LTC Mike Hilkert and a 2011 Rescue Mission from Hell


On October 2, 2021, LTC Mike Hilkert received the Distinguished Flying Cross With V Device from a rescue mission in 2011 in Afghanistan. Why so late? It took a combination of “support from local leaders and a bit of retrospect.” He is currently Operations Director as well as an A-10 pilot, from the 303rd Fighter Squadron.

April 23, 2011, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan

In the early hours of April 23, 2011, two Guardian Angels – Pararescue Airmen who drop into combat areas to rescue U.S. or allied troops in dire situations – found themselves under heavy fire and unable to get back to their HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters after dropping via hoist to support a downed U.S. Army helicopter in the Kapisa province of Afghanistan…

“For the context of this mission,” said Mitchell, “that this Distinguished Flying Cross is being awarded for, the other medals that have been awarded already to members of the armed forces include four Silver Stars – two of them to helicopter pilots, two of them to Pararescue Jumpers – and three Distinguished Flying Crosses with valor.

“So today will mark the fourth Distinguished Flying Cross awarded for what’s become known as one of the most intense combat rescue missions of the Afghanistan war.”

Fallen Angels 442nd Air Wing Press Release

A-10 Rescue

Mike Hilkert’s A-10 was Hawg 73, his call sign “Vago”. A desperate call for help came in on what is known as the GUARD channel, which was only used in the most dire circumstances. So with 10 cans of “Rip It” stuffed in his flight suit, he was off and running to the call.

“Any Hawg. Any Hawg on Guard, this is Dude 31.”

“Dude 31, this is Hawg 73.”

“We have a Fallen Angel in the Kapisa province, requesting air support.”

“Hawg 73, en route.”

Hilkert helped bring together two other A-10s, then known as a Sandy team. A Sandy team is in charge of the situations on the ground.

That day in 2011, Staff Sgts. Zachary Kline and Bill Cenna responded to retrieve two Army pilots — one of whom had died — from a downed helicopter in northeast Afghanistan. After the pararescuemen dropped down to the crash site, they came under heavy fire from an unnamed enemy that prevented them from escaping and hit their two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters as well as an airman onboard, Tech. Sgt. Jim Davis.

While one HH-60 was on its way back from ferrying Davis out for medical attention, the other headed to a nearby forward operating base for fuel and ammunition.

“When they set down, however, they discovered the aircraft had been heavily damaged and had lost most of its main transmission fluid. They made the call to return to Bagram Airfield and pick up a spare Pave Hawk,” the Air Force said in the release.

As Kline and Cenna crouched behind a rock outcropping to avoid the bullets, the Kiowa helicopter they had been dispatched to burst into flames when it was hit by enemy fire.

“The two bolted toward a nearby ravine before the fire sparked off the munitions still on the helo,” the Air Force said.

The troops needed reinforcements to get to the Kiowa crash site. So they called in three A-10s, including the one flown by Hilkert, call sign “Vago,” who was watching over a ground assault force elsewhere.

The change of plans proved to be a hectic night.

Air Force Times

Hilkert proved to be a master of multi-tasking in a bad situation. As the two other A-10s searched for the Kiowa and the two “PJs”, Hilkert worked to set up airspace restrictions and communications for the rescue, all while monitoring the enemy that had Cenna and Kline pinned down under heavy fire. He advised the other two A-10s of the position and they took out the enemy which saved the lives of both Kline and Cenna.

Later in the morning, two groups of 16 Army Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) were also hit by enemy fire, killing one and wounding others. Hilkert watched through binoculars for one group, used the targeting pod on the A-10 for the other. He updated the position of all the aircraft so that they wouldn’t shoot at each other while rescuing the QRF groups.

Meanwhile, the Pave Hawks and two Apaches in a four-ship rescue formation … picked up a wounded member of one of the QRFs. As they took heavy fire, they were forced time and again to pull back and reset the formation, until the Apaches destroyed the enemy position with their Hellfire missiles,” the Air Force said.

Hilkert hoped to distract the enemy from the helicopters so they could land and bring out the hurt soldier. He repeatedly flew within range of the opposing forces, trying to get them to fire their surface-to-air weapons at him instead of the rescuers.

The maneuver worked, and an HH-60 airlifted the soldier out. Rescue crews picked up Kline, Cenna and the Kiowa pilots later as well.

Air Force Times

Hilkert’s skill secured two landing zones, helped rescue two “Guardian Angels,” helped recover a downed pilot, and successfully evacuated 32 members of the QRF. Well done!

It’s bittersweet. I’m honored to be amongst a group of heroes that did their best with a bad situation. Several people lost their lives during this mission, so it wasn’t all high fives when we got home. We flew back to Kandahar in silence.

LTC Mike Hilkert

“What they did that night is truly amazing. Truly outstanding. And those guys deserve to stand with any single Sandy that has ever been or ever will be because of the actions they did that night.”

Brig. Gen. Mike Schultz, the 442d Fighter Wing commander, who was the director of operations on shift that night for the 74th EFS


Featured screenshot: Lt Col Mike Hilkert by Staff Sgt. Kristin Cerri/Air Force

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