The Changing of the Guard
Ten years after 9/11, what life is like in an Air National Guard unit.
- By Ed Darack
- Photographs by Ed Darack
- Air & Space magazine, September 2011
(Page 4 of 4)
For now it’s a good balance, but by the end of 2012, things will get interesting. 9/11 and the economic downturn allowed many of us to put our civilian careers on hold to fill the 9/11 tasking. Employers have been very accommodating, because if their employee came back they would have to lay off someone else, so they would rather let us stay on leave. But there’s a storm brewing. The Air Force had a need for UAV pilots [operators of unpiloted aerial vehicles], so they involuntarily transitioned current fighter pilots, and downplayed the fighter track to new graduates from the academy. They’re now facing a fighter pilot shortage. The airlines are slowly hiring again. When the airlines are hiring, pilots leaving active duty increases. The age-60 [retirement] rule has delayed airline retirements, because the [new] rule allowed pilots to stay for another five years. That five-year period will be over at the end of 2012, and mandatory retirements will skyrocket. That is when the airlines, short on pilots, will make [Guard] pilots come back. And the Guard units will look to fill the empty positions from a fighter pilot pool that does not exist.
—Lieutenant Colonel Scott Van Beek
All but two of us have been to combat in this squadron, and those two will get combat experience in 2012 when we go to Afghanistan. So we’ve dropped bombs and strafed targets—and watched enemy combatants die—and we have also watched friendly troops on the ground die. That’s the hardest thing, watching our guys on the ground die under enemy fire.
Here we know that about every 18 months we’re going to get deployed. I’m going to be deploying with people I’ve flown with for 15 years, so we’re really comfortable with each other. That’s something really unique about the Air National Guard.
I’ve had five deployments over to the Middle East, from Northern Watch [an operation in support of the Iraqi no-fly zones that took place from January 1997 through March 2003] to Southern Watch [an operation in support of the Iraqi no-fly zones that took place between August 1992 and March 2003] to Operation Iraqi Freedom 1 and Operation Iraqi Freedom 2. We have some pilots who have had nine combat tours.
—Lieutenant Colonel Bill Orton, 140th Operations Support Squadron Commander
Writer and photographer Ed Darack (darack.com) is the author of Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers — The Marine Corps’ Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan (Berkley Trade, 2010).