CRAVEN COUNTY - A Cherry Point pilot was named the Marine Corps' Aviator of the Year, in recognition for a daring March 2011 rescue in Libya.
Maj. Eric Grunke, a Harrier pilot with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, won the annual award given to one member of the Corps. Grunke was the first member of a rescue team who reached a downed Air Force F-15 pilot.
Defense officials said the F-15 crashed on March 21, 2011 because of mechanical failure. The fighter jet went down on the third day of the U.S. and NATO strikes against Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, an international operation known as Operation Odyssey Dawn.
Moments after the F-15 went down near Benghazi, Qaddafi forces tried to capture the jet's pilot, Maj. Kenneth Harney.
"He was being pursued by five to six tactical vehicles with search lights, dogs and guns," Maj. Grunke said.
Grunke took off in a harrier jet from the U.S.S. Kearsarge in the Mediterranean Sea. As he flew more than 300 miles an hour, in hit him this was a life or death rescue mission.
"It was all surreal to me," Grunke said. "This wasn't a training mission in the fields of North Carolina. This was the real thing."
Grunke's harrier carried two laser guided missiles, 500 pounds each. Harney radioed that he needed a missile fired right away, as a truck carrying Qaddafi fighters came into view.
"[Harney] came back up on the radio, and crying, said, 'tell my wife I love her,'" Grunke said. "At that point I told him not to worry. I guided the missile for 50 seconds and it made a direct impact."
The missile blew up the car while Harney hid roughly 2,000 meters away. Two ospreys then landed and picked up the pilot near the crash site. The team flew back to the U.S.S. Kearsarge, mission accomplished in 90 minutes.
"It was a moment of obvious emotion, to realize how close he potentially was to death," Grunke said. "I just saw a sense of relief in his eyes that he was safe."