Can I have the Extravaganza Please…?
This is a long post and really should be two separate items. The opening is a personal account of the past week for my family. It you want to skip it and go to the war story in the second half. I totally understand.
I have been out of pocket for the past few days. The family went on a mini-end of summer-vacation last week. We went to the COSI museum in Columbus Ohio on Wednesday. COSI is a science based museum for kids. We had a great time, my favorite part is the space section. There are a couple of flight simulators, one that you get to land the space shuttle and another that you get to land a lunar orbiter on the surface of the moon.
Last year we went and at the end of the day, the kids had cleared out. I got to have about fifteen minutes on the shuttle. If you have 8,000 hours of flight experience, twenty years’ worth of time flying instrument approaches and fifteen years spent flying full motion simulators. It isn’t that hard. Or if you are a twelve year old kid who constantly plays video games, it is really easy. I was going for the high score, while I did not get last year. But I did get very close. This year I didn’t get as much time to play. There were kids everywhere and by the end of the day we had to leave. So sad, I know.
We jetted down from Columbus to Cincinnati OH. On Thursday we went to King’s Island. Another great day filled with ride, thrill, and fortunately no spills. My son and I went to the Dinosaur park. It is filled with life sized dinosaurs. Amazing, I always knew they were big but wow. I have seen the skeletons like everyone else. But without the flesh hanging off the bones, they didn’t seem that impressive. At the end of the day, we were all exhausted and by ten at night we were all out.
Friday, we went drove up to Dayton to visit the Air Force museum. For me it was great to see the airplanes. They have a great collection of airplanes from the Wright Flyer to the F-22. My son and I walked the entire space while my daughter was still suffering from the day before. She and my wife stopped in the second hanger. She is a trooper though and she did a great job taking pictures.
Saturday morning, my son had his first flag football game. We have a team of seven and three players on the team were at King’s Island. So we played with four, the other team had everyone. I have one guy who has played before, everyone else was having their first game. The experienced player was a monster on the field. He ran down a kid who was on his way to a sure touchdown, pulling the flag about a yard from the end zone. He also made a fantastic tackle towards the end of the game. Using perfect form, with his head up, he wrapped up and drove the ball carrier to the ground. The only problem is that it is flag football and it is slightly illegal. He earned the penalty but it was cool. Two other kids were playing their first game and their heads were swimming a little. By the end of the game they were starting to catch on but at their best they were about 75%. The forth kid was more interested in playing in the dirt than playing football. In reality it was 2.5 versus the 6 players from the other team. If they were keeping score, we would have lost 20-0.
The other team scored on their first possession with a 2 point conversion. After that, my guys figured out the defense and did great. The other guys scored after an interception put them close to our goal and on the last play of the game. They were set up because of the tackling penalty on the five yard line. My guy pulled the flag from the QB just before he handed it off. But the referee missed the call and the RB scored a touchdown. In the end, we accomplished all of my goals for the team. Have fun, play hard, and be a good sport. After the game, the referee told me the other team was stacked with players who all friends. They play all the sports together and have been doing so for a couple of years. He said they should be the best team and my guys did great holding them to only three scores especially shorthanded. I’m proud of my guys and amazed that even in non-competitive sports there are people who are stacking their teams.
That evening, I had planned a surprise birthday party for my wife. It wasn’t much of a surprise as she figured it out on Thursday. But still it was a fun night. On Sunday, we had our first service in our local church’s new building. It is nice to be a part of a church that is growing, vibrant and positive. I’m not saying anything about any other Church that I have ever been a part of. I am just saying that I really like being a member at my current Church. Another birthday party in the afternoon and we finally were able to catch our breaths last night. It was a busy five days, but so wonderful to spend it with my family. I am truly a blessed man.
I am sure you are thinking, blah, blah, blah. I apologize for spending so much time talking about life. Thank you for indulging me, now back to the regularly scheduled program.
After our crew had our tour of the Saddam International Airport, we were back the very next day. The twenty hour days had been shortened to eighteen hours with between sixteen to twenty four hours off and back on for another eighteen hours. A normal day was a wake up and two hours getting ready to turn a prop, then a two hour flight from Qatar to Kuwait, a couple hour sit in Kuwait followed by a 1.5 to 3 hour flight to Baghdad/Balad/Mosul/Kirkuk/Basra/Erbil/Fallujah/Al Nasiriya/Jordan, followed by a couple hour sit and back to Kuwait to do it again. Operating on a rotating schedule, there was no normal. And that was the norm.
In June, the insurgency was just beginning. It would peak by October by then we were getting shot at on daily basis by a missile. I never was concerned about approaching a field and landing. Descending from altitude and minimum power, the airplane was a full speed and we were able to approach from any direction. Being random and unpredictable, we were a tough target to hit. Departing was a totally different problem. It was hot, the airplane was heavy full of troops or equipment and fuel. The insurgents knew exactly where we were starting from and there were only a couple of ways to depart. Because of the performance capabilities of the airplane it literally took seven to ten miles before we could reach a good flying speed. Until then, we were a big, slow target that was trolling for missiles.
The approved Air Force departure procedure was to spiral down over the field and to climb up in the same manner. We did the spiral down arrival once. I don’t remember if we did the spiral departure. Either way, my Flight Engineer, Paul had it figured out really quick. He said that if he was an insurgent, he would get a case of beer, put some tunes on the radio, and find a nice shady place about three miles from the airport away from the army guys. He would watch the area above the airport and when he saw an airplane slowly climbing out over the airport, he would finish his beer. When he was tired of watching the hulk of metal spiraling upwards, he would get his missile out. He would fire off a shot, watch the airplane blow-up and drive off to collect his bonus check from Al Qaeda. Why would anyone in their right mind give an insurgent a ten minute exposure to be shot? That summer two airplanes were hit by missiles. A C-17 and a DHL Airbus both took a direct hit from a missile. Both landed safely after doing with spiral up departure. I am convinced that the departure was designed by some knucklehead General, sitting in his air conditioned office 1000 miles away from Baghdad and forced on us so that he could get a medal and a promotion.
One afternoon, my guys and I were lying under the wing of our airplane, trying to hide from the heat on the massive concrete tarmac when a British C-130 taxied past us. We waved and they waved back. We watched them take-off because we had nothing better to do. They took off to the south like we all had to do, but surprisingly they didn’t turn west or depart south out like everyone else. They made a hard left turn and flew over the outside runway. By now we were all standing, watching what would happen next. Then instead of continuing to the north they made another hard left turn and overflew the runway they just took off from and by the departure end they departed to the south. In the process they flew over the top of our airplane in a 70 degree bank. I and the pilot made eye contact as he passed. I raised my arms in the touchdown signal as it was one of the most impressive demonstrations of airmanship I have ever witnessed. More importantly they had covered about six miles of ground track and were at a proper fighting speed before they left the airport perimeter.
Scott and I looked at each other and started laughing. The Brits had solved the dilemma of how to get out of Baghdad. On top of that, it was cool because they never got higher than 100 feet above the ground. The Brits rule, so when we were loaded and taxied out. There was no question how we were going to depart. The only question was if the tower guys would let us go. The tower controllers were Australian. There were about five different voices that we talked with. Four men and one female, they were all fantastic. They knew what we were trying to accomplish when we called the wrong checkpoints. They had us on radar and they let us do anything we wanted, they coordinated the helicopter and aircraft traffic and kept everyone informed.
It was my day to fly from the left seat as Scotty and I swapped seats every day. It was also my leg as we took turns flying or operating the radios. Scott has a great radio voice deep and when he accents the pitch, it reverberates coolness. When we were ready for departure, Scotty asked the controller for permission to do what the Brits did when they departed.
The controller replied. “So you want the Extravaganza One Departure?”
Again, we started laughing. It was the perfect name for what we had just witnessed. “Affirmative, we request the Extravaganza One Departure with pilot’s discretion for egress.”
“Approved as requested.” Those are every pilot’s favorite words. This means do whatever you want.
I took the runway and followed the lead of the Brits. As we flew past the control tower, I saw three people standing out on the observation platform taking pictures of us. I have never seen the picture but it was of the top of our airplane, looking down on us as we were in a 60 degree bank towards the tower. If anyone knows anyone who was an air traffic controller in Baghdad during the summer of 2003, I would pay good money to have a copy of that picture.
As an aside, the Extravaganza One Departure was declared Illegal in August of 2003 because an Air Force ground guy saw a C-130 flying crazy low over the runway, it might have been Jimmy Two Balls for all I know. The person must have thought the airplane was going to crash, and he complained enough until it became a forbidden maneuver. I may have been the person he reported, but in my mind if was the safest, most practical, war time, departure procedure ever created. We modified the departure to every airfield, minus the name of course and were able to depart every field in a similar manner.
Once it was declared illegal, we never asked for the Extravaganza One again. We asked for a hard left turn after take-off to fly up the outside runway followed by another hard left turn to fly up the inside runway to depart to the south. The tower guys always approved that request. Essentially, nothing changed for us. I have a friend from a unit in Ohio. He picked up the commanding General in Baghdad in late September 2003. He departed from Baghdad asking for the two hard left turns after take-off. After reaching altitude, the General raved about the departure procedure. He said it was the most tactically sound method he had ever seen and that when he got back to his office, he was going to require that all C-130s depart Baghdad in that manner.
He did just what he said and his staff informed him that he had witnessed the Extravaganza One Departure in action. A maneuver that he ordered to be illegal, it was this very General that wrote the order that we could no longer perform this maneuver. The formerly impressed General was now extremely ticked off that we were not following his stupid rule. He sent word that the pilot that he praised the night before, was now to be courts martialed. The pilot was taken off flying duty for about a week where he was threatened and harassed by every Colonel and General in his chain of command. Finally, they returned him to flying status with a letter of reprimand. Sometimes, it just doesn’t pay to be safe.
Sorry about the overly long post. Until next time, keep on rockin.