I'd awakened in a better mood on the 20th of January, the fourth day of Desert Storm, than I'd gone to bed the night before. We all knew that the chance of losing aircraft and pilots was always there, but it was still a shock when it happened. Hopefully when I got to the hangar I'd hear that they'd picked up Tico during the night and that he was on his way back to us.
I was running early that morning, so before I left Tent City to go over to the hangar I stopped off at the Rec Center to catch up on CNN and to see if I could find a recent Gulf Times (Qatar's English language newspaper) or even better, a Stars and Stripes. The news that came from either was pretty limited, but any news was better than nothing. Probably one of the best parts of working with Transit Alert (which was also among my duties) was occasionally getting real news from the States as airlifters were transiting through. I was once lucky enough to talk a C-141 crew out of a day old Sunday edition of the New York Times which we all read 'cover to cover' for about two weeks...
Just as soon as I opened the door to the Rec Center and stepped in, I heard "Look, there he is!" as several Crew Chiefs rushed towards me (I'm thinking “Holy Crap, what have I done now???”) The night before, after I'd gone to bed, the Desert Camel and the Star C-130's had come in with supplies and mail, one of which had also carried the latest issue of the Air Force's "Airman Magazine". The crew chief's held up a copy, open to the inside of the back cover, printed on which was a page of 'airmen doing their part' in Operation Desert Shield. One of those airmen was me, in a picture taken a couple of months before, sitting on the wing of 87-0228 - Mike Roberts’ jet that had been lost the day before over Baghdad. They explained to me that 'it would be better for all of us' if I didn't have my picture taken with any more of our jets. And not being one to tempt fate too often, I agreed. It’s the only picture I have of me with one of our aircraft - having a picture taken with a jet before a mission can be 'old school' bad luck, dating back to WWI, when pilots would often refuse to fly if they'd been photographed prior to going up.
I grabbed a bunch of copies of the magazine and carried them back to the tent; they'd be good things to send back to all of the relatives - probably even better than the MRE fruitcakes that I sent everyone at Christmas. All the way to the hangar I heard a lot of 'Hey, you're the guy in Airman' (but didn't sign any autographs...)
The mood was still dark on the flightline; we were still missing two of our own. There was no word from Tico up in Iraq, which troubled everyone. Last night we all felt the chances were so good that the Rescue guys would have gotten him, but when they arrived over the area, there was no sign of him. We'd also lost two of our aircraft. As a crew chief, your airplane is more than just a machine. You know it inside and out and its personality (every jet has one, and they're all different.) They may be made of metal and plastic and wire, but they might as well be alive as much as they can become a part of you – after all, you probably spend more time with your jet on a day to day basis than any member of your family or any of your friends. Trying to lighten the mood, one of the guys said, "What's even worse, was that 228 and 257 were two of the last three jets that had gone through Phase. At least the Iraqis could have shot down the ones that were due inspections..."
I was worried about what I'd see when the pilots came out of Ops that morning on the way to the jets. They'd had two friends blown out of the sky from amongst them the day before, and from seeing ET's tape the night before, it was obvious that even a second of distraction could be the difference between coming home and not. I was worried that I'd see what I'm sure that they were all feeling after yesterday's mission, and worried about how it might affect the morale on the flightline. I hadn't had to worry though despite what they'd been through in the past 24 hours. As each pilot walked out of the Ops doorway on the way to their awaiting jets, they touched the top of the doorframe - on which was hung a hand painted sign that read "God Bless Mr. and Tico."
As LtCol. Bruce 'Orville' Wright, the Lucky Devils Commander, put it: "The motivation and commitment on the faces of our Lucky Devils as they walked across the flight line on the morning of the 20th to attack the enemy and avenge the loss of one their brothers was clear and, had the Iraqi military been watching, scary."
I don't know what the 'protocol' was, but whenever I walked through the Ops doorway, I touched the same sign. In that moment the darkness that had hung over us, and me personally, lifted. The war was personal now, and it had hit home close to all of us. We were no longer fighting just to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait; we were fighting for our own two friends who were still up there. Somewhere.
These are 'unedited' chapters that I'm posting as I write. Some day I'll work them all in together...