News Branch Air Force

How the Air Force flew its longest-distance night hostage rescue

“If you’re not nervous, you’re lying … But you kind of push that down because you’re too busy focused on making this mission happen.”
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rescue, dfc, hostage rescue, mission, operation
Aircrew from the 9th Special Operations Squadron in an MC-130J Commando II refuel a CV-22 Osprey during Emerald Warrior/Trident at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif., January 24, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Erin Piazza/U.S. Air Force)

It was not until afterwards that the full impact of what Air Force Maj. Kyle Konkolics had just done finally sunk in.

“All the nerves came after the fact,” the CV-22 pilot recalled years later. “It’s like ‘oh my God, we just did that,’ and you think about all these crazy things that could have happened or did happen.”

On Oct. 31, 2020, Konkolics was one of several airmen who took off from Naval Station Rota, Spain to fly the longest-distance nighttime hostage rescue mission in U.S. military history. Konkolics, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross last month for his role in the mission, and three other CV-22 tiltrotor transports carried a team of Navy SEAL Team Six operators 2,000 miles into northern Nigeria, where the SEALs parachuted into the darkness to rescue an American named Philp Walton who had been kidnapped four days earlier by a group of armed men. 

The long mission required aerial refueling from several MC-130J turboprop planes accompanying the CV-22s, and the MC-130Js in turn had to be refueled by KC-135s that accompanied the mission. An AC-130J gunship and a Navy P-8A patrol and reconnaissance also joined the mission, according to our colleagues at The War Zone.

The operation was successful, with the SEALs rescuing the hostage, killing all but one of the kidnappers and all the aircraft returning safely with no casualties. Last month, Konkolics and four other airmen received awards for their role in the mission, where they persevered through 11 hours of nonstop flying, multiple aerial refuelings, diplomatic delays, an unknown threat environment and, for one CV-22, a total loss of critical aircraft systems.

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U.S. Air Force pilots with the 7th Special Operations Squadron fly a CV-22B Osprey during night time training, United Kingdom, Feb. 3, 2022. (Tech. Sgt. Westin Warburton/U.S. Air Force)

‘Time was of the essence’

One of the most impressive feats of the mission is how quickly it came together. The crews had just 48 hours to prepare for the complicated operation, which would see them fly over isolated areas without many friendly airfields nearby to land in case anything went wrong. 

When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how unusual that kind of short-notice planning is for such a complicated mission, Konkolics responded that it was an “11,” but the quick turnaround was essential to act on the intelligence they had while it was still accurate.

“In the end, time was of the essence,” he said. “If we took too long we might have missed that target of opportunity.”

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The combination of long range and vertical lift is the raison d’être for the CV-22 Osprey, which can point its 38-foot diameter rotor blades forward like a conventional airplane or point them up like a helicopter in order to hover or land without a runway. Their adaptability makes CV-22s excellent special operations aircraft, but they are also known for being difficult to maintain. When all four birds took off from Rota, Spain, that alone was an achievement thanks to the hard work of the maintainers.

“I don’t think we give enough credit to our maintenance team,” said Tech Sgt. Robert Duck, a flight engineer aboard one of the Ospreys who received the Air Medal for his part in the mission. 

“The CV-22 is quite a maintenance-intensive beast,” he said. “Those guys and gals really knocked it out of the park. Between that and getting four tails home, all in hours, really, is a huge feat.”

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A U.S. Air Force flight engineer monitors the evening light in preparation for the nighttime tilt-rotor air-to-air refueling of a 352d Special Operations Wing CV-22B Osprey, United Kingdom, Aug. 2, 2022. (Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire/U.S. Air National Guard)

‘If you’re not nervous, you’re lying’

Konkolics said he felt some nerves during the high-pressure mission, but the task at hand took precedence over those feelings.

“If you’re not nervous, you’re lying,” he said. “But you kind of push that down because you’re too busy focused on making this mission happen, doing the best you can do and doing what you were trained to do.”

Konkolics was once a CV-22 flight engineer like Duck before becoming a pilot in 2014. It takes years of training to safely operate a complicated aircraft like the Osprey or the MC-130J, and that training paid off throughout the mission. Though the flight itself came together quickly, the intense training allowed the crew to roll with unexpected punches — like not having enough air to breath because the Ospreys had to fly at a higher altitude than usual.

The Air Force would not say the specific altitude at which the crew flew or the specific reason the high altitude was necessary, but it meant that some of the crew and passengers in the CV-22’s unpressurized cabin started feeling symptoms of hypoxia.

Luckily, Duck had experienced hypoxia in a controlled environment in training, so he was able to recognize the symptoms in the form of euphoria and color loss in his vision.

“I noticed the symptoms within myself at first,” he said. “I asked the [SEAL] team lead next to me if he and his team were feeling okay and he said ‘well now that you mention it, we could use a little bit of oxygen.’”

The CV-22 has a system aboard for supplying supplemental oxygen through a mask, and Duck used it to make sure the 25 or so SEALs were feeling back to normal. Though the incident was mentioned in his Air Medal citation, Duck described it as “a very minor event,” and one which shows how the training at places like Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico prepares them for unexpected challenges.

“That training, in conjunction with the training we get at our operational unit, in this case the 7th Special Operations Squadron, that kind of sets the foundation for what we were doing out there,” he said. “You obviously can’t train for every scenario, but that training taught us how to think, so that when you have aircraft issues or fuel planning problems, you know how to think through those problems and get those solutions that both satisfies the safety of the crew and accomplishes the mission.”

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U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Ensman, HC-130J Combat King II loadmaster assigned to the 26th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, performs Helicopter Air-to-Air refueling procedures during low-light conditions within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, Nov. 7, 2022 (Tech. Sgt. Daniel Asselta/U.S. Air Force)

‘Nothing ever goes right’

The service members aboard the CV-22s needed air to breath, but the aircraft needed gas to fly. That was where the MC-130Js came into play. 

As a loadmaster aboard one of the MC-130Js, Staff Sgt. Christin Springs oversaw the aerial refueling process between her aircraft and the Ospreys. Aerial refueling is a dangerous task even in daylight due to the proximity of fast-moving aircraft and the chance that the receiving aircraft might collide with the refueling drogue. The refuelings that occurred on this flight had to take place at night, again and again, over the course of a marathon mission. It was a team effort for Springs and her fellow crew members.

“We definitely leaned on each other for support” against fatigue, said the loadmaster, who received an Air Medal for her role in the mission. “But … with it being a real life mission, just the anticipation and the excitement around the entire thing definitely keeps you going for a long time.”

According to Spring’s medal citation, the airman also had to deal with “communication systems degradation” to get the refueling job done, though the Air Force would not say what specific form that degradation took. Like her colleagues, Springs credited her training for the successful night.

“Literally everything we do ties back into our training, just in case we haven’t said that 20,000 times,” she said. “Out of a week of flying here at Kirtland, we go through emergency procedures almost every day in real life.”

Part of that training is learning how to evaluate a problem and determine whether it is significant enough to end the mission, Springs explained. Envelope–pushing missions like the Nigeria rescue mission provide great real-world examples that can be used to help train students back home.

“With experiences like this mission, we can actually sit them down and say ‘this is a scenario where, if this fails and we have the question ‘is it worth it still going on? Sometimes it is still okay to keep going on with the mission, depending on what’s failing,’” she said.

One aircraft did have to call it quits mid-mission. According to his citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross, Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Reedy navigated his CV-22 crew “through the total loss of critical aircraft systems.” 

The downed systems were responsible for communication, navigation, and cockpit flight displays. Reedy managed to regain partial use of one radio, through which he told the other CV-22s that his own aircraft could not continue the mission. 

“Without the use of aircraft navigation or cockpit flight displays, Sergeant Reedy assisted in performing a non-standard aerial refueling and executing a night formation landing, guided by his wingman, into marginal weather and visibility conditions,” read Reedy’s citation. Tech Sgt. Thomas Morgan, a third CV-22B special missions aviator, also received the Air Medal in part for helping guide his malfunctioning wingman through the ordeal.

After landing at a remote operating base, Reedy transferred some equipment and a weapon to another CV-22, which then took off to continue the mission. Though the loss of critical systems sounds bad, Konkolics said the incident overall was nothing too crazy.

“At the end of the day they were able to safely recover to a friendly location and we were able to continue the mission,” he said. “Like Sgt. Duck said, nothing ever goes right, but this is why we get trained to do what we do so we can make it happen.”

rescue, dfc, hostage rescue, mission, operation
From left to right: Tech. Sgt. Thomas Morgan, Tech Sgt. Robert Duck, Maj. Gen. Phillip Stewart, Senior Master Sgt. Christopher Reedy, Maj. Kyle Konkolics and Staff Sgt. Christin Springs pose during an award ceremony at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Jan. 11, 2023. During the ceremony, members of the 58th Special Operations Wing were awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross or The Air Medal for their actions during a hostage rescue mission in 2020. (Airman 1st Class Spencer Kanar/U.S. Air Force)

‘You guys make it look so freakin’ easy’

Eventually, the rescue package arrived at a point above northern Nigeria where the SEALs parachuted to the surface, then “hiked about three miles until they came upon the captors’ small encampment in a copse of scrubland bushes and trees,” the New York Times reported in 2020. The CIA had located Walton beforehand, according to ABC News.

After the SEALs killed most of the captors and picked up the hostage, Konkolics and the remaining CV-22 pilots landed in unfamiliar terrain cluttered with trees, rocks and other obstacles to pick them up. Though it was unclear if the CV-22s then flew straight back to Rota or took a less direct route, they eventually returned having pulled off a complex mission with very little time to prepare in a major endorsement for the effectiveness of Air Force special operations.

“There’s not another military in the world that could have pulled that off,” then-Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller said about the mission during a 2020 visit to the 100th Aerial Refueling Wing, the unit to which the mission’s KC-135 tankers belonged, according to Military.com. “The problem … is you guys make it look so freakin’ easy, that the American public just automatically assumes like, ‘Oh, yeah, you know, you push the U.S. military button and everything’s going to go fine’ … That’s why it’s so important to come out here and listen to y’all.”

At the time of the mission, Konkolics and Duck were assigned to the 7th Special Operations Squadron based at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, United Kingdom, and now are assigned to the 71st Special Operations Squadron, a CV-22 training unit based at Kirtland. Springs was assigned to the 67th Special Operations Squadron, also based at Mildenhall, and is now assigned to the 415th Special Operations Squadron, an HC-130J and MC-130J training unit also based at Kirtland.

Konkolics pointed out that the success of the mission is particularly poignant when compared to an earlier long-distance rescue mission that did not go so well. Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 attempt to rescue Americans taken hostage in Iran, was “an extremely complex operation,” that “depended on everything going to plan,” according to the Air Force. “Any deviation could cause the entire operation to unravel with possibly tragic consequences.”

Bad weather, mechanical problems and poor coordination among the aircraft involved led to the mission commander aborting the operation, the Air Force wrote. The failure became tragic when one of a RH-53 helicopter’s rotor blades hit a fuel-laden EC-130, killing five airmen and three Marines.

The failure of Eagle Claw “highlighted the necessity of joint planning and training” and led to the creation of the U.S. Special Operations Command and Air Force Special Operations Command, the Air Force wrote, as well as the CV-22 itself. About 40 years later, the knowledge gained from that experience is still paying off. 

“We learned a lot of what we did right” from that mission, “which was almost exactly like this,” Konkolics said.

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