MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. - The magnitude of the moment came to him over the radio, in a hoarse whisper.
Maj. J. Eric Grunke sat in the cockpit of an AV-8B Harrier at just past midnight, March 22, 2011, thousands of feet above the Mediterranean Sea, and speeding toward the Libyan coastline.
Grunke was serving as a Harrier pilot assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit on the third day of Operation Odyssey Dawn, an international effort to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to protect the Libyan people from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
Tonight, Grunke was on a rescue mission.
Whispering into his radio from a hiding place on the ground was Air Force Maj. Kenneth Harney. His Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle had just crashed in the open desert near the Libyan city of Benghazi.
The 26th MEU’s Marines aboard the USS Kearsarge launched a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, or TRAP, mission to rescue the pilot. Grunke was to provide close air support to protect the downed pilot until help arrived.
Due in part to his actions in Libya, particularly on that day, the Marine Corps Aviation Association named Grunke the Marine Aviator of the Year, recognizing him as the pilot who made the most outstanding contribution to Marine aviation over that past year.
Grunke’s contribution came in the form of a dynamic mission over a short amount of time where he dropped two 500-pound bombs on tactical vehicles pursuing the downed pilot and identified a suitable landing zone for the MV-22B Osprey that would make the pickup. Just about three hours prior to all of this, Grunke had been aboard the USS Kearsarge preparing for another night of enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya.
“We were preparing for another armed reconnaissance mission where we would go out and look for targets,” Grunke said. “Word started to filter in that, potentially, an F-15 had crashed. We weren’t sure why, whether it was enemy air fire or a malfunction or what, so we started to determine, okay we’re going to have to launch the TRAP package to go rescue the pilot and his [weapons systems officer] – it was a two-seat F-15E.”
The weapons systems officer, Air Force Capt. Tyler Stark, ejected with Harney as the jet went down but was quickly rescued by friendly rebel sympathizers. Harney, however, was on the run.
“The pilot … had hit the ground, he was alive, he was on his radio, he was trying to get away from up to five or six tactical vehicles [that were] pursuing after him, and he was just trying to get out of the open desert and away,” said Grunke.
The Marines aboard the USS Kearsarge launched the full TRAP package to rescue him – two AV-8B Harriers, two MV-22B Ospreys, and two CH-53E Super Stallions. A Marine Corps KC-130J Hercules joined the fight to provide aerial refueling.
“When we launch the TRAP, it’s an all or none kind of thing,” Grunke said.
Lt. Col. Shawn Hermley, who commanded the Harrier detachment assigned to the 26th MEU, said Grunke recently certified as an airborne forward air controller and was uniquely qualified to execute the rescue mission.
“I told him if we do this, I want you out there in the lead,” Hermley said.
After Grunke took off from the deck of the USS Kearsarge, he spoke to the command and control center and learned deadly force was authorized to protect the downed pilot.
He said that was all he needed to know, as his AV-8B Harrier was equipped with two 500-pound laser-guided bombs.
At the helm of the attack jet, speeding toward the Libyan desert en route to save a fellow service member from certain danger, Grunke switched over to the downed pilot’s radio frequency.
“I just start listening to gain an idea of what’s going on down there, and I can hear him, wind rustling and him whispering into his radio,” Grunke said. “At that point it all became real to me, listening to the guy whispering on the radio. This is no longer North Carolina, this is no longer practice – that’s really a guy down there scared for his life.”
Grunke arrived overhead and took over as on-scene commander, relieving an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon. The downed pilot radioed that he was fleeing vehicles with searchlights. He could hear barking dogs and gunfire.
“Within five minutes of being on station, I’m able to get my targeting pod sensor on this pursuing vehicle,” Grunke said. “I tell the pilot, ‘Okay, I can see the guys … I’ve got two 500-pound bombs, do you need them?’ He says, ‘Yes, yes I do.’”
As he maneuvered to a point where he could release and guide the munitions to the pursuing vehicle, Grunke heard the airman make one more request.
“He comes up and actually crying on the radio he says, ‘tell my wife I love her.’ And again, just underlying the realness of the situation I said, ‘don’t worry, I’m going to have a bomb on the deck in one minute,’” Grunke said. “I released one bomb, and I’m able to guide it for 50 seconds or so, all the way to a direct impact.”
Hermley described Grunke’s attack on the vehicle as “impressive.” He said looking through the Harrier’s targeting pod is a lot like looking through a drinking straw.
“The dropping of the bomb isn’t the hard part, it’s an attack we do all the time,” Hermley said. “But he was going after a moving target, and one that was tracking toward his friendly. Any pilot in our detachment could drop a bomb, but doing it under pretty high stress circumstances, with that pilot talking to him, fearing for his life, [Grunke’s] actions on the TRAP were monumental.”
Grunke dropped one more bomb on another vehicle pursing the pilot, finally delivering the message to the assailants on the ground to leave Harney alone.
“At that point I gave my sole attention to trying to locate a suitable landing zone for the Ospreys that launched from the ship a few minutes after I did,” Grunke said.
Noticing a road not far from the creek bed where Harney was hiding, Grunke generated a coordinate for the location and passed it over the radio to the Osprey pilots.
The Osprey, complete with a rescue team of Recon Marines, landed less than 50 meters from the pilot’s hiding place.
“They found him very quickly, to the point where he just ran in the back of the aircraft as soon as it landed,” Hermley said. “The Marines barely even had the chance to get out.”
Grunke said he shook Harney’s hand back aboard the USS Kearsarge, making a great ending for an extraordinary mission.
Hermley said Grunke’s role in the TRAP mission was pivotal. He not only defended the downed pilot from aggressors, he provided invaluable reconnaissance to the rest of the rescue force.
“The hardest part of a mission like that is knowing where the survivor is, and in this instance he had moved about three miles,” Hermley said.
“Fortunately for us, every MEU practices a TRAP, because it’s a ballet. You’re working off of a moving platform – the boat, and you have to have everything moving at the right time,” Hermley said. “The key to the TRAP is ‘how fast can you execute it?’ We had assets airborne within the hour.”
Hermley said as Marines, and especially as part of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force aboard a MEU, everyone involved knows they have to react quickly to a mission they hadn’t planned on.
“[The Marine Corps Aviator of the Year award] was well deserved. The highlight for him was his performance and execution of that TRAP. He quite possibly saved that pilot’s life,” Hermley said. “But there was a lot of stuff behind the scenes as well. He was one of my best advisers; he worked a lot of long hours figuring out the best way to execute that mission in Libya.”
“It was obvious that we had made a huge difference in liberating this area specifically, a stark contrast from night one where [the Libyan people] were essentially under [Gadhafi’s] thumb. I could see visible results of what we did,” Grunke said. “Night one, [Gadhafi’s forces] were essentially on the footsteps of Benghazi. Night by night by night, we just continuously pushed this line back.”
Grunke described the operation in Libya as the chance of a lifetime for an AV-8B Harrier pilot.
“Pinnacle of my career, really, for an attack pilot to be the forward edge, the tip of the spear, to be operating from amphibious shipping; it was absolutely the pinnacle of what I’ve done so far,” Grunke said. “I am so privileged and humbled to be receiving this award, especially since it will be awarded as Marine aviation celebrates its centennial.”