BERLIN — An Ocean City native and Stephen Decatur High School graduate, now an experienced U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot serving in Korea, was honored last week with a Joint Service Commendation Medal after piloting his aircraft and leading his crew on a daring rescue of seven U.S. Marines last month.
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Adam McDonough, a 1993 Stephen Decatur graduate and former high school quarterback, was honored for piloting a Blackhawk helicopter during the precarious rescue of seven Marines whose helicopter crashed on Feb. 20 in a remote area of Thailand about 20 miles north of Phitsanulok.
The seven crewmembers suffered severe burns, lacerations and fractures to varying degrees, but were difficult to reach because of the remote location. A second Marine Sea Knight helicopter attempted a rescue, but was forced to land on the ground about 1,000 feet below the crash scene and sent crew members on a dangerous ascent up the face of the cliff.
The Marines requested the assistance of the Army and its smaller, lighter and more maneuverable Blackhawk helicopter and McDonough and his crew responded. McDonough, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran with over 1,100 combat hours who is now stationed in Korea, was in the right-side pilot seat in the Blackhawk as he and his crew embarked on what would be a remarkable rescue.
In a telephone interview from Korea this week, McDonough said initial reports were conflicting and he and his crew believed initially they were headed to assist with a downed Thai helicopter. As they arrived on scene, they realized it was something much different than they anticipated.
“We thought at first we were looking for a Thai aircraft,” he said. “We knew what we were looking for, but we were a little shocked to see Americans on the ground, blue-eyed, blond-haired Marines. We circled the area, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get in there.”
McDonough said there was a 1,000-foot cliff on one side and dense jungle on the other side with just a narrow, rocky area to attempt a landing and rescue. He and his crew had practiced one-wheel and two-wheel simulated rescues, but the conditions on the Thai mountainside presented unique challenges. After circling the scene a few times, McDonough determined he was going to need to clear some of the jungle on the inside of the crash site with the Blackhawk’s rotors, which were capable of cutting back brush, but not larger trees.
“I was able to get one wheel on the ground and was able to clip about three or four feet off the tops of some of the trees, but it was a little dicey,” he said. “If I clip the blades on a hardwood tree, we go tumbling down the thousand foot face of that cliff.”
After cutting back the tree line, McDonough and his crew circled for a second pass. He said he tried to limit the number of passes over the crash site because of the dust and noise it was creating for the injured Marines on the ground. With the Blackhawk’s tenuous toe-hold with just one wheel on the rocky ground, McDonough said he made the decision to circle around and try it again.
“On one attempt, we landed on one wheel, but by the second attempt, my crew was able to better guide me and were able to reach them,” he said. “The landing gear was slipping on the rocks and I knew we couldn’t get those guys off there with the way we were situated. We had already dropped two of our medics on the ground and if we were going to go back in one more time, it was going to be for a rescue. I had dropped a few of my guys on the crash scene not knowing if I was going to be able to get them back. At that point, I was a little worried I was writing checks by backside couldn’t cash.”
McDonough has been a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot for over 10 years and now trains younger helicopter pilots. McDonough said this week he has had plenty of his own experiences and always listens to stories from other pilots in order to be best prepared for any incident.
“I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been through a lot and I’ve come back full of holes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this was a difficult situation,” he said. “Helicopter pilots are a different breed and sometimes we have a tendency to try to make things happen. We want to go in and save the day, but a helicopter is not always the right tool for the job.”
McDonough said the Blackhawk had the fuel capacity to stay on the crash site for as long as three hours and still be able to safely return. On the third and final attempt, he was able to get all three of the Blackhawk’s wheels on the ground and began carefully airlifting the injured Marines one by one, taking the most seriously injured out first. All in all, McDonough and the Blackhawk crew made three round-trips back to the Cobra Gold base with the injured Marines.
While he was quick to share the honor with his crew, he reserved a little glory for his commanding officer who quickly assessed the situation and put together a veteran, experienced team for the rescue. McDonough said one of the unsung heroes in the successful rescue was his commander, Jerry Sheehan, who acted quickly to put the Blackhawk crew together.
“He stacked the crew with those with seniority and the longest amount of service time,” he said. “A lot of times, the aviation commanders would put themselves in the cockpit, but he knew he was best served by staying on the ground and coordinating the effort as a leader and commander. I feel a little bad he wasn’t on the stage to share this honor with us.”
McDonough’s father, Jeffrey McDonough, said this week he learned of his son’s heroics through second-hand sources at first, not knowing the extent of the initial crash and subsequent rescue of the seven severely injured Marines, all of whom have recovered or are expected to recover. The elder McDonough said this week his son naturally downplayed the entire incident.
“I saw the crash report and learned that Adam had been involved, but I didn’t know to what extent until I talked to him later,” he said. “He was very humble and acted like it was no big deal. He acted like it was just another day at the office. I said, ‘Adam, you’re a hero,’ but he told me he didn’t have any choice.”
McDonough and the eight other crewmembers from the Army 2nd Infantry Division Blackhawk crew were recognized for their lifesaving efforts in Thailand during a Cobra Gold 2013 ceremony at Cape Casey in Korea last Wednesday. McDonough was honored along with seven other crewmembers including Capt. Andy Martinez, Sgt. John Baah-Mensah, Chief Warrant Officers Steven Fleminster, Doug Adams, Derek Reynolds, Sgt. Christopher Bohatch, Sgt. Michael Ezell and Spc. Hyun Joon Kim.
“You can’t help but be inspired by this story,” said 2nd Infantry Division Major General Edward Cardon. “If you look at the heroes of the Army, they often didn’t think they would be heroes that day, but they were ready. These soldiers demonstrated the greatness of this division by being ready.”
Brigadier General J.B. Burton also had high praise for McDonough and the crew.
“These soldiers’ performance in a word is awesome,” said Burton. “In a phrase, it’s second to none.”