Thursday, June 3, 2010

From Boy to Man - Overnight

Someone was shaking me out of a sound sleep.  It was the Military Police.  Aircraft down somewhere near Kaiserslautern.  I only had time to climb into my fatigues and grab my camera gear.  Inside the truck, a high school acquaintance who just happened to be stationed at the same air base as me, poured me a welcomed cup of coffee from a thermos the police always seem to have with them.

Apparently an F102 on a routine mission had lost power and went down somewhere in the hills about 20 miles away.  I wasn't surprised, the plane was well past its serviceable life span and although they comprised most of the force on the base at that time, everyone knew that if we got into a real pissing match, the old Delta Dagger was going to get its ass kicked by the far superior Soviet MIGs.

As we sped through the night, blue lights flashing, I was a mixed-bag of emotions.  Excited to be in the "action" but fearful of what I might find when we got there.  There was no word of casualties or survivors.  No one knew if the pilot had gotten out or not.

The crash site was off of the beaten path, back in the forest, and it took some time to find it.  There was speculation that the pilot was a hero and had steered the faltering plane away from the surrounding populated areas.  On the other hand, when these things lose power there isn't any "steering" them.  They drop like a rock.

As usual, when you ride with the police you are one of the first on the scene and when we arrived there were only a handful of other people there.  It was early dawn and the rescuers seemed confused or disoriented as they searched the area with their flashlights.  As the sky brightened it was easy to see why.  The crash site was nearly barren.

The tops of some trees were clipped and there was a huge hole in the ground and all of the trees within a nearly perfect 100 foot radius were singed black.  All, indications that the plane had gone straight in.

A pall of hazy smoke covered the area and a foul smell permeated the air.  What appeared to be the jet engine was the only large lump of anything that could be identified.  As we spread out through the woods someone found a wheel, then a strut and some other heavy piece of metal.  Everything else was confetti or incinerated.  There was no sign of the pilot.

And then they found him, or what was left of him.  A burned torso with no head or limbs, hanging in his parachute shrouds high above us in the trees.  He had apparently ejected but not in time and was consumed by the explosion and fire ball.  It was then that I realized the foul smell was the stench of burnt flesh.  I nearly lost my stomach but managed to maintain my composure and do my job of photographing the crash scene.

By this time the place was crawling with people, many of them carrying black bags as they searched the area for body parts.  My job complete, we climbed back into our truck and returned to base.  Neither of us said a word on the return journey.  There was really nothing to be said.

An old-timer had told me that you can never get the smell out of your clothes so when I got back to my room, I took off my clothes, all of them, and threw them in the dumpster.  Then I took a long, hot shower and scrubbed the horrible smell off of me and out of my hair. 

I couldn't scrub away what I had experienced.  I wondered what it was like to suddenly realize you are going to die.  I thought of his family.  I thought of how dangerous the military is, even in peacetime. 

Each Memorial Day, I am reminded all over again.


  1. An unforgettable experience. One that I am sure will never leave you.

    Yes, well done.

  2. Makes you wonder what all the fellows in those beautiful shots are remembering too.

    Well done, indeed

  3. Bit late with this C, but heart rendering post.

  4. wow, Mr. C, they say that smell burns in your soul forever. Sad story.

  5. wonderful photos. wonderful post


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