MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. — In the middle of the night, flying higher than 10,000 feet above the ground, Capt. Eric D. Albright, an AV-8B Harrier pilot, engaged enemy targets in the Helmand River valley in Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 5.
Looking back on that moment, he described that night as pitch black and moonless, he was only able to see outside the cockpit through night vision goggles.
“It was low light, and by low light I mean no light,” said Albright, who flies with Marine Attack Squadron 223. “If I looked out of my aircraft through the canopy, all I could see was black.”
Albright was providing routine overwatch, scanning routes for insurgents placing improvised explosive devices.
Running low on fuel, he received a call over the radio.
A Marine on the ground with 2nd Marine Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, called for Albright to fly to the target area and provide close air support. “They had found IED emplacers and we had to coordinate a plan of action,” said Albright, a 29-year-old, Ashville, Pa., native.
After the call came in, he began to ask the questions that every pilot asks himself – Where was the enemy located? How close to friendly troops are they? Have they been properly identified as an enemy force? Do we need to engage? Which weapon do we use?
“We have to ask ourselves all these questions because we can’t afford to make mistakes,” Albright said. “A lot goes into planning an attack and we have to think quickly.”
The initial plan, as described to him by the ground unit, was for the Marines to use artillery fire to hit the insurgents. This did not go as planned. The enemy ran from the target area to a nearby compound.
Due to the chance of causing unnecessary damage to the surrounding area, the ground troops called off the assault.
Albright left the area to get refueled and then returned to the target area, circled overhead, and waited for his chance to strike. Finally, as he refueled for the second time, he got the call he was waiting for.
“I was about 20 miles away when another call came in,” said Albright. The voice on the radio said the insurgents had returned to the IED site. “I flew with my wingman toward them, setting up my targeting pod.”
As Albright arrived on scene, he saw two artillery impacts on the ground, the assault underway. The Marines on the ground fired two shots, eliminating one of the targets, leaving the other four fleeing the area.
Albright located the targets hiding next to a shed.
“The plan was to have my wingman mark the targets with his targeting pod while he stayed in the overhead,” explained Albright. “I was going to then descend and engage the enemy, shooting my wingman’s mark.”
Albright realized that he couldn’t see the target and decided to go for the attack by himself.
“I set my targeting pod up and had to keep moving it as the targets ran away,” said Albright. “I had to use only my NVGs to see because it was pitch-black outside.”
Albright began his dive and reached a speed of about 550 nautical miles per hour, the ideal speed for a gun attack.
He put his targeting pod where he thought the enemy was going to be when he fired.
“I squeezed the trigger and pulled out of the dive,” said Albright. “All I could think about was ‘shoot and get out of there,’ because at that speed and only 1,000 feet above the ground when I pulled up, I was cutting it close, only a couple more seconds and I would have hit the deck.”
His estimation was dead on. The insurgents were hit by the 25mm rounds from Albright’s GAU-12/U Equalizer, a five-barrel rotating machine gun attached to the belly of the Harrier.
Albright killed one of the insurgents and the ground troops captured the remaining three.
This was Albright’s first deployment, a six-month tour in Afghanistan where he completed 159 combat missions. Marines and their Afghan and coalition partners relied on him to provide support and on many occasions engage enemies.
“If I take our enemy off the battlefield, then they can’t take our Marines off the battlefield,” said Albright. “The way I see it is it’s them or us that have to go, and I would rather it be them.”