A cloud of thick dust engulfed the helicopter as it made its decent to the ground. Lt. Col. Jeff Peterson felt his muscles tense. Visibility was minimal and his landing zone was unforgiving. If he moved the control stick too far to the left he would crash into rock face – too far to the right and he’d hit civilian mud huts. Pitch dark, dirt flying and a soft patter of rain – the landing was risky and seemed near impossible.
“Everything was in slow motion. It felt like eternity,” he said. “You start thinking ‘please don’t screw this up’. You pray. You think about your family, wife, parents, kids.”
Peterson moved his control stick to the left, but it was too far.
“Stop left! Stop left!” The men in the back shouted. Peterson felt a rush of adrenaline as he yanked the control stick hard to the right. His friend and copilot knew he’d over commit and placed his hand to block him. He concentrated and moments later he landed the helicopter. Two men from the village sprinted at the helicopter, but were immediately stopped by the American Pararescuemen.
“Where’s the survivor?”
“He’s right here”.
Standing in front of them was Marcus Luttrell - the lone survivor.
In its opening weekend the movie “Lone Survivor”, detailing the mission of Operation Redwing with SEAL team 10, grossed $37.8 million. The movie is based on the book Lone Survivor, which was written by Marcus Luttrell – the only SEAL to survive the mission of Operation Redwing. Though many receive an inside look into the mission through Luttrell’s book there are few who can say they were an eyewitness like Peterson - the Air Force pilot who landed the HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter to rescue Luttrell.
Peterson, more widely known by the nickname of “Spanky”, first considered entering into the military in college. In his sophomore year of college at Arizona State University, Peterson entered into the Air Force ROTC program. Prior to graduating from ASU in 1991, Peterson was told that due to cut-backs in the military no pilot slots were available. He was told to choose another career field and he chose to become a maintenance officer. He moved to Abilene, Texas where he worked on B1 Bombers for two years until a spot opened up for pilot training. His focus? Helicopters.
For the next 11 years, Peterson trained at two different air force bases in Las Vegas and Florida. In 2003, he went into the reserve and a year later moved with his family to Tucson where he served in the rescue squadron at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. In 2005, Peterson was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Each day was the same routine while on deployment: Sleep, eat, pick up the guys in the helicopter and flight training. Not much was happening until the team was told they’d be going to Bagram, which was about 340 miles away. The mission was non-disclosed at the time and was called Operation Redwing.
After signing a non-disclosure statement Peterson learned out that a four-man SEAL team had been searching for a Taliban leader, was attacked and that one of the SEALs was thought to still be alive. Peterson also found out that a Chinook helicopter had been shot down.
For a few days Peterson and the other men waited for their orders while staying in Bagram. The only sign of hope they had that an American was still alive was through clicking sounds being made over the radio.
“We thought it was a trap. Even if they (Taliban) knew English they’d have a thick accent,” said Peterson, who added that the clicking sounds made it nearly impossible to distinguish who was communicating with them. “We just didn’t know.”
The next night Peterson and the other men flew around the area where the Chinook had been shot down a few days prior. They scanned the area hoping for a sign or signal of any sort, but nothing came. Once daylight came they flew back to base and for the remainder of the day heard no clicking sounds on the radio. Their hearts sank.
Shortly after midnight that day, the men were told that there was a person of interest. The person turned out to be an elderly man who lived in a nearby village and claimed that an American by the name of Marcus Luttrell was staying at his home. A note with Luttrell’s handwriting, some security questions and answers and fingerprints confirmed that it was him.
Within the next few days, plans were being arranged to rescue Luttrell. Special Forces hiked to the village and secured the area while the Chinooks, who were the primary flying source, prepared to retrieve Luttrell. Since joining Operation Redwing, Peterson’s team had served as a support for the mission, but that was about to change.
“They said ‘60s you have the pickup’,” said Peterson. “That’s when I – well that’s when you start listening a lot harder because we’re doing it now.”
Tactical planning and strategizing began between those on the A-10 and AC130 aircrafts and Peterson’s HH60-G team. The plan was for additional aircraft and men on the ground to bomb and shoot in the surrounding hills in order to create a diversion while two of the HH60-G helicopters fly in to get Luttrell. Peterson’s friend who goes by the nickname of “Skinny” would lead by piloting the first helicopter while Peterson would follow behind. Skinny would mark the landing zone with a strobe light. He would fly in low, with a lot of energy, and then pop back up with his guns to bear. Peterson would follow behind and land his helicopter on the marked landing zone and pick up Luttrell. It seemed simple enough.
On July 2, the team was prepared to execute their plan. It was known that Luttrell was in bad shape with back injuries and shrapnel in his leg. Retrieving him as soon as possible was critical.
“It seemed like we were a lot more nervous,” said Peterson. “I don’t know why it shocked me but that is when I really got – I’m going in.”
It was late at night when the team headed out. Peterson flew behind Skinny. All was going well so far. The first part of the mission began with the diversion plan. Aircraft started bombing and men started shooting in the distant hills away from the village. Right when that started, the 20 men protecting the village all turned on their strobe lights – a standard procedure. Peterson’s heart began to race. With 20 strobe lights flashing around, Peterson could not tell which one was for marking the landing zone.
“It was dark and the weather was bad. It was a black abyss,” said Peterson. “We didn’t even know where we were going and which one (strobe light) was the right one.”
Everyone began to talk in the helicopter and the five different radios were going off. Everything became hectic, said Peterson. All seemed lost until the pilot from the A-10 said he’d use the laser on his targeting pod and mark the landing zone.
“Right when it needed to happen - just like a flashlight from God,” Peterson said regarding the strobe light.
With the zone marked, Skinny flew in, popped back up and Peterson began his descent onto the village terrace. As he descended, dust surrounded the entire helicopter. Peterson couldn’t make sense of any sort of direction – left, right, up or down. Everything was moving. Then he spotted a plant on the terrace – it was stationary. He focused on the plant and used it as a guide to land the helicopter on the terrace.
Luttrell, along with the elder in the village, ran at the helicopter, jumped in, and Peterson took off. When they landed back at base, Luttrell was taken to Bagram to have his wounds addressed. When Peterson returned to base he breathed a sigh of relief. The mission was over and all were safe.
“I was shaking,” said Peterson. “The guys are all hollering outside ‘Spanky! Spanky!’. They had no idea how close it was and how we almost crashed. All I wanted to do was talk to my wife.”
Peterson talked to his wife. He couldn’t give her details but Penny knew he was safe and that “everything was really, really good” according to her husband. She later found out Peterson’s role in Operation Redwing. Peterson was now seen as hero, but don’t expect bragging to come out of Peterson – there is none. He credits the successful rescue to all who were involved in the mission and gives recognition to all the other men and women who serve our country today.
“This was just one mission – high visibility, but one mission,” said Peterson. “There are tons of stories out there of them (military) sacrificing their lives for people.”
Not long after the mission, news spread nationwide about the rescue. Luttrell eventually found out that Peterson had rescued him and gave him a call. The first words of the conversation Peterson will never forget.
“In his Texas drawl he said ‘thanks bro, for saving my life’.”
Peterson currently is a reservist on active orders and works as an operational test pilot in Tucson. Occasionally he hears from Luttrell whose first spoken words are always: