It was supposed to be a benign mission, no different than others that Canadian Air Force pilot Capt. Kurt Schweitzer had flown before without incident.
Schweitzer, 34, and his flight crew were to land their C-130 Hercules aircraft onto a gravel airfield in a remote part of Afghanistan in 2009.
They were to pick up cargo then fly out, all within a matter of minutes. Instead, a repair delayed the crew and when they finally took off it was in the pitch black of night—without the aid of night vision equipment and under fire from Taliban fighters.
On May 30 the married father of one who hails from Port Alberni received military recognition for his actions on that black night in 2009.
The incident may never have been known, save for a nondescript military notice about Schweitzer.
However, the incident came to light as part of the infamous WikiLeaks release of thousands of military documents last year.
“There are details about this that I cannot talk to you about,” Schweitzer said in an interview from Ottawa, where he is now stationed.
Schweitzer was born in Port Alberni and was around flying from his birth.
His father Ernie worked at the mill and his mother Pat (now Baila) was a teacher.
But the couple were avid fliers too. Ernie owned a plane and even helped clear the runway that the local glider club used.
And the family’s home was located on Sproat Lake across from the flying tanker base, Kurt remembers.
The Schweitzers moved to Saanich when Kurt was four, but the youngster took with him the interest in flying that was cultivated in the Alberni Valley.
Schweitzer joined air cadets at age 14 and earned his gliding license at age 16.
He studied chemistry at the University of Victoria after graduating from high school.
Schweitzer applied to join the Canadian Air Force in his last year of studies, and was accepted in 1999.
His military career has taken him to Greenland, Europe Africa and Russia.
Canada would enter the conflict in Afghanistan in 2001, two years after Schweitzer signed up, and the young pilot would be deployed to the south central Asian country seven times for two-month stints.
He didn’t know what to expect on his first deployment and the first thing that stood out was the climate. “The heat and the dust were challenging.”
It was during Schweitzer’s last deployment to Afghanistan in 2009 that the incident he’s being mentioned in dispatches for happened.
(“Mentioned in dispatches” is a military award for gallantry or otherwise commendable service. The dispatch usually comes from a senior commander.)
Schweitzer and his crew were assigned to fly their Hercules into a remote airfield, which Schweitzer described as “austere”, or having no lights, little fuel and just a gravel runway.
The mission was standard: get there, land, keep the engines running, load cargo then get out as fast as you can. “You want to minimize the opportunity for enemy contact,” Schweitzer said. “We want to keep the plane and ourselves in one piece.”
The benign operation went off without a hitch until it came time to leave.
The plane blew a tire as it was taxiing down the runway to take off.
The crew changed the tire, a task that took more than two hours, and night had fallen by the time they were finished.
The situation had become dangerous in more ways than one.
The airfield had no lights and no security, it was nighttime, and pilots didn’t have the training or equipment to deal with taking off at night under these conditions.
The plane had also been there long enough to be noticed by Taliban forces.
After the repair was done Schweitzer powered the plane up, taxied down the runway and took off—then it happened.
“We heard a loud bang in the rear of the plane, the engineer went back to look but didn’t notice anything,” Schweitzer said.
The crew diverted to an airbase in Kandahar and discovered they had no brakes when they landed and resorted to emergency brakes to stop.
Upon examination of the plane they discovered why they couldn’t stop and what the source of the earlier bang was.
A round from an enemy anti-aircraft artillery gun pierced the landing gear door, took out a tire and also damaged other equipment.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that something like this could happen,” Schweitzer said.
“But we were shocked because this happened in a safe area of Afghanistan.”
There is more to the story, including tactics the crew developed on the fly to get out, “but there are things that I can’t go into,” Schweitzer said.
According to a report released by WikiLeaks, the incident happened in the Afghan western province of Farah.
The crew initially thought the bang was the sound of rocks kicked up into the plane by its wheels, but whistling noises from the damaged area forced the crew to divert to Kandahar.
The airfield may have been remote but the crew discovered they weren’t alone after some members saw people outside the fence talking on cellphones while staring at the aircraft, the report noted.
Military officials were also surprised that the enemy would engage an aircraft so close to an airfield with such a large calibre weapon.
Schweitzer has been posted to Ottawa since leaving Afghanistan in 2009.
These days he’s more likely to be flying dignitaries to and from domestic stations than he would be flying into another Afghan airbase.
He was last on Vancouver Island in March “to show off my wife and I’s new son (Evan),” he said.
Schweitzer makes it back to Port Alberni from time to time, “but not too often,” he said.
On Monday, Schweitzer was awarded a citation for outstanding leadership and decision making while under ground fire during a mission.
He may be getting the award, but he couldn’t have done what he did alone.
“I want to be clear that I did not act alone, that there were five other crew members involved in this,” Schweitzer said.
“It’s important that they be recognized as well.”