Sunday, September 28, 2008

Guest Blog Post - Bill Leighty

JCOC Day 5

We started early today; our wake up call was at 05:00. Despite the early time, the JCOC members began gathering in the hotel lobby almost a half hour earlier than requested because everyone remains excited about each day.

We left Spain on schedule for a three hour and forty minute flight aboard the same C-17 that has been with us throughout the trip. Our destination: Royal Air Force Base, Mildenhall, Cambridge, UK.

There was something different about boarding for today's flight. Unlike previous flights, each seat had an "air sickness" bag on it. We took this as a sign of bad weather ahead. As we approached the UK, the pilot came back to our seating area to explain to us that they were going to do some training on the approach and landing. He said they were going to execute a "tactical descent," demonstrating how they drop down from 33,000 feet to 10,000 ft in about two minutes. (If you do the calculation that is speeding toward earth at 185 miles an hour) This is done to avoid enemy fire in hostile zones. He also stated that our landing would be an "assault landing" to demonstrate how quickly they can land and get off the runway. He said it would be like a "theme" park ride.....just with no windows.

He went back to the flight deck and initiated the maneuvers. To drop out of the sky so quickly, they reverse two of the four engines (normally they reverse all four, but with such precious cargo on board they were being conservative). The first sensation is the shuddering of the entire plane as the two massive engines reverse. The shuddering is strong enough to capture your full attention but then you suddenly realize your stomach has moved way up in your throat. The sensation is like the first hill on a roller coaster, except it lasts about two minutes.

Upon arrival, we were briefed by Major General Hunt, Director of Air and Space Operations, US Air Forces, Europe (USAFE). General Hunt gave an engaging briefing about the history and strategic vision of USAFE (U-Saw-fee). Following our briefing we observed training exercises here on base. Airmen of the Special Tactics Squadron (STS) of the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG) parachuted onto the field in front of us to secure this "hostile" airfield. Additional airmen arrived on ATVs and motorcycles with special weapons and laser guided targeting equipment. Airstrikes, composed of F-15 Eagles and A-10 Thunderbolts dropped simulated bombs with real explosions in front of us. Once the "enemy" was suppressed and the area secured, we saw a KC-135 refueling four F-15 Eagles. Finally a C-130 flew in, demonstrating its ability to land in a 1,000 yard landing area. The KC-130 picked up the STS and flew off.

We had lunch with Airmen and Airwomen at the chow hall. Once again we were amazed at the stories they tell of the reasons they join and stay. I met Airman Kenny Cotton from Minnesota, who has been selected to be "Airman" of the quarter this next quarter. Airman Cotton implemented an innovative way of mapping every building on the base; locating hazardous materials so that firefighters can know in advance of arriving on scene.

After lunch we went to RAF Air base Lakenheath for a series of demonstrations including weapons loading of F-15 Eagles. We were able to climb in the refueler's station of a KC-135 Tanker and sit in the cockpit of the F-15 Eagle (both the C and E models).

We received briefings on the F-15 Pratt and Whitney 229 engines, chatted with special operations (SOG) airmen, with hands on displays of their weapons. Of special note were the displays and descriptions of their drone and Predator operations.

We also had demonstrations on the use of the "Military Working Dogs" used for security and explosive location. The Explosive Ordinance Detection Unit demonstrated how they disarm bombs once found, and we were given an opportunity to don this fashionable gear.

Finally each of us was given an opportunity to fly an F-15.

Ok so it was in a simulator. But it might as well have been the real thing because the feeling was just as intense for us. My assessment? I have no idea how the pilots can do all of that stuff at once, especially when they started shooting missiles at me. The trainer said I did really well. When I crashed the impact only drove me 1,500 into the ground. I got really good at rolls and loops. I never realized that these techniques help the plane gain an advantage in a dog fight by dramatically changing the operational air speeds of the plane. I always though all that looping and spinning was to dodge bullets an missiles. As "simulated" as this experience was, the wozziness and wabbling I did walking back to the bus was real.

We ended the day exhausted. But yet we had to eat! Dinner was at St John's Hall at St John College of Cambridge University. The Hall, like the great dining hall in Harry Potter, was impressive. After only one meal there I immediately felt much smarter.

Finally we had to visit an English pub despite our fatigue. But not just any pub. We visited the oldest pub in Cambridge. Established in 1799, the Eagle is where the crew of the "Memphis Bell" hung out. The pilot's signature is on the wall under glass. The crew's names are written on the ceiling from the flames of their "zippo" lighters.

Now really exhausted we went to bed. Tomorrow will come early and I am sure the organizers have planned a bang up day for us!

Cheers, Bill

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