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560th FTS student earns prestigious award for sortie against ISIL

| Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs | Dec. 17, 2015

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — An Air Force captain who is training to be a pilot instructor at the 12th Flying Training Wing’s 560th Flying Training Squadron has earned an honor whose past recipients have included acclaimed aviators such as Gens. Hap Arnold and Jimmy Doolittle and Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager.

Capt. David Kroontje, a 560th FTS pilot instructor training student, received the National Aeronautic Association’s 2014 Mackay Trophy for the role he played as an F-16C co-pilot in destroying three Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant blockades, numerous armored vehicles, an observation post and some 80 ISIL fighters in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains in August 2014.

The NAA, the oldest national aviation organization in the United States, has awarded the Mackay Trophy since 1912. It is presented for “the most meritorious flight of the year” by an Air Force military member or aircrew.

Kroontje and the lead pilot, Capt. Gregory Balzhiser, the aircrew of the Pacific Air Forces’ Ironhand 41 Flight during the sortie, received their honor at the NAA Fall Awards Ceremony Dec. 3 in Arlington, Va. They were assigned to the 13th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, but deployed to Jordan at the time of the sortie.

Kroontje said receiving the award was a “humbling experience.”

“It’s what we’re trained to do every day,” he said. “The positive impact this sortie had is what separates it from others.”

Balzhiser and Kroontje’s eight-hour night sortie, which included four attacks, came in response to an August 2014 ISIL invasion of Iraqi towns that were home to the ethnic minority Yazidis. ISIL forces began a mass execution of Yazidi civilians, causing more than 40,000 Yazidis to flee north to Mount Sinjar, where they received humanitarian airdrops of food and water, but were subjected to brutal heat, ISIL blockades and constant gunfire by ISIL fighters.

“We didn’t know it was going to go down the way it did,” Kroontje said. “We were just keeping an eye on the cargo birds dropping food and water.”

Because of the gravity of the situation – the mass murder of innocent civilians – Balzhiser and Kroontje were instructed to destroy specific targets.

“We dropped bombs and hit all our targets, so it was a successful sortie,” Kroontje said.

In a letter to Gen. Lori Robinson, Pacific Air Forces commander, informing her of the selection of Balzhiser and Kroontje as Mackay Trophy winners, Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, described the aircrew’s heroism.

“Capt. Balzhiser and Capt. Kroontje distinguished themselves while operating in the Sinjar Mountains, Iraq, in August 2014,” he wrote. “Captains Balzhiser and Kroontje expertly coordinated and employed numerous munitions helping to free 40,000 Yazidi refugees being executed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”

Kroontje, who said the conclusion of the sortie included a joint simultaneous attack with Marine F-18 fighter pilots, said it was the first time he had dropped all his weapons in one sortie.

“Later we realized the impact of our attack,” he said. “It was not something we initially set out to do.”

Lt. Col. Joe DeBoer, 560th FTS commander, said it is exciting to see Kroontje honored for his actions.

“I am amazed at the incredible airmanship and absolute professionalism of our instructors and students,” he said. “Many times, their acts of courage and the impacts of their actions in the skies are not publicized and often go unnoticed. Fortunately, the Air Force was able to recognize one of our students, Capt. Kroontje, as one of the two individuals to receive the Mackay Trophy. 

“Their actions saved the lives of thousands of the trapped Yazidis,” DeBoer said. “Many, if not all of them, will probably never know their names.”