in heroic tales. They were the “Thud drivers”, the pilots of the Republic F-105 Thunderchief.

The F-105 Thunderchief itself was an ambitious aircraft. It’s journalistically and politically indelicate to write about any historical military aircraft as “bad” or “dangerous”, so we will handle the F-105 and its history over Vietnam objectively and respectfully. Early in its history, during 1961, the F-105 had the lowest rate of accidents of any jet fighter in the history of the Air Force. But by June of 1964 accidents in the F-105 Thunderchief increased remarkably. There were a reported 33.7 accidents per 100,000 flying hours in the F-105 by half way through 1964, a massive increase compared to earlier years.

Republic F-105D-30-RE Thunderchief (SN 62-4234) in flight with a full bomb load of M117 750 lb bombs. Normally drop tanks were carried on the inboard wing pylons. This aircraft was shot down on 24 December 1968 over Laos while being assigned to the Wing Headquarters, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Takhli RTAFB. Major Charles R. “Dick” Brownlee was the pilot of the lead aircraft (s/n 62-4234, call sign “Panda 01”) in a flight of four. The flight was conducting an afternoon strike mission against Route 911, between the Ban Karai Pass and the city of Ban Phaphilang, Khammouane Province, Laos. At 15:47h the aircraft attacked a truck moving along Route 911. 62-4234 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and caught fire. Major Brownlee’s aircraft exploded at roughly the same time he ejected from his aircraft. The next day a rescue attempt of heavily injured or dead Brownlee failed, but a member of the rescue team, CMS Charles D. King, was captured, too. Both men are listed as missing in action. The location was on the northern edge of a large valley and just east of Route 911, approximately 16 km southwest of Ban Thapachon (location 170600N 1055600E).

Especially during this era in the Thunderchief’s history, it was best to stick to observations that acknowledged its curvaceous, needle-nosed fuselage, artfully shaped wings that leave one with the visual impression of speed, and its remarkable performance. Even more so than the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief was what most Americans visualized when they heard the term “Jet Fighter” in the 1960’s.

The Thunderchief looked the part of a supersonic fighter. It did not, however, deliver great survivability during this era. It was not because the Thunderchief was somehow cursed. It may be fairer to suggest its mission was cursed.

It’s also best not to discuss the calamitous employment of the F-105 by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds that ended in a fiery aircraft disintegration on May 9, 1964 at an airshow venue in California. That F-105 broke apart after receiving initially undetectable damage earlier in its career while midair refueling. The Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six shows before they switched back to the North American F-100D Super Sabre. The Thunderbird F-105 crash killed USAF Capt. Gene Devlin in aircraft 57-5801.

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin died in an F-105 crash on May 9, 1964. (Photo: USAF and Aerospace Museum of California)

Thunderbird pilot Capt. Gene Devlin’s F-105 crash on May 9, 1964 was the 15th accident in an F-105 in only five months during 1964. But it would get worse. Only four days after Devlin’s crash in California, a Nellis AFB F-105D lost its engine on takeoff and crashed into the Las Vegas suburb of Woodland North. The results were catastrophic. A mother and three children died on the ground where the aircraft crashed. The impact leveled seven houses and destroyed two cars. More homes burned near the crash scene. The pilot did not survive either. Following that horrific run of accidents that culminated in the Woodland North calamity the Air Force grounded all F-105s until a cause for the accidents was determined. A number of problems with the F-105 were subsequently discovered and corrected during inspections and the aircraft were returned to service in time for the escalation of the Vietnam War.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief attempting to dodge an SA-2 missile over North Vietnam. (USAF)

It is fair to acknowledge the Republic F-105 Thunderchief was a plane thrust into a mission that was largely misunderstood, frequently evolving, and very different from what the “Thud” was originally designed for, low-level, supersonic nuclear strike missions. As a result, the “Thud” earned its unfortunate nickname by raining out of the Southeast Asian skies with frightening regularity, often taking with it the lives of America’s finest.

The USAF Thunderbirds only flew the F-105 in six demonstrations. (Photo: USAF and Ron Rentfrow)

But also in fairness, the F-105 Thunderchief shouldered the majority of the USAF’s burden of bombing heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. In the first five years of the American involvement in the air war over Vietnam, the F-105 Thunderchief flew 70% of all attack missions. Regardless of your assessment of the Thunderchief, the odds were always stacked against it. In all, a staggering 382 Thunderchiefs were lost in Vietnam, nearly half the total number that was built.

Different from the aircraft itself the men who flew the F-105 Thunderchief, like USAF Captain Samuel E. Waters, were absolutely dependable no matter the odds or the mission. Capt. Waters was the type of a man you think of when you picture a jet fighter pilot. Chiseled features, serious countenance, heroic look, stony glare.

A USAF photo F-105D Thunderchief Pilot Capt. Samuel E. Waters. (Photo: USAF)

Unlike his outwardly attractive but structurally dubious aircraft, Capt. Waters had intrinsic mettle. He was a hero. An icon. The worthy subject of statues in town squares or the name of a new high school.

Capt. Samuel E. Waters died 51 years ago on Tuesday December 13, 1966 over the dense jungle region of Ha Tay Province, North Vietnam. It was, according to some records, the first day the U.S. launched airstrikes on the capital city of Hanoi. The 29-year old combat pilot was a member of the 12th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 388th Tactical Fighter Wing.

It is already difficult to sort through accurate records about Captain Samuel E. Waters. According to three websites and social media posts, Capt. Waters was flying Republic F-105D Thunderchief #61-0187 the day he died. His target was the Yen Vien railroad yard just ten miles south of the city center outside Hanoi. He had successfully bombed his target and was exiting the area when his aircraft was struck by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM). He managed to nurse his wounded Thunderchief for about 15 miles before it finally succumbed to damage from the missile.

A U.S. Air Force Republic F-105D Thunderchief trailing fire and smoke just after interception by an SA-2 missile on February 14, 1968. The SA-2 did not actually hit an aircraft — the warhead was detonated by a command from the tracking radar or by a proximity fuse in the missle when it neared the target, throwing deadly fragments over a wide area. The pilot, Robert Malcolm Elliot (1929-1968), was killed. His body was not recovered until 1998. (USAF)

What struck me about the photo I found of Capt. Samuel E. Waters was that his image, and the similar images of men, fighter pilots, like him shaped my impression of what a real man truly was. What a hero is. In small suburbs and country towns people talked about these men. Men like Capt. Waters.

Another remarkable hero of the Thunderchief era was Lt. Karl W. Richter. Richter was an Air Force Academy graduate from 1964. He began training to fly fighter aircraft after graduation and subsequently volunteered to go to Vietnam. Richter learned to fly the F-105 Thunderchief at Nellis AFB, Nevada. He immediately volunteered to ferry an F-105 over to Thailand where he knew he would be put in the action. Once he arrived in Thailand he was assigned to the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, a hub of F-105 action over Southeast Asia.

Lt. Richter flew his first F-105 Thunderchief combat mission only four days after arriving in Southeast Asia. He eventually completed 198 combat missions over Vietnam in a number of aircraft including the F-100 Super Sabre and the O-1A Bird Dog light Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft. Richter also shot down a North Vietnamese MiG-17 on September 21, 1966 using the cannon on his F-105. At only 23 years old and still a First Lieutenant, Richter was the youngest USAF combat pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in the Vietnam conflict at the time.

F-105 Thunderbird pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter. (Photo: USAF)

Lt. Karl W. Richter was shot down on July 28th, 1967 at the age of 24. He was leading a bombing attack on a North Vietnamese bridge when he was struck by automatic anti-aircraft fire (AAA). Richter managed to eject from his F-105 and parachuted into rocky terrain where he sustained life-threatening injuries including a broken neck. Although a rescue force was able to retrieve him quickly, Lt. Richter died in the rescue helicopter on his way back to safety.

There are several statues of Lt. Karl Richter at prominent locations around the U.S. commemorating his remarkable courage and career. Perhaps the most significant inscription is on the one displayed at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. Below the chiseled figure of F-105 Thunderchief fighter pilot Lt. Karl W. Richter the Biblical inscription of Isaiah 6:8 reads:

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here am I. Send me.”

It is not only a fitting inscription for the lives and sacrifices of F-105 Thunderchief pilots like USAF Capt. Gene Devlin, Capt. Samuel E. Waters and Lt. Karl W. Richter, but for every service person we remember on Memorial Day in the U.S. who gave their lives for freedom and security.

Top image: Crews of the F-105D and F-105G Thunderchiefs in Thailand. (USAF)

USAF Special Operator May Posthumously Receive Medal of Honor for 2002 Battle on Takur-Ghar in Afghanistan

TSgt. John Chapman May Have Fought Desperate, Solo Battle to Safeguard Rescuers.

Alone, abandoned, outgunned. USAF Tech Sgt. John Chapman wakes up on a freezing mountaintop in Afghanistan to realize a special operator’s worst nightmare: he is trapped by himself behind enemy lines.

Now he must fight for his life. He is wounded, exposed and low on ammunition as he faces a large number of insurgents bent on making sure he is dead, or worse.

It is Mar. 4 and 5, 2002. The U.S. and coalition led Global War on Terror is at its peak. Coalition conventional and special operations forces are engaged in Operation Anaconda, a combined U.S. military, CIA and international attempt to eliminate Al Qaeda and Taliban forces from the rugged, remote Shahi-Kot Valley in the Arma Mountains of Afghanistan southeast of the Zurmat district.

The operation started hours earlier, and it is already not going well. Among other problems, mechanical delays have caused a U.S. MH-47E Chinook heavy special operations helicopter to attempt to land directly on top of the 10,469-foot Takur-Ghar mountain near sunrise. The helicopter was supposed to insert a long-range surveillance team that would have climbed from their originally planned landing zone (LZ) lower on the mountain to the top of the mountain to provide overwatch for the operation. But the delays compelled planners to save time by landing directly on top of Takur-Ghar. The large helicopter, callsign “Razor 03”, immediately comes under withering machinegun and rocket fire from insurgents dug-in on the mountain summit.

A USAF file photo of TSgt. John Chapman in Afghanistan. (Photo: USAF)

One U.S. Navy SEAL, Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts, slips on a slick of expanding hydraulic fluid on the back ramp of “Razor 03”. Roberts slides out of the helicopter and falls to the ground below. The heavily damaged helicopter with casualties on board attempts to retrieve him, but can no longer remain in the air. It crash lands several miles away near the bottom of the mountain. Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts is left alone on top of the mountain to fight for his life.

The wreckage of the first MH-47E Chinook, callsign “Razor 03”, on the summit of Takur-Ghar. (Photo: U.S. DoD File)

The heroic story of Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts is well-known from books and other media. But information suggests Roberts wasn’t the only man left alone on the summit of Takur-Ghar in a lonely, one-man battle for survival.

Following the fall of Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts from the back ramp of the first MH-47E helicopter “Razor 03”, a second MH-47E Chinook helicopter, this one with callsign “Razor 04”, returned to an area near the original landing site of “Razor 03” near the top of Takur-Ghar in an attempt to rescue Roberts.

The second MH-47E Chinook helicopter, “Razor 04”, inserted a small team of operators including Navy SEALs and an Air Force special operator in an attempt to rescue Roberts.

One of the rescuers was USAF Tech Sgt. John Chapman. After their insertion the second team of Navy SEALs and Air Force TSgt. Chapman came under heavy insurgent fire at the summit of Takur-Ghar and several were wounded. For the second time that day, they too were forced to withdraw from the summit. But Chapman had been hit and lay motionless on top of the mountain. When the SEALs withdrew under heavy insurgent gunfire, they thought Tech Sgt. John Chapman was killed in the firefight. It turns out they were likely wrong.

Recent information strongly suggests that USAF Tech Sgt. John Chapman survived alone on the summit of Takur-Ghar after the SEAL withdrawal and singlehandedly fought insurgents in hand-to-hand combat. After what appears to be a dramatic close-quarters battle, he did not survive. Now TSgt. John Chapman may receive the United States’ highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

A Department of Defense 3D map showing the location of Takur-Ghar relative to the rest of Operation Anaconda. (Photo: DoD)

In 2016, USAF Colonel Andrew N. Milani, former commander of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the “Night Stalkers”, presented an addendum to an original 2003 report he wrote about the incident that says, “With some of the original uncertainty removed, I can state that the probability now lies more in favor of Chapman surviving the original assault”.

TSgt Chapman has already been awarded the Air Force Cross, but the more recent review of intelligence gathered from the top of Takur-Ghar supports the current push to posthumously award him the Medal of Honor.

As indicated in the documents that awarded him his Air Force Cross, Chapman had, “exchanged fire with the enemy from minimum personal cover until he succumbed to multiple wounds.”

New examination and analysis of video shot from an MQ-1 Predator drone and an AC-130 Spectre gunship above Takur-Ghar may appear to tell the story of remarkable heroism.

At approximately 05:25 local time, video shot from both the MQ-1 Predator drone and from an orbiting AC-130 Spectre gunship showed a person on the ground, almost certainly TSgt. Chapman, moving. And fighting back against insurgents.

“It was really grainy. But there was still somebody up there fighting, and you could see that,” USAF Sgt. Kenny Longfritz, Chapman’s first sergeant at 24th USAF Special Tactics Squadron, said of the Predator drone footage he reviewed after the battle.

The grainy surveillance video goes on to reveal a brutal fight. At 06:00 local time insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at Chapman’s position after he had regained consciousness and joined the battle. At the same time the insurgents attacked Chapman at close range with the RPG, one insurgent charged Chapman’s position in an attempt to overrun him. Chapman killed the insurgent. Moments later another insurgent crawled into Chapman’s foxhole. In the surveillance video, the two can be seen engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Chapman prevailed again, killing the insurgent at arms’-length.

Only moments after Chapman’s desperate one-man stand, two helicopters carrying 75 U.S. Army Rangers were bearing down on Takur-Ghar in a last, massive assault to seize the summit position. It was not known at the time that Chapman was still in position fighting to the death. In his final moments, as the helicopters approach, Chapman appears to rise to provide covering fire for the approaching aircraft- possibly with the dead insurgent’s weapon, maybe with his own, no one knows. As he lays down a field of suppressive fire presumably to protect the incoming helicopter force, insurgents finally gun him down in a withering fusillade of machine-gun fire.

Chapman’s survival and courageous one-man fight against insurgents on top of Takur-Ghar could very well have enabled the approaching helicopter assault force to land more safely than without his suppressive covering fire during his final moments.

In multiple media stories, from the New York Times to Task and Purpose, there are reports that TSgt. John Chapman will receive the Medal of Honor. Journalist Paul Szoldra wrote in an April 20, 2018 article in Task and Purpose that:

“Chapman’s family was notified sometime in March that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor, according to several sources familiar with the matter. A source familiar with the Medal of Honor awards process told me the time between family notification and the award ceremony in Washington is typically a matter of weeks.”

A USAF file photo of TSgt. John Chapman in Afghanistan. (Photo: USAF)

While the Whitehouse has declined to comment yet on any upcoming award for John Chapman, the emerging version of events on top of Takur-Ghar on those days back in 2002 strongly suggest that he demonstrated exceptional selflessness, courage and determination in his solo defense of the mountain top against insurmountable odds. As the United States celebrates its annual Memorial Day holiday to remember servicemen fallen in combat, the new information about USAF Tech Sgt. John Chapman valor seems deserving of the nation’s highest award for heroism.