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The North Bend Eagle


NB native, Navy tangles with pirates

by Lt. Seth Saalfeld
Published 7/6/11

Seth Saalfeld is a North Bend native and a 2001 graduate of North Bend Central. What follows is the first part of his story of a hostage rescue mission off the east coast of Africa in February.

In the morning on February 18th in the Gulf of Aden, the Quest, a sailboat containing four American citizens bound for Oman, came under the attack of Somali pirates.

Since 2006 the Horn of Africa has become plagued with pirates that hijack merchant traffic, hold crews hostage and demand ransom. Currently, nearly 30 vessels and 660 innocent mariners remain under the control of pirates. The treatment of these hostages has increased in brutality and the amount of the ransom now averages $5 million. These large ransoms are often secured by the pirates who reap the benefit of well insured merchant companies. Captured individuals brought to the ungoverned shores of Somalia can experience long hostage ordeals. Once such case involved a British sailing couple who were finally released once a ransom had been paid after 388 days.

Becoming aware of the attack, the Quest made a distress call that was responded to by a Danish member of a multinational coalition of warships presiding over the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean aimed at limiting the success of the pirates. The warship arrived on scene to find a pirate mothership providing support to those already aboard the Quest. With the Quest having been successfully commandeered by the suspected pirates, the warship aimed to intercept the mothership and capture those aboard. In the process, all but two suspected pirates on the mothership escaped into the water to be picked up by the Quest. In all, 15 suspected pirates held control of the 58-foot sailboat as it began to head for Somalia.

In the following days, four U.S. Navy warships, including the USS Enterprise with its embarked helicopter squadron of the HS-11 Dragonslayers and additional Special Forces, would arrive to aid the Americans held hostage. Flights to exercise tactics between the Special Forces and the HH-60H Seahawk helicopter, a proven U.S. Naval Special Warfare asset, would factor into further planning to free the American hostages.

In the middle of that rescue plan is where we found ourselves on the morning of the 22nd. Dragonslayer 614 would be the helicopter in the position of airborne mission lead. Also aboard 614 was a communication specialist and two pararescuemen.
The primary casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) aircraft would be Dragonslayer 615 with Lt. Cmdr. John Shannon as aircraft commander and Lt. Seth Saalfeld as copilot. In addition, a medical specialist and two pararescuemen would be in the cabin. A similar flight was briefed and flown the day before. As hundreds of sailors watched from the Enterprise catwalks, the Special Forces boat crews could be seen executing nearly the same maneuvers they would employ the next morning. No reaction was observed from the Quest that day as it continued its westbound creep, shadowed by two U.S. warships on each side and the USS Enterprise always nearby.

Communication and staying out of each other’s way were emphasized between the two Dragonslayer flight crews during the briefing, with the understanding we were to respond to anything needed by the Special Forces whose specific plans were not known at the time. It was even assumed nothing would be occurring on this flight as nothing had happened the day before.

As two fully qualified junior officers, no matter what may have been planned, we were just excited to be involved as copilots. Fully briefed and with the aircraft prepped, the crews stood by ready to be airborne within five minutes of getting the call to go.

Dragonslayer 614 experienced issues starting one of their engines and continued to troubleshoot as 615, with both engines running, established communications with a mission commander in the tower and the boat force commander. Last minute discussions took place with the additional crew in the cabin including one with a pararescueman who revealed the goal of the day was to render the Quest’s outboard motor unusable; frustrating the pirates’ efforts to make it to Somalia.

This sounded like a promise of some activity; however, no one could have known the events that would soon take place.

>> Continue to part 2