The Way Back Home…Part 4
I have been debating if I should tell a couple of stories with the new crew or fast forward to how we made it home in early September. Because I need to get a couple of pictures of our return, I am going to tell a couple of stories first.
As a crew we didn’t have long to gel before our first mission. As I remember, it was the day after the other guys left. The war didn’t stop, just because we had issues. It did feel good to me anyway, to be leading a crew again.
Steve “Money Man” C was a relatively new guy. He had been flying with Toney B. Toney is a man that I owe a great deal too. He was the person who made sure that I got promoted to Major, he was a level headed very fair man who eventually became a Commander. Additionally he is a pilot for Delta Airlines, I have seen him a few times jump seating into Charleston, WV. When we meet, it is always with hugs, smiles and stories.
Having said that about Toney, he was not the most aggressive pilot in the Squadron. I am not saying that he flew over Baghdad, trolling for missiles. But his tactics were different than mine. It worked for him and he never got a hole in his airplane, so who am I to criticize? But to the Money Man, it was a different world. When we briefed up the mission in the Tactics Shop, I told him how I liked to fly. I explained why I did what I did, and the safety parameters that I was going to adhere too. Yes, even being aggressive, there is still an ability to outfly the capabilities of the airplane or the person.
As an aside, when I taught tactics to the younger crew members in the years that followed. I stressed that the safety box for the airplane never changed. It was always the same and if you went outside that box, bad things happened. What changed was the ability of the pilot. As someone became more proficient in flying, they were better able to maneuver within the safety box. They are able to move into a corner of the box that a different pilot may not be able to get. But when a pilot operates close to the edge of the safety box, extra care must be taken. And, it is not just the ability of the pilot but it is also the abilities of his crew that must be accounted for. Pilot A may be more proficient than pilot B so it is the responsibility of pilot A to fly in a manner that pilot B stays within the safety box as well. That is a lot of words to say that if the enemy shots down an airplane, they win. If a stupid pilot crashes the airplane, the enemy still wins. Don’t do the enemies’ job for them. It is not ideal to have to go around in a combat environment, but it is better than crashing. When in doubt, go around and do it again. Just fix whatever was messed up the second time
So off we went to Baghdad. I told Money Man that I would fly the first two legs, one in and one out. So he could get the idea of how I approached combat flying. Then he would take the next two legs and from then on, we would swap. When we landed in Baghdad, he couldn’t stop laughing. He said that he never did anything like that with Toney. It was all good.
A few weeks later, we were going to Mosul. I personally didn’t like Mosul because there were just a couple of ways to approach and depart. The city formed a horseshoe shape around the airport from the West, to the North, over to the East. The only way to approach was from the South. Additionally there was a river that you had to fly up and a major highway. And there were several ridges 75-100 feet high along the approach path. We were boxed in and the insurgents knew it. There were literally a thousand places for an insurgent to hide and squeeze off a missile or some rounds from their AK. The only Squadron airplane that did get hit was from a small arms round in Mosul. They took one in the landing gear door.
It was the Money Man’s turn to fly. He briefed a straight-in Random Shallow approach. That was about all we could do there given the limitations. The standard book answer for the random shallow approach is for the airplane to be 500 feet high, 250 knots and to start the slow down 5 miles from the field. If a pilot did that, they would be assured of landing in the touchdown zone. But there would be a period of about two miles where they were configured, slow and begging to be shot at. We discovered that it was possible to be lower, faster and closer to the airport than the standard book answer. It is Money Man’s leg and I let him fly like it how he wanted.
He dropped down to 100 feet, 320 knots and blew past the 5 mile slowdown point. He pulled the power off at 3.2 miles and held the 100 feet. Very slowly, the speed bled off and I started moving the flaps as soon as the speed allowed. Gear came down, flaps came down to 100% and we ran the before landing checklist in the flare. He touched down exactly on top the 500 foot marker, hit the brakes and made the first turn off into parking. A great tactical approach is the one where you don’t know if you are going to land in the first 500 feet until the very end of the approach. That is when you know you are max performing the airplane. After literally hundreds of tactical approaches, I finally saw the perfect one. The Money Man had proved to me that he was the best pilot in the airplane. At my best, I was never as good a pilot as he is. He truly has the gift and I was left in amazement.
We taxied in, shut down the engines and I went off to make my customary Iraqi walk to see what I could see. Sometimes we went as a crew, but time I was alone. I saw this big guy running out of one of the buildings, straight towards me. He was wearing a flight suit. That isn’t good. He was a Lt. Colonel, two ranks above my rank at the time, more not good. As he got close enough, I saw he had Navigator wings. I was prepared for the worst.
He was out of breath when he got to me. He asked. “Are you the pilot of that airplane?”
I saw no reason to take any responsibility for anything at this point. I simply said. “Maybe.”
He understood my hesitation. “I am a former C-130 Nav, I was an Instructor an Little Rock for several years. And that was the best Random Shallow I have ever seen!”
I started to laugh mostly with relief. I pointed to Money Man as I spoke. “I didn’t do it. There is a 1LT over there. He flew it. Go tell him.” The guy ran off to talk to Steve and I went my way. Later Steve told me, he had no idea what the guy was going to say when he ran up.
By the way, the Money Man has gone on to do some wonderful things for the Air Force. He is now one of the old head Lt Colonels. But more importantly he is a super guy, wonderful father, and great pilot. Money Man, I salute thee.
Until next time, keep rockin.