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Ugly Five Zero
Helmand Province, Afghanistan—January 15, 2007.
Captain Darren “Tom” O’Malley was serving with 656 Squadron Army Air Corps, at that time with the rank of Warrant Officer 1st Class. In November 2006 he returned to Afghanistan for his second tour on the Apache Attack Helicopters, at the time although holding the rank of Warrant Officer he was the most senior Pilot on the unit with the most air hours on the type, he was also the Squadron’s Qualified Helicopter Instructor and one of the few men on the Squadron qualified to sit in both seats.
656 Squadrons deployment to Afghanistan coincided with that of the 45 Commando Royal Marines and on the 15th January 2007 the “Royals” were deployed on Operation Glacier 2 an attack on Jugroom Fort in Garmsir in Southern Helmand, this being a Taliban stronghold.
The Marines “Zulu” Company” were to be covered by two of the Squadron Apache’s. Tom was serving back at the units base at Camp Bastion with the Stand By Flight. The late deployment of the Royals into the attack, ate into the fuel of the two covering Apaches, which greatly reduced their time over target. Despite a heavy bombardment, the Taliban put up stiff resistance, forcing the Marines to withdraw and with fuel and ammunition running low on the tasked Apaches, Tom’s flight (2 Apaches) was scrambled, to take over air support, while the original Apaches returned for refuelling and rearming. In the second Apache was Warrant Officer Ed Macy, who would go on to write the best seller “Apache” giving a full detailed account of the operation. Tom was flying in the front seat of call sign Ugly 50 and was mission Commander. Macy’s Apache call sign Ugly 51.
As the pair flew to Jugroom they received a situation report and it was then they got an idea how things had deteriorated with a group of five Marines missing in Action. As they neared Tom was updated that one One Marine was missing Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. When on target it was the mission priority to locate Ford, assess if he was alive and protect him.
Ugly 51 spotted a body which was identified as Ford, he was giving off a heat signature and was therefore alive, the Apaches now had to protect him. An order came through the radio from the Commanding Officer let no Taliban near Ford, a ground rescue operation is under preparation. So began the long task of protection against constant Taliban fire from both machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, with ammunition running out and fuel low, there was no evidence of a ground rescue. Tom then came up with the plan to strap two Marines to the side of each Apache fly towards the fort, land, rescue Ford by slinging him under an Apache, whilst the Marines resumed their position on the side. The daring plan was tentatively authorised by the Squadron CO but flatly refused by the Royals. It was only when their Colonel was patched in on the radio that the Helicopter crews realised the CO was unaware of their rescue plan and he gave the go ahead.
This was the first time that British or American Apaches had flown with men strapped to the side, it was a procedure only to be used in the event of rescuing fellow pilots from a crashed Apache behind enemy lines. Following a bombardment, and with top cover provided by the original Apache Flight, Ugly 50 & 51 went in problems became apparent straight away, Tom in the front helicopter was blinded by dust, blown up by the rotor blades and the landing field was too small for both helicopters, Tom’s Apache had no choice to lift slightly go through the damaged Fort wall and land within the compound, with Ugly 51 landing just outside the wall. Both choppers down the Marines disembarked, then both back seat pilots, leaving Tom alone with the Taliban firing everything they could to disable the Apache.
Tom fired with his cannon and directed air support from the covering Apaches. Time on ground was estimated at 2 1/2 minutes, by three Tom was getting worried, the dust cover was settling and visibility was improving for him and the Taliban, he had to make the decision to stay or lift off and come back, but that would make it difficult for his team to refined the helicopter. He waited. After about 4 minutes he heard from Ugly 51 that Ford was secure and they were lifting, seconds later his own Marines and fellow pilot returned and Tom lifted out of the Compound to the hover and then fired to suppress incoming fire.
The two Apaches then re-crossed the lines and Ford was handed over to the Medical team, who fought unsuccessfully to save his life.
Ed Macy MC, the pilot of Apache 51 has released a book which details the full event.