He flew to the rescue

By Jack Minch
Originally published in the July 19, 2006 edition of the Lowell Sun

It was late afternoon, July 6, when Air Force Capt. John Fuccillo learned an Army outpost was threatened by attack from Taliban forces and running low on supplies. The only plane available for an emergency resupply mission was the Hercules C-130 the Lowell native was co-piloting.

The crew normally spends its days flying supply sorties, but spent that day ferrying a visiting dignitary. They were looking forward to returning to their base at an undisclosed site in Southwest Asia.

After dropping off the dignitary, they landed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to refuel and spotted bad weather rolling in. They went inside the operations center to get the weather report.

That proved a lucky break for soldiers at the outpost.

Fuccillo and the rest of the crew volunteered for the extra flight after learning about the soldiers' vulnerable position.

"Everyone on the crew without hesitation said, 'yeah, come on,' " Fuccillo said by telephone from his base with the 738th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron.

Fuccillo, 26, grew up on Easy Street in Lowell's Christian Hill neighborhood. He graduated Lowell High School in 1998, then attended Norwich University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering with plans on becoming a pilot.

"I've wanted to be a pilot since I was about 6," Fuccillo said.

He's been in the Air Force four years and has a 10-year obligation to the government with hopes of making it a career.

Fuccillo and the C-130's crew, including the plane's commander, Capt. Travis Sjostedt of Chicago, are stationed at Elmendorf Air Base in Anchorage, Alaska, but are at the end of a 60-day deployment to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. Fuccillo has spent nine of the last 12 months in that region.

Saying yes to the emergency mission was easy, but the crew was faced with a pressing urgency. A resupply mission normally takes up to five hours just to plan but the crew needed to deliver the supplies before the expected attack.

The plane's load-masters and flight engineer organized 8 tons of supplies in 12 bundles in the plane's cargo bay in less than an hour, while Fuccillo and Sjostedt coordinated the drop zone with the Army.

The plane took off with Fuccillo in the right-hand seat and an array of black and white dials on the control panel in front of him.

They approached the combat drop zone 45 minutes later at low altitude.

"The fact it was sunset and some other contributing factors made it one of the toughest drops I've had," Fuccillo said.

He and the navigator, 1st Lt. Justin Newton, of Loxley, Ala., looked out the cockpit windows to guide Sjostedt on the approach.

Sjostedt, who was also using global positioning satellite, gave the order and the bundles parachuted out the rear of the plane.

"The process of (planning) an air job can take up to five hours and from the time we got alerted, there was a possible need for this and the load leaving the aircraft was about four hours," Fuccillo said.

Each crew member is expected to be nominated for a single-mission Air Medal. All crew members get an Air Medal after 20 combat missions -- Fuccillo said he already has a handful -- but the single mission Air Medals are considered prestigious.

"This mission was important on many fronts" in the war on terror, Air Force spokesman Maj. Thomas Crosson said in an e-mail. "It demonstrates to our adversaries that we have the capability to move our forces and assets quickly to address any threat."

Fuccillo's father, Donald Fuccillo, said he didn't know about his son's rescue mission until reading about it in yesterday's edition of The Sun, but is proud of all his accomplishments. John Fuccillo was an Eagle Scout with Troop 80 in Dracut, a member of the ROTC program at Lowell High and is now using online programs while studying for a doctorate, Donald Fuccillo said.

"What he does, he sets his mind to do what he wants to do, he sets out to do it and accomplishes it," the elder Fuccillo said.

Fuccillo said he's looking forward to attending aircraft commander school in Little Rock, Ark., in the next year and taking charge of his own crew.