Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Rescue from Mogadishu (Part 8): "An Eastern Exit"

At just before 11:00 PM on January 5th, ten CH-46E helicopter crews, five from HMM-263 and five from HMM-365, began bubbling up to the Guam’s flight deck to man their aircraft.

The plan called for the mission to be completed in four waves of five aircraft. Five of our HMM-263 aircraft—callsign “Thunder”—would go in for a load of evacuees first. As we departed the Embassy grounds and headed back to the Guam, mission commander LtCol Wallace would radio a code word that would signal the five HMM-365 aircraft—callsign “Rugby”—under flight leader LtCol Bob Saikowski to launch toward Mogadishu. That would happen twice.

As we walked across the dimly lit flight deck toward our aircraft, the Guam’s flight deck speaker system, which was normally active with calls and instructions dedicated to controlling the movement of aircraft, instead grabbed the attention of the Marines and sailors on the flight deck with the familiar strains of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. We stopped and took in the moment. As aware as we already were of the mission’s importance, the song brought to mind what the more than 200 hopeful evacuees from 30 nations standing by at the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu already knew: there was something special about the USA that made even our adversaries look to us for help in times of distress.

The five Thunder aircraft from HMM-263 were lined up front-to-back on the flight deck spots along the port side of the ship when we boarded them. Pilots climbed into their cockpits, connected their helmets to the radio and intercom systems, fastened their harnesses, and began working through their checklists. I flew from the right seat of the fifth Thunder aircraft.

While we worked through our checklists, our crew chiefs connected their helmets to their radio and intercom long cords, confidently whipping the cords away from their feet as they walked to their positions for the aircraft start sequence. Meanwhile, our gunners double-checked the .50 caliber machineguns mounted on each side of the aircraft and the ammunition.

All of us were armed with 9 mm Beretta pistols and some of us had M-16 rifles stashed within reach.

Over the next 15 minutes, the Thunder CH-46Es roared to life on the flight deck. As the crews waited for the signal to take off, pilots adjusted their heavy Vietnam-era ceramic armored chest plates—so-called “chicken plates”—that rested in their laps. Crew chiefs and gunners had them strapped to their torsos to cover their chest and back.

Once our five Thunder aircraft were all running and ready for takeoff, a member of the Navy flight deck crew, in a manner reminiscent of World War II flight deck operations, went from aircraft to aircraft with a white board. The board advised pilots of the ship’s course, the wind direction and speed, the barometric altimeter setting, and “pigeons” to the beach. (“Pigeons” are a reference to homing pigeons. That night, they were the compass heading from the ship to our initial point (IP) on the Somali coast.)

Radio transmissions would be kept to a minimum throughout the mission. Most radio calls would occur using pre-planned brevity codes between the two flight leaders and between LtCol Wallace, the Embassy, and the Guam. The absence of radio transmissions would mask our intentions and limit the ability of adversaries to use direction-finding equipment to locate our aircraft. Everyone in the flight knew what to do anyway, so discussing it further on the radio was unnecessary.

On signals from the landing signalmen on the flight deck beginning at 11:43 PM, our five Thunder aircraft lifted off from the deck of the Guam in sequence. As soon as we were in the air, five tow tractors which had already been attached to the Rugby aircraft, pulled them onto the deck spots where they would begin their own start sequences and prepare to launch.

For the next three hours, each of the aircraft in the two flights would operate as one, yet the experiences of the crewmembers in those aircraft would be quite unique. The positions of their aircraft in the flight, their roles as members of the crew, and even their interactions with the passengers they transported would yield dozens of experiences and stories.

Once the Thunder flight was joined in the air, we proceeded toward Mogadishu. We were still 30 miles at sea, so we were able to arm our missile decoy systems and test-fire our machineguns without our tracers being seen from the distant shore.

We would be in Somalia in less than 20 minutes.

As we approached the coastline, Mogadishu was easy to see through the NVGs. While the sky at sea was clear, the city itself was blanketed by a layer of smoke and haze which held what light there was in the city near the ground. The city still had some electrical power, and we could see flashes of a gun battle and occasional tracer ricochets as we got closer.

The IP where we wanted to cross the coastline wouldn’t be easy to find, but the importance of flying over it on the first crossing wasn’t lost on anyone.  A thousand meters to the right would take the flight directly over known surface-to-air missile (SAM) and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) sites (and presumably troop concentrations).  A thousand meters to the left would take the flight off the edge of the map.[1]

The terrain in coastal Somalia would give few navigational clues so we relied primarily on dead-reckoning to get us where we needed to go. That meant that once we hit the beach, getting to the Embassy would be a matter of flying a heading for an amount of time that we had already computed, and making two turns with more timing to our LZ, assuming we had crossed the coastline at the right location in the first place.

As we crossed the beach, we descended to 100 feet above the ground, slowed to 80 knots (92 mph), and made our first turn.[2] Cockpit stopwatches were started for the timing to the next checkpoint. Gunners were at their weapons while eyes were peeled for trouble all around. The next and final turn was rapidly approaching, and it would determine if our navigation to that point was on track. If it was, we would immediately begin our landing transition and be on the ground within seconds. If it wasn’t, we would be in the situation we didn’t want to be in, meandering around the city making for easy targets for gunmen below.

In our planning, we asked the forward air controller (FAC), Captain Spasojevich, now on the ground at the Embassy, to assign a Marine to climb the Embassy water tower that we spotted on the satellite image and place an infrared (IR) strobe light on it. The light would be visible to pilots wearing NVGs but not to the naked eye. With the light on the water tower, we would be able to verify that we were in the right place while we were beginning our landing transition.

As we made our way inland, we weren’t sure that the strobe light had been installed or that it was working. Nonetheless, as we made the last turn to what we hoped was our final landing course, more than a dozen pairs of eyes strained to see if a water tower came into view and that an IR strobe light was flashing on it. Halfway through the turn, we saw the tower and the light and continued our turn until they were on our left. Fortunately, the heading to the IP that the Guam gave us was right on the mark.

It was time to land.

Pilots reduced power and pulled back easily on the noses of their aircraft. As expected, the LZ was barely discernible, even with the help of the NVGs. Initially, we could make out the outline of the LZ, but it quickly became lost in the blowing sand as LtCol Wallace descended into the zone. The decision to put a little bit of separation between aircraft during the landing phase proved to be a good idea as each aircraft was swallowed up and disappeared in the swirling sand, what we called “brown-out.” As the four aircraft followed LtCol Wallace into the zone, all we could see of the aircraft in front of us were the lights on the rotor blade tips and the static electricity-charged sand particles swirling through their rotor systems. Pilots stayed on their approach paths into the zone and quickly found landing spots. Once crew chiefs and gunners cleared the rear of the aircraft of obstacles, we all landed. I was at the flight controls of the fifth aircraft so it was a relief to confirm that our interpretation of the satellite photos was correct and we could actually fit five aircraft in the LZ.[3]

Thunder was on the ground at the Embassy one minute ahead of schedule.[4]

After we landed, we flattened the pitch of our rotor blades to settle the dust and once we did, we were rewarded with a view of what we were there for. Through our NVGs, we could see groups of civilians huddled near an Embassy building. They had already been organized in “sticks” of 15.

The evacuees moved quickly in their designated groups to board the helicopters.  It took 20 minutes for them to board and get seated, but once they did, we took off and turned right out of the LZ toward the sea. As soon as we were airborne, LtCol Wallace made the radio call for the second wave to begin its ingress. At 21 minutes after midnight, the second wave of five helicopters from HMM-365 lifted off from the Guam.[5]

As we headed out to sea, we passed the Rugby flight headed towards Mogadishu, five “Thunder” aircraft from HMM-263 returning to the ship and five “Rugby” aircraft from HMM-365 inbound to Mogadishu.

Fifteen minutes after leaving Mogadishu, our five Thunder aircraft entered the Guam’s landing pattern, took our separation from each other, and watched for a green light and a landing signalman for clearance to land. Once we were on the deck, the ramps at the rear of the aircraft came down and the evacuees were escorted off the aircraft and led down to the hangar deck where they could be watched and processed. Protocol called for evacuees to be eyed with some caution and suspicion at first, even as they were treated to a warm welcome. To that end, they were searched while armed Marines and sailors were perched in the catwalks to guard against any unexpected trouble as scores of sailors assisted them.

On the flight deck, the Thunder aircraft were refueled while crews discussed the first trip into Mogadishu. I had about decided that I didn’t need the bulky armor plate that was in my lap and turned around partially in my seat to hand the plate to one of our crewmen. However, as soon as I did, the silence on the radios was broken by a call from the Embassy advising us that we’d been ordered to cease the evacuation and leave Somalia or be shot down. Since we had begun the evacuation with the understanding that the environment would be hostile, this new threat didn’t change our mission or our determination to accomplish it. Still, I did turn back around and ask to have that armored plate again. With it in place, we reviewed procedures for the transfer of flight controls between pilots in the event of a casualty and the rules of engagement for our gunners.

As it turned out, the threat to “leave Somalia or be shot down” came from a Somali major who arrived at the Embassy gate, grenade in hand, with two truckloads of troops and said he would order the helicopters to be shot down if the “illegal operation” didn’t end immediately. Ambassador Bishop met with the major and stalled him while the evacuation continued.[6]

When Rugby passed the signal to us at 12:51 AM that they were coming out of the LZ,[7] the chocks and chains were removed from our Thunder aircraft and we lifted off again from the Guam.

Then, moments after our departure from the ship, the overhead Air Force AC-l30 reported that his radar warning receiver detected an active surface-to-air missile (SAM) system to the west. We continued to the Embassy; the situation would only worsen if we delayed.  Near the LZ, the helicopters received SAM radar search indications from the northeast, but our flying at such low altitudes and airspeeds made it difficult for the radars to acquire our helicopters.[8]

While our helicopters could fly beneath the SA-2 and SA-3 SAM threat, the AC-130 orbiting overhead could not. After some anxious moments, the AC-130 was repositioned over the ocean where it was less vulnerable[9] yet still capable of covering the evacuation ashore.

The new missile radar activity indicated an increased awareness of our presence, but we believed that flying darkened without exterior lights would reduce our exposure to small arms, shoulder-fired SAMs, and rocket propelled grenades. According to evacuees, the helicopters were almost invisible until they were on the ground.[10]

The third wave, now inbound to the Embassy, included the helicopter that the Ambassador and his immediate staff were supposed to leave on. However, Ambassador Bishop was still negotiating with the Somali major while the third wave landed at the Embassy and passengers boarded their assigned helicopters. As a result, only four of the five aircraft in that wave had full loads when it was time for them to leave.[11]

Our aircraft was that fifth aircraft, so LtCol Wallace directed us to remain behind until the LZ was cleaned out and everyone was accounted for. He led the other four aircraft back to the Guam and signaled the Rugby flight to return to the Embassy for the fourth and final wave.

Once the other four Thunder aircraft left the Embassy, we moved as far forward in the zone as possible to allow the five Rugby aircraft to fit into the LZ behind us. That put us in front of the soldiers who had massed at the Embassy gate, which drew the full attention of our gunners who were ready to repel an attack if one materialized. We watched the gate and the area around our aircraft closely while we waited for the radio call to leave.

About 15 minutes later, blowing sand from behind us announced the arrival of the five Rugby aircraft. They landed behind us and took on passengers, but the confusion caused by the Ambassador’s decision not to leave on the third wave created an accountability problem. In the disarray, two members of a communications team failed to board their aircraft to return to the Guam so as we waited for a final accounting of personnel, the two communicators waited nearby for a signal to board an aircraft. Finally, a crewman spotted them and ran out to help them get on the aircraft.[12]

It turned out that LtCol Wallace’s sense that there might be a problem accounting for the entire security force and his decision to have someone remain in the LZ until everyone was accounted for was a lifesaver.

Once the Rugby aircraft were loaded, they left the LZ. We stayed and waited for the radio call that confirmed that everyone was accounted for. We expected that with the two radio operators accounted for, it wouldn’t be long.

Finally after several minutes, we received the code word to “return to Mother”—“Mother” was the Guam—as LtCol Wallace flew toward Mogadishu to escort us to the ship. We were the last Americans in Somalia.

In our aircraft, we had already discussed the fact that we didn’t want to give the soldiers at the gate much of a chance to send an RPG round our way as we left, so we agreed that I would lift off abruptly without pausing for a hover check, give a little feint to the left toward where the soldiers were gathered, then bank hard right and descend below their line of sight toward the sea. I don’t know if it made a difference, but it didn’t hurt either. Within just a few minutes, we were at the coastline where we met LtCol Wallace and joined on his wing.

We later learned that as we lifted off, a large mob of armed looters scaled the walls of the Embassy compound, looting and destroying everything in sight.[13] The State Department reported that the Embassy was sacked, its doors blasted down with grenades soon after the evacuation was completed.[14]

We landed on the Guam at 3:00 AM and Operation EASTERN EXIT was finished. The Guam and Trenton turned north and headed out of Somali waters, back toward Oman where the evacuees were put ashore on January 11th.

<< Part 7 - "Situation Well In Hand"
>> Part 9 - "Muscat"


[1] Ronald J. Brown, “U.S. Marines in the Persian Gulf, 1990-1991, With Marine Forces Afloat in Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), p. 92.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Adam B. Siegel, “Eastern Exit: The Noncombatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) from Mogadishu, Somalia in January 1991,” (1992), Center for Naval Analyses, p. 33.
[5] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34.
[6] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 33.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Siegel, “Eastern Exit”.
[9] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 33.
[10] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 4; Adam B. Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” Naval Institute Proceedings: Naval Review (1992), p. 98.
[11] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” pp. 33-34; Siegel, “An American Entebbe,” p. 98.
[12] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34.
[13] Siegel, “Eastern Exit,” p. 34; James K. Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” Foreign Service Journal (March 1991), p. 31;, “Operation Eastern Exit,”
[14] Bishop, “Escape from Mogadishu,” p. 31. 

© Robert A. Doss