June 2003, Al Udied AB, Qatar
Another day, another thirty five cents. That was how much per diem we earned while deployed. I know I shouldn’t complain about extra money, but it was tough to get fired up over the small amount of free money. I don’t remember the exact amount of per diem we got over there, but it was in that range. If anyone remembers exactly, please let us all know. The point is that life was going on in the world, but at The Died, it was Groundhog Day.
Scott, Gary and I finished our pre-mission planning which mostly consisted of sending an e-mail home, checking the limited internet, and trying to talk to scheduler into a good deal trip. There were no good deal trips to be had, so it was mostly joking around. Riding in the crew van out to the airplane, we passed an ambulance.
We all looked at each other, hoping it wasn’t one of our guys. To our relief, Paul, Deron, and Tracy were sitting on the ramp waiting on us. The first leg of the day was to Balad, hauling a mobile TACAN. For the non-pilot’s out there, a TACAN is a Tactical Air Navigation System that is used by primarily the military to navigate and fly approaches. Basically, it is a radio station that transmits on certain frequencies. The instruments on the aircraft translate the radio waves into a distance to the station and a needle points to it.
When the war started, the fighter guys blew up everything in Iraq. One of the higher priority targets was the air navigational aids used by the Iraqi Air Force. The US military was operating on GPS and the idea was to deny the Iraqi’s the ability to navigate to and from their air bases. Now that the war was over, the US military was re-establishing the ability to navigate within the country using other than GPS as the primary navigation aid. It was one of the first steps to introduce civilian aviation service to the country. This particular TACAN was slated to be set up at Balad. The problem was that it had a technician with it and he was required to fly with it. I don’t know why, but it was not my place to ask. This guy, I don’t know his name, had slipped while loading it on the airplane. He knocked himself out and broke his jaw. He was in the ambulance that we passed.
Scott, Gary and I loaded out gear on the airplane and the entire crew rode back to Ops. Never turn down a chance to eat and access the internet. While my guys were connecting to the outside world, I was on the phone to the mission controller, better known as Maestro. This day, it was one of the guys from our unit, back home he was the Commander of the Command Post. His name is Dale G., he is retired now working for Ameriprise, and my financial advisor. Dale tells me that he will call me back so we wait and wait. Hours later, the phone rings. Go to the airplane, everything is ready and we are cleared to go. In the van, several hours into our twenty hour day that hasn’t started yet. The ambulance is at the airplane, waiting for us.
The currier who was responsible for the TACAN is waiting on us. His head is wrapped up like Daffy Duck and his mouth is wired shut. We talk to him for a brief moment, and it is apparent that he is in no condition to fly, let alone leave a relative safe place for a combat zone. At this time, Balad was only getting one or two mortars dropped on it a day. By August, it would be a couple an hour. I asked for a crew conference, my guys felt the same as I did. This guy should not be flying. We had no idea what the pressure change would do to him, he couldn’t open his mouth to vomit if he got airsick, and if he had to put on an oxygen mask we were not sure he would be able to breath.
Now, I will give him credit. He was a tough old bird. A civilian contractor, he really wanted to go to Balad. I apologized to him, but he was upset that I wouldn’t take him. So, he climbs back into the ambulance and we go back in to talk to Maestro. Eventually, they off loaded the TACAN and we went off on the day hauling air around Iraq.
July 2003, Al Udied, Qatar
Scott Gary and I finished our pre-mission ritual and went to the airplane. Paul, Deron and Tracy were sitting on the ramp. This time there was another person sitting with them. I didn’t recognize the visitor until Deron introduced him. It was the civilian contractor who broke his jaw. He was healed up and ready to go, with his TACAN. We took him to Balad, and amazingly enough he wasn’t mad at us for not taking him a month earlier. He sat up front, we talked about whatever and two hours later we dropped him and the TACAN off.
Early August 2003, 20 miles away from Balad, 0230 AM
By this time the crew had broken up. Scott had taken over the real Bill Rimes’ crew. Billy had to go home because his wife was having complications from her pregnancy. Everything turned out good by the way. Gary’s father passed away and he left to attend the funeral. Paul had been injured in Iraq, which is another story for another day. Deron, Tracy and I were the remaining crew from the Ol’ Number Six crew. I need to tell how we got our name as well. On this night we had a tactics Co-Pilot named Carlos, from our unit. A brand new Navigator, JR and a Flight Engineer from another unit. We were officially a rainbow crew, made up of spare parts.
We were making an NVG approach into Balad at 02:30 AM, when the tower made a strange request.
“J-go 20 say position from the field.”
Our call sign was J-go 20. It was my turn to fly and Carlos was working the radios. Carlos and I looked at each other. Carlos is a smart guy and knew better than to reply over the radio. Balad resides 35 miles north of Baghdad, smack in the center of the Sunni Triangle. It was not uncommon to have a missile fired at the aircraft while on approach. We would make three or four trips there per day and you could count on at least one missile shot at you. It was the hottest period of the mission accomplished phase. I told Carlos to say simply “Unable.” He did as I asked.
The tower guy was undeterred. “Say YOUR position!”
Carlos didn’t ask. “Unable, are we clear to land?”
“Clear to land!” He thought we were close to the runway.
“We will call you back.”
Ten minutes later Carlos spoke. “Does J-go 20 still have permission to land?”
The guy was fuming at this point. “I SAID J-GO 20 IS CLEARED TO LAND!”
We touched down about two seconds later. We knew we were cleared to land, but Carlos couldn’t resist in poking the bear. Before we slowed down to taxi, he was yelling at us on the radio. “I have helicopters working the area, I need to know the location of every aircraft in my airspace…blah blah blah.”
Carlos just asked if we could taxi to park. The tower guy went through the roof but gave us permission.
When the brakes were set, I called the tower. “Do you want to know why we are unable to tell you where we are?”
“Because you don’t have any navigational aids operating. A month ago, I brought a mobile TACAN to this field. It is still not in operation. I can’t tell you where we are because I don’t know where we are.”
“That is bogus! You have GPS and internal navigation systems. You know where you are.”
“That is right. I do know where I am. But why in the world would I tell every bad guy listening in to the frequency? Besides you didn’t authenticate yourself, how do I know that you are not a bad guy trying to trick me into revealing my position? We have our TCAS operating, I see every helicopter within one hundred miles and they see us. It is your field, but my airplane. If we get blown up we will be dead, and I’m sure you will feel bad before you sleep in your bunk. Don’t ever ask for the position of an airplane on an open radio. If you are so worried about it, turn on your radar.”
I can laugh about it today, but at that moment I had enough of the war. I was ready to get home.
Have a nice weekend, and keep on rockin’!