337 Over Baghdad
By James Scott Morrison
Tribute to CW4 Keith Yoakum and CW2 Jason G. Defrenn
On the morning of 2 February 2007 CW4 Keith Yoakum and CW2 Jason G. Defrenn were flying the trail aircraft in a flight of two AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopters as they departed on a reconnaissance mission in support of four separate ground brigades in and around Baghdad Iraq. Just when the Apache team began reconnaissance of a test fire area, waves of red tracers and heavy machine gun fire burst into the sky from multiple directions and raked the Apaches. The tracer fire immediately engulfed their aircraft and riddled the fuselage. The enemy had established a deadly kill zone comprised of multiple heavy machine gun and anti-aircraft gun positions. They immediately radioed their lead aircraft to maneuver it away from the direction of fire. As the lead aircraft broke hard to the right, the enemy responded, shifting its fire away from Keith and Jason’s aircraft and toward the lead aircraft. They warned the lead helicopter announcing “now you’re taking fire!” and the two aircraft broke left to escape the deadly kill zone.
Despite the damage to their aircraft, CW4 Yoakum took personal charge of the team amid the melee of bullets, calmed his lead aircraft, and steered the team out of the kill zone. The team raced to the north to separate from the enemy force and to acquire standoff range to assess the situation. Immediately after their turn to the north, Keith announced that he had “lost utility hydraulics,” a condition that requires the pilot to land the aircraft immediately at the nearest clear landing area. As the senior maintenance test pilot in the company, a prior instructor at the U.S. Army Maintenance Test Pilot Course, and a Master Army Aviator with almost 5000 flight hours, Keith understood the gravity of his Apache’s emergency condition. Furthermore, he recognized that the loss of hydraulic pressure prevented them from employing their aircraft’s main gun. As a result, he would have to use the aircraft’s 2.75 inch rockets from a fixed position, requiring skillful maneuvering of the crippled aircraft to accurately employ the rockets against the enemy.
The team continued northbound and after approximately two minutes no longer had tracers whipping by their windscreens. Once clear of the immediate threat, Keith and Jason had the opportunity to fly their critically damaged aircraft back to the airfield or land in the open desert to conduct an emergency extraction on their wingman’s aircraft. Still, despite the cockpit warnings and Keith and Jason’s recognition of this grave situation, they never considered leaving their wingman and knew this enemy would kill again if left on the battlefield. The enemy had a distinct advantage as a result of their concealed position among the numerous canals and irrigation ditches in the surrounding countryside. Despite the fierce danger inherent in pressing the attack, Keith radioed his wingman that “I can put rockets in” and continued to plan the route back into the withering fire of the enemy’s ambush site to destroy the enemy’s anti-aircraft positions.
Instructions to the lead aircraft were simple: “you find them, we’ve got you covered.” Keith and Jason knew that their Apache team had a sliver of an opportunity to engage and destroy the enemy before they blended into the Iraqi countryside. The team decided to search the ambush area in a cloverleaf pattern, thereby performing a sweep of the area from all directions until they were able to locate the anti-aircraft guns.
Approximately two minutes after the initial ambush had crippled Keith and Jason’s Apache, the lead aircraft, acting on their instructions, turned south to begin their search for the enemy ambush site. Despite the deteriorating condition of their own aircraft, Keith announced “were going to climb up and cover you from high and we’re gonna work on rockets.” As they continued losing critical hydraulic pressure, Keith determined that their degraded weapons systems necessitated that they climb to altitude and then dive the damaged aircraft directly at the enemy to provide effective rocket fire. Only by diving from a higher altitude directly toward the enemy position could they provide precise rocket fire for their wingman while focusing fires solely on the enemy and away from the surrounding villages and homes in the Iraqi countryside. With unmatched skill and extraordinary courage, Keith began his climb to posture the crippled aircraft in a diving position, knowing full well that his climb would give the enemy gunners a clearer line of sight and more time with which to engage as he maneuvered back towards the ambush site.
Keith and Jason’s dying Apache was not able to sustain its altitude. As the Apache team made a second inbound run to the ambush area utilizing their cloverleaf pattern, the lead Apache radioed to Keith and Jason to ensure that they were still with them. After transmitting several radio calls and receiving no response, the lead aircraft began a left turn and acquired Keith and Jason’s aircraft. After flying for almost four minutes in a critical state, Apache 337 had succumbed to its battle damage and was engulfed in a blazing fire on the ground following a crash that had instantly killed CW4 Keith Yoakum and CW2 Jason