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As three CV-22s on a rescue mission descended on a U.N. compound in war-torn South Sudan, Capt. Arjun Rau saw something he'll never forget — a bright red streak, headed straight at him.
"We were turning right, and I see a red tracer fly by my head," Rau said of the Dec. 21 flight. "I thought it was a road flare. It turned out to be a tracer."
His seat in the Osprey's cockpit began to shake. Small-arms and heavy machine gun rounds peppered his aircraft, Chalk 2, and the two others in the flight. The carbon fiber floor started to shred and the armor under his seat began to rumble as rounds came through the aircraft.
"I thought about, initially, almost nothing," Rau said. "I was kind of a little bit in shock at first over being shot at. But then everyone went right into thinking, 'OK, what do we do next?'"
The Ospreys flew into the civil war raging in South Sudan on a flight to try to rescue American citizens in the city of Bor, the center of the violence. Four Special Forces troops were injured on the flight and 119 rounds hit the three Ospreys, but the crews' quick thinking and prompt action prevented more casualties.
The Air Force recently awarded the 12 air crew members on the mission with the 2013 Mackay Trophy, awarded for the most meritorious flight in the Air Force that year.
The Ospreys and crews from the 8th Special Operations Squadron were deployed to Djibouti from their home base of Hurlburt Field, Florida, for several months as violence raged in South Sudan. An attempted coup triggered violence across the country, two years after it had declared its independence from Sudan.
The airmen were told for weeks that American citizens could be under threat from the rebels and to form rescue plans if they were called into action. The U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Juba had evacuated at least 450 Americans and other foreign nationals. A U.N. helicopter was downed by small-arms fire the day before the Ospreys took off.
"Just leading up to our launch, there was a little bit of an uptick in violence," Rau said.
The crews took action Dec. 21. The flight of three Ospreys flew about 750 miles through three countries to reach the U.N. compound in Bor, which had recently fallen into rebel control.In addition to the 12 aircrew members, the Ospreys carried 21 special operations troops for the mission.
The flight was uneventful, until they arrived at the compound, said Master Sgt. Alberto Delgado, who was a special mission aviator on the third aircraft.
When the Ospreys arrived, they circled the site and assessed the area before beginning their approach. They flew close to the ground and began to turn right as the first rounds were fired. Rebels hit the flight with small-arms, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Chalk 2, Rau's Osprey, took fire toward his cockpit. The lead aircraft, Chalk 1, took the heaviest fire, injuring four Special Forces troops. Chalk 3, Delgado's Osprey, was also hit. The rescue was off, and the crew had new priorities.
"One of the first things that flew to my head is, 'What are we going to do with the evacuees?' '' Rau said. "There was a contingency plan put into effect, and the citizens were eventually evacuated shortly thereafter."
The Ospreys scattered and rushed out of the area. Chalk 2 had the flight's medic and he began assessing the injuries on Chalk 1 over the radio. While in flight, the medic began a mobile "blood bank," requesting blood types of the crew and drawing blood.
The three aircraft had fuel leaks, structural damage and flight control failures, and still had to fly more than 500 miles to a waiting C-17 in Entebbe, Uganda, so the injured troops could be evacuated.
A C-130 that was standing by refueled the aircraft multiple times en route. The Ospreys finally landed an hour and a half after taking the first shots in Bor. The injured troops were then taken to Nairobi, Kenya, and all four survived.
'We took a lot of fire'
The CV-22 Osprey, once one of the military's most controversial aircraft, has become a workhorse for Air Force special operations, thanks to their ability to operate in missions such as this.
"We took a lot of fire, we took a lot of damage," Delgado said. "The aircraft proved to be very battle hardened."
The tilt-rotor aircraft flies two- to three times as fast as a regular helicopter, Rau said, which allowed the crews to get out of the attack quickly and make it to Entebbe despite extensive damage.
"We were shot multiple times in multiple fuel cells," Rau said. "The equipment didn't explode. The leak was stopped."
The crews in the mission credit the evasive maneuvers for preventing more casualties and getting the flight back to safety.
"One moment that will always stick with me was a Special Forces member approaching me a few months after the flight and asking if I was the aircraft commander of the flight he was on. I nodded yes," Maj. Taylor Fingarson, the pilot of the third Osprey, said in an Air Force release on the mission. "He told me, as he heard the rounds hitting the aircraft, he felt me maneuver the Osprey in ways he didn't know were possible. He told me I saved his life."
The Mackay Trophy dates back to 1912 and has been presented for flights such as Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and Operation Homecoming in the Vietnam War. Recently, it has been presented to pararescue crews for dramatic rescues in Afghanistan.
"It's impressive, I'm very proud of that," Delgado said. "It's an honor to have our name on the same trophy."
"I feel very insignificant, compared to the other award winners," Rau said. "They are pretty inspirational and amazing. ... They did some very, very amazing things. "
While the crews of the Ospreys will receive the trophyat a November ceremony, the award really goes to everyone who was involved in the mission, Rau said.
"Everybody performed so admirably that day. All the crew members on board our three aircraft, as well as our accompanying C-130 that gave us the critical air refueling. As well as the special operations team members onboard. Everybody went above and beyond," he said.