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Archive for August, 2014

001029-M-0557M-011

This is the third in a five part series, published weekly through September 11th.

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Andy’s and Ralph’s deaths were an accident.

Everyone who either flies or lives in that world will eventually know someone who is killed in that dangerous course. Sadly, terribly, it’s part of it. But what happened at Columbine High School was no accident, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th were not an accident.

And now here was another component that added to my broader perspective on what had happened to all of us:

A month shy of one year before – October 2000 – I was in Germany to participate in an Air Force exercise, Trailblazer 01, just weeks after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

mec & cst

My lifelong friend – also a close friend to Andy and Ralph – Cliff Thomas, was also there. He went as part of a contingent of the Syracuse (New York) Air National Guard unit. We had wanted to travel to Germany together since we were small boys, and now here we were.

We spent time with his grandmother and other family members in Oberursel, outside Frankfurt, then drove south and west to Ramstein and Landstuhl for our work. That was the good part. But the sobering part was also there.

Barely a month before, the injured – and dead – sailors from the terrorist attack against the USS Cole had been brought to Landstuhl Medical Center, just one hundred-some yards from where I was staying. Situated in the deep, beautiful woods above the picturesque town of Landstuhl, the US Army’s Regional Medical Center was where all our casualties from the Middle East and Europe were brought. Most of the injured Cole sailors were still there when Cliff and I arrived, and some of them died there.

2009_12_24_Daniel

In the spring of 2011, it was again to Landstuhl that a soldier I had a connection to was taken with life-threatening injuries. My niece was dating a young man from Littleton, Colorado whose brother, Daniel – both of whom had attended Columbine High School – was serving with a Marine unit in Afghanistan.

While on a dismounted patrol somewhere in the Helmand Province, an IED – and Improvised Explosive Device – detonated, and when it did he lost both legs and a portion of his left hand, including fingers. After more than two intensive and tenuous months in hospital, Daniel had recovered sufficiently to travel and with his parents at his side, winged his way home.

I was privileged and humbled to be at Denver International Airport to see Daniel arrive to a huge and awe-struck, yet cheering crowd of family, friends, television cameras and supportive and thankful admirers.

Suffice it to say he is a remarkable and inspiring guy. See and hear more of his story here, from Denver’s 9News.

Today, with the help of an amazing family, dedicated friends, and a true-to-their-word US Marine Corps, he is well into discovering and developing a new life. Be sure to take a few minutes to visit his blog. Click on James Nachtwey’s photo, below to see his piece in TIME.

James Nachtwey for TIME

And so I was reminded once again that although I had at that time been retired from the Air Force for almost three years, the war still raged, then almost ten years on.

Those few weeks I spent at Ramstein’s Warrior Preparation Center – the WPC – just outside Landstuhl in October of 2000, were more than an exercise for me, as it turned out.

The month before had been the USS Cole attack and during the same period my friends in the Colorado fighter squadron were leaving Incirlik, Turkey, having completed their latest turn flying the Northern No Fly Zone in Iraq and were being replaced by my former squadron mates and friends of the Terre Haute unit.

Greg, Chris, mec, Savannah, 1994

All these people I knew, from such far-flung places and this place I was in now in the midst of world events – it all seemed in some way to be centering here. The total experience was powerful and acute, as though I was staring into the convergence of globally significant events with a personal connection to it all.

The personal intensity was compounded, too, because my wife was home and very pregnant with our son, Jace and our sixth anniversary passed during my time away. It was not the best time to volunteer for an exercise overseas, but it was nothing compared to what so many others had committed to. (I had roses sent to her to deliver at work – I thought quite a feat to pull off from half way across the world.)

kkc, jwc, mec, home, 2002 002

The experience manifest itself in a peculiar emotion that, even now, when I think of my time there, generates a unique feeling reserved for that time and place.

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Photo Credits:
USS Cole, DoD photo
Cpl. Daniel C. W. Riley, USMC, Daniel Riley
Landstuhl, inaz4sun, Wonderunderground.com
Cpl DCW Riley wounded, UH-60 crew, James Nachtwey for TIME
Others, Michael Conner
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Next week- Part IV – “Faruq”

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CO F-16 2002

In those weeks following the September 11th attacks, it was only the serious, angry sounds of fighters, F-16s from Buckley Air Force Base, screaming straight west over our house, flying CAP – Combat Air Patrols; practicing to attack something with a vengeance; they would quickly reign death on anything that would even think about making a malevolent move on Denver.

colorado front range

Ironically, and in a twist that would churn up yet another sad day in our memories, as my wife and I would look west from that window to view the empty sky, so strange, devoid of any airplanes, we were forced to look toward and beyond Columbine High School to take in our view of the mountains. Another place where “it” was no accident.

– – –

We had gone to the school three days after the murderous rampage there in April of 1999.

I think we felt as so many did, compelled in some way to be close to the now sacred site, close to the kids and teacher who were gone now, and to be part of the support for their families and friends left. We walked in the snow up a trail and across the school grounds to see Rachel Scott’s car, a small maroon import, covered with flowers and notes and snow, this place now full of people congregating mostly in stunned silence, and sadness. It was as if it were now frozen in time and place – and it literally was.

Rachel Scott’s car

– – –

Now in the last weeks of September and first week of October 2001 that familiar stillness enveloped everything again. It was only those planes – the fighters – in our skies in the weeks after; a strange yet comforting phenomenon, every other kind of flying being grounded. We were reassured to see them, or at least to hear them.

Many of those F-16 pilots were friends of mine. I had worked at the 120th Fighter Squadron in the first couple years I was in Denver. I had also traveled to Alaska with them and briefed them daily after the shoot-down of Capt Scott O’Grady in Bosnia.

The Serbs had used the Soviet-built SA-6 in an unconventional way, and the result was devastating. Outside the strict bounds of Soviet-era Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) employment doctrine, one system was connected via fiber optic cable to a second SA-6; one operating only as the Shooter, the other providing the Radar for search and track, target acquisition, and fire control. The effect was that the F-16s only “saw” the SA-6 Radar, and did not know of the Shooter several miles away. It nearly proved fatal.

It seemed to be the human drama of O’Grady’s shoot-down – his Falcon was hit just behind the cockpit at the rear of the canopy, and fortunately, as the fuselage disintegrated into two large pieces the cockpit fell away fully intact – that played out so well on television and grabbed everyone. It was this and his subsequent evasion of the hostile forces in the Bosnian forest that were preeminent with the news media and drama-seeking general public.

(Fortunately for O’Grady the ACES-II ejection system worked as advertised. Even from what little remained of his F-16, it fired and he got out.)

But it was the technical and tactical aspects of how the SA-6s were employed that concerned the Redeyes of the 120th, not the human drama. Except that there was a brief flurry accusing O’Grady of ineptitude – one of the pilots had gone to flight school with him and derisively claimed, “The guy didn’t know what he was doing anyway.” As is oft times the case, fighter pilots are ready with jokes and quips to cover and deal with the terrifying underlying truth that they could never escape: “It could have been me.” These kept their interest in my daily Technical Intelligence Briefings and situation updates.

aab

They were not the only ones I had a close connection with. The Racers of the 113th Fighter Squadron in Terre Haute were my home unit, where I first joined.

I retained a keen impression from childhood of the thrill and power of fighter jets when I had gone to air shows with my father in the late 1960s and early ’70s. They were flying F-84s then and later F-100s. I was small when I knew I wanted to be part of it, and as with several of my close friends, joined the Indiana Air National Guard soon after college. And it was with them that I shared my first encounter with the dark, painful side of that life.

AGB and MEC, Mather AFB, CA, 1987

I had gone to flight school – SUNT, or “Sun T” – Specialized Undergraduate Navigator Training – at Mather AFB in California with my close friend, Andy Baer and it was just five years later that he and another squadron mate and friend Ralph Miller were killed in the crash of their F-4E in the Nevada desert while flying intercepts on September 19th, 1990, training for a war in Iraq we were all sure was coming.

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Next week: Part III – Friends

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Originally published in 2013, this is the first in a five-part series, to be published weekly throughout September and October.

– – –

We have all learned so many things through this terrible universal experience. One thing I have learned is that everyone has a unique story. It may be dramatic or emotionally powerful. Others, in and of themselves, may be rather mundane stories, reflecting how so many went about another day in the week, in daily their lives; it was, after all, a Tuesday, and most of the country was at work or about to be. It was generally unremarkable, except that it was in most places a beautiful sunny day, but “regular” – as if that were really a clearly identifiable trait in our days.

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A Beautiful Day

The moment I first heard the reports I was pulling into the drive at work – Jeppesen. “Jepp” is largely an aviation information company. We produced – and I sold, in simplest terms, instrument flying information. Although cockpits are increasingly “going electronic,” Jepps have traditionally been paper. In simplest, layman’s terms, the information would be referenced – and relied upon – as if the crew had no windows, and would rely solely on their instruments and the charts and procedures they had in front of them that told them exactly where to be when.

Ironically, at work we might occasionally lament after a tragic air crash somewhere, anywhere in the world, that warranted or not, when there are once again hundreds or thousands of sheets of paper floating all over a hillside that have the name “Jeppesen” printed on them – enroute charts, SIDs (Standard Instrument Departure procedures), STARs (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) charts, and Approach procedures among others, the lawyers have an easy target right there in front of them.

It didn’t really matter at the moment if a chart was out of date or not, or had been used properly or not; Jeppesen’s name was there so the lawsuit would always follow, and almost everyone shares blame.

As we all tend to say now, as others did beginning in November of 1963, I remember exactly where I was.

I said I was pulling in the drive at the Jeppesen parking lot. More specifically, (because it is in these things that we do remember so well) I remember the exact spot I was in: it was the dip in the transition from asphalt to concrete; the transition onto the apron of the parking lot, the edge of the street as my Land Rover crossed the threshold from street to parking lot. There was a dip as the concrete had been formed with a shallow trough in the ever-slightest V shape to serve also as a drainage gutter. It then immediately angled up onto the asphalt as the parking surface was inclined in its entirety from the street across the expanse of eighty yards or so to the far eastern edge of the lot.

At that moment, as I listened to the news on the radio with the morning bright in its usual Colorado sunshine and aside of the fact I had just cut my way through the regular morning rush and had the radio on low, it was a “quiet” day so far. But in that unbelievable, jolting, life-changing moment with the simultaneous turning and bumping of my truck, all coordinated with the shocking impact of the newsman’s words, the dip in the road felt like a collision, as if I had actually hit something. Even now when I replay that very instant in time over and over again in my mind, and see it in my mind’s eye, it is as if I had actually missed that driveway apron and hit the curb instead. I didn’t, but in my memory I do, and it feels like an explosion.

Needless to say, inside Jeppesen world headquarters everyone was in shock. The TVs had already begun to roll out of the conference rooms; groups of people, large and small were congregating everywhere, and in places people did not usually congregate. The last of the phone calls were ending as I walked into the sales area and with rare exception, the phones didn’t ring after that.

There was an odd and unique sense of connection to this, as there always was. Sadly, that was a strange but familiar sensation unique to Jeppesen. Bright white sheets of paper fluttering down, turning over and over, oblivious to their purpose or reason; only silently obeying the laws of nature. When an aircraft accident occurs, we are almost always somehow part of it.

I, like so many others there, had taken those calls from a wife or friend saying they needed to cancel chart subscriptions – “…need to stop the revisions from coming to the house; it’s so painful.” It was, in part, our corporate tragedy – paper floating through the air, “Jeppesen” on every sheet, almost as if in silent proclamation, “It’s happened again” – and we were part of it.

But this time it was far beyond that.

My supervisor, Tony grabbed me and said, “Let’s go to my car.” We raced back to the parking lot and ran to his car, where we sat, doors open, listening to the evolving tragedy. We could have been inside watching it unfold on the televisions with everyone else, but at least at that moment we didn’t need to. We could see it all as we stared at the dashboard and out the windshield, across the parking lot and up over the hillside and beyond the fence separating the Jeppesen property from Centennial Airport. As we listened and increasingly felt more stunned and angry and determined and fearful, we almost didn’t notice there was no longer any aircraft engine sound coming from across the runway; already – no airplanes were taking off or landing.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of listening in our own distant agony we returned to the building and walked quickly to the cafeteria, where we found as many as two-hundred of our co-workers crammed everywhere, all facing the south wall where a single television stood atop a tall stand. Within five minutes of arriving, we watched as one of the towers fell. A gasping inhalation filled the room as we all reacted. I don’t remember any words that were spoken, if at all.

In my memory, it is silent.

Front Range

Within a couple of days we were informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be coming into the building and would be examining our sales and subscription records perhaps for several weeks, maybe months. There were certain customer accounts, or account profiles, sales transactions, even inquiries that never resulted in a sale that they were interested in.

At home the silence above us continued. The back or west side of our home faced the mountains; from the second floor height of our bedroom window we could see the beautiful contoured greens and browns of the foothills and the “hogback.”

Normally airplanes of all kinds, large, small, fast, and slow – those that would loll over the near peaks conducting their training maneuvers in sharp turns, cutting power, increasing power; the high-pitched and throaty Lycoming piston engines singing their straining and compliant songs, commanded by student pilots at the direction of their instructors – flew over. But now only eerie silence and emptiness filled the blue space.

– – –

Next week: Part II – Quiet Skies

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