Through quick thinking and communication, the Offutt-based crew of an RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance jet prevented the failure of a series of airstrikes in the Iraq/Syria theater ordered by President Donald Trump in early 2017.
The efforts of the crew of Python 73 that night almost two years ago earned them the Gen. Jerome F. O’Malley Award from the Air Force Association last year, according to a document obtained by The World-Herald.
The award is named for a career reconnaissance pilot who was head of the Tactical Air Command when he was killed in a plane crash in 1985. The honor has been presented each year since then to the crew judged to be the Air Force’s best reconnaissance crew.
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Many details of the 2017 mission have been obscured in the unclassified version of the nomination letter submitted by 55th Wing commander Col. Michael Manion.
The date is omitted, but the letter says the incident occurred in the spring of 2017. That’s a time that encompasses the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles against a Syrian airbase on April 7, 2017, in retaliation for a poison gas attack, and a Syrian army offensive against a strategic base called Al-Tanf in southeast Syria that is held by the U.S. and its coalition partners.
Operating at night out of Qatar, Python 73’s crew had to dodge thunderstorms once they reached the designated “orbit” for their mission, which included intercepting electronic signals as well as listening to and translating voice communications from the ground.
After the Rivet Joint had been flying its orbit for three hours, leaders at a ground-based combat operations center decided to scrub the airstrikes because of worsening weather and because several aircraft appeared to be dropping out.
Python 73’s crew contacted the other aircraft crews and found that they were actually fit to fly. They informed the operations center, then quickly arranged for aerial refueling from the only tanker in the area so the attack could go ahead.
The crew managed that while limiting communication so enemy forces wouldn’t be alerted, and with minimal lighting.
While the strikes continued, Python 73 listened to every aircraft in the area to determine whether they were friendly or hostile to the U.S. and its coalition partners. In one case, coalition fighter jets hurried to engage an unidentified aircraft.
The Offutt-based crew realized that it was from a friendly country and that it was leaving the area of the airstrikes.
“Their technical expertise and quick response in a highly volatile situation prevented an international incident,” the nomination letter said.
With the jet refueled, Python 73 stuck around in spite of worsening weather to gather and process images and data from the airstrikes. That information led to insights into the tactics used by the adversaries of the U.S. and its coalition partners.
Those insights were included in three reports called “national intelligence assessments,” according to the nomination letter, and were viewed by top analysts and war fighters in the intelligence community.
Historian and author Robert S. Hopkins III, a member of the 55th Wing crew that won the O’Malley Award in 1990, said the Python 73 crew saved the mission from failure.
“They took a sortie that was going wrong everywhere and got it done,” said Hopkins, a Gulf War veteran who published “Spyflights and Overflights: US Strategic Aerial Reconnaissance 1945-1960” in 2016.
Several Python 73 members were present to receive the award in September at a conference in Maryland.
Officials from the 55th Wing declined to comment on the mission or the award.
Air crews from the 55th Wing won the O’Malley Award for the first time in 1990 and have won in all but six years since.
In-flight emergency: An investigation into flight safety at Offutt's 55th Wing
Despite periodic overhauls and “a lot of maintenance love,” the 55th Wing’s 29 planes average more than 80 emergencies and aborted flights per year. Some Air Force veterans fear for crews that take to the sky in the aged, overworked jets. Yet the Air Force plans to keep flying them for 30 more years. Click on links in captions to read individual stories. Or start here.