Monday, March 31, 2014

My Friend the New York Jet.

Here's his last flight in the F-16, January, 2010 over upstate New York.

Welcome to the first episode of "Amazing People I've Known, but This is the First Person I've Actually Showered With."

Today, I'd like to relate the story of Christian Peloza, a guy I've known since 1970, right around the time Vietnam was raging, the Beatles were breaking up and a half hour of Roadrunner contained more amusing violence than Pulp Fiction.

He ate the same hamburger gravy school lunches, wore the same Sears Toughskins and drank from the same neighborhood garden hoses as the rest of us.

Which is why a lot of the kids from Forest Villa have those lip sores that flare up occasionally.

Christian lived on the street behind me. He was the new kid in second grade, and even though he was a year younger than everyone else after skipping a grade in California, he was big, smart and athletic.

I remember watching him play soccer at noon recess, booting the ball forty yards with his mens' size nine Red Wing boots. Together, we inhabited the white middle-class suburban terrarium known as Auburn, Washington. 

We rode the pine together on the junior high basketball team. After a few games, I decided playing in the game would be okay, but cracking jokes with Christian down at the end of the bench was more fun and significantly less stressful.

Finally in June of 1981, after growing up together through an era of Watergate, Farrah Fawcett, Steve Martin and the Miracle on Ice, the whole"parallel paths" thing screeched to a halt. Here's Christian's story, with my comments italicized.

Why did you apply to the Air Force Academy? 

The whole thing happened by accident. A friend of my dad's happened to be a liaison for the Air Force Academy and when I was sixteen he asked me where I was going to college. Like most teenagers I just shrugged my shoulders. He produced a catalog that made it look like a pretty good deal (as most catalogs do) and I decided to apply.

I really had no desire to fly; I just thought it would be good way to get a free education. Once I got there, I found out that the catalog made it look a lot better than it really was, but I was too stubborn to quit. I'm glad I stuck it out because getting to fly fighters turned out to be my calling. I can't imagine doing anything else.

You finished high school at seventeen and a couple of weeks after graduation, found yourself reporting to Colorado Springs. Talk about the first couple of days.

Needless to say, it was quit the culture shock (think John Candy in Stripes)—trying to acclimate to the seven thousand foot altitude, getting my clothes taken away, my hair shaved off and everyone yelling at me for anything you can think of. 

It was challenging mentally and physically that first summer, but at least we outnumbered the upperclassmen that were training us. When the rest of the Cadet Corps showed up for school, we were greatly outnumbered, but the academics turned out to be the most challenging aspect of all with seven classes each of my first two semesters. Trying to manage all that in between the yelling, mandatory military training, athletics and meals was a huge challenge to say the least.

I don't know, that doesn't sound too hard compared to my college experience. Try dragging yourself out of bed at nine-thirty  in the morning after a late night draining the spodyody with the Gamma Phis. I willed myself through some brutal hangovers and still made it to 1:20 Geology at least half the time, tough guy.

Anyway, at the Academy if you decided you couldn't take it anymore, you could still withdraw consequence-free until your junior year, right?

Yeah, if I had decided to quit in my junior or senior year, it would have resulted in a two year enlistment.

Meaning you would have had to serve two years as a non-commissioned officer?

Yes. I did briefly think about quitting my second year but changed my mind.

Wow, imagine if you had. We wouldn't be talking about this next part of your life. In May 1985, you graduated from the Air Force Academy and received your commission as a Second Lieutenant.

Yeah, then I drove to Del Rio, Texas and spent a year training on the T-37 and T-38 aircraft. I discovered I really enjoyed flying, did well and received an F-16 as my follow-on aircraft. I continued on to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico for fighter lead-In training, where I flew AT-38s and learned the art of tactical flying. From there I went to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida and trained on F-16s for six months.

And before you knew it, you found yourself in the middle of Operation Desert Storm.

Desert Storm was the first air combat the United States had been involved with since Vietnam, and as such, we didn't have anyone with combat experience. It was quite nerve-racking leading up to those days before Jan 15, 1991, not knowing what to expect. Well, it turned out that we didn't have a lot to worry about. I think the Iraqis expected us to come in at low altitude which would have been suicide with all the Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) they had.

They were shooting Surface to Air missiles (SAMs) at us, but we had a lot of time to react at higher altitudes and they rarely had the desire to guide them all the way through intercept for fear of our Anti-Radiation Missiles from the F-4Gs guiding on them.

In the earlier stages of the war, a few American planes were shot down, right?

A couple of units decided to fly low those first few days and a few of them were shot down and taken as POWs. And then on the last day of the war, Bill Andrews, a pilot from our unit, was captured on the last day of the war during the retreat of the Iraqis from Kuwait City, along the "Highway to Basrah". He took an ill-advised dip below the weather to check things out and was met by a barrage of AAA and Shoulder fired SAMs. He jumped out, was captured and released a couple of weeks later.

The lowest point of the war for me happened one night as we flew back to the United Arab Emirates. We'd flown three combat missions that day, and my dedicated wingman Dale, the guy who had been on every combat flight with me, flew into the ground. Apparently, he became disoriented when I made a turn away from him to start our approach, and he flew right into the ground thinking he was doing fine.

Just a couple of weeks prior, Dale had helped me find an air refueling tanker when we were both about to run out of gas. The nearest base was fogged in and we didn't have the fuel to make it to another one. Dale gave me the initial heading to reach the only available tanker, and I got on the refueling boom with about five minutes of gas left. This gave us just enough to get to a base without fog.

I can't imagine what it must have felt like to lose someone like that. You were stationed with the New York Air National Guard on September 11, 2001, correct? Describe your experience that day.

Yes, my unit was based in Syracuse, but half of us weren't in New York at the time. We were deployed to Saudi Arabia to Prince Sultan Air Base, located on land owned by Osama Bin Laden's father--a wealthy Saudi businessman. Like everyone else, I watched it in horror on the television after returning from work that afternoon.

I knew that an act of war had just occurred and we would be going to war in Afghanistan. Four days later, our replacements arrived and we flew home. It was really eerie on the radio because there was no other chatter from the usual airliners--only us and the FAA. They let us fly wherever we wanted because we were the only planes in the area. 

We found out that for the portion of our unit still in Syracuse on September 11, things were a little more exciting. The Eastern Air Defense Unit tried to scramble our jets against the airliner that eventually crashed in Pennsylvania. But since we weren't an "alert unit" and the base held no live ordnance, it took time to get unscheduled jets ready to fly. By the time they got airborne, the airliner had already gone down.

At any time during your career did you find yourself in a bona fide dogfight or near-one-on-one battle with an enemy fighter? Don't worry, I'm not going to say "Like Top Gun," because no one could ever kick Commie ass like Maverick.

Air-to-air engagements have been a rare event in the past 25 years, sort of like winning the lottery in my business. I spent a lot of years after Desert Storm enforcing the no-fly zones north and south of central Iraq. I would occasionally get an Iraqi aircraft on my radar but none of them ever crossed the line.

How many tours did you complete in Iraq and Afghanistan?

I deployed to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey many times in support of the Northern Watch (enforcing northern Iraq no-fly zone) and Prince Sultan, Air Base in Saudi a couple of time in support of Operations Southern Watch. I went to Qatar twice in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan). 

We could fly to both Iraq and Afghanistan from this location. My last deployment to Iraq was in country at Balad Air Base. Daily insurgent artillery attacks from outside the base were commonplace. It happened the first day I was there; someone was killed as I was diving into the nearest shelter wondering what was going on. 

By the time your career wound down, how long had you spent flying?

I retired a Lieutenant Colonel on February 1, 2010 after 25 years in the Air Force. I'd accumulated 4300 hours in the F-16, which still is ranked sixteenth all time among the several thousand pilots worldwide who have flown it. 

Here you are with your daughter after that last flight. What a fantastic shot. Your kids are now twenty-three (twin boy and girl) and eleven. How did they feel about their dad's occupation?

My older kids were very aware of what I did for a living. The military forced us to move frequently so it affected their lives quite a bit.

Let's shift gears and talk about another remarkable event in your life—reuniting with your birth parents ten years ago. 

Were you ever curious about it as a kid, or was it something you gravitated toward in adulthood?

I knew I was adopted from as long I as I can remember, but it didn't mean a lot to me since I was busy being a kid, and I never really waned to find out who my birth parents were. The curiosity kicked in during my late thirties,and finally decided to pursue it when I turned forty. 

Washington State had recently passed a law that allowed an intermediary to open my birth records and approach the biological parents to find out if they wanted to meet me. Both of them did, and after that it didn't take long. 

I was very surprised to find out that they were both Canadians living in British Columbia. My mom had given me up for adoption in Seattle when she was nineteen, went to college in Vancouver and eventually married my dad. They divorced eighteen years later, but each remained living in the same town.

We agreed to meet in Everett, Washington at my mom's sister house. It was really strange seeing my biological roots for the first time--features that belonged to all of us and then the slow discovery of why I was the way I was. I really think that genetics are stronger than environment in determining who you are. 

I met my dad later that day back at my hotel. My newly-found cousin happened to be getting married in nearby the next day, and  I remember walking into the room with my mom and watching everyone stare and compare the two of us. 

It was a fun night, and we've kept in touch ever since.

I'm glad we've kept in touch, too. Thanks, Christian.

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