Project Hero: CW4 Keith Yoakum, Distinguished Service Cross Posted by: McQ
on Saturday, November 03, 2007
We've talked about the dedication and mission orientation as well as the bravery of our aviators before. Today we take a moment to remember two of the best who gave their lives in February of this year in support of their comrades in peril.
On the morning of 2 February 2007 CW4 Keith Yoakum and CW2 Jason G. Defrenn were flying the trail aircraft in a flight of two AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopters as they departed on a reconnaissance mission in support of four separate ground brigades in and around Baghdad Iraq. Just when the Apache team began reconnaissance of a test fire area, waves of red tracers and heavy machine gun fire burst into the sky from multiple directions and raked the Apaches. The tracer fire immediately engulfed their aircraft and riddled the fuselage. The enemy had established a deadly kill zone comprised of multiple heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft gun positions. They immediately radioed their lead aircraft to maneuver it away from the direction of fire. As the lead aircraft broke hard to the right, the enemy responded, shifting its fire away from Keith and Jason’s aircraft and toward the lead aircraft. They warned the lead helicopter announcing “now you’re taking fire!” and the two aircraft broke left to escape the deadly kill zone.
Despite the damage to their aircraft, CW4 Yoakum took personal charge of the team amid the melee of bullets, calmed his lead aircraft, and steered the team out of the kill zone. The team raced to the north to separate from the enemy force and to acquire standoff range to assess the situation. Immediately after their turn to the north, Keith announced that he had “lost utility hydraulics,” a condition that requires the pilot to land the aircraft immediately at the nearest clear landing area. As the senior maintenance test pilot in the company, a prior instructor at the U.S. Army Maintenance Test Pilot Course, and a Master Army Aviator with almost 5000 flight hours, Keith understood the gravity of his Apache’s emergency condition. Furthermore, he recognized that the loss of hydraulic pressure prevented them from employing their aircraft’s main gun. As a result, he would have to use the aircraft’s 2.75 inch rockets from a fixed position, requiring skillful maneuvering of the crippled aircraft to accurately employ the rockets against the enemy.
The team continued northbound and after approximately two minutes no longer had tracers whipping by their windscreens. Once clear of the immediate threat, Keith and Jason had the opportunity to fly their critically damaged aircraft back to the airfield or land in the open desert to conduct an emergency extraction on their wingman’s aircraft. Still, despite the cockpit warnings and Keith and Jason’s recognition of this grave situation, they never considered leaving their wingman and knew this enemy would kill again if left on the battlefield. The enemy had a distinct advantage as a result of their concealed position among the numerous canals and irrigation ditches in the surrounding countryside. Despite the fierce danger inherent in pressing the attack, Keith radioed his wingman that “I can put rockets in” and continued to plan the route back into the withering fire of the enemy’s ambush site to destroy the enemy’s anti-aircraft positions.
Instructions to the lead aircraft were simple: “you find them, we’ve got you covered.” Keith and Jason knew that their Apache team had a sliver of an opportunity to engage and destroy the enemy before they blended into the Iraqi countryside. The team decided to search the ambush area in a cloverleaf pattern, thereby performing a sweep of the area from all directions until they were able to locate the anti-aircraft guns.
Approximately two minutes after the initial ambush had crippled Keith and Jason’s Apache, the lead aircraft, acting on their instructions, turned south to begin their search for the enemy ambush site. Despite the deteriorating condition of their own aircraft, Keith announced “were going to climb up and cover you from high and we’re gonna work on rockets.” As they continued losing critical hydraulic pressure, Keith determined that their degraded weapons systems necessitated that they climb to altitude and then dive the damaged aircraft directly at the enemy to provide effective rocket fire. Only by diving from a higher altitude directly toward the enemy position could they provide precise rocket fire for their wingman while focusing fires solely on the enemy and away from the surrounding villages and homes in the Iraqi countryside. With unmatched skill and extraordinary courage, Keith began his climb to posture the crippled aircraft in a diving position, knowing full well that his climb would give the enemy gunners a clearer line of sight and more time with which to engage as he maneuvered back towards the ambush site.
Keith and Jason’s dying Apache was not able to sustain its altitude. As the Apache team made a second inbound run to the ambush area utilizing their cloverleaf pattern, the lead Apache radioed to Keith and Jason to ensure that they were still with them. After transmitting several radio calls and receiving no response, the lead aircraft began a left turn and acquired Keith and Jason’s aircraft. After flying for almost four minutes in a critical state, Apache 337 had succumbed to its battle damage and was engulfed in a blazing fire on the ground following a crash that had instantly killed CW4 Keith Yoakum and CW2 Jason Defrenn.
CW4 Keith Yoakum was awarded the DSC and CW2 Jason Defrenn was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, both posthumously.
Dedication, courage, leadership, selflessness. The traits of two warriors. The Army and the nation lost two of its finest that day over Baghdad.
337 Over Baghdad
By James Scott Morrison
Tribute to CW4 Keith Yoakum and CW2 Jason G. Defrenn
PROJECT HERO is an ongoing attempt to highlight the valor of our military as they fight in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We constantly hear the negative and far to little of the positive and inspiring stories coming out of those countries. This is one small attempt to rectify that. If you know of a story of valor you'd like to see highlighted here (published on Saturday), please contact us. And we'd appreciate your link so we can spread the word.
Hydraulics are more critical to flight than oil or fuel. The engines will run for a while without oil and even after the engines die from fuel starvation, you can autorotate (relatively) safely to the ground. But when hydraulics are gone, you have absolutely no means to control the aircraft. Apache pilots know their Primary, Utility and Emergency hydraulics systems, inside and out. When this aircrew lost Utility hydraulics and decided to stay in the fight, they knew that they were accepting a lot of risk - the remaining (and purposefully redundant) Primary hydraulic lines might be damaged and could bleed out as well.
I don’t know if the crew eventually lost all hydraulics or if they were killed by subsequent enemy fire. Either way, nothing diminshes the fact that they stayed in the fight while managing a potentially catastrophic emergency, one that particularly scares the heck out of Apache pilots. Even in a profession full of risk takers and brave men, that took extraordinary guts.