To the editor:
The sun was not up, yet the first light heralded a cloudless day. I had been up many hours in preparation for our meeting.
Arrangements had been made to secure the airspace above the base from all intrusions. We had one hour of unrestricted space during which you would pilot our phantom performing all the maneuvers required for my training as a back-seater or EWO.
The hours had labored putting on the G suits for the high-speed maneuvering as I readied for our rendezvous. You showed up precisely on time, not to waste any of our allotted time. You greeted all the ground crew in your usual friendly manner and scampered up the steps to your front seat. With a wave of your hand, you notified base ops that you were ready.
Just as I buckled in, I noticed a blur to the right. A military jeep screeched to a halt just below us and out jumped an enlisted man bearing papers.
He yelled into my ears, as you started the engines, that orders had been changed and I had been assigned other duties this day. He explained that there were no other personnel available for the duties I had been ordered to perform. Very reluctantly I climbed out, notified you of the situation and climbed down.
As I looked back, I noticed that you were taxiing for take-off with an empty back seat. That was unusual as there were many ground and flight personnel that would have loved that ride. The sun was up by now as you lit the afterburners and climbed off the deck.
Wistfully, I watched you rise straight up into the sky. As I reached my assigned duty, I and others around me raised our gazes as you flew in and out of the high clouds, the sun glinting off your fuselage. The roar of your engines was only drowned out by the repeated sonic booms as you dove for the deck and recovering only at the last second as you flew along the wave tops.
The thought occurred to me that there would be hell to pay as we were forbidden to exceed the sound barrier with the resultant booms that rankled the local populace. However, knowing you, Ernie, regulations were never a deterrent. “Go for it Ernie,” I thought. “Have fun since all are watching you.”
We all would have changed places with you if we could. You flew higher and higher, screaming into your dives as we all tiptoed to scan the horizon looking for your emergence. After a suitable pause, there you were again and again wave hopping off as you started your next climb.
All that I remember is that I heard another screaming dive — and then nothing. All around me, and I imagine all over the base, people stopped and looked seaward expecting your imminent appearance, but the silence persisted.
After what seemed like a long time, the sirens activated and two helicopters rose, jettisoned their fire-suppressing sputniks and hastened to sea. I am told a small debris field was seen, but no signs of you were found.
The cause of death was listed as “in the line of duty,” as it should. No one knew what your thoughts were as you repeatedly tempted fate or why you chose a solo flight. I sensed that, beneath your bravado lurked secrets known only to you. I have often wished that I could have delved more into your life as your back-seater.
Many of our veterans come home to hero’s welcomes, both alive and, regretfully, in caskets, but some exist only in our thoughts. But on this Veterans Day, someone must speak for the missing.
Ernie, this is for you.
ALAN J. KACE
Captain, U.S. Air Force