August 1, 2009 10:36:00 PM
I’ve always wondered where the real Air Force lives.
Congress lives in the capitol, the governor lives in the state capital, Microsoft lives in Seattle, the football Cowboys live in Dallas, a family lives in their home, but where does the Air Force live? Where is the Air Force essence to be found?
The quick answers do not satisfy. The Pentagon has lots of Air Force generals, but it has generals from other services too. Texas has many Air Force bases, and many pilots, including me, took basic training there. This might have made Texas my default location for the Air Force home, but as I moved around the Air Force system, Texas did not seem unique. California has lots of bases, too, including a huge composite wing at Travis AFB with several types of airlift aircraft. Then there are the super bases such as Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. It also seems every Air Force major command has is separate headquarters which disperses the Air Force home to a half-dozen different locations, such as Langley AFB, VA, and Scott AFB, IL. In the face of such widespread activity centers, the Air Force seems more an extended family spread across the country and the world rather than a family unit located in one home.
I have vivid, varied memories of Air Force life that defy the concept of a specific home, yet still define the place the real Air Force inhabits.
In northern Maine I remember climbing into the seat of my B-52 bomber and finding the windscreen beautifully covered with a latticework of snowflake-shaped ice crystals that shimmered as the early morning sunlight illuminated them, the artistry of nature placed upon the surface of a stark metal war machine. Then, along with the marvelous winter view, I felt the icy shock of the cold-soaked, flexible rubber, oxygen mask as it gripped my face when I made a radio call to the command post. Did the Air Force live here in far northern Maine, I wondered? It seemed to at the time, but was this its home?
During Vietnam, Saigon seemed the Air Force home. There were no ice crystals in Nam. Vietnam had the Central Highlands, a long chain of small mountains that ran down the country as a dragon’s spine shrouded in misty clouds that only sporadically revealed its vertebrae in their dense tropical greenness. It also had oppressively humid heat that could only be fought off with whirring, ever-present, window air conditioners that became the predominant sound remembered from the time. In an operational sense, the Air Force lived in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. That must have been the Air Force home, I thought. Yes, the Cold War was still being tacitly fought in Europe, but the action and the Air Force essence was in Nam, or headed there, or coming back from there, or planning to go there. Surely that made it “home”?
The Arabian desert
But Nam was for a previous generation. Today’s generation lives in the Arabian desert, where the overwhelming heat is dry and the denizens often adorned in flowing white robes rather than black pajamas. This seems to be the new home of Air Force essence, the primary going to and coming from location where much of the service lives or plans for.
So is the Air Force home a perpetual vagabond that shifts its abode to the current hot spot? Is there no permanent home for the service?
Yes, there is.
One night just a few days into Operation Desert Shield in 1990, five C-5 crews from our Westover AFB, MA reserve wing would cover the ramp at Daharan AB, Saudi Arabia. We flew planes from a variety of C-5 bases, but we were all Westover crews. We exalted at our leading edge position in the war as we discovered each other. I moved down the ramp visiting each cockpit to enthusiastically swap mission stories and gossip with my compatriots, all of us giddy to be in a war and doing wonderful, manly things in an exotic Arabian desert.
It was during this ramp interaction, and during the flight to Daharan that I found the Air Force home.
My route to Saudi Arabia from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, ran south through eastern France (where we kept asking questions of Air Traffic Control just to hear the female controllers croon to us in their melodious French accents), then down the length of Italy, south and east past the coast of Greece, and finally across the Mediterranean toward the mystical realms of Egypt and other stark deserts where the war awaited. Turning south toward El Daba, Egypt, we overtook another Westover C-5 crew at sunset, their strobe lights flashing to us in repetitive sequence, a mobile airborne lighthouse signaling its position in the darkening azure haze.
I recognized the voices as they checked in with Cairo Air Traffic Control as a Westover crew flying from Torrejon AB, Spain, outside Madrid, headed to Daharan as we were. However, I sensed something wasn’t right. Why were they flying so slowly and allowing us to catch them? I asked the questions sensing there were several “somethings” that were not right with them.
Who was on the crew, I asked? The pilot mentioned only one other pilot. Whoa, I protested, do you mean you only have two pilots? Aren’t you on an augmented crew day (24-hours) that requires three pilots. He responded that this was how it turned out, the mission had to go, and they had to fly it. I suspect they wanted to keep going, and didn’t admit to the command post they were a basic crew (16-hour duty day maximum). As I later discovered, they flew a 32-hour “basic” day from the States, to Spain, to Daharan, and back to Torrejon with only two pilots, a task that would have exhausted a full crew.
I knew that later, but coasting into Egypt I wondered why they were poking along a .74 mach instead of the standard .77. Reluctantly they told me they were short on fuel and had to fly at .74 for maximum fuel efficiency. They had 15,000 pounds less fuel than we did at this point, and we eventually landed with 15,000 pounds, five-thousand below minimum landing fuel. When I later asked them their landing fuel at Daharan, they refused to answer, and I didn’t really want to know. I was just glad they made it.
Encounter over the Nile
This encounter over the Nile haunted me over the years. Here we found a fellow Westover crew in the darkness over Egypt where the bright strip of gold and silver lights along the Nile River wound starkly and narrowly through utter darkness of the landmass below. We discussed in professional tones the operational problems we would later chatter about excitedly on the ramp at Daharan. After our consultations on each other’s problems, my aircraft slowly pulled away from the other crew due to our greater speed, and lost contact with them over southern Egypt.
During this encounter, we sailed through an invisible dark blue air ocean above exotic lands that left us gazing silently at the beauty we saw. Alas, we are but pilots in a poetic realm we can marvel over, but are often unable to describe. The points along our journey mesmerize: Cairo, Luxor, Gassim, Alkir, Tabuk, as we fly an American war chariot to the front lines while passing over the home of the pharaohs and Ali Baba. These would be such marvelous feelings to share, if only we had the words.
I walked back through the C-5 crew compartment toward the galley. Some of the off-duty crew slept in rear compartment seats collapsed in a bizarre parody of war dead frozen in rigor mortis, mouths slackly agape and faces wizened in a desperate weariness that no amount of such sleep would cure.
Others worked at their duties, either on the engineer panel, or at the crew table toward the back where they planned downloading, uploading, and landing data for the arrival. A poker game raged amid mixed gleeful and disparaging shouts as cards slapped emphatically against the table. These never ending, eagerly sought-out, games of chance bind all military generations and are played as intensely at 35,000 feet as the Roman legions must have played during the empire.
I later rea
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.