Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rocket

So, There I was….* Assistant Ops Officer of an F-15C Squadron at Kadena AB Japan.  It’s the first Duty Day after New Year’s, and The Boss has called the Ops Officer, myself and the four Flight Commanders into his office for a meeting.  It had been a very restful Holiday Season after a very eventful past couple of months.  We’d been to the PI for an extended Cope Thunder helping the RAAF check out in their new F/A-18s, the usual rotations to the ROK for Alert at Osan AB or Kwang Ju AB.  We’d even had the opportunity for some unusual formation flying.

Santa had been somewhat good to me, I’d received orders.  I was going to Ft Leavenworth KS for “ArrrrrMeeee Training Sir”  (AKA Command and General Staff College).  I was to report mid-June for “Army Kindergarten”, intended to get us somewhat up to speed on all things Army.  The downside was my Wife, Mrs. Juvat (AKA Capt Juvat to the personnel folks that worked for her) was staying at Kadena for a year along with my 6 year old son and as yet unborn but coming, daughter.  A good assignment that would be better with my family.  It is, what it is.

That, however was 6 months in the future, I still had a lot of operational flying to do.  In fact, later today I had a 2 v 2 similar flight lead upgrade ride to give to one of the guys who’d been in my flight while I was a flight commander.  He went by Rocket an epithet bestowed on him with all the love that a fighter squadron can convey.  In prior posts, discussion has waxed and waned on the various means someone acquires a “Call Sign” and by what means the actual name could come from.  Rocket had come to the F-15 through a “pay your dues” tour.  While I don’t recall what it was specifically, it had to be either a First Assignment IP (FAIP) or a Forward Air Controller (FAC).  I’m certain enough, within the constraints of my memory, to decide it was a FAIP.  I base this on his evolution as a fighter pilot.  He had absolutely no problem with formation or instruments, which was common in FAIPS.

Rocket had progressed through the various phases of fighter pilot checkouts with the normal ups and downs for a first timer.  Some classic mistakes, some boneheaded ones, but none of them call sign caliber.  So, he went by “Bob”, which was natural as his first name was Robert.  He kept trying to encourage us with suggestions, but we were having none of that.  As Sarge has stated, your call sign is given, not taken.

It was one Friday nite and we’re in the squadron bar.  (Yes, children, Fighter Squadron’s had bars back then, with Beer, and we drank beer on Fridays in the squadron.  Come back when you get over the vapors.) So, Bob and I and a couple of others were drinking beer and shooting watches and cussing and scratching and engaging in other no longer allowed activities, when the wives arrive.  This generally happened around 6 or so and was a not so subtle hint that we needed to wind things down and take them over to the Skoshi Koom (Skoshi being, we were told, “little” in Japanese and KOOM being the acronym for the Kadena Officers Open Mess). The Skosh was an offset of the Big Club, had a couple of dining rooms as well as (cover your ears, kiddies) a bar.  The Wing frequented it as our unofficial club.

Well, the wives arrived. One of them had a stunning extra with her.  Rocket, who was single, took site of her and was off like a ….

Well, you know what happens at the end of the rocket burn, right?

Ergo, Rocket. Rocket, you are, Rocket forever you shall be.

As Sarge so frequently tells me, Juvat, you digress get back to the meeting.

We’ve all gathered, and the Boss hasn’t come in yet, so we’re all, even the OpsO, trying to guess what the subject is.  In walks the Boss, we all rise (yes, the Air Force, even Fighter Pilots stand up when a commander enters the room, don’t get all teary eyed).  He motions us to our seats.

“Guys, the Wing King has a good deal for the Squadron”  Oh no, here it comes again.

“The Squadron that had been tasked to provide Red Air for the next Cope Thunder has had to pull out. PACAF asked the Wing if one of our squadrons could fill in.  The Wing King chose us.”  Pandemonium breaks out.  Cope Thunder was just about the best flying we had available and we’d been back from it less than a month.  Plus it was at Clark AB PI, doesn’t get much better than that.  (Side note, I think it was a Navy F-4S squadron, doesn’t really matter they weren’t there.)

We’re scheduled to deploy in 2 weeks.

Time passes quickly and we’re now down in the PI, playing Bad Guys, which is not a role we played very often at Cope Thunder and the fact that we’d done it during our last Cope Thunder against the Aussies probably was a factor in our selection.

I’ve got the afternoon go leading a four ship, but am not the mission commander.  So while I’ve got some mission planning to do, I’m also available to be SOF for the morning go.  This means I have to attend the morning mass brief.  I’m there, taking some notes, getting a general feel for the plan. 



The mission commander has a typical plan for dividing responsibility for defending the airspace.  Essentially, a line from Clark to High Peak to Hermana Mayor (a large island a few miles off shore) will divide the Land approach from the shoreline approach and a line from Clark to the mouth of the river at Botolan will divide the Shoreline approach from the Spratley’s approach.  Reasonable visual references to try and help provide physical separation between flights.  Briefing completed, the morning go goes about the business of going. 

I get back to mission planning.  I hear the Blue Force Jets taking off.  The intervals of 10 second take off going on for about 10 minutes is a big hint of identity.  20 minutes later another minute of 10 second intervals alerts me that Red Force is airborne and I am on Duty.  This means little more than the Duty Desk knows where I am in case the 3TFW SOF needs Eagle specific emergency procedure help. 

About 20 minutes later, I hear a knock it off call made on Guard.  Uh-Oh, that’s never used at Cope Thunder unless something bad has happened.  A couple of minutes later the SOF phone rings, there’s a couple of seconds and I hear “He’s right here” and hands the phone to me  I feel sick.

I identify myself, and the SOF says “we’re not sure what’s happened yet, but it looks like we might have lost one of yours, please notify your Senior Rep (The Vice Wing King was deployed with us) as well as Home Base.  We’re doing a head count and will let you know as soon as we know anything definite.” 

I look at the schedule and make a note of the names and tail numbers assigned to the morning go.  I notice that all my guys from my former flight were airborne.  Time is stopped.  I want to know who, but don’t want to know who.

I call Chambers Hall and ask to be put through to the Vice Wing King.  He’s left the building.  Call the Club.  Nope not there for breakfast.  Decide to call back to Kadena, and get put through to the Wing King.  Explain what I’ve been told as opposed to what I know to be true so far.  He tells me to call back every 10 minutes until directed differently.

The SOF calls back and says we’ve definitely had an Eagle hit the water, in the vicinity of Hermana Mayor.  Well, that eliminates the Boss who was in the Southern Vector, however, my guys now represent 6 of the 8 remaining possibles.  I call back home and report that info.  Jets are starting to come back down initial.  I’m listening as they check in on tower.  The flight in the center vector checks in with four.  It’s definitely one of mine.  Finally the last Eagle flight checks in, One, Two, Three.

Rocket.

The Vice shows up and I fill him in on what’s happened.  He tells me to continue and he’ll contact Home for now.  The guys start coming back in the squadron and I have them give me all 12 VCR Tapes and put them in a safe and lock it.  I tell them to debrief and take copious written notes. When done, sign them and give them to me.  They’re added to the safe.  Pretty soon, the 3TFW Wing Safety Officer comes up and signs for all that material.  The Vice relieves me, grounds the squadron until further notice and I head back to Chambers Hall.

There is a Wake at the Club that night.  That’s the only thing I can think of to describe it.  No other squadron showed up, for dinner, beers, crud or anything.  Just us.  There were some old retired fighter pilots there, who kept a lid on things. 

The next morning, The Boss calls us all together and tells us what he knows.  Rocket had been involved in a mid-air with another Eagle!  The Blue Force had used Hermana Mayor as a Nav point and Rocket as #4 had seen them.  He’d called the tally to his lead who cleared him to engage.  Rocket’s flight was in the Eastern sector.  Rocket began a left hand turn while looking down to keep tally on the bogeys.

Simultaneously, the flight in the Middle Sector’s #2 guy was on the east side of his flight and sees the bandits below.  He calls the tally to his lead who cleared him to engage.  He starts a right turn to keep a tally on the bandits.

Distance between the two flights was about 8 miles, between the filght leads about 12, neither flight lead was aware of the other flight.

Extensive modeling after the fact determined that Rocket had milliseconds before impact begun to commit the nose of his jet down taking it slightly out of the flight path of the second jet.  The horizontal slab of the other jet passed through the canopy of Rocket’s jet killing him.  Since the Eagle will trim itself automatically when the stick is held steady for a second, the airplane was trimmed for a couple of degree nose low moderate bank which it held until impacting the water. The other Eagle thought he’d hit jet wash, came back to Clark and landed normally.

This happened 25 years ago today.  F-15C 78-534 was not recoverable.  There was enough DNA recovered to confirm Rocket’s death.

The squadron is cleared to fly two days later.  It was not the same, and it took us a while to get back up on step.  We finished out the exercise without further incident and deployed back home.  That was to be my last Cope Thunder.

Two weeks later, I received a package in the mail from PACAF headquarter, containing these two photographs.  Rocket is #4.

A week or so ago, PA posted about the last 7 seconds.  I’m convinced those 7 seconds were no different than any other 7 seconds in Rocket’s life.  One instant he’s there, the next he’s not.  As I sat down to write this, I realized that’s probably the best possible way to go.


*SJC

23 comments:

  1. Nice post. I hope you don't have more like it.

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    1. Fortunately, while I lost a few friends along the way, this was the only one of "my guys" I lost.

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  2. What Tuna said.

    Some people forget the cost of freedom. Those of us in aviation don't. We get reminded of that cost far too often.

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    1. Yes, we do.
      Thanks for letting me "do" Saturday.
      Back to our regular posted schedule on Monday.

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  3. Thank you for sharing. Each day is a gift.

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  4. Concur with Tuna, and if you have to go, not a bad way. And yes, we DO know way too many who've crossed the river, both in combat and in training.

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    1. Sarge has his pantheon on the masthead, I have my own list that gets mentioned (in my head) every Sunday. There is overlap.

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  5. So hard to realize that someone is gone. Especially in times like that. So much of what's posted here brings back many memories of the sixties and all that went on then. Nice writing, bittersweet memories.

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    1. I didn't elaborate on the retired fighter pilots at the club that night. They were all Thud or Phantom drivers from Vietnam. Obviously, they had experienced similar circumstances and in greater number. Without saying or doing anything, they kinda kept the group focused on the reality that losing ones comrades is a fact of life. While they never said it, the lesson was, "mourn him tonight, tomorrow saddle up and ride!" I appreciated their presence.

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  6. I never have forgotten the cost. Through the years, one always heard of training accidents. For the US Army, it was always true at REFORGER time in Europe. Military life, by it's very definition, is dangerous. Civilians never seem to appreciate that fact.

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    1. Yeah, they seem to get the losses in war part, but not understand what it takes training wise to prepare for that. The training has to be as realistic as possible and the slightest mistake, or in this case, bad luck has huge consequences.

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  7. Today, when we Lexicans have learned of a death of one our clan, we once again learned that life is fleeting and nothing is guaranteed. We only hope to go our on our own terms doing what we love as in this case. I just hope at this point in my life one day to wake up dead.

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    1. Without a doubt I'd rather go out as he did, without even knowing it happened, than lingering knowing the inevitable.

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  8. I feel like a jerk for joking about form now. Thanks for sharing. Your words and those images are a fine, fine tribute. I'll crack a cold one to Rocket now, too, at the appropriate times. I think you're right about the best way.

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    1. Actually, the spacing on the over the top is a bit of an optical illusion, since Rocket is about 150' closer to me than 2 and stacked down from 3 who's stacked down from 1. The formation as I spiraled through the middle of the loop was pretty good.
      And your post on 7 seconds, got me to thinking Rocket's way would be a heckuva a lot easier than to hit the water while strapped in to a seat, and aware of what was happening. So...No worries on the kidding thing. IKBIL doncha know!

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  9. "...that's probably the best possible way to go."

    Which is why I picked the AF instead of the Army..

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    1. Yeah, there's not a lot of middle ground.

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  10. My (then future) brother-in-law was killed in an ORI at Bergstrom AFB in '65. Low level bombing run, saw someone on collision course, flipped over and both ejected upside down. A real mess. I met my (then future) wife through his insistence. Great sorrow for those he left, great joy and happiness for Jeanie and I these past fifty years. We see his widow, Jeanie's sister, (now remarried) often. Still mourning the loss of her first true love. Things happen beyond our understanding.

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    1. I think every so often, the Lord has an opening in His Air Force. In Rocket's case, there must have been only one opening, because it was only a matter of inches between one and two.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)