A-10 pilots Lt. Col. Paul Zurkowski and Maj. Chris Cisneros stand near one of the aircraft they flew in stormy weather to rescue ambushed coalition forces. (Air Force / Tech Sgt. Shawn McCowan)
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Maj. Chris Cisneros, 104th Fighter Squadron Instructor Pilot, and Lt. Col. Paul C. Zurkowski, 104th Fighter Squadron commander, are awarded the Distinguised Flying Cross for duty performed while deployed to Southwest Asia. The awards were given during a ceremony Dec. 8 at Warfield Air National Guard Base. (Air Force / Tech Sgt. David Speicher)
It was a scene you could expect to see in a movie, but for Lt. Col. Paul Zurkowski and Maj. Christopher Cisneros, it was reality.
The two A-10C Thunderbolt II pilots with the Maryland Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Squadron were recently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor for providing close air support during a ground firefight on June 28, 2012, in eastern Afghanistan.
In briefings that day, they were provided graphics and aerial maps to familiarize themselves with the area of the ground fight. But once in the air, conditions changed.
“We knew there was a storm ahead of us — we actually had to fly through it first, but then it ended up catching up to the area we were fighting in,” Cisneros said.
Visibility was sparse, flying above terrain between 4,000 and 9,000 feet with the overcast weather closing in at about 8,000 feet.
“Subtract the height of the terrain and where [the overcast weather] was hitting and that’s the altitude we had to work with,” Zurkowski said.
It took Zurkowski and Cisneros 20 minutes to fly from Bagram Airfield to the firefight. An A-10 from their squadron was already there, along with an AC-130, a B-1 and a MC-12. But one by one, each aircraft peeled off back to base because it was low on fuel. For 30 minutes, Cisneros and Zurkowski covered the area.
“The gas was getting tight [for me], so I was directed to go get gas while I could, but because the weather was so bad ... I had to circumnavigate and wait for the [KC-135 Stratotanker], who was also delayed,” Cisneros said.
During this time, Zurkowski, the squadron commander, could see the 90 friendlies on the ground progressing up the ridgeline.
“The JTACs [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] on the ground asked me to do a ‘show of force’ — to show the enemy a high-speed, low-altitude [aircraft] pass — so I did three ‘shows of force,’ which helped break contact to the west, but they were still taking fire from the northern ridgeline,” Zurkowski said.
He concentrated 30 mm cannon fire along a ridgeline to the north of the ground troop’s location — flying so low, enemy fire was able to pierce his aircraft, which he would later discover back on base.
Soon after, more of the thunderstorm rolled through. But Zurkowski, now past his fuel limit and low on ammunition, had to return to base. He called down to the JTACs letting them know it would be about seven minutes before Cisneros would be back.
“I was so low on gas, I had to climb as high as I could to save as much gas as I could to get back to Bagram,” Zurkowski said. “I radioed over to [Cisneros] to get back as soon as he could because these guys were alone.”
Cisneros got back to a scene “that changed dynamically.” He had to figure out the relation of where the JTACs were to where they needed weapons strikes amidst a lightning storm. After providing some support with rockets, Cisneros got a call from two other A-10s in the area coming to aid in the firefight. Zurkowski did not return.
Forty five minutes passed before two HH-60 Pave Hawks were cleared to land in the area.
“They flew down for a hasty pick-up to get whoever was wounded out of there,” Cisneros said. A total of 10 A-10s engaged the enemy during what became a 13-hour battle to get all 90 troops out of there, Cisneros said.
Talking with some of the JTACs later, Cisneros said they felt “significantly outnumbered.”
“I went over to the [Bagram] hospital that night just to check up on [some of the wounded], but we both talked to them the next day,” Zurkowski said. “They were ecstatic to see us and just thanked us for the work we did ... and it was satisfying for us to see them recovering.”
“One JTAC told me he was basically saying his goodbyes just because he never thought we would fight through that weather,” Cisneros said. “That was definitely the highlight of my career — just helping out those guys the way that we did.”
Zurkowski and Cisneros found out they were recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor, but it still came as a surprise.
“At the time, after you land after a mission like that and reflect, [receiving a medal is] the farthest thing from your mind,” Cisneros said.
Besides his squadron commander duties, Zurkowski also flies for United Airlines. Cisneros is a part-time Guardsman, and also flies for American Airlines. But being A-10 pilots is something both Guardsmen cherish.
“We’re struggling to grasp the logic of getting rid of [the A-10], and I think there’s a need to support ground troops with the capabilities this airplane has,” Zurkowski said, referring to reports that the Air Force is considering getting rid of the A-10 fleet to save money.
“The gun of the A-10 is what no other aircraft has, and this aircraft has the ability to support ground troops in bad weather as we did for this mission,” Zurkowski said.
“For that specific mission, that is ... where the A-10 excels,” Cisneros said.