Homeward bound

This is it. My last post. As I write this I am sitting in my hotel room in St. Johns, Newfoundland in Canada just one evening away from being reunited with my sweet wife. I have a lot to say, but it may not be interesting as there are no combat tales in this post. What I write today is a reflection on my experience.

A few days ago we had our outbriefing and I looked on the screen in front of the room and the Director of Operations had encapsulated everything we had done as crews for Operation Enduring Freedom. Although I had felt at the time that we had been underutilized, we had accomplished quite a bit for only having three crews and two aircraft. Had missions not cancelled, we could have classified this as a really ball busting deployment, but instead can list it as a somewhat cushy vacation.

I'd really like to tell all of you that I made a difference in the war on terror (I hate that misnomer), but I'd be hyping a load of manure. We worked hard when we flew. The missions we flew on the Horn of Africa were demanding. Most days were 16 hours long. The temperature was routinely 100 degrees at 6 am and many of the legs were 3-4 hours long and we would do four legs in a day. The airspace wasn't too bad, but lots of unknown aircraft and terrible air traffic control. There are other unmentionable things that cannot be said because of their sensitive nature, but it was not a cake walk.

The true workers are the men and women deployed in support of Air Expeditionary Operations that spend their entire deployment in places like Djibouti, Bagram, Balad, Al Udeid. They are under threat every day and put up with miserable conditions and I want all of you to think of them instead of me.

I really enjoyed my time with my crew. They are the BEST crew I have ever had the privilege of flying with. I am not kissing as because they may read this blog. They won't because no one on the deployment has the link and most don't even know about it. Every one of them flew like a professional no matter what the heck was thrown at us. We had a new copilot and navigator and a first time deployer as a loadmaster (he raced across the desert in 03 as a Marine munitions troop re-arming Cobra gunships). We had many opportunities for Murphy to bite us in the ass and it never happened because we all looked out for each other and performed as one unit. Early on someone nicknamed us "Team Varsity" and it really stuck. We broke one time and you read the post about it. We got a waiver, got back to the DJ and had it repaired and finished the mission. Talking with the Navy SEALS we support they really appreciated us pushing it to the limit.

I am fiercely proud of my crewmates. They deserve credit and I will now take the opportunity to give it to them. I processed the awards and decorations (medals) for everyone on this deployment, but if I had to write citations for individual awards this is some of what I'd say about my teammates.

Major Roark Endlich- An arrogant son of a bitch, but he took damn good care of the crew. He put pressure on you to get the mission done and learned quickly that he didn't need much as we were high speed. He had a can do attitude and always pushed it to the limit, but at the end of the day you knew that everyone respected the job you'd just done because they knew you would do whatever it took to get the mission done and support those on the front lines.

Captain Travis Adams- I'd run through a wall of flames to get this man out of a burning plane. He is a competent pilot, but he is definitely one of the finest aircraft commanders I have ever worked with. He didn't get in my business or tell me what to do. He listened to me and let me do my job 120 %. I gave him the facts and let him make the decisions and he always made the right ones. He went to bat for us everytime, NO EXCEPTIONS. When I wanted to go to the plane and get it ready instead of having breakfast because they didn't alert us at a reasonable hour, he said, "plan for extra weight with that breakfast your going to eat." He never ordered you directly, he just had a way of making you want to do it that way.

Captain Joe Bennington- He was on his game. He had a lot of learning to do and a difficult environment to do it in. He backed us all up and asked a lot of questions about what was going on. He had questions for me as an experienced Non-commissioned officer about how things worked between me and an aircraft commander. He will make a great aircraft commander one day and I would fly with him in the shit any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

First Lieutenant Phil Bledsoe- For some reason this guy who is 12 years my junior has earned my complete respect and admiration. He gets the job done and never breaks a sweat (except in the morning in Djibouti before takeoff). He's a new navigator and yet he performed like he'd been at it awhile. He was always thinking ahead and had things done way before they needed to be. He'd load the secrets in the combat tracker and mode four, the  pilots never had to lift a finger with the flight plans or routing. The guy is a natural. He worked hard and he played even harder. He knows the value of having a good time when we're not flying and can put his game face on when it's time for business. I never EVER worried about accidently bumping into an evening thundershower because he was always on top of it. He kept us out of restricted airspace and around thunderstorms. I couldn't spill my diet coke if I tried due to turbulence associated with the storms we were skirting.

Master Sergeant Shawn Gardner- The other old man on the crew. He was my voice of reason for all the wrong we saw. We've both been at it a long time and he just kept me grounded. He could load anything that the 130 could carry. Many times we got a crazy object to load and he just did it. More than once he saved a mission that someone said couldn't be done with his can do attitude. We never waited on Shawn to take off. He could get us out of the assualt strip in under 20 minutes most days and the one time we had to shut down it was because God couldn't have loaded that air conditioner during an engine running offload!!!! He taught me so much about what happens behind the cockpit and how loadmasters operate the 130. I have a lot of respect for what the loads do in the aircraft. It's not like packing your car. If grenades and bullets get loaded together and an enemy round would have made it through our armor it would have been good bye Charly as my mother-in-law says.

Last, but not least, Staff Sergeant Michael Culp- Marine to the Corp, pun intended, he took all the bullshit in stride because he has had it a lot worse than any Air Force crew will ever have it. He took every opportunity given to him to grow as a loadmaster and he soaked up as much knowledge as Shawn could dish out. He took leadership and got things done when Shawn was handling another crisis and we never had a late takeoff because he was waiting for direction. I admire his work ethic and his abilities as a loadmaster. He and Shawn are the two loadmasters I want sitting in the troop doors riding the harnesses looking for missiles and rocket propelled grenades when we take off in a hostile area.

I have a profound love for each of these guys and a respect that cannot be given it must be earned. They earned it easily and I don't know what I'll do next Christmas when I'm flying in Afghanistan without them.

Which brings me to my op ed piece.

Today I watched an interview with the first living Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam. Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. He is as humble as any who have earned the medal before him. What he did is heroic. I am in awe of what he did and what he stands for. He deflected any praise for himself and put it on the others involved in the fire fight that day. That's what real heroes do. They never think that what they did was important or newsworthy. I completely understand his point that it is what he was trained to do and was just doing his job.

That is all I have done. I will never be a hero and it's important to say that. I am just a regular guy who was looking for a cool job and found it. I would probably run like a coward if faced with what SSgt Giunta was facing. I would definitely be thinking self preservation as most of us would. I am ok with that. I accept that and am proud of what I have done in the service, but as I have said to friends who think that what I do is heroic, "If I am a hero then what are the men and women who have suffered and lost in battle?" What are all of those soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who reside in Walter Reed Medical Center who are trying to put their life back together? They are the heroes.

I will say that many of us who serve in harms way are a special breed. My family will never know the bond that I have with those I fly with. Until now, the guys I have flown with over the years knew more about me than my family or friends. The men and women of the US Armed Forces do what many are unwilling, or unable, to do. They are the one percent that get out of bed at all hours of the night and day, everyday, and stand watch over the citizens of the United States and our Allies. Many who were serving on September 11th, myself included, watched with horror as the events of that day unfolded. Many citizens say their lives have changed forever, but I see little evidence of that.

I do see how life has changed for those of us in uniform. We deploy every year for anywhere from four months to a year. We leave our families behind to pick up the pieces of our lives when things go wrong. My wife had a very sick dog to lovingly heal back to health (he's practically our kid) as well as fix things around the house, make decisions concerning both of us and just getting up everyday and doing her job as well. Others have lost pets on this deployment, had medical issues at home and other disasters. We don't get to go home because of that. We have to get on a plane and fly knowing that our beloved pet is on the brink of death and yet the mission comes first. One of the people I deployed with has a wife at home who is having a hard time as this is his fifth deployment in five years.

I am not asking for sympathy, just acknowledgement that those of us who choose to do this do so willingly despite the setbacks and pain we have to deal with in our daily lives and that it is so damn tough. I don't want 20% off. I don't want free tickets to a ball game or a standing ovation. What I want is for the public to say thank you to those vets that don't get the public attention I have gotten on this deployment. My face plastered on a 30 second segment of Armed Forces Network doesn't even begin to tell the story of what went on behind the scenes.

As the last night with the guys approaches I feel a sense of excitement at seeing my wife, but also a tinge of sadness about not seeing the guys I've lived and worked with for 126 days on Saturday when I wake up. For me the task ahead is to become reaquainted with my wife and be the best husband, and a better citizen, in the months to come.

This quote by Samual Adams, a founding father and signer of the Declaration of Independence, in my mind, spells out what it means to be an American:

"It is not unfrequent to hear men declaim loudly upon liberty, who, if we may judge by the whole tenor of their actions, mean nothing else by it but their own liberty, - to oppress without control or the restraint of laws all who are poorer or weaker than themselves. It is not, I say, unfrequent to see such instances, though at the same time I esteem it a justice due to my country to say that it is not without shining examples of the contrary kind; - examples of men of a distinguished attachment to this same liberty I have been describing; whom no hopes could draw, no terrors could drive, from steadily pursuing, in their sphere, the true interests of their country."

Stand up for the rights of others as if they were your own for one day they just may be yours at stake. I do it everyday and will continue to do so for as long as I can. Be a good citizen and get involved wherever you can. I thank the power that created the universe everyday that I have been able to serve in the capacity that I do and feel privileged to do it alongside some of the best men and women America has ever seen. I thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to share some of my experiences with you. I also want to say that it really means a lot to me knowing that many of you think about us as we conduct our daily operations. I ask that you continue to think of the men and women I leave serving on active duty in harms way and keep them in your prayers.

Good luck in all of your endeavours and I hope that your life is as rich and full as mine has been and will be. Take care of yourselves. I hope to see many of you in the year to come.


Martha Stewart's guide to tent living for the deployed

So, here we are. We're finally in the tents. Every other crew has been in them and they've complained about our good fortune for the last couple of months. I'm happy to oblige whiners as usually they're hypocrisy stands out!!! As usual team Varsity handles it with style. We just got our tent assignments and went and checked our tent out.

It's not the Hilton but compared to what the marines and soldiers suffer through at remote outposts I'll take it. It's got pretty decent ac. I froze my ass off because I initially didn't want to zip up my cold weather Marmot sleeping bag.....Stupid is as stupid does!!!! It's got bright flourescent lights so I took some initiative and built my fort first. All the linens look like I went to a Salvation Army center. Pictures will be forthcoming. I got a heavy blanket and made a little hanging curtain.

It's tough trying to sleep because everyone sleeps in a different way. Some go to bed early, some late, some never. Half the lights are on till well after 1-2 in the morning so not making yourself a little curtain is tantamount to the onset of insomnia. I didn't put any earplugs in as I was tired to begin with after being up 18 hours and for operating an aircraft for 16.5. 12 hours of flying and 4.5 of ground gaggle. So I fell asleep quite readily only to be awoken by a cold draft eminating from the ceiling blowers. The outside air temperature had fallen to 96 F (32 C for you Canadians:) and the movement inside had ceased long enough for the cooldown to begin. That will not happen this evening as I am getting up at 2:45 am to go fly tomorrow.

We were greeted by the Djiboutian Anthem promptly at 8 am followed by the national anthem. OMG is it loud!!! Very military sounding BTW. After that it was off to the showers. Any of my flying buddies will tell you that showers vary from bad to worse. As far as these go they are awesome!!! Water so hot it burns Djibouti film right off of you!!!! They are actual shower heads with a single adjustable handle and the sinks are decent. Last time I was at Djibouti it had smaller tents and solar still showers!!! Now you can shower without worrying about getting water in your mouth for fear of throwing up your chow!!!
It's actually posted by the environmental health technicians that the water is now potable and you will no longer use bottled water. Is that just like the announcement that there are no ill effects of the burn pits at all the lovely places I've stayed at, or transited, in the middle east? As Austin Powers says, "Riiigghht."

After showering, Shawn and I took a lovely stroll in the beautiful sunlight and 105 degree heat. Did I mention that it's a desert so it's really a dry heat? Except that it's adjacent to the Gulf of Aden so we have that pesky little thing called humidity. We found the computer place where you take your laptop to have it configured to work on the mil net. Then it was off to order some morale patches and such at the little souvenier shop.

That's right. The Phillipinos have opened an embroidery shop where the guy does it all by hand. I'm having an arabic nametag made with my wings on it. The things you do to entertain yourself. After that it was off to Brunch at the chow hall. What a great way to spend a Saturday? I had a tasty turkey breast with potato wedges and gravy. Then I snacked on spaghetti sauce with meatballs and put in this awesome garlic bread. Believe it or not the food is excellent unless you are in the fast food line. Then it's buyer beware as I just had a snack of onion rings that were made four hours ago.....Pepto!!!!

Now we're hangin' at 11 degrees north, a morale, welfare, and recreation oasis. They have fast wifi and everyone in here is lounging around bangin' out on their keyboards or catching up with Family Guy. Some are waiting to skype the family back home as dawn approaches. It's 14:29 here so my sweet lady isn't up yet, unless the dog is licking her face right now. Okay this is ridiculous. They are playing some really stupid piano music like, "We've only just begun"!!! Are you f*ing shittin' me? Is that what the troops need to hear? It's just the kind of music i like to play on my Ipod as we approach an assault strip for a tactical landing!!!!!!!!!!!! NOT!!!!! Throw some Halen or Iron Maiden in there and I'm rollin' Let one of those bad dudes throw something our way we'd have the SEALS send them packing. This music would just embolden the enemy to attack us while we're all holding each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, not even halfway through my day and that's where I've been and what I've done. On tap for the rest of the afternoon before I shower and sleep......chow!!!!! I regret not getting French toast this morning. That also will not happen again. 20 days until I see my sweet bee!!!!! Then I take a year off and do it all over again in September. But that will be another blog entirely. Tomorrow it's the assualt strip and buying Tuskar beer!!!

Last Horn of Africa Rotation

I am sitting in the cockpit at 21000 feet flying over the Red Sea after just exiting the Egyptian FIR (Flight Information Region) boundary. We're headed almost due south. The sky is absolutely clear tonight. About 30 minutes ago I decided to play with my NVG's because I was bored and the stars are spectacular. Tonight you could see the Milky Way so crisply it was absolutely breathtaking!! We were all sitting there silently when we looked to our left and watched the moon begin to creep above the horizon. You get a sense of how fast the moon is moving relative to the earth when you see how long it takes to move above. As I speak it's already a few degrees above the horizon of the earth. The color was a brilliant orange due to the moonlight passing through the atmosphere and the curvature of the earth. It's nights like these that I feel so blessed to be able to fly.

Flying has been the best job I could have ever chosen for myself. It didn't start out that way, but somehow I fell into it. I'd say I can't imagine doing anything else, but I can because I quit for awhile. I can't regret that decision because it led me to the most wonderful human being on the planet: my beautiful wife. However, I can say that there are absolutely no regrets for having jumped back into the game. I am having the best time on this deployment and as everybody's widgets on their computers count down the time until we are reunited with our loved ones I am struck with a sense of sadness. The guys on my crew are the best I've ever flown with. We have gotten the job done time and time again and we've had an absolute blast regardless of the shit we're in. I truly am going to miss flying with them.

It's not that I'll never fly with them again. It's that I probably will never fly with these exact crewmembers in a deployment again. Anyone who has ever spent a lot of time with the same group of people over a long deployment the wrong people equal a very large ass pain. Not once has anyone jumped in anyone else's shit over something. When one of us is angry about something we all just make him laugh and then we give him shit later once he's cooled down. We move as a group and we're flexible as hell. No matter what has occured this deployment we just shrugged our shoulders and made a funny comment and moved on.

Now we are on our last rotation to the Horn of Africa. It's a melancholy feeling coming down here one more time. The squadron we are deployed to is deactivating at the end of our deployment and the active duty squadron at Ramstein is going to take on sole responsibility for Africa missions. This is probably the last time we will see Ramstein either. I grew up in Europe. I have spent much of my career flying in and out of Ramstein and though much has changed over the last 23 years of my career, it's still like home to me. When the lights go out for the last time at the squadron a lot of people are going to have hay fever all of a sudden!!!

Things have gone wrong since the start of this trip. 617th the squadron responsible for flight planning us has fucked it up again. How many colonels can you get in one room without it collapsing due to them sucking the air out? Right now the answer is.....no shit.....about 15 full bird colonels. No wonder nothing gets done. They had us fragged for an earlier departure and we had hazardous cargo. Rockets and lots of em, but some shithead didn't contact Souda Bay in Crete to tell them until later. It was then they learned that there is no haz cargo ramp because of construction taking place. WTF? Don't you call, because it's required, and notify the arrival station that your coming loaded for the Taliban? Apparently not. Way to go team Ramstein. Your country can be proud of the way you impede Operation Enduring Freedom. Who needs the Taliban when you have 617th.

So they pushed us back a day and we have no haz on board. We have nothing on board for the DJ. That feels so strange because usually we have cargo and passengers. Not this evening. Tonight we get there, jump off the aircraft, get to our tents and run to the chow hall for midnight chow. I can almost taste my roast beef and provolone sandwich....mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm! I was worried for a bit because we have several runs to make while we're down here and I didn't want them to short change us as some of us need a few more missions for aerial achievement medals. Also we get back to back months of tax free. It's the little things that count. Hot chow and tax free.

In addition to 617th doing the haz dick dance, they also showed us flight planned to complete the trip in one day, which we usually do, but that was with us still going around Italy, through France, along the Med to Souda. The shot to DJ was straighter until Cairo redirected us away from Luxor. Weather ahead I'm jumping off so that my laptop doesn't go flying. I should have just picked up my nogs and taken a look. We hit a cloud layer and so we climbed out of it at 23,000 feet and road on top of the cloud deck.

After almost seven hours of pain we approached DJ. The copilot was fllying this approach and he briefed it for runway 09 and commented that it will obviously change to 27 once we contact approach control. Sure enough the DJ controller calls 27 the active, but we were able to get the visual,which cuts out a lot of ass pain. We landed and had a bus waiting. Got to our tent and that's another post.


Pat Tillman

****Warning This Post contains Rantings of a Passionate Military Member******

What prompted this post was an article by NBC sports concerning a documentary on the Pat Tillman coverup. I'm not here to argue politics or even to change anyone's mind. I am writing this post to honor the memory of a true Patriot. I cannot call him a hero even though what he did would definitely put him up there because he made it clear to his family that heroes are extraordinary people and he was a man with faults like the rest of us. You've read my post on the word hero, but in my book he's pretty damn close to one!!!!

No background on Tillman. You should know it and if you want to learn more I urge you to find the truth for yourself. If your American and you do not know who he is that is because you have looked the other way while many of your countrymen have engaged in two wars and were making painful sacrifices. If you are not an American then it would make sense that you may not have heard of Pat Tillman. BTW, Tillman absolutely disagreed with the Iraq war and his reasoning was sound. Yet he still did his duty as a soldier. Imagine that: Personal responsibility!

So, I read the article which focused on the fact that Tillman's father had finally had enough when he read the "report" commissioned by congress. The general in charge, who actually signed the report, had promised the family that he would personally look into it. Well he did and if you read any of the official reports, it was clearly a cover up. The investigators have declared it an unfortunate incident and the general by signing off on it agrees with that assessment. Tillman's father declared that the general, along with some members of Tillman's platoon, are not fit to serve or be identified with the Army Rangers. More to the point he told the general to go fuck himself. Literally!

As with all the content on the web today, people are entitled to espouse their opinions with little regard to honesty and decency. Several people belittled Tillman himself for joining saying that he gave up his career to go "play" soldier and that he got what he deserved. If one person makes another person angry and the angered party decides to shoot and kill that person, does the person who is shot really "deserve" to be shot? Really? Hmmmm, check your value system. No decent human being would buy off on that.

Many of those who commented want the family to get over it because accidents happen and the truth is always hard to find in the fog of war. Yes, the truth is hard to find. It may never be found, completely, in this case. But one truth is for certain. Knowing that PFC Tillman was killed by members of his own unit, the highest ranking members of the US Army overseeing the execution of the war in Afghanistan, including that disgrace of a general Stanley McChrystal, said nothing to the family in private and even used his funeral as a photo op. President Bush absolutely was aware and all of them decided it would be one hell of a recruiting story....like...Jessica Lynch (does she ring a bell?). That's absolutely immoral no matter what your ideology is.

Given those facts can you blame a greiving family that they are angry they were lied to even years afterward? If you can then God help you if something like that ever happens to you. I hope that it never does because the pain of losing someone you love so deeply must be absolutely agonizing and it appears to never go away.

Friendly fire will always happen. No matter what. That doesn't mean that we have to act like it didn't happen and then make the victim a false hero. If you read Where Men Win Glory: The Pat Tillman Story, a lot of Pat's thoughts from his journal are in there. He had many misgivings about the Army and the war. The last thing I think he would have wanted is for himself to be made a recruiting poster. They attempted it when he was alive and he refused.

There is so much to say on this story that I wish I had an open dialogue with all of you because I feel it needs to be said and understood clearly.

Pat Tillman was a courageous man. He did something that hasn't been done since Vietnam when Rocky Blier left the Pittsburgh Steelers and got his legs blown off in Vietnam. Pat Tillman gave up a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country in her time of need. If you listen to his family and read his own words there was no regret. He felt that all citizens should make sacrifices for their country no matter what the cost. He even had an opportunity to re-enter the NFL but he refused to go back on his word and break his contract with the American people. Notice no other elite, well paid athelete stood up and did the same thing. No actor, politician, talented, rich individuals did what he did. What counts for even more is that he didn't expect anyone to lavish praise and he didn't condemn others for not making the same choice.

Pat Tillman paid the ultimate sacrifice for the idea that democracy is not passive. It requires attention, and at times sacrifice to maintain itself. I believe that he believed that it was everyone's responsibility to nurture it no matter what their station in life.

To that end I say to all, you don't have to wear the uniform to be a solid citizen. You need to engage and be passionate in whatever it is that you believe in. Stand up and try and make a difference. Democracy may not flourish no matter how hard you try, but it will absolutely falter if you stand idlly by and do nothing. Vote, be active in your community, get involved. But remember that your voice can be powerful. Choose your words wisely when you comment on the tragedy of those who attempted to do something for someone else at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. We should never judge those that put their money where their mouth is.

I didn't have an awesome career to give up when I joined the military. I chose to serve as my career. I have no regrets and I don't know if I would have been the kind of man Pat Tillman was if I had a great job and suddenly saw America attacked and plunged into conflict. I'd like to think that I would, but no one knows their courage or inner strength until they are tested.

I love what I do and if tomorrow I paid the ultimate price I would want someone to comfort my wife with kind words. After all I am a citizen just like you. I have hopes and dreams and want to fullfill them just like everyone else. I would think that my wife would deserve some sympathy and respect even if you disagreed with my occupation. Pat made me realize that all the things I complain about are ridiculous and that I am so damn lucky to have what I have. But I'd give all that up to know that my wife, my family, my friends would be safe from harm.

When I find myself complaining about the slowness of the ops tempo, or the pay problems, or even missing my family, I think about what Pat Would say. I admire him. I want so very badly to have his courage and to be the man he was to all those who know me.

So tonight before I go to bed, as I think about all the complaints and problems I had throughout the day, I think, as I do every night, "What would Pat Tillman Do?"

I know the answer, but will my heart have the courage to follow it?


Mr. and Mrs. So and So we regret to inform you

The title of this post are the words that several families heard on the 28th of this month. Early in the evening on the 28th of July a C-17 taking off from Elmendorf AFB in Alaska crashed. All four airman on board were killed.

Shortly after that their families would hear those words uttered as they were being told of the tragic mishap. I know what that scene is like. I lost several friends on August 29th, 1990. They were flying a mission for Desert Shield during the preparation for the first invasion of Iraq in an attempt to liberate Kuwait. They died and the families they left behind were absolutely devastated. I remember crying to my dad on the phone at the loss of my mentor and friend. The very person who got me to be an engineer was on his retirement flight and his best friend went with him. Both died together.

Whenever I would pass the memorial outside the squadron I couldn't help but think that it can happen to any of us at anytime. Even flying combat missions crews get the invincibility shield, which is folly. What we do even in peacetime is dangerous. The reason aircraft don't crash more often is that we train constantly for just such a thing and we have luck on our side.

These four men died doing what they loved. They were practicing for an upcoming airshow, which I think sucks. Me, I'd rather go out while conducting an airdrop at a forward operating base under heavy attack. At least I'd get those guys the supplies they needed.

No matter. When you read this post I'd ask that you reflect on all the men and women who get up everyday in all walks of life who put their lives on the line for all of us and give silent thanks for their service, whether it be military serving in combat or police officers patrolling your neighborhoods. And for those that believe in prayer say one for the families of the C-17 crew because they have a long and sad road ahead and they need all the support they can get.

In the words of John Gillespie Magee:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,

I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew -

And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod

The high untresspassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee

No 412 squadron, RCAF

Killed 11 December 1941

Assault Strip

The next morning we got up at a reasonable hour as the assault strip is day visual only. It was raining, which could have been bad  if the ceiling dropped near the strip as we would be unable to descend and fly the approach. The field is located in an area where there are several dirt strips used by all kinds of folks, good and bad, and the traffic wouldn't be on radar. So we have to have the visibility and be able to maintain eye contact with the ground at all times.

As I mentioned we had absolutely nothing to do other than to jump in the plane and take off. We did just that. After a short 45 minute flight we were buzzing the field in the brilliant sunlight (no weather to speak of near the coast) and banking to make our approach. 140 miles an hour and 700 feet off the deck in a 60 degree bank pulling a few g's!!!! Exhilarating. The forward air controller cleared us to land at our own risk and we did. We taxiied back on the strip, made our familiar turn into their little ramp and backed up for an ERO. It was a truly awesome time! 19 minutes on the ground from the time the wheels hit the touchdown zone until we taxiied back onto the runway and lifted off. We do not mess around!!!!

On our way to Mombassa we began to encounter the weather we had seen that morning in Nairobi. Mombassa sits right on the Kenyan coast and it was raining so hard we couldn't see the outboard engines! That would almost be like flying in a hurricane. We popped in and out of the clouds and couldn't see the ground.

We were shooting the ILS (instrument landing system), which is a radio signal that gives us centerline and vertical information. When the crosshairs are lined up your on centerline and at the right vertical descent to touchdown nicely on the runway. We set the radar altimeter to 200 feet. If we descend to the runway and hear the GCAS (ground collision avoidance system) scream, "minimums" we execute a missed approach, or go-around.

On final approach with checklists done, I earned my money and the respect of my crew. I called my first go-around of my Herk career. We shot out of the clouds above minimums, but it was raining so hard you couldn't tell for sure it was a runway in front of you. As it was we were well right of the runway and high. The pilot overcorrected putting us well to the left over the grassy strip separating the runway from the taxiway. At that point he aimed for the runway and had us in a bank with a low nose angle and high approach speed, well down the runway that we really couldn't see other than to know it by it's definite shape and size. There could have been a vehicle on the runway or another aircraft and we wouldn't have seen it. At that moment I knew we were completely shit out of luck and that we were about to become a statistic so I shouted over intercom, "GO AROUND!" Initially the pilot was still locked into the approach and didn't push up the throttles. I yelled, "GO AROUND NOW!!!" and he pushed the throttles forward. At that moment I had been prepared to put my hands behind the throttles and push them up because I wasn't about to make my wife a widow.

We had plenty of gas. The entire go around and re-establishment of the approach burned 700 lbs of gas. The only nagging thought I had in the quiet of the aftermath was what if this weather got even worse and we couldn't see the runway at all? Then we'd have major issues. As luck would have it, we popped out of the clouds and the rain dissapated enough for a clearer look at the runway. The approach was nice and stable this time and we landed uneventfully.

I began flying in 1993. Since that time I have heard many haunting cockpit voice recordings of crews that paid the ultimate price. Often no one was assertive enough to break the chain of events that led to the accident. I made up my mind not to be that guy that everyone talks about in hushed tones as the guy who should have spoken up. I have the best seat in the house and I'm not invested in the approach. Pilots always try to make it happen. As a pilot myself, I have done equally dumb things trying to salvage an approach.

We taxiied to the military ramp and picked up some Navy personnel who obviously weren't ready and didn't give a shit. I could have drop kicked the lot of them for their shitty attitudes. Our loadmasters had to rebuild their cargo pallet because these morons had it all jacked up. We'd been Djibouti'd, Kansas Guarded, Nairobi'd and now we got Navy'd. The nice thing was we got an escort into the terminal where I got myself and my sweet wife Tusker Beer shirts!!! Ah the little things in life.

Gassed and ready to go I went to the bathroom on the airplane and was making my way forward in the cargo compartment when a funny thing happened. Well, not really, but it is now. I was making my way around this pallet and was beside the left troop door when I inexplicably went out of it. I grabbed for the door frame and thank God grabbed the door track and broke my fall. I had one leg touching the ground, barely, and the other stuck in the plane. I wrenched my left shoulder trying to prevent my falling completely out and onto my head. I smashed my right thumbnail and bruised my sizable ego, but other than screaming like a sissy I was physically intact!!! Shawn turned around when he heard my cry and said, "what the fuck are you doing back there?" Thanks for the help Shawn.

All in all we made it happen. We ended up hitting the assault strip only three days late whereas had we stayed in Nairobi to fix the brake we would probably have gone back home and those guys would have had to wait for their perishable food items and bullets until August 5th. We moved the mission successfully and completed all of our taskings and for that I am proud and thankful.

Next stop Djibouti for a short rest then back to our deployed location:)


Flying AROUND the HOA

The brake was replaced Saturday morning less than 24 hours after we broke in Niarobi. At 2 am the next morning we showed back at the DJ putting up with the monkey business.....I mean force protection that the Kansas guard provided, ready to go. At ATOC they repeated the itinerary as Mombassa crew rest, then the assault strip and back to Mombassa then on to the DJ for the next day. We were jazzed about a crew rest in Mombassa along the coast so we thought one thing might go right today.

 While the cargo handlers and the loadmasters loaded the cargo an ATOC rep came out and told us we were going to Nairobi. We scratched our heads because the computer itinerary we had showed us going to Mombasa and crew resting. Oh yeah, we didn't have dip clearances for Ethiopia either so we had to fly around the horn of Africa and that's why we were crew resting; we didn't have the duty day. Perhaps you might think that isn't so far. Take a closer look at a map of Africa the next time you have the opportunity. You'll notice that Somalia's coastline is a long one. It takes six hours to fly from Djibouti, right next door, to Kenya, on the other side of Somalia. Here's where the drama starts.

As mentioned, ATOC showed us going to Mombassa and crew resting then taking the assault strip in the morning and returning to Mombassa for fuel. Our computer sheet told us the same. But there was cargo for Nairobi. What cargo? Oh, this little 21 inch carry on luggage? Yep. That's right American taxpayer who feels beaten down by the government, but supports anything the Pentagon chooses to do with your hard earned money because that must be a sure sign of patriotism. You collectively paid over 100k to move a bag that could have been sent commercial. No critical supplies or perishable items, just a bag that got left behind by some embassy marine. Yeah!!!!!! So because of this bag, we flew to Nairobi. They officially claim that it was to preposition for the assault strip. We've had crews fly to the strip from Mombasa several times.

The loads finished putting the cargo on and here was this little red carry on. We needed a ton of fuel for the 7 hour flight to Mombassa; we requested 52000 lbs for the flight. Another thing we couldn't figure out was why we were going to Mombassa if we weren't picking anything up there until after we went to the assault strip the next day. Our illustrious handlers at the MAJCOM said that if Kenyan controllers gave us permission we could fly straight to Nairobi. Of course that would make our day four hours shorter so we didn't want to get too excited because that would make too much sense. Finally, loaded, fueled and ready to go we started the show.

The show. I don't talk about all that happens when we start up and taxi, but it's really an amazing thing. People are milling about with no direction, talking or doing something and then I lean down from the flight deck and yell, "checklist!" Suddenly everybody flows like one unit. The loadmasters jump on headset. I'm flipping switches in the cockpit in anticipation of the Before Starting Engines checklist. The copilot is requesting start clearance and putting our flight clearance on request with ground. The pilot is waiting for start clearance to call for checklists. The navigator is banging out coordinates on the onboard computer and checking the flight plan. Start clearance is given and the pilot calls for the checklist and items are quickly rattled off. Within five minutes all four engines are started, air conditioning is on (it's often only 116 degrees with 65 percent humidity) and the loadmaster has closed the crew entrance door. We call for taxi clearance and as soon as ground gives it to us the copilot flips the taxi lights on, I upspeed two engines (or four if we're backing up) and we're moving. Within two minutes all other checklists are done and we're just waiting to lineup on the runway. As soon as we're given clearance to lineup, I upspeed the other two engines and roll into the lineup checklist. Takeoff clearance is granted and we push the power up, I make sure the torques are good on all for engines and off we go. For our crew that takes a total of 10 minutes from my yelling for checklists to pushing the power up. I love the calm before the storm. It's an amazing process and I don't see it repeated often in any other career field.

We took off for Mombassa on our seven hour journey. We were scheduled to land in Mombassa for no reason. We couldn't get gas since we were going to the assault strip. We had nothing to pick up or drop off. It was just another part of the crew harrassment program. As soon as we were handed off to Mombassa from Mogadishu control we requested to overfly Mombassa and go to Nairobi. We weren't hitting the assault strip so Nairobi made sense. We recieved permission and that shortened our day by three hours. We got to Nairobi uneventfully and prepared for crew rest.

We all changed and waited for a bus to take us to the hotel. Of course we had security here as well and they actually made us put our luggage through a scanner on the way out of the airport. Really? The ride to the hotel reminded me of Dar es Salaam. Very modern city with crazy traffic and pedestrians. The hotel wasn't bad. Hey it's not a tent right? And they paid us 118 dollars a day per diem. It's good to be the king!! We found a Brazillian Churrascuria downstairs and it did not disappoint. Man I didn't know I could eat that much meat and still walk. After dinner we sat at the bar and had several delicious Tuskars. It's practically the national beer of Africa. Like Budweiser or Miller except that it tastes good!!! The hotel overlooks the national park. You can see Giraffes and other widlife, but the lions stay away from the businesses along the fence line. If we broke we all planned to go on a safari, which we all agreed would be the highlight of our lives and this trip. Of course 3022 didn't break because she's an awesome gal!!!

The next morning she sat silently waiting for her crew. Ready to take us into harm's way and back. But that's another post.