It is 00:36 EST…Do you know exactly where you were ten years ago, this very second?
For the next few months, I am going to do a series of posts intended for my children. This will be a written diary of what I experienced in Iraq during the spring and summer of 2003. These are stories that I don’t want to tell them now and in twenty years I might be a vegetable so now is a good time to get these stories down. These will be glimpse into what life was like in a real shooting war from the perspective of a pilot. I will be using my flawed memory as the primary source. I also have my Loadmaster’s diary that I will use a reference when needed. These thoughts and comments are all mine, and I will only refer to my crew by the first name. In the future, I will offer them the opportunity to submit anything they wish.
Do you remember where you were at 00:36 EST on 7 March 2003? I was sitting in the back of a C-130, heading out on my first deployment to that area that is referred to as the cradle of civilization. I might have some thoughts on that statement in the future as well but for now I will stay on topic.
I pretended to slept on the cargo ramp, next to my co-pilot and best friend Scott. I was wrapped in my blue sleeping bag wondering if my arm was going to get infected and fall off. That afternoon, I got the smallpox immunization. My left buttock hurt because I also got my second anthrax shot. The drone of the engines, the dark, cold tail section felt like a fitting end to a horribly long day.
Because of the number of aircraft transiting the Atlantic, our slot time to arrive in Lajes (An Portuguese joint use Air Base in the Azores Island chain) was sunrise. To meet that arrival time, we left in the late afternoon. That day was one of the longest day of my life. That is the closest I ever hope to know what a death row inmate feels on their final day. We had to be at the Squadron about 3PM. My wife and I went to eat at Applebee’s for lunch. I was wearing my brown flight suit, and I felt out of place as we entered. I ordered a nasty steak, and just picked at my last real meal for the next six months.
Four days earlier on Sunday, my unit was activated and given our departure orders. The first wave of two aircraft left 72 hours after the notification. My crew was in the second wave. I packed rather quickly and she took time off from work. From that point forward, we tried to forget what was coming our way. I have never asked her what she did after I left. Honestly, I don’t want to know.
After a horribly emotional good-bye we went to the airplane and departed. My good friend, Morgan and his crew won the coin flip and they got to take us to Lajes. I am glad he won, because we landed in near hurricane type winds. A storm of epic proportions was rocking the island. We knew before we left, we knew we were twelve thousand pounds over maximum peacetime take-off weight. We knew that we were going to fly twenty-four hours in a thirty-six hour window. The winds whipped the C-130, shaking the airplane in all three axis and forcing Morgan to have his toughest landing of his career, so he said later. The first lesson of war was a shock to us. The lesson is that in a real war there are no rules, there are only laws. The laws of physics, gravity, and so on.
From the back, I sat behind the left wheel well. I am not a nervous flyer, but the tension raised for me dramatically when all the Loadmasters sat down and buckled in. Normally, they stand during landing. Scott and I looked at each other before tightening our lap belts. Morgan made a perfect crosswind landing, it was smooth, deliberate and impressive. His Loadmaster, Paul bragged on his Aircraft Commander. That day (night whatever you want to say, it was still just 12 hours), Morgan and I shared a room. He confessed that he had never landed in winds that severe. Morgan was the hero of the day and proved my belief. “If it is your time to die, you die. If it is the pilot’s time to die, it is your time too.” That day it wasn’t Morgan’s time. Little did I know that in 30 days I would find out if it was my time.
Somehow we all knew what a dead men walking felt like.