By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

I was flying into Baghdad in one of the Air Force's newest cargo aircraft, a C-17 Globemaster III. I was sitting in a jump seat behind the co-pilot in the cockpit of the aircraft. I am not a former aircrew member, I am a retired Air Force, Security Forces "cop" and an Army trained infantry officer. Having studied air defense artillery at infantry school and worked with Stinger man portable anti aircraft missiles in Korea, I was more than a little concerned with our landing at Baghdad International Airport.

Instead of the typical low, slow approach into the airport that you might have experienced the last time you flew on a commercial airplane, we were spiraling down to the flight line. We were moving fast and trying not to fly over the populated area of Baghdad.

I was not even paying attention to the pilots as we descended. I was looking at the way the city had grown almost right up to the edge of the airport. Of course it would, just like any other big city airport anywhere else in the flying world. The problem is nobody is trying to shoot down my airplane from the suburbs of Chicago when I fly into O'Hare Airport.

The "cops" in the Air Force function as infantry in time of war and are used to defend airfields. They have to go out beyond the perimeter of the base and try to keep the "bad guys" from destroying aircraft on the ground or as they land and take off from a forward located airbase. The problem with commercial airfields is that in most cases they were built way out on the edge of a city. But as soon as you build a runway people move in next door and set up businesses and then residential communities.

In many cases they build right next to the fence around the flight line. A person with a shoulder fired anti aircraft missile can literally step out of a home close to the airfield as a plane approaches, fire the missile and be driving away before the war head strikes the plane.

If there was an in flight emergency, there is nothing I could do to help, but things were fine. The aircraft commander was speaking to the air traffic controllers on the ground and communicating with the rest of the aircrew. We would only be on the tarmac for a few minutes. Just enough time to off load the cargo and take on any passengers.

They do not leave US military aircraft on the ground longer than need be. Someone in the local neighborhood could bring out a mortar from their home and with a very cheap round of ammunition destroy a $230 million aircraft.

All of a sudden a computer-generated voice announces "missile launch". I immediately look out the right side of the plane to see where the missile was coming from. I barely was able to look down when the inside, right engine exploded and caught fire. My Navy Master Chief father told me the worst enemy of a sailor is fire at sea. You have no where to go if your ship is on fire. I now know he was a little mistaken. He could have jumped into the ocean. When you have fire on an aircraft there really is no place to go for safety.

The C-17 started to shutter and shake like it wanted to break up in mid flight. The aircraft commander, my neighbor Colonel (S) Joe Mancy (the man who invited me on this mission) had a sudden heightened sense of awareness, but handled the attack like he had been through this drill before. He was able to fly the C-17 safely onto the runway.

Normally in an in-flight emergency once you land a plane you just shut the aircraft down where you landed and get the hell out. We however were in a war zone and could not risk closing a vitally needed runway for other combat flying operations, so the control tower insisted we taxi the C-17 off the runway to a safe parking location; safe for other aircraft not us.

As soon as we parked the C-17, a computer voice advised us the simulated airlift mission to Baghdad was terminated. You see, we had been flying Boeing's new state-of-the-art C-17 Weapon System Trainer / flight simulator and I was still safely on the ground in Oklahoma. Praise the Lord, more to follow.

Back to the Naval & Military History Page

Copyright 2006 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.