May 30, 2005
Quick thinking, skill earn awards for helo crewmen
Flight engineer, pilot show mettle during aftermath of attack in Iraq
By Bryant Jordan
Times staff writer
The hit almost certainly should have sent the MH-53M helicopter crashing to the ground, perhaps killing everyone aboard.
But it didn't.
Instead, in the critical moments that followed, a wounded pilot's skilled night flying and a flight engineer's clear thinking and actions meant the air crew's survival and a year later, awards for the pilot, Capt. Steven Edwards, and engineer, Master Sgt. Robert Colannino Jr., both of the 20th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Edwards on May 6 was awarded the Kolligian Trophy, given annually for outstanding feats of airmanship, while Colannino was presented with the Pitsenbarger Award, which is given each year to an enlisted airman for heroism in saving lives or preventing injury.
Edwards served as the flight lead of a two-ship formation on an April 12, 2004, night mission to resupply two combat units in northern Iraq and to bring back the body of a soldier killed in action. Edwards' Pave Low took a devastating hit from a rocket-propelled grenade. The weapon smashed through the helicopter's nose and exploded in the cockpit, wounding all four crewmen and destroying the helicopter's instrument panel, windscreens and overhead throttle control panel.
In the cockpit, Edwards had injuries to the right side of his face and his eye; he had shrapnel wounds to both arms and legs; and his right shoulder was dislocated. With loss of cockpit lighting instruments and automatic flight-control, he had no way to judge his rate of descent, ground speed or altitude.
In the chaos and noise that followed the RPG hit, a rush of thoughts passed through Edwards' mind, awareness that he was still alive; thinking he was seeing the same things that another man, who had died, was seeing in his situation; remembering his wife and kids; amazement that the aircraft still was in the air and flyable and his need to get it down safely.
In the back, Colannino thought the helicopter suffered mechanical problems and wondered what they could do to fix them and get on with the mission, he said in an interview. Communications with the cockpit had been blown out by the blast, he said.
The time between impact and landing was about one minute, and once one they were on the ground, they had to get the Pave Low shut down before fast-approaching insurgents reached them, Edwards said in a May 19 interview. Right behind Edwards' helicopter was his sister ship, now their rescue helicopter.
In the cabin, Colannino lowered the back of his seat and released his restraining belt
I saw the flight engineer was badly injured. I helped him, "got the extra pilot out of his seat, and went to work trying to get the aircraft shut down," he said.
The helicopter was still running, its noise drawing the enemies to their position, and Edwards needed help shutting it down. Knowing that the fuel cables ran the length of the cabin, Colannino pulled them, killing the engines and the rotor and enabling the crew to escape and await a rescue.
When the other helicopter touched down, Colannino carried his fellow flight engineer aboard and continued to provide first aid until they landed safely, according to an Air Force press release.
Edwards and Colannino said their fellow air crew members remained conscious throughout the attack and crash, and both have since returned to duty.
Edwards said he had not even heard of the Kolligian Trophy until he was told he'd been awarded it. The trophy, named for a pilot declared missing when his T-33 disappeared off the California coast in 1955, recognizes air crew members who demonstrate extraordinary skill, exceptional alertness, ingenuity or proficiency in averting accidents or minimizing damage or loss of life.
The Pitsenbarger Award is named for Airman 1st Class William Pitsenbarger, a pararescueman posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for treating wounded soldiers while under constant, intense enemy fire in Vietnam in 1966.