Md. unit deploys -- to New Jersey Mix-ups change flights of most wing members bound for base in Italy

January 07, 1996|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN STAFF

A couple of dozen sergeants in the Air National Guard began their role in the Bosnian peacekeeping mission yesterday with the breakdown of a transport plane at Martin State Airport -- and that meant a chance to slip away to an Essex diner for an unplanned, 6 a.m. breakfast.

Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they were enjoying what they thought would be their last meal in America for weeks or even months -- scrapple, waffles, french toast, sausage, fried eggs -- when another sergeant told them they wouldn't be flying to a stopover in Lajes, in the Azores, after all.

"You're flying to New Jersey," he said.

The diners, most of them noncommissioned officers, absorbed this bit of news without pause. It was, in truth, only the first of several mechanical foul-ups that scrambled the plans of the 175th Wing of the Maryland Air National Guard yesterday.

Called up for duty by the Pentagon, this is a group of men and women from the Baltimore area whose job it will be to help provide air cover over Bosnia for NATO peacekeepers on the ground.

And, somehow, with ingenuity and flexibility, the Middle River wing eventually will make it to Europe. But for most of the 175th crew, yesterday wasn't the day.

Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Riley dug into fried eggs and wondered what he would do to pass the time at McGuire Air Force Base, in central New Jersey, when he'd planned to play the slot machines in Lajes, which is little more than an airstrip on a wind-swept island in the mid-Atlantic west of Portugal.

"Atlantic City?" asked Staff Sgt. Nancy Clyburn, as if Sergeant Riley could just hop in a car once he arrived at McGuire and make the 90-minute trip to the gambling resort.

Not worth it, he said, adding, "I might as well just mail my money in to them."

Senior Airman Patrick Narango began debating the pressing culinary question of lobster vs. crab, and Sgt. Brian McNabb sparked a joshing argument about whether they had volunteered for this assignment. (They had.)

A waitress brought Sergeant McNabb, a slight man, a platter with four eggs on it. "Do I look like I need to diet?" he asked.

Just another day in the 175th.

It all began as planned. At 2 a.m., everyone gathered at the airport, and at 5 a.m. eight A-10 Thunderbolt II jets streaked into the night sky at 20-second intervals, gleaming under the full moon.

These jets, made in Hagerstown, are the glamorous center of the 175th's mission. Solo fighters designed for low-level combat and particularly effective against tanks, the A-10s were on their way to Lajes.

During the five-hour Atlantic crossing, there would be three rendezvous with tanker planes for midair refueling. From the Azores, they would fly to Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, just across the Adriatic Sea from Bosnia.

Morale among the pilots was high and the mood was loose. Several had been to Aviano before -- in 1994, when the unit took part in attacks on Serbian targets.

The family of Maj. Ken "Scrape" McCauley -- he earned his nickname in an unorthodox landing once -- was there from Perry Hall to see him off. A 37-year-old pilot who began as an enlisted man, he is "well aware of his mission," said his wife, Jolene.

"I'm not thrilled," she said, "but it's part of the job. This is what he's trained for."

He has been on assignments abroad dozens of times, Mrs. McCauley said, but never on one quite like this. "He hasn't done anything exciting," she said. "He comes home -- that's exciting."

After the smooth departure of the first group, things began to unravel, through no fault of the men and women of the 175th.

At 5:30 a.m., a second "cell" of six A-10 fighters was on the runway, poised for takeoff, when bad news came down from Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. A tanker plane that was supposed to meet the fighters over the mid-Atlantic had electrical problems, and was grounded. Without the tanker, no flight.

Maj. Phil Grey, the unit's supervisor of flying, rescheduled the departure of the remaining six A-10s for today -- snow permitting.

Meanwhile, a crew from McGuire was at Martin working on a C-141 transport, provided by the Air Force, that was to take the support crew to the Azores. A windshield had cracked, and the autopilot was out of order.

"If they don't get that autopilot working, those pilots will have to actually fly the plane themselves," Sergeant Clyburn noted. Afternoon wind gusts at Lajes were predicted to be between 70 mph and 100 mph, so if takeoff was delayed further, the flight would have to be rescheduled.

"The winds are tricky, but they do blow the cows off the runway," said Sergeant Riley, who has been on Bosnian duty three times already, with stopovers in the Azores every time.

At 7 a.m. the decision was made to head to New Jersey, where it would undergo more complete repairs.

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