FORT WAYNE – As the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flew near the mountain’s edge, Chief Warrant Officer Derek D. Reynolds watched for any sign of the Marines injured below.
A short time before, a call went out that an aircraft was missing in the northern training area of Phitsanulok, Thailand, about 370 kilometers north of the country’s capital city, Bangkok.
“A Marine aircraft was located on top of a mountain,” Reynolds, a native of Fort Wayne, said by phone from South Korea. “The only aircraft that had the power to get up there was one of our Black Hawks.”
Tuesday night, Reynolds and his Army company, as well as the other men and women who assisted in the Feb. 20 rescue, were honored during a ceremony in South Korea.
The Marines stranded near the downed helicopter that day, a CH-46E Sea Knight, had been practicing landings as part of a Cobra Gold training exercise.
Cobra Gold was organized in 1982 when fears of an enemy invasion on Thailand, an ally to the United States and Asia, were rampant. Today, seven nations – the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia – fully participate in the training exercise.
Suddenly, a rough landing turned a routine exercise into an emergency rescue on a cliff near the edge of one of Thailand’s dense jungles.
The helicopter caught fire and began burning – visible to Thailand residents only by the smoke wafting through the crowded trees.
Reynolds described the scene as he and four others from the 2nd Battalion Combat Aviation Brigade approached the crash site, where they were tasked with rescuing the Marines below.
The aircraft had been flattened by fire, Reynolds said.
“I couldn’t even identify it,” he said. “It was burned down to the point that I couldn’t tell what it was.”
The Black Hawk landed just long enough for Reynolds, another warrant officer and three medics to jump from their helicopter and race to the men and women who had stationed themselves at the edge of the cliff.
All had managed to escape from the burning helicopter, but three of the Marines had serious injuries, Reynolds said.
“Our medics went straight to work on them. I started gathering gear and checking on the other Marines,” he said.
Reynolds’ company on the ground used survival radios to contact another helicopter above, signaling the pilots when they were ready to load the three injured Marines on stretchers into the aircraft.
One suffered a broken leg, another had cuts to his torso and the third, the pilot, had second- and third-degree burns covering about 60 percent of his body, Reynolds said.
“About 50 feet away, the aircraft was burning; … everyone had been pulled out of the aircraft, but we were in a dense jungle and the only open area was on the side of the cliff,” Reynolds said. “We were able to land our aircraft just barely, on the edge of the cliff, almost in the trees.”
After the injured had been loaded, the aircraft quickly lifted from the crash site, leaving behind Reynolds, his company and the remaining Marines.
Hours later, all of the Marines and the rescue crew had been evacuated from the area and Reynolds said the shock began to settle in.
“That was the first aviation accident that I’d seen and been a part of,” he said. “I’ve never been trained on how to handle something like that at all. There’s no ‘helicopter crash, this is how you act’ training.
“I’ve been in the Army for 12 years now and been through multiple deployments. The training just kicked in.”
Reynolds, a 2000 graduate of Snider High School, has been deployed four times since he joined the Army in 2002. He served twice in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan before being deployed in October 2011 to South Korea.
His parents, Sherrie and Doug Reynolds, live in Fort Wayne. In October, Reynolds plans to return home to his wife, Paula, and four children.
Tuesday night’s ceremony was designed to honor the bravery of men and women like Reynolds and to thank them for saving the lives of the Marines stranded during the training exercise.
But to him, it’s just part of the job.