Army engineers assist F-22 recovery
Army Staff Sgt. Michael Sikora, 6th Engineer Battalion pathfinder, takes shelter from the snowy rotor wash after hooking up a cargo sling to a UH-60 Black Hawk during a sling load operation in support of the F-22 Raptor recovery operation. (U.S. Army courtesy photo)
Posted 12/9/2010 Updated 12/9/2010
by Capt. James S. Kwoun
6th Engineer Battalion
12/9/2010 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Less than 24 hours after an F-22 Raptor crashed about 100 miles north of Anchorage, Nov. 16, the 6th Engineer Battalion initiated preparations for providing logistical and mobility support to recovery operations.
The battalion mobilized more than 33 Soldiers and 18 vehicles by the morning of Nov 19.
Upon arriving near the crash site, the Soldiers established a joint Army-Air Force Tactical Operations Center to ensure interoperability between the two services.
The operation presented many challenges from the very beginning, according to Army Lt. Col. Marc Hoffmeister, 6th Engr. Bn. commander.
"The weather and terrain were particularly challenging, and presented extreme mobility challenges for our vehicles and Soldiers," Hoffmeister said.
"Once on the ground, our Soldiers and Airmen had to rapidly establish base camp, integrate themselves with personnel from a completely different service, and quickly focus on recovery operations."
Deploying on short notice and rapidly integrating themselves into an existing command structure is nothing new for the battalion, Hoffmeister said.
The battalion is a modular airborne unit with five companies and a detachment - all capable of deploying independently of their parent headquarters to support operations overseas.
In order to establish unity of command and facilitate a truly joint operation, the Soldiers supporting recovery operations were placed under the command of Air Force Lt. Col. Timothy Gillaspie, Commander of the 773rd Logistics Readiness Squadron and the overall commander at the crash site.
"Everything about this operation was joint," Hoffmeister said. "All of our resupply requirements were synchronized with Air Force requirements. Even our resupply convoys were integrated into planned Air Force convoys. We also sent our operations officer (Army Capt. David Frehulfer) to work alongside two Air Force captains as part of Lt. Col. Gillaspie's staff."
For many Soldiers of the 6th Engr. Bn., this operation was the first time they had worked with personnel from another service.
"Working with the Air Force was truly a unique experience," said Army Sgt. Gregory Brazinsky, the operations sergeant for the 6th Engineer Battalion base camp near the crash site. "Their culture, systems, and perspectives were completely different than the Army. But we were able to really come together after only a couple days because both Soldiers and Airmen made an effort to learn from each other and accomplish the mission."
The battalion provided over land movement from the base camp to the crash site for Air Force recovery personnel.
The Small Unit Support Vehicle was the primary means of cross-country movement - a critical capability in the rough terrain and harsh weather conditions near the crash site.
The battalion also provided sustainment support to both Airmen and Soldiers near the crash site, executing near-daily resupply convoys and conducting on-scene maintenance for vehicles and equipment.
A key component of sustaining the mission was sling-load operations - the rapid transport of equipment by helicopter using sling sets, cargo nets, and other specially designed equipment.
Army Staff Sgt. Michael Sikora of the 6th Engineer Battalion, as the only Pathfinder-qualified Soldier near the crash site, helped establish landing zones for helicopters from the Alaska National Guard and the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade from Fort
"Sling loading was a critical capability that enabled the Task Force to efficiently move supplies and equipment when weather conditions allowed,"Hoffmeister said. "This lessened some of the requirement to move equipment over the difficult terrain in a ground convoy."
More than 30 6th Engineer Battalion Soldiers spent Thanksgiving near the crash site; however, the battalion made a mass effort to make Thanksgiving Day was as pleasant as possible for them.
Family Readiness Group members and volunteers throughout the battalion donated and packed baked goods for the Soldiers and Airmen. Every bag of baked goods was marked with a Soldier's name to add a personal touch.
Hoffmeister and 6th Engineer Battalion Command Sgt. Maj. James Dickens visited the Soldiers and Airmen at the base camp the day beforeThanksgiving.
"Morale was very high, and I am proud of the extraordinary work our Arctic Sappers have done in support of this difficult and tragic mission," Hoffmeister said. "Many Soldiers went the extra mile and made huge sacrifices to ensure our mission was a success. We are also very appreciative of how supportive and understanding our families have been throughout this short notice operation."
A few days after Thanksgiving, the 6th Engineer Battalion officially received orders to cease recovery operations and begin its retrograde.
"This operation has produced many lessons learned and greatly improved our capability to operate in an arctic environment," Hoffmeister said.
"Although a tragic mission, as a unit we have greatly benefited from the experience and increased our arctic engineering skill set," Hoffmeister said