January 19th, the third day of Desert Storm, began as a 'normal' day. My alarm went off in the tent at about 5am, then it was over to the shower tent for a cool shower, as our hot water heater had failed almost as soon as it was installed and the water, kept in a large rubber bladder, cooled quite a bit at night. Fortunately I wasn't driven from the shower this morning by another SCUD - it felt odd to carry your chem gear, mask and helmet down to the shower.
Back at the tent I put on the same woodland BDU's that I'd worn the day before. By this time most of us were down to only a few pairs of serviceable uniforms, and the laundry had a couple of days turnaround, so we didn't change too often. Uniforms took a beating on the flightline during the best of conditions, and the desert sand made it even worse. Supply hadnít been able to get us replacements, and although Iíd picked up a pair from Ė believe it or not, an Army Navy Store in Doha Ė I still had several pair that were just worn out. Once I had the BDU's, on I kitted up with the rest of my daily wear gear, my web belt with canteen, first aid kit, gas mask, my Fairbairn Sykes SAS knife (good for slicing MRE's and whatever else may need 'opening') about 10 each of the Atropine and 2-Pam self-injectors, I took my P-tab (nerve agent pretreatment) put my helmet on, and headed out for the day. First stop was over at the chow hall to pick up a case of MRE's. Most of us would get a case every day or two, because we normally couldn't get back for lunch, and so we would have a good choice of menus and no one would get stuck with the disgusting omelet with ham. Those of us who didn't get MRE's would pick up a case of water for the day.
It wasn't a long walk from Tent City over to the hangar and the flightline, not more than a couple of hundred yards. We'd always stop by and talk to our Qatari friend who manned the flightline checkpoint. Carrying an exotic looking (to those of us that were used to our M-16's) FN rifle, when we asked if he had been given ammo, he tapped his shirt pocket and laughed "Yes, five rounds. I'm not allowed to load them unless someone actually shoots at me."
Over at the hangar we completed our shift change with the night shift decon team. They would always make sure that we were gassed up and ready to go, so I took my M-16 and ammo and walked over to the phase dock to see how everything was going. Rumors were going around that there was a big mission today and as soon as the pilots were stepping from Ops we heard it, the "Target for Today: Baghdad". There was almost a sense of excitement in the air. While Baghdad was a long way away, and amongst the most heavily defended targets anywhere, our guys were going to take the fight right to the heart of the enemy. Once again we stood in front of the hangar as our pilots taxied away, and the ground seemed to shake as each aircraft lifted off.
We were busy back at the Phase dock where we were preparing to open back up for business. The Colonel told us that there were two options for the unit as far as inspections went. We could overfly the phases until the end of the conflict, at which time all of the aircraft would be grounded until inspections were completed, or we could do combat phases as we went along. Several guys asked what a 'combat phase' in fact was, unfortunately no one knew. So a group of us sat down and laid out exactly what we wanted a 'combat phase' to be. "How fast a turnaround do you think we can get on an inspection? We really canít afford to have any jets down." It was difficult to say without actually attempting one, "How long do we have?" "At our current flying rate we'll go through our 150 flying hours roughly every 24 days." Twenty-four days, twenty-four aircraft. We had to find a way to complete a normally 3 Ĺ - 4 day inspection in a day...
Soon it was time to take a break from the planning and head out to EOR to prepare for our decon inspections on the returning aircraft. We loaded up 'Decon 1' and headed out down the ramp and across the hard-packed sand to the end of the runway. I put my chem suit on, keeping an eye to the sky looking for the jets, listening to the brick to hear if the MOC had an ETA, but the net was quiet, probably more quiet than normal thinking back. Soon the first aircraft appeared, with no overhead break, they were coming straight in. I counted each aircraft as I'd gotten into the habit of always doing and was several into my count when I noticed something odd "What's that under the wings?" it took another couple of aircraft before someone answered, "They've all blown their wingtanks, that's the mounts..."
From that moment I had a bad feeling about it and as I continued to count the last aircraft touched down "They're not all here. There are two missing." The bad feeling had gotten worse. I'd hoped that two had needed to stop in Saudi or Bahrain for fuel, but inside somehow I knew that it wasn't the case. As we waited for the aircraft to backtaxi to our position, they cut back across the runway, skipping our inspection, and were headed straight back to the ramp. "Everybody in the truck, let's go. Now."
I had the decon deuce-and-a-half flying on the way back to the ramp and we arrived just as engines were shutting down where we heard the news that the two were down over Iraq. A lot of unrecorded records were set in the next few minutes as the aircraft were ICT (combat turned with simultaneous rearm and refuel)(the QA guys were told to stay in the hangar because they didn't want to see what was going on) just in case our guys could get back up there to help in the search. In the end, because of the distance and the fact that more capable aircraft were already tasked and overhead they didn't go.
Still pretty much in shock, four or five of us walked up to our Wing Commander, Col. ĎJedí Nelson, as he walked out of debrief and although Iím sure that he had a hundred more important things to do, he patiently explained what had happened. Mike 'Mr.' Roberts, whose son would be born in the next few weeks, went down over Baghdad and was feared lost and Jeff 'Tico' Tice was down in the desert between Baghdad and the Saudi border.
Within an hour we'd seen the HUD tapes taken during the mission. Mr. took a SAM amidships, his aircraft, 87-0228, just exploded. It didn't look as though anyone could have survived, but Col. Nelson said that he thought he'd seen the canopy come off as the wreckage descended, the first step of the ejection process, so there was at least a sliver, if only a sliver, of hope. Tico's aircraft, 87-0257, took a proximity hit and was sprayed with shrapnel. He struggled with the dying aircraft as far as it could take him, roughly halfway back to the Saudi border, when he was forced to make a controlled ejection. We felt pretty confident that if he could get hunkered down until dark there was a good chance that we'd get him back. We watched as 'ET' Tullia dodged at least 5 SAM's guiding on his aircraft with no operational chaff/flare, in the best example of defensive flying that I have ever seen.
While growing up, my heroes weren't baseball players or sports stars; they were people with names like Luke, Bader, Malan, Stanford-Tuck, Gabreski, Zemke, Olds and Ritchie. I'd read about losses and sacrifice, but now I felt like I'd been kicked in the gut. It was a long walk back to Tent City that night. I sat in the chow hall, just looking at my dinner, while at the table across from me sat Bill Hinchey, the crew chief who had launched out Tico, sitting alone. I felt as bad as he looked, and knowing Bill, I know that he felt much worse.
I hardly remember walking back to the tent. When I walked in, there was a loud card game going on at the table, everyone happy and carrying on. I wasn't in the mood, "Hey, have you guys heard that we lost two pilots today?" "Yeah, we heard, what can you do..." I crawled into my sleeping bag, rolled over and shut out the world. It was our roughest day in Qatar.
These are 'unedited' chapters that I'm posting as I write. Some day I'll work them all in together...