Monday, June 02, 2008

Warlords of the Air

In which we get the up close & personal tour of Sheppard AFB, Wichita Falls, Texas

After the Mattis Hall Ribbon Cutting, LtCol. Ventriglia invited the family on a tour of his part of the 82nd training wing facility. Ventriglia is charged with an awesome responsibility: Training his airmen to handle the ordinance used by airforce planes, which include F-16 fighters, the B-52 bomber, the B-1 bomber, and the F-22 Raptor.

Now, I had supposed that on this tour we might look at a few aircraft, maybe through a glass, and that would be it. Oh, no! LtCol. Ventriglia was determined to give the family the royal treatment. First, he took us into the ante-room of one of the two vast hangers he is in charge of. Here was a decomissioned cruise missile. Thinking that this was about as close as we were going to get to the action, I had Pops take a snap.

Then he lead us into a room where bombs are assembled. "Surely," I asked, "we're not permitted to take photographs in here?" The LtCol laughed and said, "Take as many as you like, none of this is classified." Adding, "I would bring you into a classified area... " (The implication was clear: This might not be a classified area, but there were classified areas.)

Ventriglia explained each piece of ordinance in turn, what is was for, what it was capable of -- JDAMS, 500 pound bunker busters, even an atom bomb. Charming and enthusiastic, this guy was really into his work. He nearly lost some of the more squeamish in our party when he explained one of the bombs: "This precision-guided ordinance is capable of smashing through as many floors of a concrete building as you want and exploding on any floor you choose, killing everyone on that floor but leaving the rest of the building in tact... except for the hole in the roof."
The work of destruction is awesome and terrifying.
He quickly won his audience back, however, when he took us into the aircraft hangar. There, facing away from us was a line of F-16s, and, behind them, a B-52. "Well," the LtCol. smiled, "Who wants to sit in the F-16 cockpit?" Um, that would be all of us. So we took turns getting in and having our pictures taken like a bunch of tourists at a carnival. It was a gas. Pops sure liked it.

The whole time, airmen -- in the Air Force you are an "airman" whether you are a man or a woman -- were scurrying to and fro around us, going about the business of their training excersizes. I was surprised by how freindly the LtCol. was with the men and women and how often they had smiles for him. I mentioned this and he said, "I've been in the Air Force 20 years and I am still waiting for a bad day. I really like my guys and I think they like me... but they know who the boss is. You give respect you get respect."
I also noted that sometimes the airmen saluted him, sometimes they didn't. He explained that the general rule was that when an airman is inside with his cap off, or going about a task, he or she didn't have to salute. But outside, cap on, it's usually "ten hut!" Even then, though, the LtCol. explained, "It depends on the circumstance, you have to be reasonable." Walking through the parking lot, we came across an airmen just starting up his car. I noted then that a nod of the head from the airman was enough, answered with a "How's it going?" from the LtCol.
We also got the chance to climb up into the cockpit of the B-52. You climb in through the bottom and up a ladder through a dark, cramped passage. Inside, the cockpit is tiny, much smaller than that of a commercial airliner. I bumped my head on the ceiling. The pilot seat is narrow, surrounded by levers and controls, impossible to get into and out of without knocking some vital instrument out of kilter. It looked a lot roomier in Dr. Strangelove.
On the way out of the tour, we came across a sign noting, "Without weapons, we're just U.S. Air." True dat.
Thanks much to LtCol. Ventriglia and the officers and airmen of the 82nd Training Wing for their indulgence and hospitality.


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