‘I’ll Be Your Wingman’–I Was a Pilot. They Were My Brothers. I Can Still Feel Them.

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part story. Read Part I here.

IMPACT plus one second

Tumbling end over end, the remaining intact portion of the number four aircraft plummeted toward earth with Vince strapped to his ejection seat. He pulled the ejection seat handgrips and the rocket shot him clear of the wreckage, but the seat was damaged on impact and failed to automatically deploy his chute. He was fighting physics to the death, tumbling and spinning like a top; earth and sky blended together in a whirlwind of terror. After 17,000 feet in free fall, Vince managed to break free of the seat and got a full chute 400 feet above the ground. Physics had toyed with him. 

The lead two ships transitioned to a highly maneuverable chase formation and descended slowly, careful to remain well clear of any falling wreckage. The senior instructor transmitted details back to the operations supervisor, triggering the implementation of a mountain of checklists. Support aircraft were launched with full fuel loads, and would rotate on station over the crash site for as long as daylight permitted.

Three were lost, one miracle was found, and the remaining four in the formation were changed forever. 

IMPACT plus 48 hours

The parking lot was empty, except for Tony’s car. Sunday morning was always quiet. I parked nearby and carried a cardboard box into the squadron. I had a key.

There were ghosts here. I could feel them. My brothers.

I walked into my flight room and over to Tony’s desk. You could not think about an act like this. You just did it. 

I pulled the plexiglass off his desk and collected his patches and dollars and a few other things. I took his flight jacket from the chair and dropped it into the box. I sat at his desk, violating every possible measure of privacy, opening drawers and dropping their contents onto his jacket. I paused at a picture of him receiving his wings. For good luck, tradition held that they would be broken by the recipient, that day. I wondered if he had done that.

Dan Woodward pictured near the end of his pilot training. One of his classmates, Tony, would later die in a T-38 trainer crash. Photo courtesy of the author.

Dan Woodward pictured near the end of his pilot training. One of his classmates, Tony, would later die in a T-38 trainer crash. Photo courtesy of the author.

This was my job. I was Tony’s summary court officer, under orders to account for everything: pay his bills, resolve his issues, and serve as the Air Force representative to his mom and family. I would do this job perfectly. I owed it to Tony. Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way.

I left the squadron and its ghosts as I found it, quiet, reflective, and alone, and went to Tony’s car. I had located his keys the day I was placed on orders, and I opened the door, tossed the box onto the passenger’s seat, and fired it up. True to form, it sounded like an old man with bad knees.

I drove the car from the squadron for the last time. 

IMPACT plus 96 hours

Tony’s dress blue uniform was back from the cleaners. Everything except his wings would be new. Those would stay. 

I measured everything. “That looks about right” would not work here. It took 10 minutes for each “U.S.” lapel insignia as I moved the two needle-like pins back and forth with barely a thread’s difference and lined everything up perfectly with a ruler. Someone else could do this as well. I didn’t care. This was my job.

The extent to which I had violated every measure of his privacy was now nearly complete. His lease was broken and paid, his electric and trash bills paid, his laundry washed and cleaned. The packers were scheduled for one week from Friday. We would ship his car.

“Pausing at a pond, smooth and calm in the gentle breeze, I toss a stone into the depths,” writes Dan Woodward. “The ripples take their own course, and can never be stopped.” Photo courtesy of the author.

“Pausing at a pond, smooth and calm in the gentle breeze, I toss a stone into the depths,” writes Dan Woodward. “The ripples take their own course, and can never be stopped.” Photo courtesy of the author.

I met his mom in Tony’s home. I wore my flight suit and my black-and-gold squadron neck scarf. She liked the scarf and I made certain there would be one in Tony’s shipment. We walked the place largely in silence, and she gave occasional instructions about shipping his things. I took mental notes.

That day, I received a small plastic bag with the items Tony had with him when physics severed his dreams from reality. I cried alone. If you really had to cry, you did it alone. I was a man and a pilot. Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way. 

IMPACT plus 5 days

The memorial service was held in the base chapel. Three were lost, one miracle survived, and thousands more lives were changed forever. I sat in one of the last pews and listened to every word. I prayed when I was told. This would help with closure for some, and for others, it would push things deep inside where they might never emerge. Or maybe they would.

IMPACT plus 61 years

I love this place. Sequestered in the Adirondack Mountains of middle New York, the tranquility is cathartic and deep. The leaves are changing and falling at the same time, leaving a patchwork quilt of red, amber, and gold on brilliant green lawns and on the limbs above. This place is old, like me, with mountains worn smooth and gentle from years of battles with the forces of nature. The woods are deep and the trails inviting, with overgrown and hanging limbs often forming arches of natural magnificence.

In the mornings, I wander these trails, eventually returning to be with friends who years before I had met in this place to talk about lives of service. These talks often exposed life’s five great emotional conflicts: life versus death, living versus dying, truth versus deception, love versus hate, and peace versus war. 

Her Willingness to Speak Truth in Spite of Fear Left a Lasting Impression

Within all these talks, my friends helped bring me the answer to the question of “why.” Why them and not me? Why that day? Why that way? 

Among my friends were the poet, the artist, the journalist, the warrior, the scientist, the quiet, the conflicted, the wounded, the scarred, and the searching. I was in the last of this group, but like most, I dabbled in them all from time to time.

This morning, I awake early and set out on a path that is new to me. I travel alone. This path seems to insist on it. 

Pausing at a pond, smooth and calm in the gentle breeze, I toss a stone into the depths. The ripples take their own course, and can never be stopped.

Crossing a small stream, I walk up a gentle slope into a narrow arched cathedral of a trail. Sunbeams flicker as I walk under the canopy of leaves, shuffled by the gentle breeze.

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In the woods are a lifetime of memories: My mom takes with joy a bouquet of dying dandelions, and my dad takes my first pitch. My brothers and sister bring me confidence and my soul mate brings me purpose. Her huge brown eyes gleam with love and I stop for a moment and take her hand. 

I had commissioned her into the service and retired her as a general. All points in between had been a blessing. We shared hopes and dreams and fulfilled most. The photos of our life were photos of inseparable love, and our “selfies” through the years showed growing lines on our faces that favored the smile over the pained. I was grateful for that. Every day a gift; all of life a wonder. How fortunate I had been.

I cup a falling tear from her and place it in my pocket. “One foot in front of the other,” I whisper. 

There too, are decades of brothers and sisters who served with me in war and peace and who were everything in life. Among them is my gregarious Tony.

I step toward him to give him a hug. “Get away or I will crush you like a grape,” he says.

“Message received,” I say. “What are you doing here, Tony?”

“Waiting for you. It took you long enough.”

“Sorry,” I say. “If I had known you were waiting, I would have hurried things along.”

Tradition holds that, for good luck, pilots break their wings on the day they receive them. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tradition holds that, for good luck, pilots break their wings on the day they receive them. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Would not have wanted that,” he says emphatically. “You set your own pace. That was the right thing to do.” He pauses. “Do you remember what I told you that day?”

I know exactly what he is referring to. That day in the Adirondack Mountains when I struggled to find the words to finish my story—our story.

I say, “Like it was yesterday.

“You said I wasn’t to blame, and that I shouldn’t dwell on the past. You said that you took the mission, that I didn’t give it to you. You asked me to make the most of the life I’d been given, and to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Then you asked me to lift up those around me, and to inspire them, and to speak for you, act for you, and laugh for you.

“My life’s been great, Tony. I did the best I could. I wish I could have shared it with you.”

“Ripples in a pond,” he says. “I am at peace with it.”

“You did better than most and not as good as some. You dwelled on the pain of the past, but it was deep. You were at peace, but it was still inside you. You gave value to my life and you put one foot in front of the other. You stayed in the light, and my friend, most importantly, you lifted up those around you and inspired them; and you spoke, acted, and laughed for me. I also felt the tears. I wished they weren’t there, but I understood when they came. I missed you, brother.”

“Ripples in a pond,” I reply.

He nods.

“Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way,” he says. “I’ll take lead.”

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“Right. OK, I’ll be your wingman.”

He turns and quietly calls over his shoulder, “Heat check.”

“Two,” I respond.

He starts up the hill. A gentle breeze shuffles the leaves and the sunbeams flicker, and I am gone. But always around.

Dan Woodward

Daniel P. Woodward is a retired Air Force brigadier general, a presidentially appointed commissioner with the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the executive director of Arnold Air Society and Silver Wings.

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