In the course of the rescue, which included Osprey aircraft and took place some 130 nautical miles from the amphibious assault ship, US military aircraft dropped two 500-pound bombs in the area surrounding the pilot.
If the pilot, as he was waiting to be rescued, saw “a force – enemy or not – closing in on him,” he could call for fire from US forces to keep those who might be approaching away, says a senior Marine Corps officer, who spoke on the condition that he not be named.
The officer adds that he does not know if any Libyan civilians were injured when the bombs were dropped, as is being reported in the press.
Two AV-8B Harrier ground attack planes provided close air support to the rescue mission. They were loaded with conventional munitions, including GBU-12 bombs, which are 500 pounds each. The planes’ role “is to keep away anybody who might be pressing on whoever they’re there to recover,” says the senior officer.
“In this kind of a situation, where you don’t know who’s closing on you, if you’re the guy on the ground you don’t know if they’re friendly or not friendly,” he says. “So in those instances, most cases you’ll try to put the ordnance in between where you are and them – in other words, not necessarily to kill them but to deliver the ordnance in between to try to get them to stop, because they could be friendly.”
None of the aircraft involved in the rescue operation took any fire, according to the officer.
This is the first timeline to emerge of the Marine Corps operation to rescue the downed pilot. The other airman aboard the plane, a weapons officer, was “recovered by the people of Libya,” said Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of US Naval Forces in Europe and Africa. “He was treated with dignity and respect and is now in the care of the United States,” he said.
It was approximately 11:33 p.m. local time that the F-15 went down east of Benghazi, according to Marine Corps officials.
At 12:50 a.m., the AV-8B Harriers launched from the USS Kearsarge to provide support for the downed pilot. Five minutes later, US military leadership approved the rescue mission known in the Marine Corps as Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel, or TRAP. These rescues are generally launched when the exact whereabouts of the downed pilot are known.
By 1:20 a.m., the Harriers were above the pilot, and a nearby F-16 was in communication with him.
By 1:30, the Marine Corps was ready to launch two CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters – among the heaviest in the US military – with some 46 marines onboard. At 1:51, the CH-53Es launched.
In the meantime, two MV-22 Ospreys launched from the USS Kearsarge at 1:33 a.m.
It was also at 1:33 that the Harriers dropped two 500-pound bombs, according to a timeline provided by the Marine Corps.
By 2:38 a.m., one of the Ospreys had landed, picking up the downed pilot.
At 3 a.m., the plane carrying the pilot landed on the deck of the USS Kearsarge.
The last time a TRAP mission was conducted so publicly was in 1995, to rescue downed US Air Force Capt. Scott O’Grady in Bosnia. It was from the flight deck of the same ship, the USS Kearsarge, that the operation was launched, according to a statement released by the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The Marine Corps officer said although that may have been the last “public” rescue, there have been “at least” two other TRAP rescues in the past 18 to 24 months.