4. Major “MJ” Hegar.
Fictional heroine Ace Carroway loves to fly and faces danger with grit. Real past and present pilots have that same love and that same courage. I’d like to pay some homage to a few of them in this blog.
On July 29, 2009, then-Captain Mary Jennings “MJ” Hegar scrambled for a medical evacuation (medevac) mission in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. A convoy had triggered an improvised explosive device (IED) and three soldiers were critically injured. MJ copiloted the Pave Hawk helicopter.
In a rescue as harrowing as any Ace Carroway adventure, the helicopter came under fire from Taliban soldiers as it landed. Moments after two pararescue jumpers (PJs) left the copter to prepare the injured, the windshield was hit. It shattered. MJ was sliced by flying glass in the arm and leg.
MJ watched herself bleed. A crimson stain on her thigh spread to the size of a basketball. Unlike you or I in a similar situation, she decided her injuries were superficial. She had to talk fast, however, as the gunner was on the radio calling off the mission. “I’m hit,” she said, “but I can still fly.”
The helicopter zoomed up out of rifle range until the PJs radioed that they had the injured on stretchers, ready for pickup. The helicopter zoomed back down, taking heavy fire. But the injured soldiers were loaded even as bullets whizzed and ricocheted off the armored skin.
Sluggish with the extra weight, the Pave Hawk lifted back into the air. But the rescue wasn’t over. A few seconds after takeoff, the flight engineer bawled, “We’ve got fuel back here!”
A bullet had nicked a fuel line, and jet fuel was spewing into the cabin. The helicopter needed to land, and fast, or it would crash. The hydraulic assistance on the controls had also failed, and the landing was rough. After the bruising impact, the Pave Hawk would never fly again. As the rotors decelerated, incoming bullets began spitting up puffs of dirt and pinging off the helicopter’s armor.
The crew of seven plus three injured soldiers were all stranded in the middle of Taliban territory with enemies with rifles closing in from all sides. In a matter of minutes, death would arrive. Their only hope was the sister Pave Hawk helicopter and two escort Army Kiowa helicopters.
A Kiowa was small, and had no space for passengers, but a Kiowa pilot radioed a crazy scheme, “If you can move your asses – fast – we’ll swing by you first and take you out on our skids,” and with two crew dangling from one Kiowa and two crew dangling from the other Kiowa, the second Pave Hawk could take the remaining six.
A Kiowa swooped in. MJ and the gunner ran to opposite sides, jumping on the skid. MJ clipped herself to the skid with a lanyard and a caribiner and unlimbered her rifle. As she lifted into the air, she caught sight of the muzzle flashes of a Taliban rifle. She squeezed off a dozen rounds of return fire as the Kiowa zoomed off into the air.
MJ had a long, long twenty minutes dangling from the skid of the Kiowa copter en route to base. She worried the whole way about the rest of the crew and the three injured soldiers.
Finally, she got the news. Everyone had made it out.
Captain MJ Hegar was awarded a purple heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device. Major Hegar is now retired from the Air Force and is an author, lecturer, and activist.