Flight One…Part Three
This is the third part of a three part series. All three parts too place on 29 March 2003. All photos from Yahoo and one from Bill Grimes.
We landed in Kuwait with no drama. It was a peaceful time and I was glad to be a pilot again. In just 20 days, I had forgotten the joy of actually doing something productive. Not that tent building and sitting in poop aren’t productive, just not my cup of tea. While the Colonel was sleeping comfortably on the bunk, I was dreaming of a hot MRE and a nap before heading north. I think it is a rule to never go to war hungry.
We landed and taxied towards the massive military ramp at Kuwait International Airport. We were told to not park on the ramp but farther down, on the taxiway. The twin runways at Kuwait are each over two miles long. The taxiways are also the same length. There is a lot of concrete and a large portion of it was filled with C-130s. We taxied over 3000 feet down the taxiway before we found an open space to park. Over a ½ mile of C-130s waiting for cargo, it was like the Los Angeles freeway at rush hour. It was a parking lot.
Shutting down the engines, the lead pilot did the formation de-brief on the radio. Short, simple and to the point. “Any questions?”
“Nope.” Was the reply from me and the other two airplanes.
“Good luck, today. See you back in Tabuk.”
“2,3,4.” We answered in order. I was pleased. That MRE was calling my name.
I was the last out of the seat and started to walk to the back. I saw Scott with that look on his face. It was his serious look and I knew things were not happy in the back. Colonel Jimmy Simmons was on the ground and was taking charge. He wanted to go to Command Post and get our cargo on the way. According to the schedule, we were an hour behind and by the looks of things. That wasn’t going to change. The formation had taken longer than planned to get moving and then we flew the entire route because that what was asked, so yes we were late.
I jokingly asked Gary if he wanted to come with us. He was almost mad until he saw I was smiling. He stayed at the airplane with Paul, Deron and Tracy. The Colonel led Scott and I on the long distance walk of shame. There are two kinds of pilots. The kind who sit back and wait for things to happen. Scott and I are this type. Col. Simmons is the kind who yells, screams, orders, cusses, and throws a fit until something happens. In my experience whatever needs to happen, will happen at the exact same time no matter what the pilot does.
We finally found Command Post. Colonel Simmons knocked on the locked door that held the “Do Not Disturb” sign. Scott and I waited about 20 feet down the hall. We had no desire to see this from the front row. The top side of the split door opened and the Colonel started to tell the Airman who he wass and what he needed. But not today and not with this Airman. The Airman fought back. “Colonel, you and your crew will get your cargo when it gets there. We are very busy and I don’t have time for this.” He closed the door in the Colonel’s face.
Scott and I nearly fell out laughing, but Colonel Simmons turned around. He was red faced and he walked past us with a look of constipation. To his discredit, he gave us the official version of what we just witnessed. “They are very busy, but they will get the cargo to us ASAP. Let’s go find the airfield dinning facility.” From 20 feet away it sounded like “Buzz off you jackwagon.”
The Col. led Scott and I through a maze of hallways and buildings to the C-5 chow hall. Manned by a Pakistan National, we walked in to the sandwich shop. Scott and I stood back while the Colonel followed his normal protocol. He approached the Paki and started telling him that we needed some food. He and the Paki started arguing because the Colonel thought we were entitled to the food, while the Paki insisted that the food was only for the transiting C-5 crews.
As they argued, Scott got my attention. He was standing next to the open refrigerator that was filled with foot long deli sandwiches, YES! We stuffed our pockets with the sandwiches while the Colonel ran interference. With full pockets we walked out and stood in front of the door. Quickly we agreed that only a dumb criminal would remain at the scene of the crime and the only safe place was the airplane. We didn’t wait for the Colonel, but we did have a sandwich for him. Our hypocrisy goes only so far.
About half way to the airplane, a blue Air Force car pulled next to us. I thought that now we were going to Air Force jail because we stole some food. As Paul would point out later, the only difference between Tabuk and prison was the direction of the barbwire. To my surprise, it wasn’t the cops. It was Colonel Simmons and another Colonel. They asked if we wanted a ride, and we refused. I would have preferred to be arrested than to ride in that car. Apparently, the command post made a phone call about a Colonel roaming the halls. So the local Colonel intervened and escorted the loose cannon. They drove off and I can only assume they were to the Officer’s club for steak and lobster. We didn’t care because we had sandwiches.
While we ate, a friend from Pope Air Force Base saw Scott and I walking back to the airplane. Kirk T. is married to a Navigator in our squadron. Hugs were exchanged and he asked what we were doing with Jimmy Two M’s. We told him and he was surprised. Kirk told us that the good Col. was fired from the Operation Group Commander position at Pope. Like a strong case of herpes, he is back, he is the gift that keeps giving. Before departing, I asked Kirk about Talill. They went up the day before and gave us the scoop. I asked if they flew over at 1000 feet. Nope, they flew low just like I wanted to do.
Following the reunion with Kirk and an unexpected feast, it was naptime. In the airlift world there is only one way to sleep. In the shade and with the flight suit unzipped and pulled down to the waist. Sometimes the best sleep in under the wing, sometimes it is on an open cargo ramp. I found a row of cargo seats on the wheel well, put my illegal tan USA baseball cap over my eyes, and relaxed. I had just fallen asleep when I heard commotion behind the airplane. Col. Simmons was back and so was our cargo. Maybe he did pull some strings. Or maybe it was a coincidence. I don’t know and I didn’t care. What I did care about is that he was yelling at my guys. He directed his anger at me when I approached.
He was yelling about our unprofessional behavior, yelling about us sleeping in the back of the airplane, yelling about our illegal baseball hats, maybe he was mad because the steak was over cooked. Again, I don’t know and didn’t care. Before we left, I bought tan USA baseball hats for the crew. To us, tt was a sign of solidarity. It was a reminder of why we were there and it was an inspiration to those who worked around us that we are a part of something larger than ourselves.
To Col. Simmons, it was a lack of order, duty and it was outright in subornation. My final straw was when he started to yell at me in public, in front of my guys. I could have taken it, but he was also yelling at my guys. I couldn’t let that go by. I had to stand up for my guys now. I asked him to step outside the airplane. We went just outside the crew entrance door. Col. Simmons had his back to the airplane, and I was facing him looking to the airplane. In my peripheral vision to my right, I could see Deron working the locks while the airplane was being loaded. Above and to the left, I could see Scott, Gary and Paul cramming their head to the window listening in. I wasn’t alone. I was mad and embarrassed. I tried to project a relaxed demeanor, but inside I was a ball of nerves.
Before he said anything, I said as calmly as possible. “Do not yell at my crew. That is my job. And please do not yell at me in front of my crew. Now what do you want to say to me?”
He started in blabbering about us sleeping on the tail of the airplane. How it is inappropriate and looks bad. We need to be in the bunk if we are going to sleep. He had a real problem with the baseball hats. They are not regulation and by us wearing them, he felt that encouraged the ground pounders to be disobedient. It is a small step in lowering the standards and slowly permeates the entire Air Force. Eventually our baseball hats would be the beginning of the error chain that will end with an Airman miss-loading some cargo causing an incident.” (Nope, not buying this argument)
He continued. “The lack of attention to detail will also filter into the F-15 community.” (I haven’t said this but there were F-15 fighters based at Tabuk as well.) They are flown by a single pilot and heavily checklist reliant. If they perceive that the C-130 guys are not following the standards, they may start to skip something in their procedures that will lead to an accident. (In this case, Col. Simmons was a prophet)
He concluded with a rhetorical question. ”What responsibility does a police officer have when he sees a group of teenagers goofing off?” I didn’t answer, so he answered for himself. “The officer has a responsibility to pull them over and get them straightened out before they get hurt or hurt someone else.” (In the end, he was right about us. We were wild cards and not to be trusted.)
I resisted the temptation to defend myself or my crew. Fortunately the airplane was almost loaded and it was time to get moving. I presented the facts as clearly as possible and gave him the choice to make a decision. “Colonel, these teenagers are about to go downtown. (I added that for dramatic effect) I don’t know if we are going to live or die. (More drama, no one is dying today) I need my guys worried about the ZSU-23, the rest of the Iraqi army and doing their job, I cannot have them worries about you. I don’t want them to hesitate to suggest a plan of action because it isn’t what they think you would do. You are welcome to come with us, but if you do I need you to be on our side, supporting us and being a part of the crew. Otherwise, you can stay here and we will get you on the way out.” (I knew what he wanted, and if he got it. It would be on our terms, not his)
He said that he was still going with us.
We finished loading, put on all of our combat gear. Helmets, body armor, gloves and side arms. It felt ridiculous dressing like that. But this was our first trip and I was playing it up for the Colonel. While we were taxing out, I played my trump card. It was a test of the Colonel, I wanted to know if he was going to be a problem. I made the statement as an order, not as a request. “We are not going to fly at 1000 feet. The threat is too great. We are going at 300 feet. If anyone has a problem with that plan, speak up now.”
It was quiet on the interphone and there was only one person whose voice would get my attention. Colonel Simmons. I promise you all, that if he had said anything I would have stopped the airplane right there and kicked him off. As the Aircraft Commander, I had the authority to do it, but I know my life would have sucked when we got back. He was smart enough to keep his mouth shut. I am glad that he didn’t say anything.
Just under two hours later we landed back in Kuwait. We never saw the ZSU-23, but we had two C-130s pass underneath us, even though we were at 300 feet. I knew we were still too high. We took off with 36,000 pounds of gas. Normally it was worth six hours of flight. On this day, it wasn’t enough. We were flying at full power, burning almost 24,000 pounds an hour. Heading back to Kuwait, Paul started giving Scott and I orders about what to do to save what little gas we had left. Before we left, I knew I had a good Flight Engineer, but at that moment I knew that we had one that would take care of us and not let us die. We climbed and slowed down once we were safely in Kuwait airspace; we landed with almost 5,000 pounds of gas. That is considered emergency fuel. We were flying so fast that we used all of the gas.
My proudest moment of the war, was on the deck in Talill. We made a hard left turn to a short final, landing to the north. Rolling out, Scott opened his window to equalize the pressure inside the aircraft. I cleared Deron and Tracy to open the Cargo door. We pulled into parking, and set the parking brakes. Seconds later, they called clear to taxi. It was so fast, I needed them to repeat the call. Releasing the brakes, we went to the runway. There was an airplane turning a five mile final. Scott didn’t ask, he knew what I wanted and made the call that we were taking off.
I have never taken off beak to beak with an airplane landing. But I did on this day, we did. Since I flew into Talill, so it was Scott’s turn to fly back to Kuwait. As he was pushing up the power the other airplane called us in sight. I assured them we would be gone before they got there. As soon as the wheels left the ground, Scott started a gentle turn to the South. It was one of the coolest moments in my aviation career. We were on the ground for a total of four minutes. While there, we offloaded five pallets of water. It was awesome and I was so proud of my crew that I peed in my pants. No longer combat virgins, my little band of teenagers were all grown up now.
Twelve hours later, we landed back in Tabuk. It was an easy 22 hour day. Before we left Ops town, Colonel Simmons started to drone on and on about how impressed he was with us as a crew. How well we did our jobs and how we should get the most difficult of missions because he knew we were a crew…blah, blah, blah. All of the things a wife abuser would say to their wife after a tough beat down.
Climbing in the van, I wasn’t sure how the guys were going to react. It took about five seconds before I knew that I was with the “A Team.” Scott mockingly said. “I’m Scott. With two T’s.”
Paul replied. “I’m Paul. With two balls.”
Colonel Jimmy Simmons would forever be known as Jimmy Two Balls.
In case your wondering, I did find the real Colonel Jimmy Simmons on the internet. He works for a large bank that serves military members. I am thinking about finding a new bank.
Next time you will find how I spent my birthday, and how it was almost my last birthday ever.