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On that afternoon of January 16, 1991, pilots stood around uneasily waiting for the mass briefing aboard the Saratoga. Everyone among the carrier's aircrew was on edge. This was no routine mission. As they waited pensively to hear from their battle group commander, some of them prayed to themselves. Others thought of their families and friends back home. All of them knew their mission down to the last detail. Iraq had let a January 15 deadline to withdraw from Kuwait expire. America was going to war. No one knew what to expect that night. The few combat-seasoned aviators aboard the carrier felt the same roiling emotions as the greenhorn pilots on their first cruise. In eight hours or less, they'd all be flying into combat. As Rear Admiral George "Nick" Gee started speaking, they listened somberly.
"Gentlemen," Gee said, "George Bush has called on us to do our duty, to liberate Kuwait, and that liberation is going to start tonight. There are several types of people back in the United States right now who will be watching as your bombs start dropping over Baghdad. It's going to be just about time for the evening news back home. There's going to be a guy sitting in a bar with long hair and a beard, an old hippie type, who is drinking beer and watching TV, and he's going to go, 'Fucking A, those are my boys, god damned U.S.' There are going to be moms out there that are crying and saying, 'That's my boy.' They are going to be watching you. You need to do this well. This will be with you for the rest of your lives. You will remember this night forever, so you want to do the best job you possibly can because if you don't, you will regret it until you die."
As he listened, VFA-81 Sunliner squadron pilot Lieutenant Barry W. "Skull" Hull felt his mouth go bone dry. He wasn't alone. "The very first thing we did was get a time hack so we'd all be on exact time," Hull remembered later. "We're synchronized. In thirty seconds it's going to be twenty-four after the hour, then ten, nine, eight and then he called 'Hack!' "
The atmosphere in the room remained somber until the mass briefing ended. Then the squadrons went to their own ready rooms for their individual mission briefs.
Hull, Scott "Spike" Speicher, Tony "Bano" Albano, Michael T. "Spock" Anderson, Philip "Chauncey" Gardner, plus scores of other Navy pilots, would soon climb into their F/A-18 Hornets and roar off the carrier Saratoga in the Red Sea, across Saudi Arabia toward Baghdad, initiating Operation Desert Storm. In the planning room, they reviewed the timing of the attack, their flight paths, and targets.
Originally, Speicher wasn't supposed to go. His commander had tapped him as the airborne spare. He was to fly in and take over if any of the other jets malfunctioned. As such, the spare had to know everybody's mission. But he had gone to his commanding officer, "Spock" Anderson, the day before and pleaded his case. He didn't want to be the spare, to be the one to have to turn around and come back to the ship without firing a shot. Anderson relented and let him join the mission.
Instead Spock assigned the spare position to Hull, but Hull balked, too. "I go, 'Wait a minute, I don't want to be the spare either.' It's not like I was some sort of big hero and the truth is, it's not like Spike was being a hero," said Hull. "I wanted to be in there with my buddies." To fix his predicament with the skipper, Hull went looking for Spike. "The skipper didn't like me very much," Hull confessed, so he figured Spike could help smooth things over. "I said, 'Look what you did for yourself. You gotta do it for me, too.' Spike goes, 'Yeah, sure.' " To assure Spike's success with Anderson, Hull told him that he'd get Conrad "Banker" Caldwell "and I guarantee you Banker will know every single mission." And he did. Hull was back on the mission. Later, he thanked Spike.
The mood of the Navy pilots is shown in a letter Barry Hull wrote home to his family a few days before. Saddam, he wrote, didn't appear to have his bags packed for a trip back to Iraq. "I suppose it could be arranged to send him back, maybe inside his own personal bag." There were no doubts about their readiness to go into combat. Hull was confident that the big picture was well in place and that they'd be able to concentrate on the details he and his squadronmates would soon face. "Occasionally we have the luxury to sit back and think, 'The plans are ready, now what else do I need to do?' " He ran the list of items all the Sunliners had to do before the deadline for Saddam's withdrawal drew closer. "We've sanitized our flight suits. That means all nametags and patches are removed. We wear our dog tags. Personal weapons are carried. My survival gear is so full of water that, you guessed it, my Oreos got smushed and I had to eat them and restock. Oh well. Wallets contain only military ID, family pictures, cash and credit cards. The SAR (search and rescue) guys tell us if we go down, we might be able to rent a car and drive out. Weird, huh?" Hull also carried sunscreen, Chapstick and, of course, his Vuarnets. "Would you rather be seen in the desert in Ray-Bans or Vuarnets?" he asked his sister. "One of our maintenance troops gave me a raghead hat, the turban thing, in case I need to go incognito."
Captain Dean M. "Milo" Hendrickson, Speicher's carrier air wing commander, was one of only a few pilots aboard the Saratoga who'd actually seen sustained combat. He warned the pilots of the first strike: "You're going to come back. Then you're going to look around . . . and one of you won't be here."
The Sunliner squadron's ready room was six decks down in the gigantic ship, and an escalator was used to carry the pilots and their sixty pounds of flight gear up to the flight deck. In the same letter, Hull describes the feeling of seeing the hatch leading outside. "A few deep breaths are taken at this point," Hull wrote home, "because I'm about to enter another world. It's dark and dangerous, and if you're not careful it will kill you." The hatch to the flight deck was always pitch dark and seemed to suck the light out of Hull's flashlight. The hatch led to a catwalk, a small flight of steps below the flight deck. The pilots stepped among fueling hoses and extra catapult wires and chocks and chains and yellow gear. The sodium vapor lights cast an eerie glow on the men and aircraft. Looking into the lights, only the outline of men could be seen. Looking away from the lights, there were only the reflections off goggles and more darkness.
On that flight run a couple of days shy of combat, there were several hundred men topside. Hull had to find a man with a Sunliner patch so he could tell him where to find his jet. "He knows what I want," continued Hull in his letter, "and just points without my asking." The twenty- to thirty-knot wind bent the men and the pilots over as they worked to get planes on and off the deck. "Your flashlight gives you a small tunnel vision to see clearly," Hull wrote, "and all the rest is noise and shadows. No faces, just helmets and goggles." Hull had once gone through an entire night launch and not known who his plane captain was-it was too dark to see and too loud to talk.
Before Hull could reach his jet, a Hornet slammed into the deck fifty feet to his left and startled him. Maybe the Hornet's pilot had boltered, for he gave everyone a light show as his hook dragged down the landing area at 150 knots spewing sparks and lighting up the night. All over the deck ordnance men were loading and unloading and pushing carts stacked with bombs and smart missiles. The steam from the catapults blew by, sometimes completely enveloping the men standing in it. As the steam cleared, Hull shone his light onto the Hornet he was looking for and there stood his plane captain, who would oversee the preparations for taking to the skies.
A half-hour before launch, the air boss came up on the loudspeaker: "Gentlemen, it's time to get into the proper flight deck uniform, sleeves rolled down, helmets on and buckled, goggles pulled down, life vests on and securely fastened. Let's check around the go birds for FOD [foreign object debris]. Whenever you're ready, gentlemen, let's crank 'em up, crank the go birds."
No matter how many times a Navy pilot hears those words, they still give him goose bumps. Mounting his Hornet and settling in, Hull looked back on the ladder to see his plane captain close behind. He helped him strap in. With a word or two, Hull's plane captain wished him a safe flight and scampered down to do one last preflight check of the Hornet. From his perch in the cockpit, all Hull could see was the outline of the nineteen-year-old plane captain and the glow of his blue wands. As the Hornet's engines fired up, the canopy came down with a thud, then slid smoothly forward and locked into place.
Fifteen minutes passed before Hull was ready to give a thumb's-up. The chocks and chains were removed from his Hornet, nose wheel steering was engaged, and he armed his ejection seat. Taxi directors in yellow shirts came out to guide his Hornet to the catapult, as he tried to do the takeoff checks and roger the weight board. This refers to calculating the gross weight of the plane, including ordnance, fuel, gear, the pilot's weight, etc. so that the correct thrust can be applied to the catapult that launches the plane off of the carrier. Hull spread the wings of the Hornet and made sure they locked. One last big turn and the jet was in place on the catapult. There is a rhythm and cadence to the men on the deck. Ten men scurried underneath the airplane to do final checks and hook up the launch bar. The taxi signals became precise-small and accurate movements. The ordnance men armed the Hornet's weapons and then passed the plane back. All stations checked "go."
Hull's heart was pounding. The yellow shirt checked with the catapult officer, and Hull got the sign to go for it and run up the engines. As he released the brakes-the hold-back keeping him stationary on the catapult-Hull added full power. His head tilted back and the lights came on-the nighttime salute. The catapult officer touched the deck, signaling launch, and five seconds later the Hornet lurched forward. Within two seconds Hull was doing over 180 miles per hour, pinned to the seat. Hurtled into the air, Hull said, "You better believe most of us tap afterburner." A few nights later, he and his squadronmates would roar off the Saratoga for the first air strike of the Persian Gulf War.
In the planning room, Speicher and Albano learned that they'd take off well after midnight and return around dawn. Hearing that news, they decided they'd better get some sleep and walked back to the stateroom they shared. Speicher crawled into the top bunk, Albano into the bottom. They lay still for forty-five minutes, hearts pounding, minds racing.
"I can't sleep," Albano finally said softly.
"I can't, either."
Around 1 a.m. local time, they put on their flight suits, boots and gear, and walked through the mess deck and up to the flight deck. Speicher, Albano and others from the Sunliners squadron slapped hands. "See you back on deck in a couple of hours," Albano told his buddy.
Scott Speicher had come to the Sunliners as a very junior department head. He didn't become a lieutenant commander until the squadron was under way on the Operation Desert Shield deployment. Scott Speicher had entered Aviation Officers' Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida, in July 1980. After completing training at the top of his class, he was commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy on October 24 of that year. After he finished his flight training, he reported to the Hellrazors of VA-174 for his initial A-7E Corsair II replacement pilot training, then was assigned to the Gunslingers of VA-105, where he made deployments aboard the USS Carl Vinson, USS Forrestal and from a base in Iwakuni, Japan. For the next three years, Scott transitioned from the A-7E to the F/A-18 Hornet and qualified as a flight instructor in Strike Fighter Squadron 106 (VFA-106). His years as a flight instructor were followed by a rotation back to a fleet squadron. Scott was a patient and thorough flight instructor. No one who recalled him as a teacher would say otherwise.
Speicher and Albano had met long before. "We developed a close working and then a close personal friendship," Albano would say later. "We had similar personalities." They were also in a tightly knit squadron environment where pilots end up living together for six to nine months out of the year, in close quarters. "We work together and rely on each other to save one another's life and provide both mutual support on liberty as well as in the air and in combat." There were times, recalled Albano, "that you tell your squadronmates things you never tell your wife." Albano had just rolled off the Carrier Air Wing 17 staff, where he'd been senior landing signal officer, to join the squadron. By chance he ended up filling a slot with the Sunliners that had been occupied by Scott's roommate, who'd left for his next assignment. "We became roommates and fellow department heads."
Bano had also just spent some time with Scott and some of the other Sunliners out at Fallon, Nevada, where the squadron had gone on workups-training exercises-before their scheduled six-month deployment. "Everyone goes to Lake Tahoe," he said, recalling a funny incident. "It's nice in the wintertime because you can go skiing. Everyone goes and gets a chalet. I remember Scott being passed out. I don't know if he was passed out or just got tired of being in the bar we had gone to, but he went out to the van and it was freezing out there." Scott had bundled up and climbed under all the coats piled in the backseat. "He's out there," continued Bano, "and everyone's getting in the car." Speicher was under all the coats, but no one knew it yet. "Where the hell is Spike?" they thought. Then someone jumped in the backseat, on top of the coats, and Spike started rising up like a hamster out of a pile of sawdust. "He just laid in the back of the van and went to sleep," recalls Bano. "I said, 'Spike, I gotta get you back. You're going to freeze out here. I'm going back to the bar, but I'm going to put you to bed, buddy.' " Spike murmured, "Thanks, Dad."
Later, during the Christmas holiday, the Saratoga pulled into Haifa harbor and put off liberty boats for the crew and air wing personnel to go into Israel to see the sights. One day, the pilots were relaxing at a hotel in Haifa where they'd set up a squadron admin, which means the pilots get hotel rooms and hang out and have a good time. They were several floors up on a balcony, having a cookout, and Spike looked across the street at some construction. "Twenty bucks I can hit that bulldozer with this kielbasa," Spike said, smiling broadly. "You're on," the other pilots told him. So Spike grabbed a whole kielbasa, ducked into the room to line up his shot, then quick-stepped to the railing and tossed it. It hurtled up, out across the street and then smacked right on top of the bulldozer. The operator looked over and started yelling, and the pilots cackled. "Direct hit! Direct hit!"
On Christmas Eve, Scott went ashore with his executive officer, Bill "Maggot" McKee, Albano, and Craig "Bert" Bertolett. "We toured around Jerusalem," Albano remembered warmly, "and then we went around Bethlehem that night." Several days later, they toured the area around the Sea of Galilee and tried to find the locations where the Sermon on the Mount and other sacred events in the Bible occurred.
Scott read the Bible regularly, both because of his faith and to gain some historical perspective. "He read the Bible a lot prior to us going to Israel," said Albano. "That's the kind of guy he was-very studious when he wanted to be, very passionate about learning things that he didn't have a clear understanding of . . . he wanted to learn more about a place we were going to go to."
But liberty did not last long. Around lunchtime on January 16, the Sunliners got sudden word they'd be going into combat. Adrenaline started flowing as the pilots went up to the strike planning rooms to look over the mission. Before they knew it, they'd be up on the flight deck, manning their Hornets. The hours flew past.
They were all anxious. Barry Hull knew he must be more uptight than he thought because his mouth was so dry. "I need a drink of water," he kept thinking as he stood in the paraloft-a room used to fix and store parachute gear-suiting up in his flight gear before heading up to the flight deck on the escalator. "I must be more nervous than I think I am." Then he remembered the Diet Coke and apple he'd packed in his pockets for the flight. "These missions are so long."
Though he high-fived his best friend, Tony Albano, Scott was quiet. No one was doing a lot of talking. It was time to focus-they had a mission to fly. It was a pitch-black night with just a sliver of moon. But at least it was clear. Once on the flight deck, the pilots could sense the seriousness of what they were about to do. "None of us had ever been in combat before," said Hull.
"We had aircraft turned up and launch safe," recalled Chief Terry Chandler, a Sunliner flight deck coordinator. "That night was an emotional period of time for everyone on the roof [the flight deck]. Everybody was ready." Despite the whine and roar of engines, the crew could hear the snapping and popping of the battle flags going up as they prepared their squadron aircraft for departure.
--From No One Left Behind: The Lt. Scott Speicher Story by Amy Waters Yarsinske (c) July 2002, Dutton, used by permission.