Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Friends in Afghanistan

Bill is a friend that I met years ago while practicing at a small law firm in Rockville, Maryland. We hit it off and were prone to spending hours talking about life, instead of billing. Bill is somewhat of a "pathfinder" for me. A few years older, he seemed to be just a few years ahead of me in a lot of experiences. That gave us a lot to talk about, and we did.

I left that firm to join a large law firm, and Bill decided to do something other than the practice of law. He stopped working as a lawyer and joined a consulting firm. Then he met the woman who would become his wife. Janae was just out of law school and joining the Army as a legal officer in the 101st Airborne Division. Bill made a decision and made a change: he joined the army.

There are some who might not understand why someone would give up a career as a lawyer to become a rifle-toting soldier. I get it. It's either one of those things you want to do, or it's not. I'm kind of jealous.

Now Bill is a true Pathfinder. Wikipedia defines a Pathfinder as follows:
A pathfinder is a paratrooper who is inserted or dropped into place in order to set up and operate drop zones, pickup zones, and helicopter landing sites for airborne operations, air resupply operations, or other air operations in support of the ground unit commander. Pathfinders use a wide array of skills including air traffic control, ground-to-air communications, sling load operations and inspections, and drop zone and helicopter landing zone support in order to ensure the mission is a success.
Bill and Janae have been stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for the last few years. They are both being deployed to Afghanistan, although not to the same location. They'll be stationed about 100 miles apart. Fortunately, since Bill's group is an aviation group, they will likely be able to see each other with some frequency. Since Fort Campbell is on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee, we've been emailing about getting together since Jodie and I moved late last year. The last time I had seen Bill was when I had taken him and his son flying.

With only a week before Bill and Janae left for Afghanistan, Jodie and I took off early afternoon on Friday to go visit. I planned for a flight of about 90 minutes to Outlaw Field and filed IFR even though the skies were clear. The ride out was the most uncomfortable of my flying career.

The turbulence caught me by surprise. It was not very hot -- only in the low 50s -- so I didn't expect convective turbulence. The winds aloft were only 15-20 knots, so I didn't expect significant terrain-related turbulence. Regardless of my expectations, though, it was a rough ride. In aviator-speak, there was "continuous moderate turbulence." I cinched my seatbelt down tight, but still hit my head repeatedly. I worked hard to hold our assigned altitude and heading, and sang along with "Three Little Birds" to try to reassure my passenger. "Don't worry [bang] about a thing [bam] 'cause every little thing [ba-bump-bump-BANG] gonna be alright...."

Va (design maneuvering speed) on this airplane is 112 knots at maximum gross weight. We were significantly under max gross, which meant our Va was lower. I was too busy to try to calculate what our Va actually was, so I just shot for about 100 knots. My stomach alternated between my head and my feet, and it was a big relief when we finally landed.

Bill met us at the airport in picture-perfect form. He has completely lost the "desk posture" that most lawyers have and stood at attention with his beret perfectly cocked as we taxied up. He was nearly giddy with the boundless energy he has always had, as he showed us around Fort Campbell and all of the various stationary exhibits. Some of them were immediately recognizable. Others I could not place, or even tell how they were supposed to fly. Can anyone tell me what this is?

Bill gave us a tour of a maintenance hangar where crews were working on Blackhawk helicopters.

As we left the maintenance hangar, we drove past the lines of Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters on our way to see Janae.

Back at Bill and Janae's apartment, Jodie and I looked at pictures from their wedding and other events. They changed out of their uniforms, then we headed to dinner.

It was great to spend time with them. Bill and I had the easy familiarity of old friends who can still talk about anything. All four of us chatted easily and we found ourselves frequently talking about the fun things we'll do when they get back from Afghanistan in a year. Far too quickly, it was nearly 9 p.m. and time to go home. I filed an IFR plan and we blasted off into the night sky, talking to the Fort Campbell Approach air traffic controllers.

The ride home was smooth and fast, with a slight tailwind giving us a push for most of the trip. As we headed into Knoxville, the air traffic controller vectored us south to get around the television towers that haunt Knoxville aviators, then cleared us for a visual approach. I cancelled IFR as I lined up on the river and called for a straight-in landing. Nobody else was on the radio. With the propeller windmilling, we silently descended over Neyland Stadium, the bridges across the Tennessee River, and dropped onto the runway with a bump. (Incidentally, when I shut the plane down I had exactly 350.0 hours of flying time.)

The airport beacon silently flashed its white and green welcome as we shut down and tied down the airplane. Godspeed, Bill and Janae. See you in March 2011!


Blogger Greg Brown said...

Postlogue: Bill returned from Afghanistan two months early - in January 2011 - with a lump in his neck. He underwent chemo that appeared to be successful, followed by radiation. The cancer reappeared a few months later. Although he fought hard - through surgeries, chemo, radiation - the cancer took Bill's life on December 28, 2011.

11:03 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home