Flight One…Part One
This will be a three part post.
Late on 28 March, the runner came to our tent with wonderful news. It was finally time to get to work. We were placed into crew rest for a 3 AM alert. Of course that didn’t mean anything because time had no meaning in Tabuk. But who cares, we were going to war. I don’t know how many crews flew that first day, but I was happy to get out of the gate.
This moment marked the last time we would have meaningful contact with anyone outside our crew until sometime in June. The pace started slowly, but within two weeks our base was operating at 100%. Launching missions all hours, day and night, and for the next three months our schedule would be flying an 18-22 hour day, rest 12 hours and do it again. Seeing our tent mates was sporadic, and seeing another crew was rare. My world condensed to five people. As the leader of my crew, my was to make sure that we didn’t tick each other off. Like any new relationship, a wrong word, said with the wrong tone and the wrong moment could fracture the crew. That exact scenario happened in a couple of the other crews. I tried to keep my sarcasm toned down and just be a normal, positive guy. Honestly, it was hard to be that guy sitting around a tent for hours with nothing to do.
I know my guys were trying hard to do the same thing. Early on, I could see the friendship develop between Scott and Paul. Their cots were next to each other and they have similar personalities. It was natural. Deron and Tracy were best buddies already, taking their hourly smoke breaks. Gary smoked off and on for years and sometimes he joined them, sometimes not. He was a natural introvert so I tried to make sure that he didn’t feel left out. I knew that once we started flying we would have that defining moment that would give us a common experience and transform us from six individuals into a single crew.
I just didn’t expect it would happen on flight one.
After we were alerted, we ate our dinner MRE, and got our gear set out for the early morning alert. I took a refreshing two minute shower before hitting the cot for a restless night sleep. I tossed and turned all night long. When I was a kid, I never slept the night before the first day of school. Even now, I don’t sleep well when I know I have to get up for something important. I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. I was ready to get this thing going. I was even more ready to get the day over. I knew that once it was done, I would be relaxed on the subsequent days ahead.
I got up about an hour early, brushed my teeth and ate an MRE. I sat outside in the cabana and listened to a compilation Metallica CD that I had made before leaving home, and drank a strong Kool-Aid. I was surprised that no one else woke up early, but I guess my guys were cooler than me. I was starting to get tired when the runner came over on schedule.
The drive from tent city to ops town was about a mile. There was a guard post separating the two areas. Manned by a couple of conscripts for the Saudi military, everyone smiled and waved as we passed the gate. Later on, Deron noticed that the guards were smiling, but they waved with their left hand. This is the Arab equivalent of giving someone the finger. This is an insult in the Arab world because the left hand is used as toilet paper. We were lectured repeatedly to NOT EVER wave with the left hand. Once we realized they were doing it intentionally and consistently. We all returned the left handed wave. When in Saudi do as the Saudis do, I guess. That was my theory anyway.
Since this was our first flight, and really just our second visit to ops town. We spent a little time getting oriented to the location of the offices/tents we needed to visit. Fortunately, the Airfield Specialists held our hands through the process. This process would evolve as the war took shape, but in the first days of the war, we were the rock stars of the show. We were the ones going out to meet the enemy on the battlefield, and as the superstars everybody came to us. It was different and to be honest, I didn’t like it. After a few weeks the routine changed and we were back to being regular people. This basically meant that we were going to get our own stuff from that point forward.
The way it was from that point forward was that the navigator went to the tactics section to pick up the Book of Knowledge. The Book of Knowledge is an oversized binder with everything a crew might need to complete any mission. It held photos and approach procedures for the useable airfields, communication cards, secret codes, and other useful information. After a quick conference with the tactics officer and we would go get the intelligence briefing.
While he was doing that, I grabbed the weather, flight plan and NOTAMS (notices to airmen) for the fields we were scheduled to land at for the day. I would scan everything quickly before giving it back to Gary. I know this is a sign of my bad attitude but I would always say when someone asked me about the weather. “It’s not whether or not if we are going, it is just what it is going to be like when we get there.”
While I was acting like I cared, Scott would go to the base operations and sign out the secret codes that would be loaded into the radios and a secret book with the identification codes for the day. Finally he would check to ensure the digital loader was filled with the correct information. Packed in a blue zip-up bag with a lock, he would meet us in the Intel tent.
Paul, Deron and Tracy waited for us in the intelligence tent. Once there, we got a quick update on the events since we last flew. There we would get the “Blood Chits.” A “Blood Chit” is a document that has a specific number attached to each corner. That number is assigned to each crew member. It also has a short explanation in multiple languages that if we found ourselves on the ground and a local assisted us they would get a reward from the US military. The idea was that I would tear off a corner of the paper and give it to the people who helped me. These were among the most secured documents in our possession. Not because of their perceived value but because everyone wanted to steal it and hang it on the wall after the war.
After we left Intel we would head off the Life Support tent. There we got our flight gear, our body armor, aircrew chemical ensemble, and NVGs. A quick stop by the armory to get our pistols and an extra clip, before heading to the airplane.
By this time in the process, we were loaded down with bags. Normal bags filled with out headsets, checklists, gloves, flight helmets, and some easy to lose secrets. The life support stuff, that included our chemical gear that we were ordered to keep with us at all times. Each person had two bags, an aircrew ensemble and a ground ensemble. The only item that was used in both sets was the gas mask. Each bag weighed fifty pounds and it was a bear to haul around. In the first days of the war, we took the aircrew ensemble with us on each flight. The ground ensemble was located in a container next to the tent. The mask we kept inside the tent and brought it with us to fly. The order was to have it on your person, 24/7. That was the first order that everyone broke. For my crew, it wasn’t the only order we broke.
That was a typical morning. But early morning, 29 March 2003. We were the rock stars of the war. The zipper suited, sun gods going out to bring death and destruction to the unfortunate people of Iraq. The world revolved around us, and like I said earlier. I didn’t like it. We were escorted into the Intel tent, where we took our seats. There we received a very detailed briefing of the war up to that point. Locations of Army units and enemy positions. The briefing went on for a long while. Our mission was to fly to Kuwait City, and pick up cargo. We were ordered to take that cargo to Talill air base, just south of Al Nasiriya. The Tigris River flowed through Al Nasiriya and the final briefing was this. North of the river is Indian country, don’t go past the river. I can remember that!
The other part of the mission is that we were going to fly a formation of four aircraft from Tabuk to Kuwait. There was an operation planned to airdrop the Army into Baghdad, and we were going to be the test formation to see how the Saudi air traffic control handled the formation. After the Intel brief, the tactics officer came to us with the Book of Knowledge. He briefed us on the entry and exit procedures for Talill. He would also give the four crews a formation briefing later. Since I was an Instructor, we were assigned to be a second element leader. A standard C-130 formation is a lead airplane and two airplanes that follow lead. This is known as an element. Subsequent elements follow the lead element. We were the number four airplane otherwise known as second element lead. This was kind of cool but also a lot of work to do before the real work started.
Following the briefing, we left the room and stepped into a larger room in the same tent. There we met up with three other crews. I didn’t know any of them and I don’t remember what units they were from. In this room, the tactics officer gave us a quick formation briefing. Then something happened that I didn’t expect and quite honestly would have done without. The chaplain identified himself, and offered a prayer for us. Are you kidding me? This was all fun and games until it got serious. I never intended to do anything that was going to get us dead, but here this guy is, praying for us.
I know we needed it, not because the enemy 300 miles to the north. The enemy was standing next to me. Wearing an American flag, just like us. His name was Colonel Jimmy Simmons. That’s two Ms.
Until next time, keep on rocking!