Phil currently serves in the Air Force as a U-2 pilot. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a C-130 pilot. His missions included everything from hauling supplies and troops to medical evacuations and the transport of human remains. He also discusses why Afghanistan is the most challenging place in the world to fly tactical aircraft.
Interview conducted on July 24, 2017 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Phil Shapiro
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Phil Shapiro: Philip Andrew Shapiro.
RH: What branch of the military do you serve in?
PS: US Air Force.
RH: When did you join the Air Force?
PS: Right after college. It would have been May 15th of 2005.
RH: 2005. OK. What’s your rank?
RH: What is your MOS?
PS: I am currently an 11R3J.
RH: Which is?
PS: U-2 pilot.
RH: What is your unit?
PS: The 99th Reconnaissance Squadron.
RH: Where are you currently?
PS: I am currently flying for the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. That’s all I can say about that.
RH: OK. No problem. Are you just a U-2 pilot or have you flown other planes while you’ve been in the Air Force?
PS: I flew C-130s for about nine years. I flew E’s and H’s, and then J’s as well.
RH: Alright. Perfect. What motivated you to join the military?
PS: I joined the military because I’d always wanted to be a pilot and I wanted to serve my country and being a pilot in the Air Force was the thing I’d always wanted to do my entire life. So pretty much everything I had ever done since I was two years old through the time I finished pilot training was kind of a means to that end.
RH: Nice. How did your family feel about your decision to join?
PS: They were supportive throughout. My mom would have preferred me become a pilot in the airlines or something like that, for sure. My dad is an artist. He protested the Vietnam war but he was always in my corner about joining the military and always very pro-military and everything like that. They were supportive even if my mom was quite nervous about it and still is.
RH: You say that you always wanted to fly. When you were growing up, was there a particular plane that you wanted to fly?
PS: Yes. When I was growing up I wanted to fly B-52s.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
PS: September 11th I had just got out of Major Dowling’s world history class at Virginia Military Institute when I found out about the towers. I was walking back to barracks from that. It was my Rat year at VMI – my freshman year. Cushman – I don’t remember his first name, he was a third classman – stopped us on the way in and was like, “Just so everyone knows, two planes crashed into the World Trade Center and one crashed into the Pentagon.” I immediately thought it sounded coordinated but I was thinking light airplanes or something like that.
I went to my upperclassman’s room and I remember opening up Yahoo and it was like, “Day of terror in the US.” Right then, one of my other upperclassmen – not mine but his roommate – walked in and I was like, “Jim, did something happen?” He was like, “Yeah. Let’s go to the ex and watch it.” That was the only place we had TV, the ex, so we went down there and watched the aftermath. It was already all done but we watched the ongoing stuff that day.
RH: So you are at VMI. Did the atmosphere at VMI change afterwards now that we went from a peacetime footing to a wartime footing?
PS: Yes. It was definitely different. I had a lot of my friends from my high school who were messaging me because they didn’t really understand what VMI was so they all thought that I was going to war immediately which I obviously told them I wasn’t. I was in college. But we were Rats. They let us out of the Rat line so we didn’t have to walk around barracks straining and everything like that so it was more relaxed within the corps. And then that night all the Rats sewed bedsheets together and made a big projector screen. We watched George Bush’s speech on the projector screen in the barracks because we didn’t have TVs. There were just a few small TVs in the ex we called it, where we could go order food. We all watched his speech on that.
That was kind of how things changed. We were out of the Rat line for maybe a day or two and then back in and back to real life at that point, I guess.
RH: OK. After VMI, did you immediately receive your commission or did you have to go through training after you graduated?
PS: I received my commission immediately. I was on an ROTC scholarship at VMI so I was contracted. I commissioned the day before I graduated.
RH: Where did you go immediately after graduation?
PS: I went Albuquerque, New Mexico for casual while I was awaiting pilot training. We did a thing called casual status where they just kind of farmed you out to be additional labor at a random unit so I worked at the Air Force safety center in Kirtland Air Force base in New Mexico. I was there from, let’s see, I did aerospace basic course and then I was in Albuquerque from August of 2005 until June of 2006.
RH: Is that where you received your pilot training, exactly?
PS: No. I started my pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas in June of 2006 and I stayed there until December of 2006 when I went to Corpus Christi, Texas to finish my pilot training with the Navy. I flew T-44s with the Navy at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station until June of 2007.
RH: Alright. In June of 2007 were you assigned to your first unit?
RH: Which was?
PS: The 61st Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force base.
RH: Alright. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: How many times did you deploy and what were the dates of those deployments?
PS: So I have seven total deployments but I’ve done deployments in support of SOUTHCOM and in support of EUCOM and AFRICOM. As far as CENTCOM deployments go, February to June of 2009 I was deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq. Then from August to December of 2010 I was at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. Then from August 2013 to January 2014 I was in Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan.
RH: Got it. You know what? Let’s take those three one at a time and let’s start with the first one from February to June of 2009. You were flying C-130s on that deployment, correct?
RH: Alright. Can you briefly describe a C-130 and what its mission is?
PS: A C-130 is a medium sized, four engine, four propeller-driven mostly cargo aircraft. A very versatile airplane. We did a variety of missions – hauling cargo, hauling passengers, air medical evacuation missions – then also air drop missions which we didn’t really do in Iraq but we did do in Afghanistan. It’s really good at landing on unprepared surfaces. Stuff like that. It’s a very versatile airplane.
RH: What, specifically, was your mission in Iraq in 2009?
PS: We flew out of Balad Air Base which is, essentially, about fifty miles out of Baghdad – a centrally located position. Our job was to basically go out to all the corners of Iraq and also into Kuwait and into Qatar and bring troops and supplies wherever they needed to go.
RH: Alright. We’re going to back up a tad. What do you remember most about the night before you deployed to Iraq?
PS: Let’s see. The night before I deployed? Probably I remember being nervous. I was married at the time. My now ex-wife had a meeting that she wanted to go to for a non-profit organization that she was involved in that she wanted to go to the next morning. I was just all about, “Hey, got to your meeting.” I wanted to make things as normal and uneventful-seeming as possible. She went to the meeting and I drove myself into work the next day and then she came back and got the car. As far as the night before, I just remember just being nervous, anxious, ready to get on the road type of thing.
RH: What was your first impression of Iraq like?
PS: I remember landing at Balad and the doors opening on the C-17 that flew us in and I just remember it being really bright because a C-17 doesn’t have any windows. And having to put on our body armor and get off the plane which, looking back on it, it’s kind of laughable to think of that being a momentous type of experience but I guess when you grew up in Agoura Hills, California and you’re getting off a military transport plane in Iraq, it’s kind of a bit of a momentous experience.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Walk me through a typical day as a pilot in Iraq.
PS: So a typical day in Iraq, we would get up a couple hours before take-off time and usually go grab some food as a crew at the chow hall. And then we would all head in. We would get a briefing from intel which would go over the threats to the airfields that we were supposed to go to that day, any threats that had changed, stuff like that.
Then we’d step out to the airplane, load up whatever we had to take out of home station and then basically load up and then we would go out. A typical day on a C-130 we would probably do anywhere between four to six individual stops. Each place we would go to we would be responsible for loading and unloading the cargo at those places or the passengers and then going off to the next place. So the average day we probably spent, depending on which fields we were going to, probably twelve to sixteen hours a day and of that we would probably spend about four of them flying and the rest would be working cargo, working cargo issues – stuff like that.
RH: OK. What are some of the notable events that occurred on this deployment?
PS: Let’s see. So my first deployment, notable events. It’s been a while. I think for me, the first thing that really sticks out is probably my second or third mission. It was the first time we picked up HR – human remains. A guy had been killed by a rocket attack out of Baghdad – US Army. I remember we would line up outside of the ramp and as they brought the casket up, we would all slowly salute and then slowly drop our salute to pay respects. I remember this guy being brought up and his friends carrying his casket. Obviously they were all crying. That really stuck out to me. That was my first “you’re not in America” type of thing anymore.
Other than that, nothing else really sticks out to me too much. It was just one day kind of ran into another. Just flying the pain train as we called it around Iraq.
RH: [laughs] Alright. Let me ask you this. I know you say you did a lot of troop transport. Were any of those missions particularly memorable or any Marines or soldiers that you transported that were particularly memorable?
PS: So we’re just talking about 2009 right now?
RH: Yes. Just 2009.
PS: Let’s see. I remember the Marines. C-130s for people who don’t know – when they’re full of passengers there’s no room to move. The only bathrooms are all the way at the back so if you need to go to the bathroom, you basically have to step on people to get back there. The Air Force passengers just would not want to go to the bathroom and the Army passengers would usually not want to go the bathroom or they would just hold it or they would just step on people or whatever. But the Marines would start a Gatorade bottle at one end and they would each pee in the Gatorade bottle and pass it down and then the last person would just pour the bottle in the toilet. [RH laughs] So that was pretty memorable.
What else? We flew the NCAA college football coaches tour that came out to Balad. A bunch of the really notable college football coaches at the time came out for that and I got to fly them to Baghdad and that was also the night that when I landed in Baghdad, I got promoted to Captain. So Troy Calhoun, the coach of the Air Force academy, promoted me and my friend to Captain and gave us the oath of office on the ramp at Baghdad that night. So that was pretty cool.
I’m trying to think of anything else. Honestly, as far as deployments go, that’s about all I can really remember from that one. It was pretty uneventful.
RH: Alright. Let’s jump ahead. You said that one was from February to June of 2009 and then you deployed again from August to December of 2010 to Kuwait. In the little over a year that you were back in the US, what were you doing that year?
PS: I was supposed to deploy in December after I got back from Iraq the first time. I got back in June and I was supposed to deploy that December but during my flight physical, they actually found that I had a perforated ear drum so I had to get my eardrum removed and replaced. It took me down for a few months so I wasn’t able to deploy again until August. I did local training missions. I did a few TDYs – temporary duties – where I probably went to Pope Air Force base and dropped troopers a few times. Stuff like that. But mostly I was healing up from that eardrum surgery.
RH: Got it. So you deployed to Kuwait in August of 2010. What was it like the night before you deployed on that deployment?
PS: I was a lot more nervous this time for some reason. I’m not a hundred percent sure why but I vomited [laughs] the night before I left. I remember that. That was about it. That was different. [both laugh]
RH: Once you got to Kuwait, were you still flying C-130s on this deployment?
RH: OK. Once you got to Kuwait, was your mission essentially the same as your first deployment?
PS: It was, yes. Again, stationed in Kuwait but flying into Iraq – pretty much exclusively to moving palettes around to various places and people.
RH: Alright. What are some of the notable events that occurred on this deployment?
PS: Well, I remember getting alerted to take a critical person out of Al Udeid Air Base and bring them to Balad which had the best hospital in the entire AOR. It seems strange that you would bring somebody from out of a warzone into a warzone but that’s what we were supposed to do.
So we landed at Al Udeid and were told to go park at a far portion of the ramp that people didn’t usually go to. So we sat there for a little bit and nobody came out to meet us. We didn’t know what was going on. They eventually told us to start engines. We called back up, they told us to start engines and taxi to the main ramp. We didn’t really understand why at the time. We taxied out there and shut down again. The nurses came on with the guy and started setting up the airplane for the air medical evacuation. I remember talking to the nurse who said, “It’s not looking good. I don’t think he’s going to make it through this flight.” I’m like, “Oh no. We’ll be as fast as we can.” I think the guy was having some sort of kidney issue or something. His kidneys were shutting down – something like that.
We got up on the flight deck and some of the base leadership, let’s put it that way, was up there and they were taking pictures on our flight deck with PA out there while we were trying to start engines because they wanted to come and get their pictures taken while they were shaking our hands. It kind of stuck out to me as, hey, we’re just trying to get this mission done and get this guy to Balad as soon as possible. So that is something that I’ll definitely carry with me.
RH: Quick question. Did the guy make it?
PS: He made it to Balad. I don’t know what happened to him after that. He made it through the flight at least.
RH: What else? Keep going.
PS: I remember being on the ramp at Baghdad International and we were just watching a battle being fought just north of the airfield which is where – what was that prison where all the stuff went down?
RH: Abu Ghraib?
PS: Abu Ghraib. Yes. That was the city around it and it was just north of the field. It was night and I remember watching Apaches shooting into the city and they were shooting back and we were watching this whole battle go on so we decided to take off to the south since we were going from Baghdad to Balad. We took off to the south to avoid all that but we were getting vectored around by Balad approach and all of a sudden I saw this stream of tracer fire coming up and I didn’t believe it at first. I looked under my NVGs and then I looked through my NVGs and I did that about three times before I realized we were actually getting shot at. I called the defensive reaction. The aircraft commander – I was still a co-pilot at this point – started maneuvering the aircraft and the navigator was hiding behind my chair with his hands over his head. [RH laughs] I think they figured out that this event lasted seven or eight seconds and it felt like it lasted two minutes. I don’t know. That definitely sticks out in my mind. We landed at Balad and had a full inspection done for bullet holes and everything. Apparently they missed us so that was good.
What else from that deployment? We went up to Mosul and we were supposed to pick up an airplane that was broke so we flew up on another airplane, another C-130, and we were supposed to fly back the one that had been broken. The crew dropped us off and then they just left. They didn’t wait to make sure that the plane was working so we got there and the plane was not working. So long story short, we ended up in Mosul for about three full days and it was really strange because Mosul was kind of, at least during my first deployment, the hot spot of Iraq. Now it was all contractors. There was a token force of US Army up there. Outside of that it was all contractors.
We basically figured out after we had been up there a few days – we had some civilian clothes in our bags – that nobody would know who we were. So we just all changed into our civilian clothes and we’re walking around Mosul. I remember they had this ridiculous fountain at Mosul airport right by the ramp. Why this fountain was there, I don’t know. But it was there and it was ridiculous. I remember being out there in our, essentially, clubbing clothes. [RH laughs] It was like the clothes we had from stopping in Saint John’s, Newfoundland on the way out. We were drinking coffee and standing outside this fountain in Mosul and it was very surreal, like “What are we doing right now?” [laughs] So I remember that.
What else? We forward deployed to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan that deployment and flew a few missions in support of OEF so we did a few missions into Afghanistan. That about covers that deployment in terms of memorable things.
RH: Let me ask you this. When you’re flying, what is it like flying over Iraq?
PS: Well, flying over Iraq it’s very much – I can only speak as far as C-130s go – it’s very much kind of the wild west of flying. Nobody ever knew if we were flying under visual flight rules or instrument flight rules. It was really somewhere in-between. It was about working into these various fields, getting around the traffic that was out there. UAV traffic – drones if you will – were always out there and always potential trouble.
We would always try to fly what we would call a penetration descent where we’re basically flying flight idle from our in route attitude until a very, very short final and your purpose is to minimize your exposure to ground fire. We would always be flying our approaches like that and planning these really aggressive descent profiles. We would usually fly these profiles at 230 to 250 in the herc, which is fast for us, and then come in and put a couple Gs on the airplane which is something a lot of people don’t expect from a bigger aircraft. We’d really fly it pretty aggressively to bleed off energy and minimize our time in the WEZ – Weapons Engagement Zone. It was very busy and Iraq is not a big country so you would basically take off and for the most part on a lot of our sorties, you would take off and almost immediately be preparing to land.
RH: OK. When you’re up there, what does it look like below?
PS: It depends where you’re at, I guess, in Iraq. Outside of the urban areas, Iraq is a desert. It looks brown. I like flying into Erbil up north because they had a go kart track and Erbil smelled like cinnamon rolls for some reason [RH laughs] when you landed there. It was just really nice. But mostly Iraq is desert outside of the urban areas.
RH: So you did have that one incident that you told me about but what was the enemy like and, in general, how many problems did you and other C-130s have dealing with them in Iraq?
PS: It was always a present threat, we’ll put it that way. They were not super successful against us for the most part but there was some open source stuff. They have hit C-130s. They never brought a C-130 down. Everyone out there has AK-47s. There are plenty of trucks with HMGs – Heavy Machine Guns – and stuff like that so it’s something you’re always prepared for but it’s not such a big threat that you want to risk flying safely at any point.
Probably our biggest threats, honestly, that we faced were when we were on the ground at airfields because then we were exposed to mortar and rocket attack and stuff like that – especially at some of the more austere locations that we would land at in country that maybe didn’t have the security that the bigger bases like Balad had. We were probably most exposed when we were on the ground versus actually flying.
RH: Why you were over there, did you interact with any Iraqis?
PS: Not really in our capacity. We would fly persons under confinement if you will – we called them PUCs. Iraqis that were either being repatriated after they have been suspected of some sort of wrong doing and were going to be taken into custody. We would fly them but they were always under guard of MPs so we didn’t really actually have to deal with them too much.
RH: Good to go. Before we move on from the Iraq and the Kuwait deployment, is there anything that we left out about those two deployments that you would like to address?
PS: No. I don’t think so.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s talk about your deployment to Kandahar from August 2013 to January 2014. Were you still flying C-130s?
PS: Yes. I was in the C-130J now which is the newest, greatest C-130.
RH: What was your unit during that deployment?
PS: Well, my home station unit was the 39th Airlift Squadron. When we were deployed we were the 772nd. Yes.
RH: Alright, great. So what was it like the night before you left on that deployment?
PS: In the meantime I had gotten divorced and my girlfriend at the time was over. This was her first time dating a military person and going through this whole kind of thing. So it was a lot of me trying to reassure her to a degree and, again, a lot of nerves – anxious. I was deploying as an aircraft commander – I was new to this airplane. Just nerves and kind of wanting to hurry up and get it over with. I was supposed to be out for a full six months, too, so it was going to be a pretty long deployment as far as Air Force flying deployments go.
RH: Got it. What was your first impressions of Afghanistan when you arrived?
PS: I had flown into Afghanistan before but I think the thing that’s striking about Afghanistan is that it’s way worse than Iraq.
RH: What do you mean way worse?
PS: The way the people live. In Iraq, people have cities. They don’t look super nice or anything but in Afghanistan, outside of Kabul, people have these little mud hut houses with a mud hut wall around it. These people have nothing. It’s just another level of poverty that Iraq does not prepare you for.
The other thing that sticks out about Afghanistan is the southern half of it looks a lot like Iraq does but then you get to the north and it looks like Colorado. You’ve got some beautiful mountains and you have to think to yourself it could be a tourist destination if they could ever make it hospitable to tourists.
RH: In Afghanistan, what was a typical day like?
PS: Pretty similar to Iraq in terms of eating together as a crew, briefing together as a crew and then stepping out to fly the mission, whatever the mission was that day. It was a twelve to sixteen hour duty day with four to six different fields and potentially maybe a couple of airdrops depending on what the mission was that day.
RH: What are some of the notable events of that deployment?
PS: The most notable event was we got a short notice airdrop tasking to resupply some Green Berets embedded with the Afghan National Army in the mountains south of Kabul. If anyone knows where FOB Shank was, kind of up in that area. We were going to resupply them with water and MREs – standard stuff – and we were doing an airdrop method called LCLA which stands for Low Cost Low Altitude. Essentially, you have parachutes that are more or less garbage bags. You fly at 300 feet AGL and the loadmasters just pushes them out the back. There’s no real extraction system. They just fall out the back, the static line pulls the chute and that’s about it.
So we were going to go drop these supplies to these Green Berets and the ANA guys that they were with. We had min information going into it. We just kind of had some coordinates to drop on. We were flying out there and we had drop clearance and everything and they called us at about ten seconds out, the Army controller, and he says, “I’ll call your execute,” which meant he wanted to call when we were dropping. But to us, that’s something that needs to be pre-coordinated so I just said, “Negative. Bundle’s leaving the aircraft in ten seconds.” He just said, “Roger.” So we dropped and we ask for the drop score and he says, “Your drop is short. You hit a vehicle.”
PS: Immediately we’re like, “Oh crap. We just screwed up.” I’m like, “How short?” He goes, “Fifty meters,” [laughs] which is pretty freakin’ close. We’re like, “Oh. Sorry. See ya!” What had happened was an Afghan National Army truck had driven onto the LZ and onto the DZ inside thirty seconds and we had basically dropped this bundle right through the hood of their truck [RH laughs] and probably missed killing them by a few inches, maybe a foot. Once we recovered the tapes and we knew we were clear to drop and everything like that, it became kind of a funny thing but very closely could have cost a couple of Afghan National Army guys their lives. So that was definitely memorable.
Another memorable incident would be we got alerted for a mission. Just like always I walked in and the mission was out there on the board with all the locations we were going to. Our DO goes, “Don’t get too comfortable with that. There’s a critical AE mission,” – air-medical evac mission – “coming down. Just go do your brief and I’ll let you know as I find stuff out.” I was like, “OK.”
So we went and he goes, “You guys are going to Herat and you’re going to bring this guy to Kabul. Hurry, go. Go as fast as you can.” So that’s what we did. We ran out to the aircraft and got it spun up as fast as possible and got out to Heart which is out in western Afghanistan. We were just as fast as we possibly could. They brought this guy out when we got there. He was an Afghan National Army guy and he was blown in half and his arm was gone and his face was burned off. We’re just like, “Oh crap. This is not going to end well.” But we brought him to Bagram and I guess my co-pilot, he had a friend who was a nurse at Bagram and she basically said they got him in and opened him up and then just closed him up and put him on morphine. They were like, “He’s not going to make it.” And he didn’t. So that was definitely something that sticks out from that deployment.
We just were really excited because you kind of live for those missions as a C-130 guy. You want to do those missions where you’re saving someone’s life. I’d done plenty of AE missions in the past but that one was definitely a dramatic one and a very disappointing one at the same time.
RH: Any other memorable missions that happened in Afghanistan?
PS: One that happened to my buddy – it wasn’t me. Does that count?
RH: Sure. Go ahead.
PS: He was flying one night and all of a sudden they started seeing these big explosions exploding around them World War II flak style which is not something that has been in any of the theaters. If you’re getting shot at, you’re probably getting shot at by a machine gun or an AK-47 or something. So he started seeing these big explosions going off around him and they’re like, “What is going on?” They’re trying to figure out what’s going on because these are from heavy caliber anti-aircraft artillery which is not something you would expect Al Qaeda or the Taliban to have. Anyway, long story short, it turns out that the Afghan national soccer team had won a soccer match so they were shooting their heavy artillery guns into the air [RH laughs] to celebrate the fact that they had won this match and they just happened to be flying through it.
RH: [laughs] That’s crazy. Any other memorable missions for you on this deployment?
PS: No, not really. Just standard. Just beating up Afghanistan.
RH: On this deployment, did you meet any Afghans?
PS: Pretty much, again, in the same capacity as persons under confinement. That was about it.
RH: OK. Got it. Let me ask you this because you talked about it a little bit. What is it like flying at night?
PS: I had a good period of time when I had more time on NVGs than I did not on NVGs. I enjoyed flying at night because it’s a little bit quieter. It’s a little easier to disguise the aircraft. There’s less air traffic out there and as far as landing on night vision goggles, it’s very mechanical in terms of your muscle movements. As far as flying the C-130, the pilot monitoring will call cadence. As you go through fifty feet, he’ll call your descent cadence and then you just kind of flare and pull power depending on his cadence, around twenty to ten feet and land. So I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed flying at night – not mention it’s cooler out because it’s oppressively hot in the desert.
RH: You talked a little bit about the mountains in the north of Afghanistan and the deserts in the south. Overall, what’s it like flying in Afghanistan vs. flying in Iraq?
PS: Afghanistan is, hands down, the most challenging place to fly tac airlift anywhere in the world and I’ve flown in Africa, I’ve flown in Iraq, I’ve flown in Afghanistan, I’ve flown in South America. Afghanistan is where you learn how to fly tac airlift. It’s because it’s hot, it’s high altitude and you’re flying off of some unprepared surfaces. You’re flying off of dirt, gravel – stuff like that. It doesn’t just stop on takeoff and landings because you’re trying to figure out what you can carry to get over mountains, what you can carry to get into a field and be able to still stop in time. You’re just hanging it out there the entire time on the performance limits of what your aircraft can do. Iraq is hot, granted, but most of the airfields there are long, prepared surfaces with a few exceptions. It’s also much lower elevation-wise so your performance is much better. Afghanistan is by far the more challenging environment.
RH: Got it. Do you have any good stories about how working in a particularly challenging environment – maybe a challenging landing or another challenging situation due to the harsh environment in Afghanistan?
PS: Yes. For us, probably the toughest field we had was Qalat which sat about seventy, seventy-five miles north of Kandahar. It was a dirt LZ, a dirt landing zone, and it was marked by a few of what we called bean bags. They’re basically IR sandbags that had lights on them and that was what they used to mark the landing zone. It was built right into the FOB like a lollipop. If you can imagine, the FOB would be the sucker and the LZ was like the lollipop stick and you landed towards the FOB because it wasn’t long enough to land over the FOB. So if you missed and went too far you would basically go right into the wall of the FOB.
RH: Oh man! Holy smokes.
PS: And it was really hard to see at night too because the FOB was lit up with non-NVG compatible light. Usually NVG compatible lighting is very dim so finding the assault zone or the box that we were supposed to land in in the assault zone would be marked by four bean bags and a little box. We had to land in that and that was how we knew, if we landed in that box on speed, we knew that our performance would mean that we should be able to stop in time. So finding that box out there when it was washed out by the non-NVG compatible lighting was extremely difficult. And then you had to make sure that you landed in the box on speed in order to stop in time.
It was also a relatively hot area. I know that a helicopter got shot down while we were out there. I remember we were at the FOB one time and I was in the back helping unload some of the cargo and the guy who was working there – the LZ controller – was like, “Hey. You might want to get up front We’re potentially about to be under attack.” I went back up to the flight deck – we were all blacked out, all our lights were off – and sat there basically ready for take-off and watched this battle happen just off the perimeter. It was basically the convoy coming back to the FOB. It got attacked just outside the FOB. We were basically getting ready to kick any cargo off that we were going to take and just blast out of there to save the aircraft. But fortunately our guys won so we were able to continue loading the cargo. That was a pretty interesting place to land at, for sure.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move on from Afghanistan, are there any other notable experiences or anything else about this deployment that we left out?
PS: I don’t think so, no.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Coming home from that deployment – and this is going to be a question for all three deployments – after you got home, what was the readjustment period like?
PS: When I came home from my first Middle East deployment in Balad, my wife at the time was not happy. That was the back in the days in Iraq when we had some internet but it was back when people still had to do the call centers and everything like that. We hadn’t talked as much as she would have liked during the deployment and when I got home, she said that, “I was thinking about leaving you during this deployment, or leaving you while you were gone, because we weren’t talking.” Obviously she didn’t leave me during the deployment but I think that was kind of the beginning of the end for us because once you put that out there with somebody, you’re never going to be the same as a couple after that. Obviously she was still with me through my next deployment through Kuwait and after that one.
As far as the readjustment period goes, heck, you’d probably do better to talk to her. It’s the kind of thing where you get frustrated because you know you were busy and hopefully things you wish had been taken care of at the house but weren’t taken care of at the house, you get frustrated about that. I’m just speaking from my perspective and hindsight being 20/20. It’s just one of those things. People get into the groove of having to worry about themselves and then when you get back and you have to worry about someone else, there’s definitely an adjustment period there.
RH: How did your fellow airmen and pilots change after deployment, if they changed at all?
PS: It’s tough to say because I think you’re going through this shared experience together and you’re all going through it and you’re living the same thing every day so you’re probably going through a lot of the same changes so you don’t see it necessarily. But you do have a lot of shared experiences in terms of divorces and difficulty readjusting, a lot of difficulty getting along with your civilian friends when you get home. Stuff like that I think is a common thread throughout us. And probably everybody who’s had a deployment, you come home and the stuff that your civilian friends want to complain about seems trivial and you have a hard time being respectful of it and adjusting to it in a lot of ways. I think it’s just one of those things. It’s an individual thing. I don’t think any two people deal with coming home the same way. I’d say the vast majority of my military friends probably have maybe two or three friends from high school left because you just have a hard time relating to people. I imagine when you get into the jobs like the Navy SEAL guys have and that stuff, it just gets exponentially tougher.
RH: Alright. I’m going to ask you a couple of spiritual questions, actually. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
PS: [laughs] Yes, it has. I’m essentially a non-practicing Jew right now. I was raised Jewish. My fiancé actually gave me a rosary – she’s a practicing Catholic – that a chaplain used in World War II used that I fly with on all my flights now.
Spiritually, it’s ongoing and it’s been a journey for me. I went from not really thinking about it during my first deployment to being an atheist and being pretty firm about that to now I’m pretty sure that there’s a God. Where does all that come from? I can’t pinpoint it. It’s been my own spiritual journey. My squadron lost a crew in Afghanistan a couple years ago now. I hate to say you find religion through something like that but I think it’s like you need to find something to believe in or something else out there. I think it’s about finding a way that you can have that that is suitable to you in terms of something that matches up with who you identify yourself as, as a person. I have a lot of questions.
When you talk about having faith, I don’t know how much faith I have or anything like that but it’s definitely something that I’ve come to lean on as I’ve gotten older and as I’ve seen friends and acquaintances and fellow pilots die and people I’ve known at VMI die. It’s something that I hate to say I need to believe in it but it’s something that I’ve wanted to believe in so I’ve been in search of ways where I can have that and it makes sense to me. I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to ramble on your interview. It’s a really hard question for me. I’d say if I had to sum it up, my faith is something that’s constantly in flux. It’s something that as I’ve been in longer and seen more loss and been in more situations and realized I’m not immortal, it’s something that has become more important to me. And to me it’s about finding my happy place with religion and I’m not one hundred percent sure where that is yet.
RH: Got it. Hey man, don’t worry. That was a great answer. My next question is, has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
PS: Yes. It’s made me realize that you’re going to die. Everybody’s going to die. It sounds stupid but it was my first exposure to teenagers and twenty year-olds dying. Nobody in my high school died while I was there. No one I grew up with while I was growing up died. I was fortunate with that so when I got out there and saw people I didn’t know but people who I could relate to who had been killed and stuff like that, it was kind of an eye opener. And as I’ve been in longer and people that I did know and was close to died, I kind of had to see what their families when through and tried to be there for them and all that kind of stuff. It definitely made me scared to die which I would never say when I was eighteen or nineteen. If somebody asked me if I was scared to die, I would say “No. Of course not.” And now I’m like “Yes, absolutely.” And every time I fly, whether it’s in combat or it’s a training mission now, I realize that it’s not guaranteed that you’re coming back because I’ve seen pilots who were better than I will ever be not come back. So I think it just makes me thankful each time I come back. Yeah, I don’t know. That’s about it.
RH: Alright. I have a question for you that I ask all the vets but since you’re still on active duty, if you’re not at liberty to answer it, that’s totally fine. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
PS: Well, the rise of ISIS. Obviously I think ISIS is one of those things that we can’t continue to survive with them operating. Our free society will never survive with them also surviving. I think they’re a threat to everything that we hold dear. I don’t understand them. I don’t understand the thought process that would lead somebody to join a group like that. As far as seeing what they did in Iraq, it’s hard. It’s hard watching my friends who are still flying C-130s out there trying to reopen airfields that I flew to all the time because there’s lost ground. Nobody likes that. Recapturing Mosul, obviously.
It’s hard because you want everything that everyone sacrificed in Iraq to have paid off. I think it’s just one of those things where time will tell if it did. It’s very hard to see the rise of ISIS and I hope that they do not continue to exist much longer. [laughs] In the age of the internet, it’s tough because realistically they probably don’t need to be half a presence in the field in order to be a threat. They just need to have a presence online and I don’t think we’ll ever be able to fully contain that so it’s hard. I don’t like ISIS though. [laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go. I’m going to switch it up a little bit. During the beginning of your service and the three deployments, what are some of the happiest memories you have of that time?
PS: I’d have to say I was happy when I got married the first time and I’m trying to say that without being a hindsight 20/20 person. I was happy at the time. Adopting my dog Virginia. All that stuff. Obviously graduating pilot training and being an active pilot out there for the first time – that was my life’s ambition and my life’s dream. So being out there fulfilling it was great.
I felt good whenever we would do successful air medical evacs – getting people who were injured home or on their way home, at least, was always a great feeling. And each time you come home it’s great. I mean, nothing is better than the day you come home from a deployment because it’s your longest possible time before another one [RH laughs] and you have all that excitement of seeing your loved ones again and just the huge build up. You get some time off of work and everything like that. Those are all good memories.
The best thing was just the bonds you made with your crew members. Being a single seat guy now is great but the best thing I’ve ever done is lead a crew in combat and bring them all home. I don’t think there’s anything better in combat flying than going out, completing your mission and bringing your crew back to their families. I guess for me that would be the best thing.
RH: Alright. Good to go. When you guys are up in the air, what do you eat?
PS: OK. So C-130s we would normally pick up crew lunches on our way to the airplane. Usually after we ate we would just pick them up. It would usually be some sort of sandwich, some chips, a soft drink and maybe a piece of fruit. We’d call them box nasties. [RH laughs] I think that’s pretty standard vernacular throughout the military.
PS: So we would have those. If we had a long enough time at one of our stops, if we had a couple hour stop somewhere, we might eat food there. I think it was Tallil in Iraq had really good pizza. They had a pizza place you could stop at and we would go get pizza for the crew. Same thing, Mazar-i-Sharif up in Afghanistan. They had a pizza place people used to love to go to. So we would eat that kind of stuff.
Of course, rip-its were the thing in CENTCOM. The whole OIF and OEF were fueled off of rip-its forever. Are you familiar?
RH: No. What is a rip-it, exactly?
PS: A rip-it is a super cheap energy drink that had a ton of caffeine and sugar in it. They’d come in these little half-sized, third-sized cans. People would just drink these things voraciously. They were like currency. Everyone liked the sugar free citrus ones and the only people who would seem to get them by the case were air crews so we would give them to our maintainers and stuff like that. I will always think of rip-its when I think of deploying in the C-130 to CENTCOM. They were our energy drink.
RH: Good to go. For you this is going to be a three part question. What is the best chow hall stateside, the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall in Afghanistan?
PS: The best chow hall stateside? I didn’t eat at too many of the chow halls stateside, probably. They did a lot of stuff to Little Rock’s so theirs was pretty fancy but it was kind of expensive. So I ate there a few times but mostly I would eat off base when I was at home or I would bring a lunch.
In Iraq, the best chow hall was the one for the contractors up in Mosul. That food was really good and it was never super-crowded because that base was empty. They had pecan pie a lot which is my favorite desert. So the chow hall that was up in Mosul was awesome.
And then in Afghanistan, man, the food in Afghanistan was not good. We would usually go eat in Cambridge which was the British chow hall. It was the closest one. It was disgusting, though. They had fish and chips you could get but it was all bone-in fish and it was just falling apart with grease. It was disgusting. [RH laughs] And then they made omelets with weird cheese with, like, shaved hot dogs. [RH laughs] I don’t know. It was gross.
What was good in Afghanistan. Oh! Camp Bastion. Camp Bastion which is weird because it was a British base but they had a chow hall that people would always try to run in and go get to. But that one was always really popular. I remember the one in Camp Bastion.
RH: What are some of the funniest stories you have?
PS: Ooh. Let’s see. Man. I’d have to think. Funniest stories? You caught me off guard with that one. Let’s see.
RH: Everybody I speak to, they cycle through and really the question is, “What are the ones that I can tell?” [laughs]
PS: Yeah. Pretty much. A lot of funny stories probably around Ambien. As a crew you’d get Ambien as a sleep aid because you’re changing your sleep schedule so much. A lot of people get really loopy on Ambien so people would take it and then try to do things like go to the chow hall. [RH laughs] Stuff like that. It would never work out well but, man, we would take our Ambien people would and run down the hall and bust into people’s rooms and have Ambien dance parties. [RH laughs] Stuff like that. It would be ridiculous.
RH: Alright. I only have a few questions left but before I ask them I just want to ask, when did you start flying U-2s.
PS: I interviewed for the U-2 in September of 2015. So this September will be two years in the U-2 for me.
RH: Just very briefly, what is the mission of the U-2?
PS: The U-2 is a high-altitude intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance airplane. So basically, our job is to get out there and do imagery, signals and intelligence collection.
RH: Got it. What do you like better about flying the U-2 and what are some of the things you miss about the C-130?
PS: I decided to fly the C-130 when I was going through pilot training because I’d always wanted to fly an airplane with a crew, always, because I was a big team sports guy and I like to talk to people and I always wanted to fly a crewed airplane. I love the C-130. By the time I was done with pilot training, it was my first choice. It was the perfect airplane. I loved working with the crews, I loved raising new co-pilots to become good aircraft commanders. I loved getting out there and getting the mission done.
To me, going to the U-2 was a way to keep flying, a way to not have to go into a staff job, because I’d pretty much gotten to the point in AMC – Air Mobility Command – and in the C-130 where staff was really going to be my next thing more than likely. Going to the U-2 allowed me to go back to California as well because I’m a native Californian. So that was it.
I enjoy the U-2. It’s a challenging mission. It’s obviously a challenging aircraft to land. That’s the rep that it has. I wanted to see if I could do it but I definitely miss the C-130. I still consider myself – and maybe it will change when I’ve been in the U-2 a little longer – but I still consider myself a C-130 guy. I do the U-2 mission now but I’m a C-130 guy at heart, I guess.
RH: Cool. Last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts?
PS: That they’re over [laughs] would probably be the biggest one. I think it’s one of those things where we have a very small segment of our population that serves because we have an all-volunteer force and people haven’t been asked to cut or really had any of their everyday lives change unless they have a very close friend or immediate family member serving which most people don’t. I think the misconception is that these wars are over and that people aren’t sacrificing for them anymore and that’s definitely not true.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something to young pilots who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
PS: I guess that I would say don’t ever get complacent and know your regulations. Know your TOs – your tech orders – and know your tactics so that you can come home because there are always people that are going to try to kill you. And never assume that you are coming home. That would be the biggest thing. If you take that attitude with you when you fly, it will make you a better, more conscientious pilot.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I ask my final question, is there anything that I left out or anything you’d like to address?
PS: I don’t think so. I think we covered about everything.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So my last question, and this could be for the entire time you’ve been in, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
PS: Leading a crew in combat and bringing everybody home.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else before we wrap it up?
PS: No. I think that’s everything, man.
RH: Cool! Thank you very much. I appreciate it.