September 18, 2014

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Surviving pilot describes helicopter crash, rescue by Djibouti soldiers

Susan Craig, right, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot, and Maj. Heath Ruppert, left, Craig's former co-pilot, applaud a group of Djiboutian soldiers who were awarded the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on Tuesday. COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

Susan Craig, right, a former U.S. Marine Corps pilot, and Maj. Heath Ruppert, left, Craig’s former co-pilot, applaud a group of Djiboutian soldiers who were awarded the Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on Tuesday. COURTESY DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

Pilot Susan Craig describes the crash and her subsequent rescue in a letter provided by the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System based in Atlanta.

“My co-pilot and I … managed to swim to the shore and drag ourselves out of the water,” recalled Susan Craig, a former Marine pilot who flew one of the two CH-53 helicopters that collided mid-air over the Gulf of Aden the night of Feb, 16, 2006.

“My right leg had been punctured … and was fractured and my ACL on my left leg popped upon standing.”

Barely able to stand, much less walk, Craig witnessed Ruppert “vomiting water and blood and not in much better shape.”

With night closing in, the pair were unsure “when and if we would be found by our fellow Marines,” Craig wrote.

Then they saw a boat in the distance and the duo began yelling and fired flares in hopes they would be seen.

Craig then saw “five sets of legs” about a half-mile away.

“We weren’t sure what their intentions were and whether they were friendly or not,” Craig said. “My co-pilot (Ruppert) had his pistol ready.”

Dressed in fatigues, the four men carried weapons and a hand-held radio. None spoke English.

“I just kept saying ‘help,’ ” Craig recalled.

Despite difficulty in communicating with the Djibouti soldiers, the rescuers showed concern and kindness as they evaluated the pilots’ injuries.

“With the arrival of these soldiers … came hope we could be found,” Craig said.

With darkness falling, the group moved to another location that was deemed a better landing zone for rescue aircraft.

“I couldn’t walk so two of the soldiers carried me, one helped my co-pilot, and one lit the way for us,” Craig said.

“Being carried was very exhausting; I can only imagine how difficult it was for them to carry me over the rocky terrain,” Craig recalled. “I was beginning to get really cold.”

About 20 to 30 minutes later, the group heard an approaching rescue helicopter.

“It was a wonderful sound and terrible at the same time. I was about to have to face the reality of what had happened,” Craig wrote.

Describing their rescuers as “kind and compassionate,” Craig said the Djibouti soldiers stayed with the two pilots until the end of their ordeal before helping to carry them onto the helicopter.

“I have wondered many times over these years about the men who had rescued us,” Craig said. “If I could see them again I would say ‘Thank you,’ though that wouldn’t feel like enough. They not only carried us to our rescue, they gave us hope.”