Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Youngest Marine

This post is dedicated to my friend John, who spent time patrolling the streets of Mosul and came home to talk about it. 

During my tenure as a pilot in the Military Airlift Command flying C-5s, I was assigned a variety of missions.  These missions were in support of one of the branches of the U.S. military, a NATO member, a U.S. government agency, a contractor, or an international body, such as the U.N. The variety was what kept the job challenging and led to an expansion of my flying skills and aeronautical knowledge in more ways than I could possibly tell you in one story.

We worked hard to support the customer of the day and took the philosophy that we were there for the customer, not the other way around.  Every mission had its nuances that sometimes made us stop and rethink the mission to meet the expectations of whoever we were supporting.

As an example, on one mission what I thought was going to be a simple flight from California to the Cape Canaveral airstrip turned into an interesting night.  Inside the cargo compartment was a large single cube with cables and wire bundles coming out of all of its sides and the top as well.  The cables were all gathered into a giant bundle and disappeared up a ladder into the large crew area. I was met on the upper deck by my flight engineers and a half dozen scientists and engineers from a defense contractor. They led me to the rear of the rest compartment to a large bank of computers and monitors.

The lead contractor told me that the cube in the cargo compartment contained a “device” that was to be launched into orbit and that it was extremely fragile. The team wanted me to taxi very slowly and to fly as smoothly as possible, avoiding any rough air at all costs. I was unable to extract from him what exactly the device was, but that in general terms, the “device” was important to national security and it was very expensive.
It was a long and slow night and as the sun rose over the Atlantic we gently touched down on the skid strip at Cape Canaveral, a runway so large that NASA used it to glide first generation rockets onto it, in order to recover data recorders in the 50’s-60’s.  I assumed the “device” arrived in working order.  It took hours to extract the cube and load it onto a trailer, then we departed, empty, only concerned with who got to sleep when and warming up a can of Beefaroni.

Most of the work we did was with the different branches of the U.S. military.  I always enjoyed serving the Marines and delivering them and their equipment to the far corners of the planet.  We pilots were humbled by their professionalism, integrity and unity. If they were willing to risk getting in harms way, we wanted to get them where they needed to be in the safest and most comfortable way possible. The entire crew felt this way.  If we were delivering them to a remote airfield in a foreign country in the middle of the night, we wanted them to walk off the airplane rested and ready.

We usually had a chance to interact with the Marines before they boarded the troop compartment. The Marines would either march out to the aircraft or be standing by in buses, waiting to board the C-5.  After finding the Marine in charge, I would ask them, that with their permission, I would like to invite the youngest Marine present to join the pilots on the flight deck for the takeoff.  Most of the time the officer would allow this to happen, although about 20% of the time I would receive courteous thanks but no thanks.  Whatever the decision, it was respected.

On one mission we were taking a group of Marines to Okinawa. In this group of Marines, a young 19 year old was the youngest amongst the group and he was offered the choice to join the pilots.  I could tell the Marine was a little unsure of the offer and was not sure how to respond.  I told the Marine that it would be an honor for him to join us and we would do our best not to scare the hell out of him.  He reluctantly came along with me and we climbed the long ladder stairs to the flight deck.

The flight deck, crew compartment, troop compartment and cargo compartment of the C-5 could be busy and full of airman during the prefight.  It was not unusual to have a dozen or more people on a crew, all of us moving about, upstairs, downstairs and outside, completing the tasks assigned to them. The loadmasters would assume the tasks of serving the passengers in the troop compartment.  The loadmasters always took pride in their service to others and would make any service from a commercial airline look amateurish compared to the service they provided.

Upon reaching the flight deck, I introduced the Marine to the other two pilots and our flight engineer, who welcomed the Marine and gave him a tour of the pointy part of the airplane. Eventually all tasks were completed and the entire crew was ready for departure.  We sat the marine in the jump seat, allowing him an unobstructed view out of the windows.  After taking off that day, we rendezvoused with an airborne tanker for refueling training.

For the most part air refueling a C-5 was fun and challenging.  That day was a clear day with smooth air and a great crew working the KC-135 tanker.  We took some blankets, put them on the floor and had the Marine kneel on them just behind the pilot’s seats.  This allowed him to look upwards thought the windows to see the entire refueling process.
At the time of initial contact with the tanker, all eyes were out front, but the third pilot glanced at the Marine and saw that his eyes were the size of saucers.  He quickly explained what we were doing and how the process worked.  I don’t think it helped that much and I guess most people would find two big airplanes so close together very intimidating, especially when your sitting in one of them.

We terminated our refueling and continued to Okinawa.  The Marine was given a couple of box lunches, that days newspapers and a seat at the navigator’s table.  The navigator’s table was a large desk with a seat stationed within the flight deck, but had not been used for navigation for years, as inertial navigation systems had replaced the need for a navigator on the C-5.  After a couple of hours, we offered the Marine one of the bunks we used to sleep in. He slept the rest of the way, until we had to wake him up for our arrival.  At this point we sent him back to the troop compartment to rejoin his group.  He expressed his appreciation at being able to experience the flight from up front and he was escorted back to the troop compartment.  Of course, none of us ever saw that Marine again.

Over the years this type of invitation happened many times.  Sometimes the individual passed up the opportunity or would ask to rejoin their group after a short visit.

During Operation Desert Storm, patriotic ham radio operators setup a listening watch on high frequency radios 24 hours a day.  There, at their listening posts, they would patiently wait for a military aircraft to make contact with them.  Several times it was my aircraft.  Commercial phone carriers in the U.S. offered unlimited phone calls for free and the radio operators used their equipment to connect an airplanes’ HF radio to a private phone line anywhere in the world. To this day, that was one of the coolest and important programs of any corporate entity, ever.  Remember that this was a time when the Internet did not exist for use to the general public. Contact with loved ones was made over a phone attached to a wall.

These magnificent ham radio operators, once contacted, could set up a phone connection to anywhere in the U.S. Once connected, on the other end, the conversation was open, meaning each person at either end of the conversation would say something and have to end their statement with the word, “Over,” so that the person on the other end knew when to speak.  A simple example is, “Hello, Brian, it’s dad, over” “Hi dad, where’s mom? Over”. All of this was explained to both parties before the final connection was made.  When we were bringing troops into or out of the theater of operation, we would let the troops know that we could make a connection home for them.  Needless to say, we had many visitors and we would spend hours making contact with the ham radio operators, connecting loved ones with radio waves that bounced off the upper parts of the atmosphere.

Because the lines of communication were open, there was no privacy in the calls being made.  All parties (the radio operator, the pilots and both calling parties) heard everything.  Parents could be heard screaming for other family members to come to the phone.  Wives were speechless, some sobbing, their husband was coming home. Children were the best, not sure exactly what to say, laughing and confused with having to say “over”.

We were half a world away, so it was not unusual to wake people up in the middle of the night. Imagine getting a phone call at 2 a.m., from a stranger, telling you that your husband, wife, son, daughter, brother, sister, is 10,000 miles away, at 35,000 feet, on a military transport, coming home and they want to talk to you and that you’re a ham radio operator, that has nothing better to do than magically connect you to that aircrafts’ radios, so you can talk to them.  Then you are told how to communicate on an open phone connection, then seconds later being connected. As you can imagine, emotions were often high.

The last time I made a phone connection this way was with the youngest Marine. He sat in the jump seat with the headphones on that we gave him, waiting for the connection to go through. The ham radio operator made the final contact and the youngest Marine was talking to his parents. It became clear through listening to the conversation that this Marine was the only child of the parents on the other end of the conversation. His mother wanted to know where he was.  He simply said that he was on his way home.  It was a short conversation.  A party was planned. He said he wanted burgers and brats. They couldn’t wait to see him. His uncle had a car for him. His mother was crying.  The youngest Marine finished the conversation, telling his parents he loved them and he would be home soon, then radio connection was terminated.  He thanked us and left to rejoin his unit.  The continuous crackle of the high frequency radio lingered.

That was over 20 years ago.  The youngest Marine is now in his 40s. I hope all of those young Marines remember the short time they spent with this heavy driver. I always will.

I want to thank the ham radio operators who spent countless hours tuning their radios and plucking those many voices from the sky and sending them home.

And to the youngest Marine, whoever you are, thank you.

Be Safe,

Fly Guy