Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Diary Of A Last and Final Flight Home

February 17, 2007

0350

I was at curbside at 24th and M, Washington DC . 16 Degrees with a light breeze. Going home after my second week of freezing temps to my warm home in SoCal. Take a walk on the beach, ride a horse, climb a mountain and get back to living. I'm tired of the cold.

0425

paying the taxi fare at Dulles in front of the United Airlines counter, still cold.

0450

engaged the self-serve ticker machine and it delivers my ticket, baggage tag and boarding pass. Hmmm, that Marine over there is all dressed up in his dress blues a bit early this morning... "Good Morning Captain, you're looking sharp." He says, "Thank you, sir."

Pass Security and to my gate for a decaf coffee and 5 hours sleep. A quick check of the flight status monitor and UA Flt 211 is on time. I'm up front, so how bad can that be? Hmmm, there's that same Marine. He must be heading to Pendleton to see his lady at LAX for the long weekend, all dressed up like that. Or maybe not. I dunno.

The speaker system announces "Attention in the boarding area, we'll begin boarding in 10 minutes, we have some additional duties to attend to this morning, but we'll have you out of here on time."

The Marine Captain has now been joined by five others. BINGO, I get it, he's not visiting his lady, he's an official escort. I remember doing that once, CACO duty. I still remember the names of the victim and family, The Bruno Family in Mojave - all of them, wows, that was 24 years ago.

On board, 0600:

"Good morning folks, this is the Captain. This morning we've been attending to some additional duties, and I apologize for being 10 minutes late for push back, but I believe we'll be early into LAX. This morning it is my sad pleasure to announce that 1st LT Jared Landaker, USMC will be flying with us to his Big Bear home in Southern California. Jared lost his life over the skies of Iraq earlier this month, and today we have the honor of returning him home along with his mother, father and brother . Please join me in making the journey comfortable for the Landaker family and their uniformed escort. Now sit back and enjoy your ride. We're not expecting any turbulence until we reach the Rocky Mountain area, but we'll do what we can to ensure a smooth ride. For those interested, you can listen in to our progress on Channel 9."

Click Channel 9: "Good morning UA 211. You are cleared to taxi, takeoff and cleared to LAX as filed."

4 hours and 35 minutes later over Big Bear Mountain, the Airbus A320 makes a left roll, a steep bank and then one to the right-Nice touch. Nice tribute. Five minutes out from landing, the Captain comes on the speaker: "Ladies and Gents, after landing I'm leaving the fasten seatbelt sign on, and I ask everyone to please yield to the Landaker family. Please remain seated until all members of the family have departed the aircraft. Thank you for your patience. We are 20 minutes early."

On roll out, I notice red lights, emergency vehicles approaching. We're being escorted directly to our gate, no waiting, not even a pause. Out the left window, a dozen Marines in full dress blues. A true class act by everyone, down to a person. Way to go United Airlines for doing things RIGHT, Air Traffic Control for getting the message, and to all security personnel for your display of brotherhood.

When the family departed the aircraft everyone sat silent, then I heard a lady say,"God Bless you and your family, and thank you." Then a somber round of applause. The Captain read a prepared note from Mrs. Landaker to the effect, "Thank you all for your patience and heartfelt concern for us and our son. We sincerely appreciate the sentiment. It's good to have Jared home."

After departing the a/c I found myself along with 30 others from our flight looking out the lobby window back at the plane. Not a dry eye. It was one of the most emotional moments I've ever experienced. We all stood there silently, and watched as Jared was taken by his honor guard to an awaiting hearse. Then the motorcade slowly made it's way off the ramp.

I realized I had finally seen the silent majority. It is deep within us all. Black, Brown, White, Yellow, Red, Purple, we're all children, parents, brothers, sisters, etc - we are an American family.

Official Report: February 7, 2007, Anbar Province, Iraq ... 1st LT Jared Landaker United States Marine Corps, from Big Bear California, gave his live in service to his country. Fatally wounded when his CH-46 helicopter was shot down by enemy fire. Jared and his crew all perished. His life was the ultimate sacrifice of a grateful military family and nation.

His death occurred at the same time as Anna Nicole Smith, a drug using and undeserved 'celebrity' with a 7th grade education of no pedigree who dominated our news for two weeks while Jared became yet another statistic on CNN. And most unfortunately, Jared's death underscores a fact that we are a military at war, not a nation at war. It has been said that Marines are at war, and America is at the mall.

1st LT Landaker, a man I came to know in the sky's over America on 17 February 2007, from me to you, aviator to aviator, I am unbelievably humbled. It was my high honor to share your last flight. God bless you. Semper Fi

This true narrative was written by Stuart Witte, a former Navy pilot who is the manager of the Mojave Airport in Mojave, California. He was in Maryland on February 16 of this year to attend a Navy ceremony. He happened to end up on a flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles that was carrying the body of 1st Lt. Jared Landaker, a Marine helicopter pilot from Big Bear, California.

Witte also attended a memorial service for Lt. Landaker that was held at Camp Pendleton in California in March.

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