This is the second part of a two-part series on Mike Holder. For the first part of this story click here.
No classified material was discussed nor revealed during this interview. However, to protect Special Operations personnel and avoid a possible security infringement, last names, team identification codes or colors and precise battlefield locations will be withheld.
“We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” - George Orwell –
While John Q. Citizen wolfs down a Coors Light as his spouse frantically surfs Netflix for a new movie, men of honor don their special gear to be flown in special aircraft to perform special missions. These are the men of Special Ops, the pilots and crews, the highly specialized warriors who achieve the complicated immediately and conquer the impossible a few seconds later.
MH-53 Pave Low pilot Mike ‘Big Daddy’ Holder was on leave when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. He recalled, “By that afternoon I was on the phone helping build up crews. We had our alert teams ready in record time and I was in the Middle East by Sept. 22. Our first port of call was Masirah Island on the Eastern coast of Oman, the same island that hosted Operation Eagle Claw (the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1980). We built up our birds then jumped out to the Marine Assault ship, the USS Peleliu. Before long the Peleliu was steaming off the coast of Pakistan.”
The air war in Afghanistan began on Oct 2. 2001. Big Daddy led the first Pave Lows into Pakistan to set up combat search and rescue capabilities to save pilots downed by enemy fire or engine failure. “When the pilots bailed out, it was our mission to go in after them,” Mike said.
By November, Mike led the first rescue mission into Afghanistan to save a very sick Special Ops soldier trapped in a mountainous location where peaks reached 25,000 feet. The high altitude complicated the soldiers’ illness, later to be identified as viral meningitis. Bad weather curtailed an Army chopper from a rescue attempt, and now it was up to the Air Force flyboys. Mike, in Knife 04, and his wingman, in Knife 03, knew the odds were not in their favor. High mountains, snow showers, low clouds and lower visibility, boxed in valleys, enemy held territory and the failure of Knife 03s ‘terrain following’ radar compounded the danger. The flyboys were ‘flying blind’ at altitudes beyond a Pave Low’s capability. At such high altitude and reduced speed, the choppers stalled. Mike recovered Knife 04, but Knife 03 stalled out at 11,000 feet, fell straight down 150 feet, hit the side of a snow-covered mountain and slid down the slope.
Mike ‘Big Daddy’ Holder’s modest description of the rescue: “One Knife 03 crewmember suffered a broken back and broken ankles, so I realized we had to get those guys out. I dumped all but 10 minutes of fuel then over-sped both engines, drooped my rotor system and, well, we stayed lucky and everything went perfect. We rescued the entire crew and the sick Special Ops soldier was finally rescued the next day.”
It was a truly modest account that caused Mike’s father, Jim Holder, to jump into the conversation to tell the rest of the story. “Let put things in its proper perspective,” Jim said. “The air war came to a screeching halt. All available fighter aircraft and refueling tankers were dispatched to a holding pattern above Mike in case he needed assistance, which every warrior involved figured he would. A Pave Low chopper is not designed for rescues above 7,000 feet; Mike was hovering at 11,000 feet. At that altitude a Pave Low loses performance capabilities and the terrain was not conducive for a safe landing. The downed crew scrambled into the bay about the same time Mike’s Pave Low basically stalled out, it was a pretty hairy takeoff. He recovered control of the chopper then shouted into his mic in his best Southern drawl at the refueling tanker, ‘I need gas, right now!’ A C-130 tanker had already violated a ‘no-fly’ zone and was en route with fuel. Mike hit the C-130s refueling boom on his first try, took on about 2,000 gallons of fuel, but at the extreme altitude fell off the hose. He just could not maintain the altitude. His piloting skills saved every one of those boys. I’m very proud of my son.”
“I appreciate that, dad,” Mike said.
“You’re welcome,” Jim replied, then glanced at me. “Please continue.”
The sensitive nature of the mission allowed — conceivably required —the rescued crew to take a week’s rest before they were even allowed to call home. F-14 fighter jets bombed the crash site of Knife 03 to keep sensitive equipment from enemy hands, yet Al-Jazeera showed Knife 03s instrument panel on the back of a pickup truck with a sign which read ‘Die American Terrorists’. The landing gear was later displayed in Kabul before the city fell to the Americans. Big Daddy and his gallant crew would later receive the prestigious Mackay Trophy for the Most Meritorious USAF Flight of 2001. A rescue destined for military history books, a flight into Harm’s Way in treacherous weather at an unheard of altitude, dodging enemy fire and one RPG that narrowly missed his Pave Low, Mike ‘Big Daddy’ Holder received the Distinguished Flying Cross. An advanced decoration, the Silver Star, was withheld because the military claimed, ‘he wasn’t shot at enough.’
Mike came home in Dec, 2001 after a 90 day deployment. By April of 2002, he was back in Afghanistan. Kabul had fallen; Kandahar was in American control. Mike recalled, “I was in Kandahar working with the Rangers and Special Ops people, the crew and I referred to the snake-eaters and door kickers as our ‘customers’. I never tired of looking at our bay, loaded down with these brave men and their 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, and other special equipment.”
According to Mike, Afghanistan is still pretty much the Wild, Wild West. “I had another wingman go down,” Mike said.
“He crashed landed on a ridgeline and staggered down to a sandbar. A member of his crew was on the downed chopper we rescued in 2001. Again, Lady Luck was with us and we got them……”
His dad interrupted, “There ya go again. The story is, the downed crew was being pursued by the enemy. The Special Ops personnel were out of water and drinking from IVs to stay hydrated. Mike had to maneuver the Pave Low’s back wheels onto a ridge line while hovering the front of the chopper as the downed crew scrambled aboard. It was a marvelous piece of piloting which earned my modest son his second Distinguished Flying Cross.”
Mike said, “I appreciate that, dad.”
“You’re welcome,” Jim replied, then once again glanced my way to say, “Please continue.”
January of 2003 found Big Daddy in the tiny country of Djibouti at the entrance to the Red Sea. Mike said, “Djibouti is wedged between the countries of Eritrea and Somalia with their largest neighbor, Ethiopia, on their western border. We were posturing for any terrorist group that may be crawling around. As chief pilot, we practiced night ops, low and slow, 10 feet from the ocean at 10 knots, dropping the snake-eaters and their rubber boats into the spray, very challenging work.”
Sent home as a Pave Low instructor in Albuquerque , Mike soon found himself saddled up with seven other pilots selected by a special board to be in the first group to train on the new Osprey, half-plane, half-chopper. Initially instructed on the Marine Corps version, Mike returned to his base in Albuquerque to fly the Air Force version. He recalled, “We had a lot more whistles and toys on our Osprey, even protection from heat-seeking missiles. You’re talking 300 m.p.h. at 100 feet off the ground.”
Asked about the Osprey’s technology, Mike responded, “Well, we say someone with a Doctorate designed it, someone with a Masters built it, someone with a Bachelors piloted it, and someone with a diploma from high school maintains it. I’ve been asked, ‘how does a half-chopper and half-plane remain airborne?’ Well, hell if I know. I just twist this or flip that and this happens. I’ve been asked if the Osprey is safe, and my pat answer is always, ‘of course it’s safe, or my mother wouldn’t let me fly the damn thing.’ In the chopper mode it’s governed by chopper flight control laws, in the airplane mode by airplane flight control laws. There is a hazy area where the flight controls change, around 30% to 35%, and that’s just one of many reasons we need computer flight controls when necessary. Ya know, someone figured all that out; like I said, I just fly the darn thing and marvel at the fact we’re actually airborne.”
The Osprey flies from point A to point B a lot faster than a conventional chopper when in the airplane mode, but as Mike stated, “it still does all the cool hover stuff.” A four year stint in the Osprey sent Mike and his crews to Africa, Newfoundland, and Honduras. Two months after Mike was chosen for a school at the Pentagon, the first Osprey was ordered to Iraq where it proved its worth many times over.
Bad publicity haunted the Osprey after several fatal crashes, but Mike explained, “Pilot error accounted for the vast majority of the crashes. The Osprey is very safe, and very tough. During the American Embassy evacuation in Sudan,every Osprey took hits, one Osprey took 117 hits, but all the Ospreys returned to base. An Osprey can lose a system but has backup, diverter valves are everywhere to power other systems and we have an interconnecting drive shaft so if an engine shuts down we can keep on flying. I mean, this bird will talk to you. If gears seize up, little magnets in the oil suck up the metal shavings. Let me explain it this way, a B-52 or C-130 needs a runway. Well, I can land an Osprey in a Walmart parking lot or my backyard. If she starts talking to me while in mid-air, I can put her down in about 90 seconds, in a cow pasture or a rest area on I-285.”
Mike believes in the Osprey. “It’s all about our customers …” he stated. “(It’s about) the Special Ops guys in back, the 18-year-old in a foxhole, a downed pilot — whatever the customer needs or wants, that is our mission. We have gained the respect and trust of our customers. And by the way, when you hear Fox News talk about special missions, that’s us, or guys like us.”
Lt. Colonel Mike ‘Big Daddy’ Holder is presently in Norfolk, Virginia attending JAWS (Joint Advanced War-fighting School). Before leaving, he told this journalist, “You know, I’ll be 52 in September and in another 4 years I’ll have 30 years of military service. I suppose I’ll be planning an air war if something starts, and I have to accept the fact that my flying days may be over, but truthfully, it has been one hell of a ride.”
His father, Jim Holder, stated, “You’ve had a great career, son.”
Mike responded, “I appreciate that, dad.”
“You’re welcome,” Jim said, then turned to me to inquire, “We’ve been talking for the better part of 2 ½ hours. Are you going to be able to put all this together for a story?”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us