The incredible story of how a group of US soldiers saved their helicopter from crashing in Afghanistan

Dustoff 7-3Courtesy photoErik Sabiston.

Dustoff 7-3” by Chief Warrant Officer Erik Sabiston details one crew’s heroic medical evacuation missions during the US’s military operation in Afghanistan.
In this excerpt, Sabiston describes the scene just afterthe rescue helicopter crew Dustoff 7-3 successfully extracted the body of a soldier killed in action.

David Capps, who is in charge of manoeuvring the body inside the aircraft, quickly realises they are in a compromised position that could lead to a crash.

Capps was desperately struggling with the hoist cable as it raced towards our tail rotor propelled by our forward airspeed and the wind effect on the limp bodybag.

He was sitting on the cabin floor with his legs dangling outside, hanging onto the hoist boom with one hand and struggling to control the cable with the other. He had no hands unoccupied that would allow him to key the ICS and let us know about the jeopardy.

Julia Bringloe, another soldier on board, quickly understood Capps had a problem and jumped across the cabin to give him a hand.

“Talk to me, guys …” But they were too busy in the back while Kenny and I just kept accelerating and clawing for altitude.

As Bringloe got to the cabin door, she could see Capps was in trouble. He was halfway out of the aircraft being buffeted hard by the wind and struggling desperately to get a firm grip on the hoist cable which was now sailing up toward our tail rotor with the empty bodybag inflated like a big, black parachute.

If that bag or the steel cable contacted the tail rotor, we would promptly spin out of control and crash.

Screen Shot 2015 05 19 at 11.12.45 AM_A map showing where Sabiston and his crew were located.

While she tried to get a grip on Capps with one hand she keyed her ICS with the other. “Stop, stop … HOLD HOVER!”

There was no questioning that. Something was seriously wrong back behind the cockpit.

I pulled the cyclic into my gut and dumped the collective to the floor to stop the Blackhawk’s forward progress and set up a hover.

We were at 300 feet off the trees, and this was no time or place to be hanging around with enemy shooters on the ground.

Bringloe was not the kind of soldier to get rattled unless it was something serious, so I made the adjustments to hold hover and waited for her to tell me what kind of trouble we had.

“The bag is heading for the tail rotor!” she said finally. “We’re trying to recover it!”

There was nothing Kenny or I could do from the cockpit except hope and pray they got control of the hoist cable in a hurry. I pulled the nose up another ten degrees hoping that might help. It was the wrong move.

The tail boom lowered and nearly met the offending cable halfway as Capps mashed the hoist control pendant’s reel in button with one hand and wrestled the steel cable with the other.

He was fighting what looked like a losing battle. As the aircraft decelerated to hover, the cable swung closer to the tail boom.

The excess cable and the body bag snagged briefly on the stabilator wing, just under the tail rotor.He tried for more tension on the cable and watched the bag slip from under the stabilator towards the spinning blades.

A couple more feet and it would get caught in the tail rotor, destroying it instantly. Capps dropped the pendant and kicked out with his legs trying to get one hooked over the cable.

His monkey-strap was all that was holding him to the bucking aircraft. He kicked and missed and then kicked again, inching ever farther outside the helicopter.

Dustoff cover_This story comes from ‘Dustoff 7-3’ by Erik Sabiston.

He saw the bodybag whipping in the wind, nearly free of the stabilator wing and made one last desperate effort to hook the cablewith his legs.

That one worked. He jerked back with his legs and got some slack in the cable that allowed him to get his hands on it.

He had a modicum of control now and managed to pull the bodybag away from the tail rotor.

Holding on to his purchase with all his strength, he fought to get his body back inside 9-4-4, where he’d have better leverage to pull.

Bringloe wrapped her arms around him and fell backward pulling him inside.

While she helped him wrestle the cable, Capps activated the reel-in button on the hoist for highest speed recovery.

The crisis was past as they sat panting near the door and watched the cable spool back into the reel.

When the flapping black bodybag that had nearly wrecked their ride was snagged on the cabin door handle, Capps just shook his head and leaned back outside to get it.

Specialist David Capps had saved our lives.

“We’re clear. Go!” Bringloe ordered in a nearly breathless croak. It was a while before we got a full report from her and Capps on what had happened and what they did to save us all.

As they related the details, vastly understating David’s heroic efforts, Kenny and I just listened, steering Dustoff 7-3 toward the next pick-up site and wondering how we got lucky enough to have soldiers like David Capps and Julia Bringloe on our crew.

Read more stories from Chief Warrant Officer Erik Sabiston >

Republished with permission from “Dustoff 7-3” by Erik Sabiston.

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