Bringing the bodies home

Women have throttled up through many a glass ceiling since Jackie Fleming’s mother first zipped up her go-go boots and boarded a Pan American Airways Boeing 747 for its inaugural Washington D.C. to London flight.

“They actually checked their legs for scars. The skirts were so short,” Fleming says with an amused bewilderment. In the sexy ’60s flying was still stylish and her mother was an airborne pioneer.

The daughter of a former flight attendant, “stewardess” in those days, and an Air Force fighter pilot who flew F-100 Super Sabres, she has fast tracked from Purdue University’s highly respected aviation program to Certified Flight Instructor, Flight Engineer on the 727, a CRJ and G-4 corporate pilot, and then recently a First Officer on the Boeing 757 and 767 for Continental Airlines.

“I was born to do this,” says the petite 28-year old redhead from the tarmac of Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where she is performing the preflight for our mission today.

“This” is the duty as an officer with the Air Force Reserves 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson, outside of Dayton, Ohio, which has temporarily slowed the trajectory of her high-flying career and put her in harms way on a monthly basis.

Capt. Fleming is the copilot on the C 5-A the largest most imposing looking plane in the Air Force fleet. A veteran of more than 50 aero medical flights on the smaller, and now phased out C-141 into and out of Iraq, she has transitioned into the larger aircraft to continue her service with the 445th Air Force Reserves. The C-141, a Vietnam stalwart, has been cut into scrap in the American desert and the 445th Airlift Wing has been re-tasked to hauling supplies into and out of Germany in the C 5-A.

A great gray warehouse with wings, the C 5-A sprawls on the tarmac at Ramstein Air Force base on indefinite hold. At the last moment, Fleming’s flight has been re-designated an “H.R.” flight, the blunt military acronym for human remains. It will now ferry home six U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The word is that they have just been flown into Germany from the war zone.

“We’ll wait as long as we have to, to bring them home to their families,” says Major Rachel Daulton, the Aircraft Commander, a veteran of hundreds of flights into and out of Iraq.

“They probably died in the last 12 hours,” confides a crew-member. The coffins have been lined with bags of ice. “Were getting them home for autopsies at Dover,” she quietly explains.

The Dover Air Force Base in Delaware houses the military’s largest mortuary, which has been receiving the war dead since the Vietnam War. The handling of the caskets is a deeply respectful process. The war dead are escorted to the planes by military personnel and saluted aboard the transport planes. The crew says prayers and observes a moment of silence before takeoff.

On this flight the 445th Airlift Wing Reserve flight has two full crews, 10 airmen, five of whom are women, who, by rare coincidence this day, will make up the all female crew for the first leg of the 3,970 mile flight from Germany to Dover. With tens of thousands of hours between them, these fliers are sisters bonded by duty, the love of aviation and a camaraderie born out of a difficult assignment aboard a complicated aircraft.

“The C 5-A is ’70s era technology,” says a male Flight Engineer, while we prep on the ground.

“It breaks a lot,” explains Major Daulton, who, in civilian life, is an American Airlines First Officer. She is the boss of the flight deck in what is often a largely male community. Sharing the cockpit, sitting right front seat, is Capt. Fleming.

The flight back to Wright-Patterson is light. Two Dash 60 Powercarts, the size of Volkswagens, and three pallets of fuses and explosives will be dwarfed in a cargo hold that could easily accommodate six Greyhound buses.

But now there is precious cargo.

The six coffins, all cloaked in American flags secured, the crew resumes pre-flight duties. The flight crews have done rough duty in the past. Before converting to the larger C-5A they flew aero medical routes from Germany to Balad, Iraq, to bring back the war wounded. Only one C5-A is equipped with missile deflecting flares and can be used downrange. There is talk all the planes will eventually be re-outfitted for war zone duty. But today the war has come to the crew. One young crewmember confesses that H.R. flights bring a tear to her eye. This is tough duty, too.

The huge jet shudders as the four engines spool up and we roll down the runway, airborne in just a few seconds at our relatively lightweight.

After takeoff the crew adjusts for the long trip. But two hours into the flight a sensor alerts the crew to a troubling vibration in the number one engine.

“It’s nothing devastating, but there is a point of no return and a decision has to made,” explains Fleming. The crew troubleshoots for 20 minutes. All four pilots make an individual assessment, but the decision to abort the flight is left to the flight engineers.

Major Daulton shuts down the number one engine and puts the leviathan through a series of gentle left turns as the emerald green of County Kerry spins below. Through the windshield, west slowly becomes east.

“Someone else will have to get them home now,” says Fleming.

On a break during the return flight, Major Daulton sheds her businesslike demeanor and says softly, “I am proud to know we have people serving like the soldiers we are bringing home. It’s a reminder to all of us that there are people who still believe that freedom is worth dying for.”

Below the flight deck, 19-year old Danielle Kremer stands by the six coffins as the plane turns back to Germany. “They deserve our respect. They deserve to go home.”

It may take a little longer, but they will.

(Timothy Malloy has 29 years as a TV news anchor/reporter under his belt. He has worked in 22 countries as a broadcast journalist and currently reports for WPTV in West Palm Beach, FL.)