“Duluth Air Guard’s good work prevents base closure” Duluth News Tribune, 2 Nov 2005.

Posted on Wed, Nov. 02, 2005

Duluth Air Guard’s good work prevents base closure

Commentary by ERIC CHANDLER

Whump. The first mortar woke me up. “Huh,” I thought, I’m pretty sure that was a mortar impact. WHUMP. Whoa, that was closer. Ka-WHUMP! After the third round hit, the explosion kind of hurt my ears and you could feel your cot lift a little bit. I leaned over and grabbed my body armor and helmet.

“Dude, are you putting your stuff on?” my buddy asked. He was a few feet away inside the dark tent.

“Oh yeah,” I said.

The next two rounds hit a little further away. About then, the high-pitched siren that warns of attacks started to wail. I was grinding my teeth while lying on my back and looking up into the dark. I kept hearing that Talking Heads song…”This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. How did I get here?”

That was my first night at Balad Air Base, Iraq, with the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs, back in May. Within a week from that day, we would find out that the Secretary of Defense figured the Duluth Guard didn’t need to have airplanes anymore. The initial Base Realignment and Closure list came out while our F-16s were on final approach to land after flying all the way from Spain. Some of the pilots who flew the Vipers into Iraq got the word not 10 seconds after touching their boots to the soil. “Welcome to Iraq! We’re getting BRAC’d.” Talk about a kick in the… well, you get the point.

I’d been there at Balad AB for about a week already with a crew called the ADVON team. We got there early to prep the location for the arrival of the rest of the squadron. We’d gotten the bitter news about the “retirement” of our F-16s a few hours before the arrival of the airplanes. I was so furious, I got up and stormed out of the building onto the beige, concrete ramp and paced up and down the taxiway. After I cooled off a bit, I asked myself, “How come there’s nobody else out here?” Uh, oh. We were actually under attack at that moment and everybody was taking cover. I was so angry, I’d forgotten they were shelling us.

Fortunately, on Friday, Aug. 26, the BRAC commission decided to amend the Department of Defense’s recommendation and allowed us to keep our F-16s. Great news! The president agreed with the commission’s recommendations. Even better news! Now, the list gets delivered to Congress for final consideration. The commission and the president obviously don’t need any more convincing that the Bulldogs should keep flying.

So, what’s the point of writing this piece? The reason is that I wanted to share with the people of Duluth what their friends and neighbors have been doing up at the airport for the past few years. Good work has been done by people that are probably too modest or quiet to say what they did. Good thing I’m neither modest nor quiet.

The Bulldogs were activated after Sept. 11 to fly top cover for America. We flew patrols over our nation’s cities. On the first anniversary of Sept. 11, we were flying from three locations, one of which was an operation which kept a 24-hour airborne presence over the East Coast. I can draw you a map of New York and D.C. from memory.

While that was going on, the Bulldogs were tasked to go from being an Air Defense Unit to being a General Purpose unit (a unit that drops bombs). We had to do this in a new type of F-16, the C-model instead of the F-16A, while simultaneously doing air defense alert around the country. That’s like trying to learn how to use your new laptop computer… while you’re running. Everybody needed to get a new qualification in night-vision goggles, learn how to use the laser and infrared technology in a targeting pod and figure out how to use precision-guided munitions. The pilots and maintainers worked unbelievably hard at their new tasks and excelled at them. Two months before we went to combat they said, “Oh, we almost forgot… learn how to use this new reconnaissance (TARS) pod…now.” Um… O.K. And we did. In 18 months, the squadron got new airplanes, in a new mission, attended three major exercises to practice our skills and we went to war. Combat’s quite a final exam.

Our maintenance troops helped us launch more than 400 sorties from a location you might call unpleasant. A temperature of 110 degrees on the ramp was a normal situation. Sandstorms. Did I mention mortar attacks? And we never lost a single scheduled sortie because of maintenance. Not one. And every single one of our weapons hit its target. That means bad guys don’t show up to work tomorrow and the innocents that live next door do. We also took pictures with our targeting pods and TARS pods, which helped our troops on the ground steer clear of ambushes and snipers while performing raids to seize weapons caches and insurgents. Technology doesn’t make these things happen. People do.

Your Bulldogs are combat veterans now. They did Duluth proud. I’m glad the BRAC commission saw that good people matter more than which beans get counted on a chart. I knew why we should stay open. I just thought you should, too.

ERIC CHANDLER is an F-16 pilot with the 148th Fighter Wing Bulldogs. The views expressed by the author are his own as a private citizen and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the 148th Fighter Wing leadership or staff.



About Eric Chandler

Husband. Father. Pilot. Cross Country Skier. Writer. Author of Outside Duluth and Down In It.
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