Senior Airman David Doran had just pushed an airdrop bundle out the back of his C-130J Super Hercules in the skies above Afghanistan one night in September 2019 when he noticed a flash of red light in the darkness.
“At the time I wasn’t scared because I didn’t realize it was an RPG, but possibly a flare,” said the loadmaster in a recent Air Force article.
The red flash was indeed an RPG, and it was headed straight for the aircraft. Luckily, the aircrew’s training kicked in.
“[B]ased on the sudden bright flash of light against the dark night, just as the bundles were rolling out of the aircraft, I assessed that we were being targeted in some capacity and advised my loadmasters to hold on as we egressed the objective area,” said Capt. Jean-Luc Duckworth, commander and pilot of the C-130J.
Duckworth said that, based on the position of the aircrew in the aircraft, they didn’t identify the flash as an RPG launch until after they had climbed away from the projectile.
Still, it was a close call, and last week the crew was awarded an Air Force Combat Action Medal for their performance during the incident.
The medal is awarded to U.S. military personnel who actively participated in either air or ground combat while operating in an unsecured space, according to the Air Force. Nearly getting hit by an RPG seems to check that box.
Beyond Duckworth and Doran, the crew members involved were 1st Lt. Zachery Robinson, co-pilot; Capt. Glenn Garner, pilot; and Senior Airman Nolan Brandt, loadmaster.
The airmen were assigned to the 39th Airlift Squadron and deployed to Afghanistan as part of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at the time.
The crew’s mission that night was to conduct an airdrop in support of Afghan National Army forces who were in urgent need of supplies, according to the Air Force. But the Super Hercules wasn’t the only American aircraft overhead that night: an MQ-9 Reaper drone providing armed overwatch for the mission captured the near-miss on camera.
According to a video about the incident published by the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base last month, the Reaper pilot and sensor operator immediately swung into action, working with a Joint Terminal Attack Controller on the ground to drop ordnance on the people who fired the RPG.
"If we weren't there for the C-130 drop, the bad guys could have gotten away and that's the worst scenario," said the sensor operator, identified as Airman First Class Ashley. "They get away free and they do it again and very well could hit their target."
Meanwhile, the crew of the C-130J flew away to safety. Duckworth credited the successful airdrop and evasion to his crew’s training.
“Situations like this are what we train for on almost every training flight,” he said. “Since we know the pacing, know the internal dialogue between crew members and know how to expertly execute an airdrop, I, as the pilot, immediately knew the situation of the airdrop load and safe maneuvering ability of the aircraft once I heard ‘load clear’ from my loadmaster—as is done on each training flight.”
“I'm thankful for Capt. Duckworth and 1st. Lt. Robinson for being extraordinary pilots and wingmen,” Doran said in the article. “They did what they were supposed to do without hesitation, and for that I get to be here.”