Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras —
Aviation is inherently dangerous. Every time that aircraft leaves the ground, your life is in the hands of the very precise and diligent efforts of maintainers who sustain a machine that must be carefully controlled by a trained aviator and crew. Yet amid the harmony between these electronics and metal parts, one day you may catch a glimpse of a doll in a flight bag, a trinket hanging down from the circuit breaker panel, or a pilot performing the sign of the cross before liftoff. Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager always carried a packet of Beemans gum on every one of his flights, including when he broke the sound barrier. Whether for good luck, personal or religious views, or just superstition – each has their own reason why.
In 2010 shortly after deploying to Iraq, I bought two American flags. Intended to be gifts for my family (which still holds true), these flags were meant to be patriotic centerpieces. One is with my father – a retired first sergeant – on his wall with the Air Medal that was pinned to my chest at the end of that deployment. The other has yet to make it home. This flag has been stuck either in my flight bag or in the front window of my UH-60 Blackhawk. For every single flight since I bought her, she has been with me. She has more than 2,000 hours of flight time, surpassing nearly 90 percent of all our unit’s crewmembers in experience, and has travelled all over the world. She has a unique history, tainted and scarred with both good and bad experiences.
She was on the flight-lead aircraft that carried the late Sen. John McCain across Iraq before his press conference at Baghdad International Airport. Her first opportunity to wave her colors in the wind was on Christmas Day, 2010, over Iraq conducting a battlefield circulation to visit troops.
She did the same again in 2015 while in Afghanistan visiting all our medical evacuation team sites. She was my pillow on the C-5 Galaxy flights to and from my deployment in Afghanistan. On that deployment, she was on final approach responding to a mass casualty event when six Airmen were killed in December 2015 by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near Bagram. She was there when we answered a nine-line medical evacuation, flying through dense smoke into a qalat when the 10th Operational Detachment – Alpha called for help in the Archi district, 30 minutes northeast of Kunduz.
She has tasted death when she witnessed a Major pass away while enroute to Bagram because of a brain aneurism.
I imagine she was just as nervous, and cried with me, both times I returned safely from war. She experienced firsthand the moment my wife, children, and many other families sprinted from the bleachers to welcome us home.
In Europe, she traversed the mountainous ranges of Italy, flew by numerous castles in Germany, and even visited Poland near the Russian border. She also smelled the aroma of fresh gunpowder while riding in an AS-532 Cougar Netherlands and CH-47 Chinook during aerial gunnery and air assault operations.
At home, she has literally flown from sea to shining sea. From the beaches in Southern California, past the San Bernardino Mountains and high winds of the Mojave Desert, abreast the snow-capped forests of Flagstaff, she was there. She visited the Colorado River as it winds northward to the Hoover Dam and then to the breathtaking depths of the Grand Canyon. She felt the crisp, cool air landing at Leadville, Colorado – the highest airport in the continental United States.
Even better, she was the backdrop – or should I say the star of the show – for a few re-enlistments and promotions atop Al Magre, the second highest point after Pikes Peak. She glided over the central plains of Oklahoma and Kansas to the southern beaches of Texas as she made her way over the river lands of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the beaches of Florida. She made her way northward over mid-west America as she arrived in the Northeast, where she even visited Lady Liberty.
Nevertheless, she has experienced fear and seen some of the worst environments imaginable. She knows what it is like to lose an engine in flight. Engrained within her very fibers remain the dust of a thousand landscapes. And she escaped thunderstorms and turbulence that nearly took her down from California to Kentucky.
Recently, in Central America, she has seen the mesmerizing dance of the emerald waters of the Caribbean and the deep blue Pacific crashing against the shoreline. She has flown thousands of pounds of cargo to villages and host nation military bases across the jungles of Panama, and personally met the poor villagers of the Wayuu tribe in Colombia. Braver than I, she flew the President of Panama while dodging thunderstorms and lightning literally a few miles away from the aircraft. Flying proudly during an opening ceremony, she flew next to the Colombian flag – a symbol of our relationship and support with our Colombian partners during Exercise Vita. She has – and always will be- steadfast and unwavering as we traverse the world together.
Nowadays, she is not very famous. But when those stars fly on the nose of an iron beast, fear begets courage. She becomes a symbol to all, much like the flag on the right shoulder, where the star field faces forward – forward because these colors do not run, except toward friction, toward animosity, but more importantly, toward the fight. In doing so, she becomes the foundational pride and loyalty that swells in the heart of every patriot.
Unfortunately, a day will come when this old pilot will no longer be able to taste the ventures of the heavens. Yet this flag will still fly. She will fly outside my home, gloriously waving her stars and stripes with a story that not many know. What is more important is that she will fly not simply because she is my flag, nor just my family’s, but because she is our flag – our American flag.
Editor’s note: Chief Warrant Officer Eblen is a pilot with the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment, part of Joint Task Force-Bravo.