Dean Kahn

Air Force honors Whatcom pilot for airstrikes against ISIS

David A. Kroontje, then a first lieutenant, poses by an Air Force F-16 after he graduated from training in 2008 at Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix, Ariz.
David A. Kroontje, then a first lieutenant, poses by an Air Force F-16 after he graduated from training in 2008 at Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix, Ariz. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

It was the summer of 2014 and ISIS had people on the run in Iraq, including thousands of Yazidis, one of the area’s oldest religious sects.

The U.S. military hadn’t played a major battlefield role in Iraq for several years, and President Obama was cautious about calling in American forces to protect the Yazidis from slaughter. So it was big news on Aug. 7, 2014, when he OK’d airstrikes to protect as many as 40,000 Yazidi civilians who were surrounded in the barren Sinjar Mountains of northwest Iraq.

Four days later, two U.S. Air Force pilots took off from Jordan in F-16C fighter jets for a nighttime bombing run against ISIS fighters threatening the Yazidis. One of them was Capt. David A. Kroontje, a 32-year-old graduate of Mount Baker High School.

Kroontje’s four attacks over eight hours with fellow pilot Capt. Gregory Balzhiser destroyed numerous armored vehicles, two blockades, an observation post and an estimated 80 enemy fighters, according to the Air Force. Their performance, described as “flawless” by the National Aeronautic Association, set the stage for many of the embattled Yazidis to reach safety.

“It makes you feel good about what you’re doing,” Kroontje said from Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, where he is training to become an instructor for future pilots. “It does feel good to have a positive impact, especially for a group like the Yazidis.”

In December 2015, Kroontje and Balzhiser were honored as winners of the 2014 Mackay Trophy. The majestic trophy from the Air Force and the National Aeronautic Association recognizes the “most meritorious” flight of the year by Air Force personnel or organizations.

The trophy has been awarded annually since 1912, except during World War II. Previous winners include such famous fliers as Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle and Chuck Yeager.

“It’s humbling to be in a group of aviators as well-known and established as the people named on the award,” Kroontje said. “It feels good, to be honest.”

The flying Kroontjes

Kroontje followed family footsteps when he become an Air Force pilot. His father, David M. Kroontje, of rural Whatcom County, attended the Air Force Academy in the mid-1970s and has been an airline pilot.

The younger Kroontje started at the academy in 2001, two years before his older sister, Dayleen M. Kroontje, graduated from the academy and became an Air Force pilot. David said he went along for rides when his father flew small private planes, including an amphibious plane for fishing trips to British Columbia.

David Kroontje graduated from the academy in 2005 and went on to serve multiple deployments in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. He estimates he has flown more than 280 combat sorties, including about 32 flights against ISIS, for a combined 1,600 combat hours.

‘That’s a lot,” he said.

Dire situation

The bare and waterless Sinjar Mountains are revered by the Yazidis, who believe Noah’s Ark landed there. The Yazidis are predominantly ethnically Kurdish, but their religion, a mix of Islam, Zoroastrianism and other ancient beliefs, sets them apart in the region.

As a group they have been subject to massacres in the past, and their home territory situated between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad put them in the line of new geopolitical fire.

By the summer of 2014, an estimated 500 Yazidis had been killed by ISIS and thousands more had fled north to safety. Dozens of Yazidis died from exposure to daytime temperature reaching 120 degrees in the mountains.

Night duty

Kroontje was in Jordan when the assignment to attack ISIS by the Sinjar Mountains came his way. He was familiar with the area because he had flown cover while other aircraft dropped food and water to the desperate Yazidis, but when he lifted off at sunset he didn’t know Sinjar was his destination.

At top speed, a F-16C flies about 1,500 mph. Circling over a target, a pilot slows to about 400 mph, but cranks it up to nearly 700 mph during a bombing run. The jet’s arsenal includes 400- to 500-pound guided bombs, air-to-air missiles, and a 20 mm machine gun, Kroontje said.

He said the threat to his jet from ISIS was minor, especially at night because, “They can’t see us.”

The bigger threat was technical problems, or low fuel, while flying more than 500 miles over enemy-controlled territory. Pilots captured by ISIS risk death, as shown by videos of beheadings and burnings of their prisoners.

Kroontje didn’t have technical problems, but he ran low on fuel toward night’s end. He and Balzhiser had taken turns refueling from a tanker aloft, but if Kroontje had trouble refueling he may have been forced to jettison spare equipment, gain altitude to save fuel and then try to glide to a safe destination.

He said he likely had two options for an emergency landing: The Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where security can be iffy; or an unfamiliar air base in Turkey, which didn’t want offensive U.S. aircraft in its airspace.

Fortunately, Kroontje managed to refuel and land safely in Jordan. His airstrikes, along with other U.S. assaults on nearby ISIS targets, enabled Kurdish and Yazidi fighters to clear a path for thousands of Yazidis in the mountains to escape to safety.

Kroontje didn’t learn about the outcome of his flight until a few days later.

“I didn’t know it was going to have the impact that it did,” he said.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291