DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
XVIII AIRBORNE CORPS
FORT BRAGG, NORTH CAROLINA
JOINT TASK FORCE SOUTH IN OPERATION JUST CAUSE
20 December 1989 - 12 January 1990
Oral History Interview
FIRST LIEUTENANT LISA M. KUTSCHERA
Platoon Leader, 3d Platoon, Company A, 3d Battalion, 123d Aviation
Interview conducted 8 January 1990 at Building 820, Fort Kobbe, Panama
Interviewer: MAJ Robert K. Wright, Jr.
MAJ WRIGHT: [This is an Operation JUST CAUSE interview being conducted on] 7 January 1990, at [Building 820,] Fort Kobbe,
[Panama]. The interviewing officer is MAJ [Robert K.] Wright, [Jr.], the Joint Task Force [SOUTH] Historian. And if you'd go ahead
and identify yourself, please: name, rank, serial number.
1LT KUTSCHERA: I'm 1LT Lisa M. Kutschera; my Social Security number is ***-**-****; and I'm with 3d Platoon, A Company, 3d [Battalion] of the 123d [Aviation]. I'm a flight platoon leader.
MAJ WRIGHT: When did you first come to Panama, Lieutenant?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We arrived here on the 7th of December.
MAJ WRIGHT: Normal rotation or was this the accelerated pre-position?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, this was normal rotation. We've had units down here ever since 7th I[nfantry] D[ivision] units were sent down about two and a half years ago or whenever it was. And our company and the other lift company in our battalion have been alternating rotations down here; and our normal rotation date was the 6th of December. We departed the [continental United] States on the 6th, arrived here on the 7th; and they got on the plane to go back to the States.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., lieutenant, what was your background before you had reported down here to Panama? How long had you been in service?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, I got my commission through R[eserve] O[fficer] T[raining] C[orps] at University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, and entered active duty on the 11th of January 1987. Went through OBC [Officer Basic Course], went through air assault school, was in a casual status for four months, went to flight school. After I completed flight school I went immediately to the HUC about two weeks later. And then my first assignment was in Korea. I arrived there in August of 1988 and was there for a year on the normal one-year tour in Korea. Came back here to the States and was assigned to the 7th Division and signed into the unit in the end of September of 89.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., you are qualified as a [UH-60] Blackhawk pilot?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., [you] came down here at the beginning of December. What was the preparation that you then went through leading up to JUST CAUSE?
1LT KUTSCHERA: When we arrived here ... the other pilots mentioned that security was more stepped up here than it had been when they left in September. There were additional roadblocks, concertina around some of the buildings, which I assume were like TOCs [Tactical Operations Centers] for other units--infantry units and whatever. But for the most part the atmosphere wasn't all that different. I didn't think the atmosphere was that different from Korea as a matter of fact. Security, I thought, was a little bit less than what we had in Korea. The other pilots that I mentioned, that noted an increase in what they had seen.
But operationally all we did was when we got here, we went to the local-area orientations for those of us that hadn't been here yet. During night training missions we were doing a lot of missions that had been going on for at least seven months. I'm not sure if they were going on when Alpha Company left here in September, but they had been going on for quite a while with Bravo Company down here, and then when we got down here, we took over those missions.
MAJ WRIGHT: And those are flying the special sensitive camera equipment?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir. And, so we had been flying those as it turns out in all the areas that we ended up assaulting into on the 20th of December. They had ... the P.D.F. had been sending up flares and stuff when they noticed aircraft going around--flying around--but that was about the only reaction that was endured. There really wasn't much mention of a build-up, a big build-up or anything until the Naval [Marine Corps] officer [1LT Robert Paz] was killed by P.D.F. guards around the Comandancia.
That night we were all alerted as soon as the news came through the channels and we were put on 15 minute stand-by. They had three crews that had been on one-hour recall. They were sitting in their aircraft ready to take off. The rest of us were preflighting and getting ready to go--on what we didn't know yet. I ended up being put on, transferred on[to] the 15-minute stand-by with a [C]W4 [Chief Warrant Officer 4] Mann who was a Viet Nam vet[eran] and I figured if there were any hostilities to be started they wanted a combat vet in there. So since I was flying with him our crew was put on the stand-by in place of the original three stand-by crews and we finished out the night on 15-minute stand-by.
Eventually, they did let us go back into the barracks and go to sleep so we could get crew rest. Then the next day, all day on Sunday, we were still on stand-by. The entire unit was on one-hour stand-by and we were on--the three aircraft--still on 15-minute stand-by till about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon and then they stood the whole company down to one-hour recall, which is really not that difficult anyway because they didn't put us so far away that we weren't in reach. Our normal ... normally, in our company, we are considered [to have] three aircraft on one-hour stand-by. All the rest of the aircraft are on three-hour stand-by anyway.
So things seemed to be going back to normal at that time and everybody was talking about "oh, well, they let another one slip, so much for all the threats, I guess we're not doing anything this time anyway." What we didn't know was that the ball had been started rolling in the States, which obviously happened because as Monday night and Tuesday rolled around, we started seeing more and more units coming in.
I believe it was that Monday the Air Force said that all the Army helicopters would have to get off the--Howard--the ramp and the inactive runway out there. They didn't say why. We all--they had been talking about this for over a year, kicking us all out of there anyway--and most of the people just assumed that the Air Force was finally having their way in getting us off the airfield, although our first sergeant did bring up the point that--[when] somebody started coming out with some sour grapes type stuff--that maybe they're making room for more aircraft. And so that kind of got me thinking.
A lot of people in the unit at this point still are not taking things seriously. Our company commander had a couple of meetings with us telling us about some of the things that he was being read-in on. Not telling us what he was being read in on but that they were reading him in on some contingency plans and things that, to me, pointed out the fact that there was something going on behind the scenes here.
MAJ WRIGHT: And who is your company commander?
1LT KUTSCHERA: [CPT] Thomas Muir.
MAJ WRIGHT: Spell the last name.
1LT KUTSCHERA: M-U-I-R.
MAJ WRIGHT: Thank you.
1LT KUTSCHERA: And the people that had been down here before had seen build-ups similar to this before, and were not taking it seriously. I don't know if it was just because I'm inexperienced down here that I was taking it more seriously maybe than they were, or, you know, I'm not sure what it was.
MAJ WRIGHT: Korea background maybe? The alerts in Korea and what not?
1LT KUTSCHERA: That could be, sir, because we had a lot of alerts in Korea--there were some false alarms and things but they wouldn't let unit commanders in on top secret contingency plans. And to me that seemed like an indication that there was a definite build-up going on. Apparently, I found out later, that CPT Muir and one of our warrant officers, CW2 Vandenhoogle, had already been in briefings, were already planning routes for the [Fort] Amador mission, and the OPPLAN [Operations Plan] which our battalion commander was calling "Der Tag" ["The Day"].
They had already been in the planning stages for this starting on, I believe it was Monday morning, the day after the shooting incident. Then on--I believe it was on Tuesday--during the day CPT Muir briefed the platoon leaders about the planning that was going on and that there was in fact a build-up of forces going on down here. Special Forces, Task Force 160th, a whole bunch of people coming down here and that the 'slap in the face' was not going to slide by this time and that it was probably the last straw to break the camel's back.
MAJ WRIGHT: But you were not notified at that time of the H-hour?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir, we were not. And then it was--Wednesday was the 19th, I believe--on that Wednesday. [Actually Tuesday, 19 December; H-Hour was 0100 hours on Wednesday, 20 December 1989.]
So we were beginning preparations, beginning to look at maintenance from a "what if" type standpoint--what if we have to go to combat--and determining which aircraft to fly, which aircraft absolutely needed maintenance, things like that. On Wednesday morning we were briefed that that night, sometime, would probably mean the mission would kick off. But we still were not given a definite time. In the afternoon on Wednesday, CPT Muir again called the platoon leaders and first sergeant in and told us that we were going to be getting a briefing at 9:00 that night for Amador and "Der Tag" and that the--I can't remember if he put out the time at that point or not for the mission--but that it would be going probably after midnight sometime that night.
MAJ WRIGHT: Now, had you ever flown the Amador area since you had been down here, had you had an opportunity to prep that area visually--get familiar with flying in and out of there?
1LT KUTSCHERA: I had done one of the IGUANA missions. We had flight-followed. Our battalion commander decided to fly the IGUANA mission and we had been a second aircraft, basically a cover ship for the IGUANA ship, so as it turns out, I had seen it. Most of the pilots in the unit had not seen that ...
MAJ WRIGHT: Which is a contrast to A [Company] in the 1st [Battalion] of the 228[th Aviation] which had flown that mission repeatedly during rehearsals?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K.
1LT KUTSCHERA: They had gone into that area. Whether .. as far as I know our unit hadn't really been rehearsing in that area. We had been rehearsing more in areas up around Fort Sherman and places like that. There is a little P.D.F. area up there around Lake Gatun that--where there was a joint U.S.-P.D.F. compound and our unit had done several air assaults in that area--just kind of "wake up guys, yes we are here" type of thing. But as far as Amador or any of the LZs in "Der Tag," but the unit as a whole had not seen those before.
MAJ WRIGHT: Rehearsals--seats in or seats out? Had you rehearsed seats out?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir. We hadn't ... we didn't do any practice seats out--no practice assault [with] seats out. On that--either Tuesday or Wednesday--we had the, some of the infantry units that we were going to be assaulting into Amador, came in to practice loading and unloading the aircraft. Just static in the corral out here with seats out. That was the first hint of anything that we had done seats out.
MAJ WRIGHT: Did you ever practice seats out at anytime previously--Korea or back at [Fort] Ord?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir, no.
MAJ WRIGHT: So this was another little indicator?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes. We're practicing seats out; things are going down. But we never did fly any practice seats out, actual flying.
MAJ WRIGHT: Now, your crew consisted of yourself, the CW4, [the] crew chief, and--did you have a door gunner?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, we did have a door gunner.
MAJ WRIGHT: From your own assets, from 7th ID, or was this an augmentee that had [come in] from some other unit?
1LT KUTSCHERA: They were 7th ID infantry[men] that had been down here. They had been door gunners for B Company before we got down here and they were just staying with Task Force HAWK as door gunners. And as the companies rotated through they just picked up with the new company. So they were already trained down here and ...
MAJ WRIGHT: Familiar with the area, visually ...
1LT KUTSCHERA: Familiar with the area, the aircraft, the weapons, everything.
MAJ WRIGHT: When you do the rotations, you swap off aircraft then, same air frames stay down here? You don't back haul them?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir, that's correct. The aircraft were down here and they were just doing lateral transfer when we came over to change-out.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., so now we're coming up [to the] 2100 brief. Emotions start to get a little higher, you start getting the word out, now, to the soldiers. What's going through your mind at that point?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Pretty much disbelief that this was actually happening and I was in the middle of it. I knew in my head what was going on and it was just kind of--a little bit of a feeling of unreality. That "man this was really happening and I'm really here" and I never thought this would happen.
MAJ WRIGHT: Have you had a chance to confer with the other lieutenants and whatnot to discover the first time into combat, this is the way everybody feels?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir. We've talked about it. Just about everybody, not just the lieutenants, the warrant officers and everyone. And we all felt pretty much the same.
MAJ WRIGHT: Now, the CW4 you said was a Viet Nam veteran. How many others in the company? Any?
1LT KUTSCHERA: There is another CW4, Mr. Witton, and he's also a Viet Nam vet and those are the only two.
MAJ WRIGHT: Anybody from Grenada. Any Grenada vets?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: So, were they sort of playing the calming influence on the company at the last couple hours, wandering around? Or were they into their own thing about getting themselves mentally prepped?
1LT KUTSCHERA: I think pretty much they were setting the example for us by concentrating on their jobs. They did--the company commander invited them to offer advice during some of the leaders' meetings on, you know, what we can look forward to, what important things must we be thinking about right now. And pretty much they said "just concentrate on doing your job they way you've been trained to do it, the way we did it at JRTC [Joint Readiness Training Center, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas]."
We were at JRTC just about a month before deploying down here. Had a pretty good rotation at JRTC; we were pretty successful.
And that ... "just concentrate on flying exactly the way we did it at JRTC, just the way you've been trained to do it." CPT Muir was also very much a calming influence and he pretty much said the same thing even before they came out with it--that "fly the way you've been trained, do it." When we start taking fire, don't try and jink and avoid the bullets. Fly in formation the way you've been trained, get the pax [passengers] on the LZ and get out of there and that our best defense is to get them in and get out. Because we're not--in a helicopter you're not going dodge something that's travelling the speed of sound.
MAJ WRIGHT: Good point. You're not going to outrun anything. Final prep on the aircrafts--you load up the infantry where? Here at Kobbe?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yeah, we loaded them up (1st [Battalion] of the 508th [Infantry], I believe it was) on the Amador side--loaded them up right here in the corral. We had the 2100 brief and at that point the colonel told us what the H-Hour was going to be and what times five on-order missions were scheduled to be. But he mentioned that we should not release this to the enlisted or in any case until after midnight and that basically we were all considered locked-in from the time the 2100 brief started and everyone in the barracks was too. I think our first sergeant did put out that after midnight the assault was going to be going on and warn the enlisted folks. But we couldn't tell them the H-Hour until midnight. That was the time that all the notification was supposed to be done.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., [you] start cranking the aircraft then and you sit idling for a while, or did you lift straight off?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, we had repositioned the aircraft into--all off the airfield and into the corral and the baseball diamond right next to it--at 1900, just before the brief. So we had all the aircraft in position and once we had the infantry loaded after midnight we all took off just in chalk order. Chalk one took off first. Once they were up and clear of the area they called, and chalk two took off. And we formed up like that.
MAJ WRIGHT: How many aircraft did the company launch?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We launched on ... for Amador. We launched, I believe it was eight aircraft. We had seven flying on one assault. We launched seven aircraft that flew--we launched eight aircraft total. One aircraft flew with TALON, which was [Company A, 1st Battalion,] 228th [Aviation]. Their flight. There was another aircraft that was flying with LTC  Boerum and Mr. Witton was piloting that. And they did the first assault into Amador, but then they didn't turn around and make the second one. They ... after the first assault they went up and were doing command and control-type stuff.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., so about what time did you lift, then?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We lifted ...
MAJ WRIGHT: H[-Hour] minus what?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Let me see if I can remember this time sequence. I think it was about H-15 or H-20.
MAJ WRIGHT: To give you ample time to form up? And then ... ?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We took a rather ...
MAJ WRIGHT: TALON flew lead and you flew the second flight because they were familiar with the thing?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: So you do the wide, wide out at sea around Flamenco Island to come into Amador from the other [east] side?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., talk me through what you saw as you came across the water, across the end of Howard? Do you get the command "weapons free" at that point?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, we had loaded up weapons status Charlie at ... before we took off. And then we had free weapons status after we had been moving out in the air. Alpha is guns in, ammo in cans on the floor, strapped down; Bravo is ammunition in the ammunition cans on the weapons, guns out, but not locked and loaded; and then Charlie is locked and loaded. And so we were either locked and loaded on take off, or shortly after take off, depending on the PIC's [pilot in charge's] discretion.
As we flew out of here [Fort Kobbe], I didn't really hear too much on the radio from the TALON flight until after we were around the island and on our way inbound. And through TALON [?] trying to find out whether the LZ was "hot" or "cold." And we never really did get a good answer one way or the other that I heard as to whether it was hot or cold or not.
MAJ WRIGHT: But you could see something going on?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Oh, yeah, definitely. The Comandancia was lit up--looked like fireworks going off on the ground. They had AC-130s [Spectre], apparently, who were prepping for the ground unit and all the stuff that the infantry was doing over there, and there were tracers as we started to make the [INAUDIBLE] and getting closer, there were tracers coming out from somewhere around the Comandancia over the water toward the aircraft. They didn't come very close to our aircraft. As a matter of fact, on the first flight in there inserting the troops they didn't really seem to come very close to our formation at all.
Mostly because they couldn't see us; we were flying with just IR [infrared] position lights [and] under goggles [night vision devices] and from the ground you can't see anything unless we happen to be silhouetted against some lights or doing something they wouldn't be able to see us. I was rather impressed with it when we were at JRTC, all of our jumps that we did at JRTC were at night, and after my aircraft would get down and I'd take my goggles off--the following aircraft coming in, you could hear 'em, you knew they were there, but you couldn't see 'em unless you happened to get lucky and silhouette them against the skyline or something. So fire wasn't really effective.
MAJ WRIGHT: But nonetheless, once you saw the Comandancia, there was no question in your mind that this was real?
1LT KUTSCHERA: There was no question that we were going into a hot LZ, definitely not. And you could see tracers arcing over the area from the Comandancia and from the barracks which is where the ground troops that we had on board were supposed to be assaulting. You know you could definitely see the tracers flying around. And it looked like shooting stars out there. And so we went in and dropped off the troops, flew out, and came back here to pick up the HMMWVs and the artillery piece.
MAJ WRIGHT: Which is pre-rigged as sling loads?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir. They were all rigged up on the road just right next to the corral there, and they had them all rigged up in line ready for us to pick up. And we came in as a formation to pick them up, and then as each aircraft got hooked up, departed basically single-ship to go back and insert it into Amador also.
MAJ WRIGHT: Now did you ... what number were you in the chalk order?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We were Chalk Six.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., and that same chalk order pertained on the second lift as well?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., when you went in [with] the first lift, did you put the troops off in the ditch--along in that ditch area?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir, we were just to the right of the ditch.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., on that high ground sort of into that flat to the east ...
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir, there's kind of a flat, open area there. There was a tree line between the ditch and that area.
[Tape interrupted to change interview rooms.]
MAJ WRIGHT: What kind of a load did you have, then, on the second lift?
1LT KUTSCHERA: On the second lift we had a HMMWV.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., and you touched that down in the same area as the first lift, or ...?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir, we those down in the ditch. There were the HMMWVs that had been brought in before we got there were already gone, so they were obviously derigging them and jumping in and driving off real quick, because there was not that much of a gap.
Coming in the second time we could see the other aircraft spaced out in front of us going in, and at that point tracer fire did seem to get close to one of the aircraft. I saw a couple bursts of tracer fire come from the Comandancia area towards the aircraft, and then I saw one of the aircraft return fire and apparently he took out whatever had been firing the tracers at us because they stopped after that.
MAJ WRIGHT: What color were the tracers coming toward you?
1LT KUTSCHERA: I couldn't really ... everything looked green because we were under goggles.
MAJ WRIGHT: Yeah, that does get a little distracting for you guys.
1LT KUTSCHERA: And I wasn't really looking under the goggles much except for just as we were flying into the LZ to pick out the hotel building that was basically straight [and] would line us up on the LZ. And [I] glanced up there once or twice to check out the red light and make sure we were on course for the LZ. And that was about it. And I wasn't really worried about looking under the goggles at the tracers to see what color they were, but everything just looks kind of green under goggles.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., so then second lift, and what then? Where did you go then?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Then after that we went to refuel at Empire Range and to our laager site.
MAJ WRIGHT: Did you fly over the Bridge of the Americas or under it?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We flew over it on the way in, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: TALON flew under it because it was, they figured, the only shot they were going to get, so they took it.
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, later on the next morning we flew under it, sir. [Laughter.]
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., I would hate to think that you aviators let me down on this one.
1LT KUTSCHERA: No. We didn't. We didn't miss many chances at that. But under goggles it was the better part of discretion to fly over it, so that's what we did.
MAJ WRIGHT: So you get out to Empire Range, shut down, refuel, and then just wait?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, we refueled first, and then moved to a laager site about a klick [kilometer] or so away from the refuel area. And then sat down to wait for the call to start "Der Tag."
[Tape stopped and restarted.]
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K., resuming the interview. You're at the laager site just waiting?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir. We were just waiting for the call that the 82d [Airborne Division] was here and ready to start "Der Tag." We had door gunners--the aircraft were basically circled, so we had weapons out to cover because we weren't--we didn't expect that area to be secure, we didn't know if P.D.F. may be trying to come into that area so we were pretty much in an alert status while we were waiting. We could hear mortars going into Cerro Tigre which is where the P.D.F. had a big ammo dump and we could see tracers coming out of there every once in a while into the trees. because the infantry were hitting that place also. And so it was a little bit tense, but were pretty much in an upbeat mood because we had no aircraft hits, nobody wounded, and made it through our first test under fire successfully.
MAJ WRIGHT: At this point has it hit you yet about being a "first?"
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, a couple people ... the commander had mentioned to me beforehand that I was going to be the first, and ... [interruption] I was--thought about it a little bit, it dawned on me that I really was the first since [WO1] Debby Mann, the female warrant officer, had ended up being a stand-by aircraft on that first mission, and they joined us at the laager site for "Der Tag." And at that point I was just thankful that we had all gotten out without getting hit and was rather nervously anticipating the follow-on air assaults thinking that sooner or later the fire's got to get more accurate and what's going to happen then.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K. You get the word the 82d had landed and go into the second phase of assaults ...
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, the first word that we got was that they had been delayed and that we would be doing the assaults in daylight. Which at that point made me a lot more nervous than I had been because our experience at JRTC with flying in daylight was not successful.
MAJ WRIGHT: Side Two.
1LT KUTSCHERA: The two missions that were delayed, while we were at JRTC, until after daylight. On the first one I was shot down while we were doing basically a mass cal [casualty] evacuation, I--and I was flying with Mr. Witton at the time--we were shot down by an SA-7 [Soviet-manufactured shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile], one of the OPFOR [Opposing Force] weapons. And the second one we had two aircraft out of four shot down by SA-7s. So finding out that we were going to be doing this at daylight right away increased the "pucker factor" so to speak because I knew we'd be sitting ducks. Finally, just as you could start to see a little bit of horizon glow, on the horizon, around dawn, they told us that we were taking off and that we would be doing "Der Tag."
MAJ WRIGHT: So you fly from Empire to ...?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We flew from Empire to the PZ [Pickup Zone], which was the airport there.
MAJ WRIGHT: At Tocumen?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Tocumen.
MAJ WRIGHT: Come in. Is there a lot of debris on the runway, a lot of parachutes?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes. There were parachutes laying all over the place and we were Chalk Six and we could see as the first chalks were flying in, parachutes were taking off and Mr. Mann just told me to just slow down and keep a little bit high and try and avoid all the parachutes. They were cleared off the runway itself but on the approach path into the runway and close along the sides in the grass, all over the place, there was parachutes scattered all over the place. Both the parachutes that they had used to descend [and] there was reserves scattered all over the place. Some of the guys that had obviously made the effort to pack their 'chutes into the kit bags so that they wouldn't be blowing around but most of the guys, obviously the first guys in there, didn't have time to worry about packing their 'chutes up if they were busy being shot at and were returning fire; didn't try and secure the area.
MAJ WRIGHT: Touch down. The guys from the 82d board the aircraft. Did they do it quickly, slowly, did it seem--I mean obviously in contrast to the [1st Battalion,] 508[th Infantry], who had rehearsed this thing umpteen zillion times?
1LT KUTSCHERA: It was taking them a while to get on the aircraft and we were ... . I'm can't--I'm not sure exactly how long it took, but it seemed like it was at least ten minutes for them to get on the aircraft. They aren't used to being on there in seats [out]. Our crew chief even mentioned that it seemed like they were all lined up perfect for if they had been climbing in there with seats on, but without the seats it took them a while to get rearranged and get themselves and all the gear on to the aircraft. So it was kind of a slow-down there.
Once they finally all got loaded and we got a beacon from the last aircraft we took off and flew in to Panama Viejo, which was ... from what I observed didn't seem to be hot ... but obviously was. Our door gunner said he thought he heard fire coming up from the left as we took off departing after we had dropped the troops off there. I didn't hear anything and Mr. Mann didn't hear anything and neither did our crew chief. The door gunner was on the left side of the aircraft but couldn't see anything to shoot at to return fire. So we took off out of there, flew back to ...
MAJ WRIGHT: Now which LZ [Landing Zone] did you use? The one over by the water or the one by the soccer field?
1LT KUTSCHERA: The one by the soccer field, or whatever it was. The--we returned to Tocumen to pick up another load of troops which was supposed to be going to Tinajitas. When they got on though, they handed us a card that said they wanted to go back to the same LZ we had just left, which was at Panama Viejo. As it turned out, all the troops getting on all the aircraft of the flight wanted to go back to the same LZ that those aircraft had just come out of. Which was a little bit of a change to our plans. We'd be returning to the same LZs along the same route. It would give everybody that missed us the first time a second chance.
So we decided to go ahead and go where the [INAUDIBLE] was expecting to go. So we returned along the same route with them and the second lift is when [WO1] Deb[by] Mann's aircraft had the intermediate gear box shot out and they also had damage to one rotor blade and the tail rotor. As we flew out of there, the other door gunners on some of the other aircraft did observe fire and returned fire when they could see it.
MAJ WRIGHT: But up to this point your gunner still had not fired?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir. They still hadn't been able to see anything, any targets to fire at. They were ... we weren't supposed to return the fire unless we could definitely identify who it was, if it was any hostile fire [coming] our way, and shoot only as much as it took to suppress that fire. Because they did tell us that after this was all over with, we're going to try and convince the good, honest members of P.D.F. to back the new government, the elected [Endara] government, and that by us just continuing to hammer them was going to make that a lot more difficult. So it was kind of a difficult situation for us in not wanting to hurt any innocent civilians, not wanting to hurt anybody that wasn't hurting us, but still having to protect our own lives and aircraft.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K. So two lifts into Panama Viejo, returning back to Tocumen each time?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir. Then as we landed in Tocumen, Debby Mann had obviously noticed vibration because of damage to the main rotor and had her crew chief stick his head outside and see if he could see as we were landing at Tocumen, see if he could see any damage, and he noticed oil coming from the tail somewhere. So she advised over the radio that she was shutting down to check out damage to her aircraft because she was leaking oil from the tail rotor, or someplace back there.
So she shut down and the infantry were rather disorganized at that point. We weren't sure who was supposed to go where. So the commander made the decision to have everyone go over to the taxi-way and shut down, check the aircraft out for damage, and let the infantry get in good PZ posture again before we took off.
At that time, one of the other aircraft (Mr. Pickett's aircraft) was unable--they were unable to start their APU [auxiliary power unit]. So they moved off the taxi-way and moved onto the taxi-way between the runway and the main taxi-way that paralleled the runway to shut down. Because they figured they wouldn't be able to get power back on once they did shut down without the APU. And at that point I'm not sure what other damage was noted on the other aircraft. CPT Muir sent me back to Ms Mann's aircraft to check out for sure what damage had been done to her's and come back and let him know about it, which is what I did.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K. So the infantry get themselves reorganized, you've completed all your checks, [you're] good to go now. You lift off and go where?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Then we left to go to Tinajitas.
MAJ WRIGHT: Were you flying lead formation or was TALON lead formation?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We were lead formation on Panama Viejo and Tinajitas and I think our aircraft were the only ones that flew into [Fort] Cimarron. We had in our unit--we had two flights going into Tinajitas. The first one was a flight of six and then Mr. Mann and I were flight lead on the second flight of three going in there. As we took off, we got maybe a kilometer south of the runway on the route. Mr. Vandenhoovel called over the radio that CPT Muir had been shot in the head, and that was where I realized in my gut that people get killed doing ... and before that I knew in my head that "yeah we can get killed doing this." But that was when it really, really hit me that ... yeah, we can die out here.
MAJ WRIGHT: At that point did command pass to you, or ...?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir, it passed to LT Healy who was in the same flight as CPT Muir was. He immediately took charge of the situation and his door gunner was also hit about a minute or so after Mr. Vandenhoovel said CPT Muir had been shot. He also came over the radio and said that his door gunner had been shot, apparently in the arm, and that they were going to take him back to the PZ and let the medics there look at him.
Mr. Vandenhoovel came over the radio ... CPT Muir was still talking on the radio asking what the aircraft status was, was damage--battle damage--had been done to the other aircraft of the flight. And he apparently had been arguing with Mr. Vandenhoovel to go back to the PZ and continue the mission. But Mr. Vandenhoovel decided to just return to Howard and get him to medical care as soon as possible. So that's what he did and shortly after that CPT Muir passed out apparently, and ... from what I hear. Anyway, they left the formation and we didn't hear from them for a, you know, considerable time after that, until we got back here at Howard.
Lieutenant Healy said they were returning to the PZ, all their aircraft were returning there and we should finish the assault and return then also. So I navigated into the LZ and we dropped our troops off [and] got out. I never did see any tracers. Our door gunner and crew chief never did see any targets to return fire to. We were taking fire in there. One of the other aircraft in our flight was hit. But I didn't see anything; I didn't hear anything other than the [normal] aircraft noises and everything. We were landing in [elephant] grass that was about seven or eight feet tall at least, which meant once we were down on the ground we really couldn't see much anyway. And the troops unloaded fast. They knew we were being shot at. And we got out of there as quick as we could. There were about 300-foot [high] wires on the departure end of the PZ [i.e., LZ] that we had to clear. We couldn't really fly under them because there was another set of wires--shorter wires--underneath them. So we basically had to climb and make a good target out of ourselves to get out of there. And we went back to the PZ and shut down again to have everyone check out the aircraft. And had Lieutenant Healy get a handle on battle damage and how we were going to be able to continue the mission. By that point also, everybody was real low on fuel because of having to do the extra turn into Panama Viejo. So at that point, we decided to go and refuel and return to the PZ in order to do the last lift into Cimarron.
MAJ WRIGHT: So you set down, refuel, load out more troops, and then head to Cimarron. At this point, how many ... how many ships are left out of the nine?
1LT KUTSCHERA: At this point we had ... . Well, what we did was we all returned to Empire to refuel.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K.
1LT KUTSCHERA: Came back to Howard to rearm. At that point we found out that CPT Muir and the door gunner both were apparently going to be O.K.
MAJ WRIGHT: So that takes a little ...
1LT KUTSCHERA: Set down ...
MAJ WRIGHT: ... psychological pressure off?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yeah, definitely. And rearmed and ... actually, what it amounted to was redistributing the ammo from people who hadn't fired to some of the people that had fired that had used up most of their ammo and picking up some more. And then we flew back to the PZ and at that point thought we had noted that some more of the aircraft had had damage. I think Mr. Harris and Lieutenant Lincoln had damage to their aircraft. There were three other aircraft that were--that had damage that were not incapacitating but that they decided not to send them into Cimarron.
At that point LTC Boerum came over. His command and control aircraft had about thirteen holes in it and was running on one engine and manual stabilator so he my seat with Mr. Mann and put me in charge of the aircraft that were shut down and unable to continue at the PZ until we could get maintenance out there to repair them.
MAJ WRIGHT: So there you sat. At that point with total chaos going on around you?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Basically. They had a lot of cars and stuff.
MAJ WRIGHT: And feeling like most aviators do when they can't take off--very uncomfortable?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yeah, I want my wings back. But he also mentioned that the infantry were going to be leaving there fairly soon and that I needed to get some kind of a perimeter, some kind of a defense set up so that when the infantry left that we wouldn't be completely open to whatever snipers or whoever happened to come along the airfield.
MAJ WRIGHT: So that, of course, made you feel just wonderful, right?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yeah, definitely that. And that we had aircraft scattered pretty much over two-thirds of the runway and taxi-way out there. And I had to walk ... was walking back and forth on foot all afternoon trying to find out what was wrong with the aircraft and what they needed.
Shortly after the flight took off for [Fort] Cimarron the first time (they did two turns into Cimarron), shortly after they took off the first time Mr. Turnage, the maintenance officer, came in with an aircraft and he had the parts on it to repair Ms Mann's aircraft and to look at Mr. Pickett's aircraft, which is the one that hadn't been able to get the APU started.
The other aircraft was from [1st Battalion,] 228th [Aviation]--the command and control aircraft that had external fuel tanks mounted. Apparently, LTC Boerum had told that pilot that I was going to be his co-pilot on the way back. I'm not sure why his co-pilot had left. I don't know if his co-pilot had gone with LTC Boerum in the new C&C aircraft or what. But expecting me to just hop in his aircraft and for us to fly back single-engine once they got it started and I told them I wouldn't be able to that because I was responsible for everybody on that airfield and he'd have to wait.
Once we got Ms Mann's aircraft fixed and found the round in one of the bleed-air tubes coming out of the aircraft on Mr. Pickett's aircraft and managed to get his APU started, we were going to bring back a co-pilot from the 228 to help with [TAPE SKIPS] he didn't want to wait for that and he took off one-engine by himself and flew back here [to Howard].
MAJ WRIGHT: As it turned out the infantry did not leave you all alone out at that spot?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir, they didn't. They were there; they had a ... I think it was about a company minus out there that didn't go to Cimarron. That was out there and they were basically just trying to get vehicles or somebody to their people at Tinajitas--because they didn't have commo with them--and find out what was going on out there, what kind of resupply they needed and things like that.
I talked to the--there was a major there from the 82d--I talked to him and he said that they wouldn't leave me. And I told him that we would have aircraft there and we had an AH-1[H Cobra] there that needed to be slung-loaded out. Told him that they were going to be there, [but] that four of the Blackhawks were going to be departing: the one Mr. Turnage had flown in (the good one), Ms Mann's aircraft, Mr. Pickett's aircraft, and the 228th's aircraft. And made sure that they would be around to secure the Cobra until a [CH-47C] Chinook came to sling load them out. As it ended up happening, they ... I guess their maintenance officer came out and they flew the Cobra back after they performed repairs on it.
MAJ WRIGHT: So what time did you finally make it back, back here to [Fort] Kobbe?
1LT KUTSCHERA: I finally got back here ... I think it was about 1600 or 1700.
MAJ WRIGHT: And then went into crew rest or did you go through any kind of a hot wash of the pilots to talk things over about what had happened that day and prep for the next day?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir. We pretty much went into crew rest right after that. The next day they asked for the after-action reviews from all the PICs [pilots in charge] and basically all the crews were supposed to talk to the PIC and let him know what they had seen and everything so he could make a consolidated report of what had happened. But that night they just released us for crew rest because we were anticipating doing another mission the next night, or possibly that night.
MAJ WRIGHT: And since that first day what's your schedule been?
1LT KUTSCHERA: We did ... a couple of nights after that we did a[n] assault in to way out west. To, I think it was ...
MAJ WRIGHT: David?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: Santiago?
1LT KUTSCHERA: It was a small airfield which was a big P.D.F. ammo storage area and was supposed to have a fairly good complement of soldiers there. Coclecito.
MAJ WRIGHT: O.K.
1LT KUTSCHERA: And that one, again, was delayed until right around dawn. And anticipating it being "hot." As it turned out, it wasn't. We had a fairly large lift. We did have some weather problems going in because of the early morning fog--ground fog--and everything. Had to make a couple of U-turns on our way in there trying to find clear areas to go in and that was probably one of the scariest parts of the whole thing. Having fifteen Blackhawks out there circling, trying to find a way through the fog under goggles. We were still under goggles at that point, it was still dark out.
MAJ WRIGHT: But, but there was no fire?
1LT KUTSCHERA: There was no fire, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: So you didn't return ... your gunners did not fire on that one either?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir. No, sir. Our door gunners in our aircraft didn't fire at all. Just because they had no targets. Even at the times when they could hear rounds, they couldn't see where tracers were coming from.
MAJ WRIGHT: So under rules of engagement they just didn't fire blindly?
1LT KUTSCHERA: That is correct, sir. They didn't fire just to try and, you know, put out whatever was out there because of the rules of engagement.
MAJ WRIGHT: And then other than that one assault at Coclecito it has been primarily administrative-type flying?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir.
MAJ WRIGHT: And resupply and things like that?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Yes, sir. Coming back from ... we did two turns into Coclecito. On the way out there we were flying in daylight, pretty much flew low, "cranking and banking" a lot. And since we hadn't ... it hadn't been "hot" the first time going in and it wasn't hot that time, after coming back, after that one, people started to get--spirits were a little bit better than after they had been the first day, obviously. And ...
MAJ WRIGHT: Well, at that point you were all combat veterans.
1LT KUTSCHERA: [Laughter.] Yeah, that's right, sir. I guess it makes a difference.
MAJ WRIGHT: Trust me, it does.
1LT KUTSCHERA: But after that, you know, activities really started picking up again. And we were, ever since then, pretty much [flying to] the LZs we were expecting on for the first four days or so. Expecting them to be "hot," still [wore] "chicken plate," armor plating on the [pilots'] seats forward, and everything else. We continued doing that for about a week to a week-and-a-half afterwards, but our expectations gradually became less and less as more and more of the P.D.F. were surrendering without firing a shot. Actually calling up saying "hey, we're here, when are you Americans coming to take our surrender?" And things like that. Started, you know, relaxing a lot more and becoming more and more of an admin role.
MAJ WRIGHT: Well, that sounds ... sounds pretty normal for the operation and the way the whole JUST CAUSE went down. Any sort of overall impressions that you've got? How well prepared you were from training at [Fort] Rucker--and what unit-level training--for what went down?
1LT KUTSCHERA: Well, I think we were, we were very well prepared for night missions. And CPT Muir had made a ... really put the emphasis on preparing for possible missions. Obviously with the OPPLAN and everything, that's been written for a long time. And we prepared it, and rehearsed in briefings (not rehearsing in flight), but rehearsed--talked through--what we were doing in very thoroughly in briefings and I felt that we were very well prepared in that respect. We, from what I've heard from people that have been in other units, and definitely from what I saw in Korea, we fly more goggles in this unit than just about any other place in the Army. So we were real well prepared for that. I think if you're prepared to fly under goggles, you're basically prepared for flying in day. Flying in day is, like, easy after that. So, I think from a flying, from a mission planning standpoint, we got into it as well-prepared as we could be without actually having seen combat before.
MAJ WRIGHT: Anything that you sort of picked up from watching, say, CPT Muir or your battalion commander, or anybody that you're going to incorporate as little rules of thumb as you rise in rank?
1LT KUTSCHERA: There are probably too many things to mention.
I just think that the matter-of-fact way that they dealt with everything and just stressed that we fly our jobs, our assaults, the way we've been trained to do it was a ... just a tremendous help in keeping people settled down. Keeping them concentrating on what was at hand.
They are ... also putting stress on planning beforehand, getting as much planning done as you can beforehand, with what information you've got makes a big difference also in preparing people so that they know exactly what is going on while they're doing it. So that when the bullets start flying and chaos breaks out, that everybody--every pilot, every co-pilot, and every crew member--knows exactly what's going on, what they're doing right now, and what they're supposed to be doing coming up [in] five, ten, half-an-hour down the road.
MAJ WRIGHT: Well, there's anything else you can think of?
1LT KUTSCHERA: No, sir. There's really nothing else.
MAJ WRIGHT: I really want to thank you for taking the time to get your impressions down on the record and I wish you good luck for the rest of the war.
1LT KUTSCHERA: Thanks, sir.
END OF INTERVIEW]