News: Bagram airman selected as 2010 Mackay Trophy recipient
Story by Staff Sgt. John Wright
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan - A weapons system officer from the 389th Fighter Squadron here was recently named one of four airmen to receive the 2010 Mackay Trophy for her part in a combat mission near Turkmenistan April 6, 2010.
Capt. Leigh "Breaker" Larkin along with F-15E Strike Eagle pilots Lt. Col. Donald D. Cornwell, 333rd Fighter Squadron, Lt. Col. Dylan Wells, 48th Fighter Wing and fellow WSO 1st Lt. Nicholas Tsougas, 4th Training Squadron, were members of "Dude Flight," a combat mission killing more than 80 Taliban insurgents and saving approximately 30 coalition troops.
On that fateful day, Dude Flight 01 took off from here to support "Jaguar 12," a Joint Terminal Attack Controller supporting troops-in-contact in Bala Morghab, Afghanistan.
The coalition ground forces were part of a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force that was in the final phase of clearing a town of Taliban fighters. As the troops reached the heart of the town, they were surrounded and ambushed by the enemy. They became pinned down and began experiencing casualties.
A quick reaction force was dispatched to help support the patrol, but was hit by an improvised explosive device, and subsequently began receiving small arms fire.
"Due to the densely populated area, dropping ordnance wasn't the best option," Captain Larkin said. "The JTAC on the ground immediately requested a show of force flyover. However, low cloud cover and the terrain made this a difficult and dangerous endeavor."
Captain Larkin, who is deployed here from the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, studied the terrain and found the best let-down area that helped guide the pilots through the best possible flyover rout using terrain-following radar.
In all, Dude Flight performed five shows of force flyovers that interrupted enemy operations and bought the coalition ground forces valuable time.
Unfortunately, the show of force was only a temporary victory as enemy fire intensified. Sniper rounds pierced mud huts as the JTAC relayed the situation on the ground to the F-15s above.
The situation became desperate. The enemy grew bolder and descended on the surrounded collation forces, who were outnumbered and low on ammunition.
"The JTAC requested a 'danger close' strike on four positions pinning down his patrol, but couldn't work the approval for the air strike because the terrain blocked line-of-sight for his radio,"' the combat veteran said.
Capt. Larkin took charge of the scenario and began relaying to the Combined Air and Space Operations Center the horrific situation of the surrounded coalition forces. Weather rendered standard target identification methods useless, so the Dude Flight used air-to-ground radar to verify the good guys were just 190m from the Taliban; a misplaced weapon could kill friendly forces and damage infrastructure.
She used satellite radio to reach the CAOC; painting the exact picture of what was happening on the ground. Agonizing minutes passed as necessary clearances and calculations were made to ensure the best results.
The JTAC cleared Dude Flight hot, and the F-15s dropped a total of six Joint Direct Attack Munitions, equaling more than five tons of ordnance. All the bombs hit with deadly precision. The Taliban forces were unable to recover and were forced to abandon the town.
Capt. Larkin said the main thing on her mind that day was making sure the guys on the ground lived to fight another day.
"Did the guys make it home safe? How are they doing," the WSO who is approaching almost 600 missions flown during her career, kept asking herself. "My emotions were a combination of thrill that we did everything right and stress that the soldiers on the ground were still outside the wire."
The 31-year-old Dayton, Ohio, native credited the combined power of the joint force in making the mission a success.
"Winning the award recognizes a small sliver of this war where all the assets, surface, air and space, smoothly worked together and conquered," she said.
In the end, the captain deferred praise for the day's accomplishments to everyone around her who helped make the success possible.
"I am humbled by the hard work of all the home station and deployed military members around me who perform with discipline and sacrifice to help me do my job," she said. "I feel it is important for the Airmen who play a part in the F-15E Strike Eagle community to know that this award is only possible because they helped us get there."
The award is administered by the United States National Aeronautic Association and is awarded yearly by the United States Air Force for the "most meritorious flight of the year" by an Air Force person, persons, or organization. The trophy is housed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.