A-10 pilots awarded trophy for ‘most meritorious flight’

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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., speaks during the 2019 MacKay Trophy presentation ceremony at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Feb. 18, 2021. Brown presented the trophy to two Davis-Monthan A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots for their meritorious combat mission over Afghanistan in 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa)
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Two Davis-Monthan A-10 fighter pilots were awarded the MacKay Trophy at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2021, for a combat sortie they flew together in Afghanistan, July 15, 2019.

The Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., presented Lt. Col. Charles Stretch, Jr., and Capt. Alexander Boules the award for “the most meritorious flight of 2019,” during which the two Air Force Academy graduates with very different levels of experience quickly launched to support Afghan forces being overrun by the Taliban.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Capt. Alexander E. Boules, 354th Fighter Squadron A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, and Lt. Col. Charles C. Stretch, 355th Operations Support Squadron commander
From left to right: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Capt. Alexander E. Boules, 354th Fighter Squadron A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, and Lt. Col. Charles C. Stretch, 355th Operations Support Squadron commander, stand for a photo at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Feb. 18, 2021. Brown presented Boules and Stretch with the 2019 MacKay Trophy, for “Most Meritorious Flight,” for a historic combat mission they flew over Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa)

Boules recalled being extremely nervous while taking off on what was his second combat sortie and the first time he had ever flown lead. What should have been a night mission familiarization flight turned into something totally different.

“When we got to the step desk, we received the message that Afghan special operations forces were in trouble and needed support ASAP,” said Boules, whose wingman, Stretch, had flown 178 combat sorties. But, Stretch’s caution light went on prior to takeoff and Boules had to depart by himself to the mountainous area of Northern Afghanistan.

“Typically, that kind of situation is pretty vanilla,” said Stretch, who was the second most experienced instructor pilot in the squadron.

Vanilla, it was not.

When Boules arrived overhead, he saw what looked like sparklers and laser pointers in the distance. Over the radio, people were yelling frantically in Pashto. Working through language barriers, it became apparent that the Afghans were greatly outnumbered.

“I just kept talking to the [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] aircraft to try to get some situational awareness,” said Boules, who applied to the Air Force Academy at the last minute in what he called “an act of rebellion.”

That rebellious spirit would serve him well on the battlefield, as he approached what turned out to be an eight-hour engagement.

As he talked with the ISR aircraft and joint terminal attack controllers, he learned Afghan SOF were being killed, captured, and pinned down by dozens of Taliban with heavy machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades on the ground ñ and Stretch, his wingman, was still 15-20 minutes away.

“I just kept praying, please get here quicker, I need help right now,” Boules said.

When Stretch arrived, he was astounded by what he saw.

“It was the most Taliban I have seen in my life,” he said.

Almost immediately, he noticed little red golf ball-size things flying past his plane. He was being shot at, but he couldn’t return fire.

“It comes down to discipline and following rules of engagement,” said Stretch, who grew up dreaming of becoming a fighter pilot and had previously deployed to Syria and Afghanistan. “The Afghans really wanted us to shoot something, but we couldn’t find friendlies or identify targets.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., speaks during the 2019 MacKay Trophy presentation ceremony at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, Feb. 18, 2021. Brown presented the trophy to two Davis-Monthan A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots for their meritorious combat mission over Afghanistan in 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa)

For the next hour, he made low overhead passes that served as a show of force, in an attempt to stave off the attacks. Finally, all of their communication and coordination paid off and they were able to confirm where Afghan friendly forces were and engage with the enemy. Two F-16s also checked on station, and for nearly six more hours, under enemy fire, Boules and Stretch waged a diligent battle to enable coordinated strikes against enemy fighters. They refueled midair 11 times and were ultimately able to save the lives of 12 Afghan SOF members.

Though successful, both pilots came away with mixed feelings wishing they could have saved even more lives that night.

“Sometimes a win doesn’t feel like a win,” said Stretch. “The validation [and] relief that I felt was knowing we tried our best and stuck to our training. We gave 100 percent that night and executed in accordance with what we trained to do as attack pilots.”

Brown, who presented the prestigious National Aeronautic Association trophy, praised the two brave pilots, citing tactical excellence, the will to succeed, and “the absolute refusal to allow obstacles to get in the way” as the reason they earned the award.

“As the danger of the situation became clear, they had the courage and skill to meet the challenge,” Brown said. “To have their names associated with [the MacKay Trophy] is truly awesome. These Airmen are truly wingmen, leaders, warriors. I am proud to be here today … Well done.”

For the same action, Boules also earned the Jabara Award for Airmanship, and both pilots have been nominated for the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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