After the post-strike refueling, our flight plan was basically to take us back the way we had arrived. Here is where the flight got interesting — and a bit scary.
From the moment we entered, or tried to enter, a certain Middle Eastern country’s airspace, the air traffic controller for that country had a problem with us. On the way into Iraq, we had no trouble with these controllers.
The way out was a much different story.
First, the controller, in his thick accent, requested our aircraft type, final destination, number of aircraft and purpose of the flight. The thing is, he had most of this information at his fingertips the entire time. For some reason, he was not happy with us.
"Stealth 31, this is air traffic control. Turn left immediately, hold over present position, and state type aircraft, mission, final destination." Since I was flying a stealthy aircraft, I did not want to, or need to, give him this information, other than what he already had. I responded, "Control, this is Stealth 31. Unable to give type aircraft. Flight plan is in the system. Also unable to hold at requested point."
He continued, in an everincreasingly serious and frantic voice, "Stealth 31, you are endangering the lives of your aircraft, your crew and other aircraft. Turn left immediately, hold over present position."
During these few minutes, which seemed to last an eternity, I was admittedly more concerned than when I was over Baghdad. Well, almost.
The controller’s warnings became more and more direct, more and more threatening. Finally, we had had enough.
"Stealth 31, turn south now, hold over present position immediately," came the controller’s request — or demand.
We responded, "Roger, control, Stealth 31 is maintaining a heading of 2-7-0 (west) — thanks for the help."
A few seconds went by, and that "humor" among warriors was coming out. A dejected controller called back, "Stealth 31, I did not give you a 2-7-0 heading." Then, a bit more meekly, "Stealth 31, you are endangering your life and the life of others, turn immediately."
Once again, I responded, "Roger, center. Stealth 31 copies that 2-7-0 heading. Thanks so much for the help."
Finally, after what felt like an endless couple of hours, we exited his airspace. My copilot left his seat at this point, both of us exhausted.
I made sure while he was in the back trying to sleep that I had the necessities up front with me: Water, Gatorade, Power Bars and "piddle packs."
Piddle packs are one of the best inventions ever. On a mission that lasts over a day and a half, if you use the on-board toilet every time you feel the urge, it will most assuredly overflow.
Piddle packs are essentially thick plastic bags. Inside, they have either a spongelike material, or something similar to salt or bath crystals. When a person relieves himself into it, the sponge or crystals form something that looks like a lemon slushie.
On one of my earlier deployments to Saudi Arabia, while I was flying the F-15, a couple of us young wingmen decided to play a joke on one of the more senior pilots, a really old guy — he had to be near 30 (ha, ha).
We put a lemonade-filled piddle pack into each of his Gsuit pockets. If there is a bad thing about the piddle packs, it is only because they are designed so well. When you seal a piddle pack, no liquid can get out.
Here’s the downside to that: When you take your F-15 above 50,000 feet, any air in the piddle pack has no place to go, so it expands like a balloon. This poor fellow was up there, minding his own business at 50,000 feet, when both piddle packs burst in his G-suit pockets. His anger once he landed was only slightly quelled when he found out the liquid was lemonade, not something else.
During our flight to and from Iraq, my co-pilot and I filled more than 50 piddle packs. We weren’t going to be dehydrated.
My co-pilot managed to get about four straight hours of sleep before I had to wake him. We are required to have both pilots in the seats for takeoff, landing, bombing and air refueling. I first tried to wake him by shaking his foot. Then I tried yelling at him to wake up. The din of the aircraft engines, however, and his earplugs prevented him from hearing me. Next I tried smacking him with a magazine. Finally, nearing the time when we were to refuel, I had to resort to throwing things at him. An empty piddle pack missed his head. My checklist bounced off his back. He was still asleep.
Finally, I took off one of my boots and started hitting his legs with it. He woke up, and I’ve never seen a worse bedhead on anyone. He even looked like his breath stank.
I think the toughest times to fly a jet are before sunrise. The sky isn’t pitch-black anymore — it becomes hazy and gray, and stays that way for several hours. This is made even worse by the fact that we were dead tired — all our adrenaline had run through our system, and we were just trying to get home.
The fourth and fifth refuelings of this long day took place in this pseudo-sunrise time of night. We hit tankers near Spain and near the Azores, the Portuguese islands, just to give us enough fuel to get across the Atlantic Ocean and home. Finally, the sun began to rise in the east as we pressed west. Three air refuelers showed up right on time for refueling No. 5. Fortunately, this refueling was uneventful — we got the fuel, got some attaboys from the guys in the tankers and were on our way home. All told, we had taken on more than 425,000 pounds of fuel during our five refuelings.
About two hours off the East Coast, we heard one of the sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear. We had talked all day to foreign controllers — Santa Maria Center, Shanwick control, Gander, Egypt control — I felt like we had been through the airborne "Tower of Babel." So you can imagine how wonderful it was when we heard, "Stealth 31, uh, this is New York Center, are you out there?"
A PROUD AMERICAN
Our original flight plan, after hitting Maine, had us going basically direct to Ohio, then to Missouri. Once we got closer to New York, however, we asked the air traffic controller if it was possible for him to vector us over the World Trade Center site and over the Statue of Liberty. He gladly obliged — he even let us drop down in altitude a bit.
I’ll never, ever forget the feeling, as we looked down the wing of our B-2 at downtown Manhattan and then at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I still get goose bumps every time I talk about it. No words are sufficient to describe what a great feeling that was. If you weren’t already proud to be an American, this moment would most certainly do the trick.
The few hours from New York to touch down at Whiteman Air Force Base seemed to fly by. We landed after more than 36 hours in the air. As we taxied in, hundreds of people awaited our return on the ramp.
The wing commander personally came up into the cockpit and congratulated us. Luckily, I had shaved and given myself a bath with a washcloth shortly before landing. It made me feel (and look) like a new man.
It was certainly gratifying to look into the weapons bays of our airplane and see them empty — all weapons dropped, mission success.
It was also gratifying to see all the guys come out to the jet, shake your hand, ask about the flight. It was great to shake the crew chief’s hand — after all, it was his jet, we just took it out for a spin.
Those guys deserve a lot more credit than they get; it was their hard work that made that sortie happen.
What was most gratifying, however, was getting home to my wife and kids.
My three daughters ran up to greet me as they do every day.
They saw me leave on Friday in a flight suit, and come home on Sunday in a flight suit.
"Daddy, you’re back from work!" the girls shouted.
That’s right, girls. I went to work, I did my job and now I’m home.