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Down on Range

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Old 09-03-2012, 10:08 AM
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Icon1 Down on Range


The following is my account of an incident that I experienced as an Auto-Track Radar Repairman in the USAF. Names were either modified or omitted for the usual reasons.

I was a Sr. Airman assigned to the maintenance shift at Detachment 1, 1CEVG La Junta, Colorado. Det 1 was one of many sites across the states that aided in the training of pilots for the purpose of improving bombing skills and threat evasion. We accomplished this by acquiring and tracking military aircraft as they’d attempt simulated bomb runs over a virtual war zone consisting of rancher’s silos and farm houses.

The TSQ-96 was a Vietnam era radar system but still up for the task in this, the early 1980’s. In charge of the 96 and my immediate supervisor was a rather portly Staff Sergeant that reminded me of a Jersey wise guy in fatigues, maddeningly abrasive though decidedly intelligent.

Sgt. Deniro stood beside the scoring easel stirring his coffee as I rifled through the night’s work orders. With a signature tap, tap, tap of the spoon against the rim of his cup, a call came over the operations radio.

It was between two and three AM and the range had been closed for several hours but this pilot, probably now oblivious to earthbound activities, had hoped for one last bit of bomb scoring credit before returning to base.

Deniro gave him the bad news and with a grumble, the pilot announced that he’d be conducting a camera attack only…T/A, meaning Terrain Avoidance. It wasn’t until sometime later that I’d realize the tragic irony of his innocent declaration. The Sergeant bid him well and we continued about the business of radar maintenance.

The hours passed as I busied myself, per Jersey mandate, with the tedium of randomly replacing tubes in control panels in the hopes of magically resolving the reported problem. That’s right…I said tubes! Our shift normally ended at eight when we’d be greeted by the first operational shift and the admin staff but today would prove to be unlike any other.

Uncharacteristically two hours early, base Commander Lt. Colonel Hoffmayer appeared in the dayroom quickly followed by our Captain and XO. We soon learned that the entire staff of 100+ was called in to assemble at the remote facility for an emergency dispatch.

It seemed that Denver ATC had reported that we likely had a “BUFF down on range”! A BUFF is an acronym we used to describe the massive profile of a B-52 bomber, Big Ugly Fat…uh…Fellow.

We were to discreetly head to the crash site in our personal vehicles and set up a perimeter around the likely carnage keeping an eye out for classified materials and repelling any curious onlookers until security forces arrived from nearby Petersen AFB. I immediately teamed up with my best bud Dan Delgado and another friend as we piled into the cab of his 1970’s Ford F-150.

Flanked by the dry and desolate plains beyond the Arkansas Valley we drove at 57 MPH smoking an LA style spliff provided by the ever ready Airman Delgado. As the weed took effect, I began pondering the ominous significance and probable certainty that I may have been one of the last people to hear the pilot’s voice before he died.



Suddenly, my maudlin musings were interrupted by the whine of Buck Sergeant Allan Dobbins’ ultra-compact whizzing by us at 75 MPH, emergency lights flashing. Dan shook his head, “What part of discreet don’t you understand Dobbins?”

Dobbins had a way of going against the interpersonal grain like that, alienating others with his assertions of self-importance. In the months to come he would take on the role of Detachment Judas but for now he was simply edifying his less than stellar reputation.

We pulled in to the makeshift roadside parking lot and joined our NCOs as they gave us individual sectors to maintain. From this vantage point, the only indication of something amiss was the tell-tale column of smoke beyond the rise just ahead.

As I crested the plateau, the full force of the scene struck me in all its surrealistic horror. The enormous airborne warrior had slashed a path a quarter mile long through the midst of the rocky landscape flinging tons of shrapnel, earth and sagebrush in its wake. The smoke arose from various places along the debris field no doubt fed by literally hundreds of gallons of impact-cast jet fuel setting a tone reminiscent of Milton or Dante.

I wandered over to my temporary assignment wide eyed and openly awed by the twisted grandeur before me. The field itself was unremarkable in appearance, a gently sloping plain unbroken by natural obstructions save one large mound of stone near the center. I shook my head as I wondered how in the world this could have happened when my gaze fell on that lone mound.

Upon inspection I saw what appeared to be a massive chunk taken out just below the summit, a smooth semi-circle of rock inexplicably absent. It was as if a ravenous Titan descended upon the desolate scene only to sink his teeth into the indifferent monolith for reasons known only to him. This was the likely point of initial impact and the resultant field of nightmares beyond was the horrific legacy that brought eight lives to their end. I’d been told that the standard crew of a combat B-52 was six which led many to speculate on the presence of the other two. Were they on official assignment or just along for the ride? I never came to know that answer but I suppose it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. They were soldiers just like us and their families grieved regardless of the particulars.

Preoccupied with the drama before me, I hadn’t thought to look down at my own patch of responsibility. To my surprise, I had been standing mere feet from a colossal sheet of camouflaged metal thrust into the desert terrain by the momentum of the aircraft’s death throes. Apparently I had been oblivious to the fact that I had been keeping company with one of the Buff’s tail fins. Since it was neither remains nor classified, there was no reason to report it at that time so I returned to witnessing the epic event but with renewed solemnity.

Word got around in relative quick time as local pilots began circling the crash site. They were quickly dispatched when the region was declared a civilian no fly zone just in time for military helicopters to arrive on the scene. Making the grandest of entrances was the double-propped Chinook, a personnel/cargo helo. Even from my distant perspective, the landing was imposing in its spectacle. As the rotors powered down I could see the distinctive berets of a flight of MPs disembark, our replacements. Soon they were followed by a smorgasbord of officers of varying ranks and affiliations. They were easily distinguishable by their hat brims’ display of golden reliefs, unofficially referred to as scrambled eggs.

As quickly as it began, our roles in this saga had come to an end. Once the MPs had established their own perimeter our NCOs sent us back to the road to finish our day as we saw fit.

Though the event had passed and our parts had been played, the impact of that day remained long after. I had been spared much of the anguish from my assigned vantage point but others were not so fortunate. Scott Haute, a horn-rimmed friend with a rather cynical wit but good natured disposition had been paired with the Detachment medic. It became his duty to hold the large evidence bags while the medic mournfully placed remnants of crew within for later identification. A self-dismantling bomber shows little mercy to human flesh when driven by high speed force merging with an immovable object. As you can imagine, the process took many bags and many repetitions to complete their work.

Others would report of finding flight boots in the field that were not empty and disembodied hands still clutching their station controls. I cannot testify whether those statements were truth or macabre attempts at titillation over a few beers and blaring music but I can attest to the sincerity of the despondent look in their eyes as they conveyed them.

One man in particular comes to mind though sadly I can’t recall his name. He was a tall strapping fellow that reminded me of a refined Jim Brown. Amiable enough he was soft spoken and respectful though a bit stiff in his social skills. His sector was the final resting place of the tattered remains of what was once the cockpit. The following day his demeanor became tentative, silently performing his tasks brandishing what could only be described as a thousand yard stare! His laugh became forced and unnatural along with his delivery in conversation. It took months before the manic lights finally dimmed in his eyes but to our grateful delight, he emerged a better man than when he first encountered that tumultuous prairie.

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Old 09-03-2012, 10:30 AM
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I enjoyed the read, can't judge the content, (beyond my field of knowledge) but brought well enough to compel me to read it in one stretch.

Thanks for posting, since you didn't express a wish to be nit picked I didn't.
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Old 09-03-2012, 10:00 PM
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Lucky,
Heh,heh,heh!Thanks for your restraint.
I don't want you to get the wrong idea given that post in Member's Only Forum. I welcome critique but I'm not particularly interested in the mechanics right now. It's the flow and function that I'm after more than anything else. Contradictory statements, awkward phrasing,repetition...these are the things that I'm focusing on most.

I usually catch technical aspects in rewrites. In a sense it's fluid writing mojo that I seek, conveying a principle effectively and with ease.

Hopefully, I'll be able to give you some of the selections from "Archive" for your perusal. Wait till you see my take on the relativities of time and space, "Time has a proposition". It's in the vein of...a priest, a nun and a monkey walk into a bar...

Thanks again for your response and you're welcome to PM me anytime...provided I can figure out how to work the controls.
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Old 09-03-2012, 11:04 PM
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From a readers point of view it flowed well enough. If you put an introductory para atop your next piece, explaining what kind of feedback you seek, you'll be likely to get that. Now I gave you nothing more than, "I liked it." Not really helpful or constructive, but no crickets either.
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Old 09-04-2012, 05:08 AM
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Dear Abdula,
Since we have "prior knowledge" of one another, I will keep this brief and concise and much in the vein of "LuckyMe" (neither helpful or constructive) but I liked it very much. You have a great descriptive ability. Especially when you talk about how planes self-dismantel and how disembodied hands are still clutching their station controls! This brings mental pictures to mind that are only equalled by Polaroid.
Good Job!
Cate

Last edited by Gritsy; 09-04-2012 at 05:10 AM.. Reason: better sentence structure
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Old 09-16-2012, 11:28 PM
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Grits,
I consider myself fortunate that I was spared the more gruesome aspects of the incident in question. I will say that it was probably the most dramatic event that I'd ever witnessed. As far as the imagery, I thank you but in this case, the event painted its own pictures.

To Lucky:Thanks for providing this cricket free zone!
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Old 09-19-2012, 09:18 AM
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I came over to read to hear about how it was in the good 'ol days of the AF. I've never worked outside of the hospital so I'm not familiar with most of the acronyms, but I liked the piece a lot. It’s a heavy reminder that, while we are so used to doing our day to day tasks, we sometimes forget the danger inherent in our positions.
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Old 09-19-2012, 09:24 AM
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Sayble,
Thanks for checking it out. This occured in '82 but it could have happened yesterday. Some things never change, a small reminder of constant dangers faced by those serving to those served.

Keep up the good work!
Abdula
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Old 09-20-2012, 12:40 AM
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" In the months to come he would take on the role of Detachment Judas but for now he was simply edifying his less than stellar reputation" Love that line.

”The field itself was unremarkable in appearance, a gently sloping plain unbroken by natural obstructions save one large mound of stone near the center. I shook my head as I wondered how in the world this could have happened when my gaze fell on that lone mound.”
You kind of lost me here. I only added my two cents because you asked about flow. As a reader the contradiction in what you are describing threw me off a little.

I enjoyed it. Thanks! We all get entirely to complacent. Good read!
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Old 09-20-2012, 09:50 PM
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Logan,
Thanks for the read. I saw that you mentioned checking this out on Sayble's thread and took a look to see if you'd posted.

I'm not sure I see what you mean by contradiction.
I described the field, made note of the mound, surely he couldn't have hit the only obstruction in the enormous prairie, then noticed the bite taken out. I guess what I'm saying is that it wasn't like the plane was wrapped around the mound and somehow I was confused. Only after seeing the "bite" could a connection be made.

Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the read. I can only imagine the stories that our current combat troops could tell. I have a son-in-law in Afg. right now though I'd be reluctant to ask without him offering...if you know what I mean?

Thanks Again,
I'll see you in the pages
Abdula
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Old 09-21-2012, 01:13 PM
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You really took me back. Incidents like the one you discribe are burnt into one's memory. As a young fellow on an aircraft carrier in the 60's, death was always a possiblity. We had to be reminded to becareful often as your young minds could not wrap themselfs around our own mortality. Good story it helped me remember. Truly all who serve give their lifes for their country - some don't get it back.
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Old 09-21-2012, 04:05 PM
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Tor,
I thought you must be a "seasoned soul" like myself. My father was career Navy from the end of the Korean Conflict through to the early 70's. I'm sure you share some of his experiences though as I mentioned to Logan, I'd never ask.

Thanks Again for stopping by. I'll be watching for your next thread, so don't leave us dangling with the "Game"!
Abdula
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Old 09-22-2012, 09:50 AM
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Tor and Abdula, I think you guys would really enjoy reading Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival. It's a spectacular work of nonfiction about how people respond to life threatening situations. Gonzales is an adrenaline junkie who doesn't just interview people--he goes and does the crazy stuff with them. I read it once every few years just because the guy tells such a riveting tale.

Check out a few pages on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Deep-Survival-.../dp/0393052761

Adrenaline
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Old 09-29-2012, 11:25 AM
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Good read. I was in the military also and always enjoy reading what others have to say about it.
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Old 10-02-2012, 09:13 AM
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Jim,
Thanks for reading. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to view the tragedy from a somewhat detached position.

As I'm sure you can imagine, peacetime offers no guarantee that the soldier is free from traumatic events.

Thank you for your time in service and many thanks for your comments.
Abdula
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