Gunner Recalls Pulling Pilot From Blazing Copter

Times Staff Writer

As the Black Hawk spun out of control toward a city street last weekend, the veteran Army pilot yanked back on the control stick, his mind racing: "I've got to stop the spinning. You don't want to land that way. That's not good at all."

Then Richard Gregg, a 21-year Army man who also flew in the urban warfare of Mogadishu in Somalia a decade ago, blacked out.

"My last memory is looking at the street with the nose of the aircraft pointing straight down," Gregg, a chief warrant officer, recalled Wednesday in an interview with The Times, four days after a dual helicopter crash in this northern Iraqi city killed 17 U.S. troops.

It was the deadliest single incident for U.S. soldiers since the Iraq war began.

After a memorial ceremony here Wednesday morning, Gregg and another survivor -- Spc. Paul Eshom, left gunner on the same copter -- recalled publicly for the first time their experiences on what began as a routine evening Saturday for the 101st Airborne Division. The pair from Bravo Company, 9th Battalion, would end the night among only five survivors from the crash.

Both were injured but are recovering and have returned to their unit at the Mosul air base.

Gregg, 39, says he owes his life to Eshom, who braved flames and what he described as enemy fire to rescue Gregg and the right gunner from the stricken Black Hawk after it crash-landed on a neighborhood roof.

"What was going through my mind was that the aircraft is on fire, and these people are my friends, and I don't want to walk away without them," recalled Eshom, 21, of Pinedale, Wyo. "Just to get them out. I wouldn't want to die in an aircraft fire. None of these guys want to die."

Army investigators suspect that one of the two helicopters was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and then somehow collided with the other one.

The two survivors' accounts provide only clues, no definitive answers -- and probably raise more questions. Neither man saw either threatening ground fire or another helicopter headed their way -- there was just an explosion and a flash of light.

Their UH-60 Black Hawk, with a crew of five, including one visitor from another unit, had left the base near dusk Saturday and picked up a crew of seven artillerymen who would serve as ground troops if needed. Their mission was a standard one: Fly above the city and environs and be ready to respond to any emergency calls.

That evening, Gregg, a pilot for 15 years from Monroe, La., sought to introduce the terrain to his copilot, Erik Kesterson, 29, who had arrived the previous week from flight school and was eager to learn. Nothing seemed amiss on a calm evening with unrestricted visibility. As usual, the crew flew without visible lights but with night-vision goggles.

After about half an hour, Phantom 11 -- that was the Black Hawk's radio call handle -- was over the western sector of Mosul. A call came to help some infantry troops who had come under small arms fire; an explosion also had been heard on the ground.

Phantom 11, flying at an altitude of 400 feet, soon found the dozen or so troops in apparent hot pursuit of suspects. The chopper, cruising about 40 mph, just finished its first "orbit" of the scene when disaster struck.

"There was a very loud explosion," recalled Gregg, who, like Eshom, saw nothing approaching or striking the aircraft.

"It was followed by ... a bright flash of light," Gregg said. "Then the aircraft immediately started spinning."

Investigators are trying to determine why Gregg's helicopter and the other Black Hawk, which was ferrying troops back to the Mosul air base, were so close together. Whatever hit the rear of Gregg's craft took out the tail rotor, which acts as a stabilizer.

"The nose pitched down, and the vibrations increased," said Gregg, who then desperately pulled on the control stick.

"Landing spinning is one thing. But landing nose down, coming straight out of the sky nose down, that's worse."

Gregg's memory of the incident halts there. Eshom remained conscious.

"I remember jerking very hard, then opening my eyes and realizing that I was still alive, and the aircraft was on the ground," said Eshom, who quickly cut his seat harnesses with a pocket tool and alighted from the stricken Black Hawk.

The young gunner found himself on a roof in a Mosul neighborhood, a scene of chaos and destruction around him.

Eshom checked up front: Gregg was unconscious; copilot Kesterson was dead. From the other side of the aircraft came screams. Sgt. Robert Shelton, his fellow gunner, was trapped inside, flames advancing.

On his way to help, Eshom says he noticed something else: small-arms fire from across the street. He quickly tried to set up his M-60 machine gun, but the ammunition can was warped. He then cut Shelton's seat harness and yanked him through a window and placed him on the roof, away from the now-blazing aircraft.

"At that point I ran back around to Mr. Gregg, and shook him one more time, and that's when I heard him whispering, 'Help,' " Eshom said. "His head moved a little bit."

He was beginning to pull out the pilot when U.S. infantry troops arrived.

"It's almost like they appeared out of thin air."

One soldier helped Eshom extricate Gregg, while others pulled out an additional survivor, who was badly burned but is expected to survive.

The final survivor was able to walk away from the crash before Iraqi fire brigades doused the blaze.

The survivors were taken to a field hospital. Gregg, who regained consciousness in the ambulance, needed six staples to seal a head wound. His back was also injured. He learned of his copilot's death en route to the hospital.

Eshom suffered a sprained wrist, knee and ankle.

Shelton is recovering at a military hospital in Germany.

Seven aboard their helicopter died. All 10 died on the other Black Hawk, which broke apart on a roof.

Grounded for the moment, the pair remain aviators at heart. They have no plans to hang up their wings, even as they grieve for lost friends.

"I've been making paper airplanes since I knew how to fold papers," Eshom said. "And I've been flying flight simulators since I knew how to get on a computer ... and I'm going to keep on truckin'."

Added Gregg about flying: "It's what I do.... I enjoy it. I really do."

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