Beginner’s Pluck

Captain Aaron Palan, and his A-10 (note the fierce-looking rotating cannon jutting from the Warthog's nose) / Air Force photo by Stephanie Mancha

Military pilots fly for decades without winning a Distinguished Flying Cross, reserved for "heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight." So it's something worth noting when Captain Aaron Palan lands one after only a week in Afghanistan while on his fourth combat sortie inside the "titanium bathtub" cockpit of his A-10 Warthog.

Palan was flying out of Kandahar last October 1 – five days after his first combat mission – when he got a chance to show just how well the low-and-slow A-10 – the Air Force's only warplane dedicated to defending troops on the ground – could perform that task.

A special forces team had been ambushed by Taliban hidden in the rough terrain. In short order, Palan unleashed four smart bombs and more than 1,100 rounds of 30mm ammo to beat back the enemy. He then thwarted an ambush on the inbound medevac chopper. Working with a team of AH-64 helicopter gunship, he helped kill an estimated 20 to 30 Taliban.

Palan, assigned to the 75th Fighter Squadron out of Georgia's Moody Air Force Base, was modest about his exploits. "Everyone says it, but I just did what I was trained to do," Palan recently told an Air Force correspondent after returning to Moody. "I had no combat experience to fall back on, so the training really came into play." It marked the culmination of a lifelong dream. "I've wanted to be a fighter pilot since I was kid and grew up with A-10 posters on my wall," he said. "And, and now - finally!"

His citation for the DFC, with Valor, isn't so restrained:

Palan's superior leadership, exemplary airmanship, and skilled weapons employment saved a special forces team from certain defeat in the face of a heavily armed and determined foe that initially owned the element of surprise and superior fighting positions.

Bravo Zulu, Captain Palan.

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