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21st Special Operations Squadron [21st SOS]

The 21st SOS [Special Operations Squadron] flies the MH-53M helicopter capable of long-range flight due to its ability for aerial refueling from the MC-130P Combat Shadow assigned to the 67th Special Operations Squadron. The Combat Shadow, in turn, can be refueled in air by the KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 351st Air Refueling Squadron. The 21st Special Operations Squadron's mission consists of day or night, all-weather, low-level penetration of denied territory to provide infiltration, exfiltration, resupply, or fire support for elite air, ground, and naval forces. The unique capabilities of the MH-53 the squadron operates permit operations from unprepared landing zones. The 21st Special Operations Squadron previously operated the MH-53J Pave Low III helicopter.

The 21st Special Operations Squadron traces its lineage to the 21st Pursuit Squadron (Interceptor) which was constituted on 22 December 1939. Activated on 1 February 1940 at Moffett Field, CA, it was assigned to the 35th Pursuit Group until 15 Jan 1942 (but attached to the 24th Pursuit Group, c. 20 Nov 1941-2 Apr 1946). The squadron saw combat in the Philippine Islands, from 8 December 1941-c. 1 May 1942 and a ground echelon fought as an infantry unit in Bataan, from 18 January-c. 8 April 1942. It carried on as an active unit but was not operational from the fall of the Philippines until its inactivation on 2 April 1946. Aircraft flown by the squadron during that period were probably the P-36, (1940-1941) and the P-40 (1941-1942).

It was consolidated on 19 September 1985 with the 21st Helicopter Squadron, which was constituted on 24 February 1956. It activated on 9 July 1956 at Donaldson AFB, SC, flying the H-21 and assigned to the Eighteenth Air Force (but attached to the 63rd Troop Carrier Wing, 9 Jul 1956-30 Jun 1957; 314th Troop Carrier Wing, 30 Jun 1957-). It was reassigned to Ninth Air Force, on 1 September until 15 Oct 1957 (remained attached to 314th Troop Carrier Wing through c. 8 Oct 1957). It inactivated on 5 October 1957.

It reactivated on 30 June 1967, assigned to Tactical Air Command, and was organized on 15 July 1967 at Shaw AFB under the 507th Tactical Control Group. Operating the CH-3 (until 1971), it was reassigned to the 56th Air Commando (later, 56th Special Operations) Wing, on 27 November 1967. It was redesignated as the 21st Special Operations Squadron on 1 August 1968.

In 1970, the squadron began operating the CH-53. In September 1970, the 21st Special Operations Squadron (SOS) flew eleven CH-3E helicopters and one, new CH-53 helicopter which arrived at NKP on 8 August. The squadron referred to the large CH-53 as "BUFF," for "big, ugly, fat fellow," and this designation should not be confused with a similar BUFF nickname given to B-52 bombers. The helicopters of the 21 SOS did not participate in TAILWIND because they flew other combat missions in a "big operation," according to the squadron history, to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail in the Bolovens area of Laos.

The squadron saw combat in Southeast Asia, from November 1967-August 1973. It also airlifted personnel from Saigon, in April 1975 and airlifted US Marines in rescue of the SS Mayaquez, in May of 1975.

The 21st was reassigned to Thirteenth Air Force, on 30 June 1975 (though attached to the 656th Special Operations Wing, 30 June-22 September 1975) before inactivating on 22 September 1975 at U-Tapao RTNAF, Thailand.

The squadron reactivated on 1 May 1988 at RAF Woodbridge, England. Flying the MH-53, it was assigned to the 39th Special Operations Wing (though attached to the Joint Special Operations Task force at Batman AB, Turkey, from 13 January-18 March 1991 and from 6 April-10 June 1991 at Diyarbkir AB, Turkey). The 21st provided support to coalition forces during Southwest Asia conflict, from January to March 1991 and later.

The 21st relocated to RAF Alconbury, England, and was reassigned to the 352d Special Operations Group, on 1 December 1992 (though attached to Joint Special Operations Task Force from 2 March-12 July 1993, deploying during that period to Brindisi AB, Italy and Incirlik AB, Turkey).

Joint Task Force Provide Comfort deployed to Incirlik Air Base at Adana, Turkey, on 6 April 1991. The initial Provide Comfort deployment was a scaled-down package made up of the lead elements of the USAF 39th Special Operations Wing (SOW). This unit was first labeled "Express Care." The 39th SOW was comprised of the 7th Special Operations Squadron flying Lockheed MC-130 Talons, the 21st Special Operations Squadron flying Sikorsky MH-53J Pave Low deep-penetration search and rescue helicopters, and the 67th Special Operations Squadron flying HC- 130 aerial refuelers. Its ground organization included command, administration, ordnance, maintenance, supply, and support personnel. The ground component of Joint Task Force Express Care was the 1st Battalion, 10th SFG (A). The Army's Special Forces were experienced, highly skilled, unconventional warriors specially trained to work and live with indigenous populations in remote areas. About 200 Special Forces soldiers were assigned to support Provide Comfort. General Garner tasked Colonel Jones to move the 24th MEU (SOC) into northern Iraq on 20 April to secure the town of Zakho. In preparation, a flight of two MH-53J Pave Low helicopters from the USAF 21st Special Operations Squadron made a reconnaissance of the area. They brought back photographs and video imagery of the Operations area and potential camp sites.

A MH-53 Pave Low from the 21st Special Operations Squadron, RAF Mildenhall England was escorted by two Hungarian Hind MI-24 gunships over Balaton Lake on their way to Szentkiralyszabadja airfield Veszprem, Hungary for participation in the Hungarian/US Bilateral Rescue Exercise Combined Rescue 95. The Stokes litter on the Pave Low is designed for rapid extraction of injured when landing it is not the safest option.

In 1998 an Air Force MH-53 Pave Low from the 21st Special Operations Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, England flew out of San Vito, Italy in support of the Bosnian peacekeeping mission.

An MH-53J Pave Low helicopter from the 352d Special Operations Group's 21st Special Operations Squadron, landed aboard the USS Monongahela operating in the Mediterranean Sea 04 February 1999 The helicopter, call sign SKAT 08, got an emergency call to evacuate a seaman with appendicitis for transport to the hospital in Lecce, Italy. The patient was transferred and is currently undergoing tests. The helicopter returned to Brindisi Air Station, Italy, without incident.

The 21st Special Operations Squadron participated in a combat search and rescue mission for the pilot of a downed F-117A stealth fighter during the air campaign against Serbia and the forces of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. A radio transmission from a refueling tanker stating it had received no response from his F-117A customer. Then followed reports the stealth fighter was missing or shot down. Soon after, the MC-130P Combat Shadow crew took off enroute to Bosnia-Herzegovina for a rendezvous with three rescue helicopters. Two were MH-53 Pave Lows, one from the 21st SOS and the other from the 20th SOS at Hurlburt Field, Fla. The third helicopter was an MH-60 Pave Hawk from the now deactivated 55th SOS at Hurlburt Field. The plan called for the rescue helicopters to refuel immediately before crossing the Serbian border to allow them to operate with full fuel tanks. After more than 90 minutes of orbiting close to the border, the call came from the helicopter crews for the desperately needed fuel that would enable them to continue the rescue mission. The refueling took place at the unusually low altitude of 700 feet within three miles of the Serbian border. President Clinton called the 352nd SOG commander to give personal thanks.

In 1993, the the 352nd Special Operations Group, RAF Mildenhall, England, and the 16th Special Operations Wing, Hurlburt Field, Fla., initially deployed people and hardware to San Vito while supporting Operation Provide Promise, a humanitarian airlift that sustained thousands of sick and starving civilians trapped by Bosnia's civil war. Eventually, as Balkan peacekeeping efforts began in earnest, that tasking switched to Operation Deny Flight, with 352nd SOG and 16th SOW resources staying put. And they maintained a sizable presence there as long as US F-16 Falcons, French Mirages or English Tornadoes continue flying air-policing missions. Supporting the fighter community is a big part of the mission. The Squadron has an all-weather, around-the-clock capability to go in and get them if anything goes wrong.

Things did "go wrong" for one French aircrew on Aug. 30, 1995, during the first day of Operation Deliberate Force, NATO's bombing campaign that eventually forced Bosnian factions into a truce. Within an hour after the campaign began, Serbian ground forces shot down a Mirage, capturing its injured pilot and weapon systems officer. Unaware the Frenchmen were prisoners, special operations members flew nightly reconnaissance missions into Bosnia from Italy, hoping to locate and then rescue the men. On one flight, two MH-53 Pave Low helicopters from Mildenhall's 21st Special Operations Squadron - exposed by bright moonlight - came under heavy anti-aircraft and small-arms fire. Seventy-five miles deep into hostile territory, the choppers, call signs Knife 44 and 47, slugged their way out while receiving help from a Hurlburt AC-130 Spectre, two A-10s, two Marine F-18s and a Navy EA-6. Staff Sgts. Dennis Turner and Randy Rutledge, Knife 44 side-gunners from Hurlburt's 20th SOS, were wounded by searing shrapnel during the fight but managed to return a furious fusillade of their own. Both men received Purple Hearts.

Mildenhall's 21st and 7th SOS, using MH-53s and MC-130H Combat Talon IIs, also ferried troops into Sarajevo and Tuzla, and played a key role in Bosnia's 1996 elections by flying 54 U.S. delegates - including special envoy Richard Holbrooke - to eight polling sites scattered throughout the war-scarred country. During the delegate shuttles, Hurlburt 16th SOS Spectres patrolled travel routes, and MC-130P Combat Shadows from Mildenhall's 67th SOS refueled helicopters and provided airborne command and control.

As the only Air Force special operations unit permanently aligned under U.S. European Command, the 352nd SOG works a variety of theater contingencies, such as evacuating civilians during African coup attempts or supporting Operations Southern and Northern Watch in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It also rushed troops to Dubrovnik, Croatia, when an Air Force CT-43 carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown crashed into a mountain. Arriving in a nasty rainstorm, 21st SOS Pave Lows inserted the first search-and-rescue teams, followed by a 67th SOS MC-130P. Mildenhall crews remained on scene until the last body was removed.

In mid-1996 Air Force Special Operations Command helicoptersy passed the 5,000 flying-hour milestone supporting NATO's Bosnian operations. MH-53J Pave Low III crews from both the 21st Special Operations Squadron, RAF Mildenhall, U.K., and the 20th SOS, Hurlburt Field, Fla., provided combat search and rescue capability for more than three years and continue flying missions supporting Operation Joint Endeavor. The Pave Lows did numerous combat search and rescue missions, including two missions into Bosnia to search for two French crewmembers shot down during Operation Deliberate Force. The Paves also aided the Marine helicopters that rescued Capt. Scott O'Grady in 1995.

In early 1997 members of the 352nd Special Operations Group, 100th Air Refueling Wing and 3rd Air Force departed for areas around Zaire as part of the enabling force to support Joint Task Force Guardian Retrieval. Approximately 200 people and aircraft from the 352nd Special Operations Group, 23 people from the wing and seven from 3rd AF deployed to Libreville, Gabon, in West Africa, while four other wings and 3rd AF members were sent to Brazzaville, Congo. The wing also supported the operation with air refueling. The first SOG assets, MC-130P Combat Shadows from the 67th Special Operations Squadron, arrived in Africa followed by additional special operations assets including MH-53J Pave Low helicopters from the 21st Special Operations Squadron. Team Mildenhall airmen joined about 400 soldiers, sailors and Marines comprising the joint task force ashore in West Africa. Approximately 550 American citizens were in Zaire and the majority of those were in the capital, Kinshasa.

The 1,300-member coalition force, spearheaded by Joint Special Operations Task Force 2, operates 10 miles outside of Brindisi at San Vito Air Station. Its role: supporting NATO troops deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina and aircrews monitoring a no-fly zone above that volatile country, where swarming Serbian mobs attacked Army patrols in September 1997. All these special ops resources were based at San Vito, but for 34 years during the Cold War, the place hosted various intelligence people that intercepted and analyzed transmissions from former Warsaw Pact countries. You can still see the big Flare-9 antenna - nicknamed the elephant cage - they used. And though the base supposedly closed in October 1994, as part of the U.S. military drawdown, the Bosnian mission keeps San Vito's gates open.

The leadership traits of four airmen earned them the Air Force's 1999 Lance P. Sijan Leadership Award. They are: Senior officer: Col. Paul G. Schafer, Joint Warfare Analysis Center, Dahlgren, Va. Junior officer: Capt. Mark T. Daley, 21st Special Operations Squadron, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. Senior enlisted: Senior Master Sgt. Gordon H. Scott, Special Operations Command headquarters, Hurlburt Field, Fla. Junior enlisted: Staff Sgt. Thomas B. Mazzone, 3rd Aerial Port Squadron,

In March 2000 a MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopter from the 21st Special Operations Squadron, UK refueled over South Africa from an MC-130P Combat Shadow refueler from the 67th Special Operations Squadron. Both Squadrons are from RAF Mildenhall, and deployed to Air Force Base Hoedspruit, South Africa, to support Operation Atlas Response. The Pave Lows operated from Air Force Base Hoedspruit where they are deployed in support of Operation Atlas Response, a multi-national humanitarian relief mission helping displaced people in central and southern Mozambique that have been devastated by recent floods. A U.S. Air Force flight crew used the maiden voyage of one of its MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopters March 12 to deliver desperately needed clothing to flood victims in Mozambique as relief efforts here kicked into high gear. The crew, members of the 21st Special Operations Squadron from RAF Mildenhall, England, transported more than 4,700 pounds of donated clothing from the Mozambique town of Palmeira to Xai-Xai, a village still half-submerged by floodwaters.

An MH-53J Pave Low IIIE, from the 21st Special Operations Squadron, flew over the English countryside on 27 May 2000, prior to the start of the 352nd Special Operations Group flying display during Air Fete 2000 at RAF Mildenhall, England. Air Fete is Europe's largest military sponsored air show. The MH-53J's mission is to perform low-level, long-range, undetected penetration into denied areas, day or night, in adverse weather, for infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of special operations forces.

Members of two U.S. Air Force units from Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, England, participated in the annual Plymouth International Air Show 8-10 June 2001 in Plymouth Devon, England. Airmen from the 352nd Maintenance Squadron and the 21st Special Operations Squadron provided a static display of a MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopter at the event designed to raise money for charity. Plymouth Hoe is one of the most unique of all Air show venues. At nearly 100 feet above sea level, spectators are level with the aircraft as they perform, creating a unique experience for the viewer.

The call came in here early evening 21 May 2002 to rescue two injured passengers aboard a storm-damaged yacht in rough seas approximately 450 miles off the southwest coast of England. Answering that call was a combined Team Mildenhall effort resulting in hoisting the injured man and woman aboard an MH-53M Pave Low IV helicopter and transferring them to a civilian hospital. Those involved in the daring rescue placed it among their most harrowing experiences. Because the yacht Persuader was out of range of British air and sea rescue vessels, the 21st Special Operations Squadron was called upon. The duration of the mission stretched across two days and required about 90,000 pounds of fuel via aerial refueling. The two Combat Shadows received about 56,000 pounds during three aerial refuelings from KC-135s, and the two Pave Low helicopters received about 32,000 pounds during nine aerial refuelings from the two Combat Shadows.

Special Operations Forces and rescue forces were in high demand during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The MH-53Ms from the 21st SOS conducted missions over Iraq.

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