Special Operations Aviator Receives Distinguished Flying Cross

Col. Matthew Smith, left, 352nd Special Operations Wing commander, presents TSgt. James McKay, right, 7th Special Operations Squadron special missions’ aviator, with the Distinguished Flying Cross medal June 2, 2017, on RAF Mildenhall, England. McKay is the 80th Airman in Air Force Special Operations Command to receive this honor, a medal created in 1918 to reward those who display heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. Air Force photo by A1C Tenley Long.

TSgt. James McKay was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross on June 2 for his role as a special missions aviator over Bor, South Sudan, on Dec. 21, 2013.

Then-SSgt. McKay was aboard one of three CV-22s dispatched from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, to evacuate US personnel stationed at a United Nations compound in Bor ahead of an impending civil war.

US officials had communicated with rebels controlling the area to clear the evacuation mission, but McKay and his team were surprised by heavy fire from the ground as they approached for landing.

All three aircraft were damaged so extensively that the team could not make its 1,000-mile return flight to Lemonnier. Even the 400-mile flight to the emergency landing spot at Entebbe, Uganda, would be a significant challenge.

McKay performed a quick assessment of the damage to his aircraft and discovered the Osprey had ruptured fuel tanks and degraded flight control. It had also lost the largest hydraulic system on the aircraft as well as an emergency lubrication system.

Making use of his expert knowledge of the CV-22, McKay quickly identified the need for an emergency air refueling and pinpointed the most damaged tanks, slowing the overall loss of fuel and allowing the aircraft to fly successfully out of the conflict zone.

His ability to calmly work through emergency checklists and prepare for landing allowed the rest of the crew to focus on their tasks of flying the aircraft and caring for wounded teammates. “His actions resulted in the safe recovery of four crewmembers, nine passengers, and his aircraft despite heavy odds against success,” according to his award citation.

“We have to always be prepared for the unexpected, not only physically, but mentally as well,” McKay said, according to a press release. “If things get out of control, what’s going to distinguish your actions from others is clearing your mind and allowing yourself to think it out.”

McKay is assigned to the 7th Special Operations Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England. Maj. William Mendel, a CV-22 pilot assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron, also received a Distinguished Flying Cross on May 15 for his actions during the same mission.

For more coverage of this mission, see Blood Over Bor from the October 2015 issue of Air Force Magazine.