HURLBURT FIELD, FL – More than 2,000 Air Commandos, fellow special operations service members, civilians and families gathered to remember four fallen Airmen during a memorial ceremony at the Freedom Hangar on Hurlburt Field Feb. 28.
Capt. Ryan P. Hall from the 319th Special Operations Squadron, Capt. Nicholas S. Whitlock and 1st Lt. Justin J. Wilkens from the 34th Special Operations Squadron and Senior Airman Julian S. Scholten from the 25th Intelligence Squadron died Feb. 18 when their U-28A was involved in an accident near Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa.
“It’s a sad time for us, obviously, but we will continue to do our duty just like the exemplars we honor today did theirs,” said Col. Jim Slife, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing. “We have the nation’s important and unfinished work yet to do and we are being lifted up by a cloud of angels, bidden to our presence by the thoughts, prayers and encouragement of our brothers-in-arms from around the globe.”
Hall, 30, was a U-28A pilot on his seventh deployment. He entered the Air Force in 2004, receiving his commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corp at The Citadel. He had been assigned to the 319th SOS at Hurlburt Field since 2007 and had more than 1,300 combat flight hours.
“Whenever a need arose, or a crisis hit, Ryan was the first to jump in to help,” said Lt. Col. Patrick Daley, commander of the 319th SOS. “[Be they] squadron member, spouse, friend, even strangers – the light from Ryan’s caring heart shone through.”
Whitlock, 29, was also a U-28A pilot and was on his fifth deployment. He entered the Air Force in 2006, receiving his commission through the Officer Training School. He had been assigned to the 319th SOS and then to the 34th SOS at Hurlburt Field since 2008 and had more than 800 combat flight hours.
“Nick was a disciplined warrior,” said Lt. Col. William Winans, director of operations for the 34th SOS. “He knew the risks associated with our mission-set, and he mitigated those risks through his technical competence and his charismatic leadership style.”
Wilkens, 26, was a combat systems officer on his third deployment. He entered the Air Force in 2009, receiving his commission through the Air Force Academy. He had been assigned to the 34th SOS at Hurlburt Field since April 2011 and had more than 400 combat hours.
“Justin didn’t just have a highlight reel from the field of battle,” Winans said. “He did it all, from teaching English classes to security forces, to being the go-to guy with all the high-tech systems on the airplane. There was nothing he didn’t do exceptionally well.”
Scholten, 26, was a mission systems operator assigned to the 25th IS at Hurlburt Field since 2009. He enlisted in the Air Force in 2007. He had more than 900 combat hours in six different airframes and was on his third deployment.
“During his initial two deployments, Julian literally wrote the book on how to conduct our operations, an amazing feat for a young Airman fresh through the pipeline,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Atkins, commander of 25th IS. “Airman Scholten’s excellence as an Airman was a direct reflection of his personality and character, and his smile was as quick as his wit.”
The ceremony concluded with an honor guard firing party rendering a three-volley salute, a bugler sounding “Taps” and a bagpipe player’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
“We honor the crew of Ratchet 33 by continuing their work, by taking to the skies once again, to provide the critical air component of a demanding and effective joint team,” said Col. Jeffrey Kruse, commander of the 361st Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group. “Today we mourn, tomorrow we lift our eyes and our hearts. Today we grieve, tomorrow we take to the skies and soar. Today we feel loss, but because of Ratchet 33, tomorrow, instead of loss, we have the promise of victory.”
The U-28A is a single engine, manned fixed wing aircraft developed around the Pilatus PC-12 airframe that provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in support of special operations forces.
The cause of the crash is unknown at this time. The Air Force is committed to a thorough investigation, and more information will be released as it becomes available.