The Way Back Home…The Flyover
This is the last post in this series about my first six months in Iraq 2003. I have been looking for pictures that document the arrival home. I can’t find squat. Maybe it never happened, maybe aliens abducted us and implanted the memories or maybe my filling system is not good. I found 107 different CDs of pictures that my “Little Buddy” Dale made so famous. Those of y’all, who know, know what I am talking about, know I have said too much, already. Everyone else will just have to wait until the Government shutdown goes long on enough so that the NSA, Defense Department and the CIA are all closed for business. When that happens, I might post them online.
Hopefully, I don’t do any more posts this long again. Sorry. For the life of me, I can’t find any pictures of three airplanes flying over the top of the Yeager ANG Base on 3 September 2003. Oh well.
I woke up on the morning of 3 September, anxious. The world that I had grown accustomed to was over. It is so amazing how a human can acclimate to harsh conditions, how a person can operate beyond fatigue, how a person can only find humor in the morbid, and how a person can grow so emotionally numb. I was all of that and more. But on the morning of 3 September I was nervous. I knew that when I got home, everything would be changing. I knew that everything I wanted to happen would be happening. I had survived, and except for Paul’s accident we all had survived, mostly unharmed.
Before we left, I said “What could possibly go wrong?” I had no idea that would include, building a base from the land-fill up, haboobs leaving inches of dust covering everything. We survived days of absolute boredom, moments where I didn’t know if there were any future moments, being shot at by missiles, guns and rocks, amazingly hot heat, the thickest fog bank I ever experienced at a temperature of 100 degrees. Severe airframe icing over the mountains in Pakistan to the extent that we lost a few thousand feet of altitude, seeing the opulence of Saddam’s palaces, downtown Kuwait or Doha, contrasted with the abstract poverty of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt. Flying down the “Highway of Death” between Basra and Kuwait at 50 feet, and making a “Bad Dude” dive for cover at the end of a runway after a flyby. Being the leading advocate of the Extravaganza Departure ranked high on my list of flying accomplishments.
The ever constant danger of an insurgent firing a missile was great but the biggest threat was a pop-up Colonel or Master Sergeant looking for trouble in the chow hall. We “sanitized” and took off all identifying patches because it is slightly helpful if you feel into the hands of Al Qaida, but the primary reason I never wore a name tag was because of the US military tools who were looking for someone not walking on a sidewalk, not signing into the chow hall properly, not wearing a hat in the proper area, wearing an illegal baseball hat or talking on a illegal satellite phone. There are so many things that could go wrong and I was so fortunate to have found myself on the right side or the dirt and the barbwire. Dang that was lucky.
I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant with the guys. Some were excited to be home, some were sad because they were going home to a bad situation. Some were like me, unsure how the day would unfold. Finally, we piled onto the bus and headed back to the base. I sat with DCM and we talked about how we thought we might spend the time off. We knew that we would get the rest of the month off because we had earned over 30 days of leave. But we were also sure that the personnel folks would find a way to mess up the leave, and weeks later we found out they did. They were cogs in the machine just like us and like us, they were following orders. As we passed through the front gate of the base there was one more thing that needed to be done. We had to decide who was going to fly the leg home. We flipped a coin and I lost.
When it was decided that I would fly home, he was happy and I took it as another hit into the armor. I really didn’t want to fly and neither did he. It was just more work, it was something else to think about, something else to endure. Since we had three airplanes and we were expected to arrive at the same time, there was a formation flight planned. At the time, I just thought it would more work. More rules to follow, more things to consider, and more ways to mess up. In my heart I knew that we would be forced into some cookie cutter, bland flyover from an altitude that made it hard to see the ground.
I had heard the rumors of the “Go-Home” group. They had Timmy in the lead and flew a less than inspiring flight to Huntington 50 miles past Charleston so they could fly up the interstate proudly announcing their return from the ultra-conservative altitude of 1000 feet. The pictures in the newspaper showed the airplanes as a dark smudge on a blue sky. All they really did was waste another hour flying up the valley when they could have been home with their families. Dave F. told us all about it, and how lame it was. When I sat in the high school style desk that morning, I was prepared for the worst.
Paul G. and Dawn T. were the mission planners. They revealed the route and the plan. Suddenly, they had my attention. It was tactically sound; it was unexpected, random and would be an opportunity to showcase the skills we had learned. We were expected to approach from the North; they planned to approach from the southeast coming up from behind the hills using the hangar to block the approach. Then we would wrap around a hill to the west of the field, fly down the crossing runway into a downwind, taking spacing in the final turn to land on runway 23. The lead plane would be flown by Seabass and KK, our commanders who believed that heroes don’t return like chickens. The second plane was Paul G. and Russ P. I was piloting the 3rd plane with Chris W, DCMs co-pilot. Chris was Bill Grimes co-pilot before Billy went home. The Chris flew with Scotty until he went home. Chris was raw when the war started.
Bill tells the story about Chris on their arrival to Tabuk in March. He sat on his cot with his bags pilled all around him. They left dust prints on the floor of the tent in the cold, dark night. He put his head in his hands and famously said. “I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but this was not it.”
The six months of war turned Chris into a warrior. He gaffs were legendary but that happens when a guy is a new pilot and flying in the most intense conditions. He had lost his coin flip to the Money Man. We finished the briefing, and went to the airplane. Three hours later, we started the approach to the field. We had called into the base announcing our arrival. Somehow, every time I flew I was dog tired but as the time to descent arrived, I magically awoke. My habit was to wake up my hands by clapping them together three times hard enough to feel the sting under the gloves, then I would rub them creating friction and replacing the sing with warmth. My hands were awake and ready.
I clicked off the autopilot as we descended from altitude and started to close the formation. By five miles from the field, the lead airplane was at 300 feet and 230 knots. Number Two was slightly lower and in position. I was still lower, about 200 feet but holding back at about 2000. The pre-briefed spacing was 500 feet. Before the descent, I told the crew I was going to start out long and work back into position as we passed over the hanger. Chris mentioned that he thought I was a little long and going longer. He was right. He saw it before I did, lead was accelerating. I pushed up the power.
As we got closer to the hanger, the lead airplane started to descend and continued to accelerate. I wasn’t planning on that and the 20 knots of planned overtake wasn’t going to work. But there was no way I was going to be out of position when we passed overhead. The lead asked the Control Tower for permission to make a high speed pass of the field. “Proceed As Requested.” Was the tower controller’s reply.
Basically, there were no rules, and I kept accelerating past 250 knots which is the speed limit below 10,000 feet. As the lead airplane went over the hanger, they were about 150 feet and 250 knots. The second was slightly lower and same speed. The two airplanes were creating some wake turbulence over the field and to be in the smooth air I either had to be higher or lower than them.
My problem was the hanger was to the left of the second airplane and I couldn’t find smooth air in that direction unless I climbed to fly over the hanger. I saw the two TV media trucks with the telescoping satellite antenna extending 50 feet in the air to the right. I didn’t want go farther to the right because that put us farther away from the crowd. In my estimation, it was safe to go lower and fly between the hangar and the TV trucks.
Since we were lagging behind and the formation had accelerated, I had about 40 knots of overtake on the leader, I saw it developing so I pulled the power to idle and we coasted. I maneuvered to pass overhead the crowd at 75 feet, and slowing past 290 knots. I have seen the video and several pictures. At the time I hardly gave it a second thought, today it scares me to think about it. I was tuned into the airplane and my skills were never better. The airplane was still smoking hot and overtaking the formation. After passing the crowd, I started a climb and made a bid to the right to build in some spacing. With the power at idle, the speed bled off quickly and within a half a mile my speed was matching the leaders. I added power and slid back into the natural position.
We flew around the knoll and up the crossing runway. The speed of the formation took a wider turn than planned and we had a bad vector to cross the field. As I approached the crossing runway, I made a hard left turn to better align the airplane. The turn exposed the top of my airplane to the crowd. Someone has a great picture of the maneuver, but I don’t have it. So I will not share it with you. We climbed to enter the downwind and gained our spacing to land. I landed in the first 500 feet of the runway and could have made the first turn-off 1200 feet down the runway but because of the other two airplanes, I added power to taxi down the runway to the end.
Before I conclude, I need to say this. That day, September 3, 2003 marks the day where my skills were at their peak. I have never been as closely aligned with the airplane as I was that day. I was literally one with the airplane. Please don’t think I am being arrogant as I described the approach and landing. Other than two airplanes in front of us, it was nothing new. This was exactly how we flew several times a day in Iraq. And, if I honestly compared myself to the six pilots flying that day and the other six pilots ridding in the back, I would rank my skills as average at best. At the time, Money Man was a much better pilot than I and I was an Instructor Pilot with four thousand hours while he was a brand new co-pilot. Today, when I think about what we did, I know in my heart I could not do it again. Ten years of airline flying have made me as sharp as a dull butter knife. But on that day, I was a razor in a box full of razors.
We taxied in to a homecoming that could only happen once. My parents came up from Tennessee; my wife’s family came up from their home. It was a remarkable day and a fitting ending to that long chapter on life. My wife had a convertible sports car. That day, the high was in the low 80s under severe clear skies. Driving home down the interstate I asked if she would turn on the heat because my teeth were literally chattering while she drove. My eyes were totally over whelmed by her beauty. It was a relief to breathe free air again. I hope I never forget how wonderful freedom truly is.
Until Next time, keep on rockin.