SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
A bird is cruising through the sunny skies of Costa Rica enjoying the view of a coast with crystal-clear water to the right. Alligators stretch across the bank and plains of untouched fields and trees to the left. On his way to his next stop, the bird notices something is not right and lands in an open field near an isolated riverbank that seems safe.
After landing, the bird realizes that he can no longer continue to fly. Stranded in a field, he has to figure out another way to return home.
This is the story of what happened to UH-60 Blackhawk from the 1st Battalion 228th Aviation Regiment during a mission in Costa Rica.
The Blackhawk was in en-route to begin a mission to support the USNS Comfort when a malfunction on board led the pilots to do a precautionary landing near a riverbank. Upon further examination, the Blackhawk crew discovered that the aircraft’s transmission was broken and the bird would not be safe to fly.
The 1-228th AVN had two dilemmas. One, determining how to move the aircraft out of the field and back to the mission operations center at Liberia Airport, Costa Rica, before the high tide floods the bank and field, potentially submerging the aircraft.
Second, how to get the aircraft back home to Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.
“We did kind of a crisis action planning group to help them work through the issues down there,” said U.S. Army Maj. Billy Blue III, 1-228 AVN executive officer and 1-228 AVN acting commander at the time of the incident. “We made sure that any parts and pieces they needed were pushed to Costa Rica quickly.”
The crisis planning team, due to time limitation from high tide and the austere location of the aircraft, decided to use an CH-47 Chinook, also from the 1-228 AVN that was supporting the USNS Comfort, to carry the Blackhawk back to Liberia airport.
Upon arrival in Liberia, the 1-228 AVN had three options of returning the broken bird home.
“There were three options dealing with having to repair the aircraft on site,” Blue said. “One was to send every one down there and just do the repairs there. The other was to go take the transmission out of the aircraft and bring it back to Soto Cano, do some build up here and take it back to Liberia. The third option was to use strategic airlift.”
After deliberating the options, the 1-228 AVN commander, LT. Col. Aaron Elliot, and Joint Task Force Bravo commander, Col. Steven Barry, decided that bringing the aircraft back to Soto Cano AB would work best for the unit.
“First was funding, if all the courses of action were in the ballpark of what we estimated,” Blue explained. “Then it came to what gave the unit the most flexibility to control potentially unforeseen problems; maybe things on the aircraft need to be fixed that we don’t know about right now.
“I think they made their decision based on what would give the organization the most flexibility without incurring exorbitant cost. Because if they would of found an issue down there that wasn’t planned for it could of cost an extra 30 days of TDY, ramp fees and all kinds of expenditures,” Blue continued.
Deciding to bring the aircraft back using strategic airlift, brings a new multitude of tasks and coordination that the regiment couldn’t accomplish alone. However, working with the joint members at Soto Cano made it a reality.
Members of the 612th Air Base Squadron, 480th Military Police Company and JTF-B staff all offered helping hands to coordinate with U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) and return the aircraft home.
“I got word from my director that strategic air was going to be needed to get the UH-60 from Liberia back to here,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Wendy Monroe, J4 officer in charge of ports and plans. “So I had the ports and plans NCO reach out to TRANSCOM to provide us an estimate and from there they provided contacts at SOUTHCOM and Mr. Paul Lockett at SOUTHCOM helped me out and we got the ball rolling.”
After coordination between the several units was completed and requirements identified, a C-17 Globemaster III secured to transport the helicopter from Costa Rica to Honduras.
“Once I got the strategic air coordinated I had to brief Col. Barry on the mission plan and from there coordinate with 228 to get us lifted out to Liberia,” Monroe said. “A team in place at Liberia got the aircraft prepped, the 612th ABS got the joint inspection done and 480th MP Company helped us out with the HAZMAT certification. So lots of players were involved to get this back.”
After the preparations and inspections completed, the C-17 picked up the crew and returned the broken bird home.
“We go the aircraft back here and 228th had members come out to help unload the aircraft.” Monroe said. “There were a couple of pallets and the blades that also had to be unloaded and that’s it. Now they are working on getting that aircraft fixed and mission capable.”
Blue said that joint members were critical enablers; and they would not have been able to accomplish the recovery without them.
“Everyone was very eager and excited to help us accomplish this mission,” He said. “Recovering an aircraft from an offsite location is, for aviators, something we do regularly, but for some of the other folks who are not used to doing those type of aviation operations, it was something new and exciting for them. So they were eager to help and even more eager to go down there and be a part of the team to recover the aircraft.”
Capt. Monroe agreed that the experience was unique for her and offered a lot of learning.
“You know it was probably the best thing I have seen in my career,” she said. ”Just being a part of something so big and having the experts and learning from all the different entities on base, it was a blessing. I would say the greatest thing that I’ve learned is that no matter what service that you come from, if it’s Air Force or Army, when there is a mission set in front of you, you know that you can conquer it. You just have to have a detailed plan and you put the pieces together; it all works out in the end when you have the right people in the right place” she explained.