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Our early departure the morning after our “triumphant” return to the U.S. was unceremonious as we took to the sky on the final portion of our journey. We departed with two of the tankers that had brought us across the ocean and only planned on two, maybe three, air refuelings. I thought the additional leg home would be anticlimactic, but the closer we got to home base, the faster my heart raced. I had spent a large portion of the last year away from my family missing my anniversary, the birthdays of both my wife and my son, and Christmas/New Years. I was ready to be home.
If I thought the radios had been quiet on the last leg, they were pretty much dead silent on this one. The five hours in the cramped Raptor cockpit seemed like nothing compared to the previous flights in spite of the silence.
As home station came into view, flight lead put us in a 3 + 3 formation, with both three-ships in fingertip, the second three-ship in one-mile trail. However sloppy our formation may have looked during the long hours of the previous legs, we looked awesome as we flew up initial and broke over the squadron.
It was all I could do to contain my excitement long enough to get my after-landing checks done and receive my hangar assignment via the Ops Frequency. As I rounded the corner and pulled in to my parking spot I saw my beautiful wife and sweet little boy holding a “Welcome Home Daddy!” sign and waiving with huge smiles on their faces. Although the squadron literally rolled out the red carpet for us and gave us a hero’s welcome home, there was nothing that could top the minutes of pure bliss after I shut down the engines, practically raced down the ladder, ran past the crew chief and scooped up my little family in my arms.
As much as I would like to share the amazing experience I had flying my F-22 halfway around the world, there really aren’t words that can do the experience justice. No one, except for those in my flight that day – and those who have experienced it themselves – will ever truly understand what it’s like to make such a trip with so much support from air bases around the world. I hope someday my son reads these words, contemplates the photos that were taken that day, and has a swelling of pride within him to live in a great country that could make such an amazing journey a reality for his old man.
Epilogue: This story was written with the intent of providing a small glimpse of what this single-seat fighter pilot experienced in long-distance ferry flights. I have not done justice to the men and women who make such a flight possible by supporting the whole operation and would like to acknowledge the members of the maintenance crews that worked tirelessly in less than optimal conditions to get our jets airborne – the tanker crews who worked diligently to ensure we had the gas to get where we needed to go – the other behind-the-scenes supporters, especially the families of all involved who let us all do what we do. Thank you! You are appreciated more than you know!