Archive for Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Air Force crew chief back in action

January 14, 2004

After spending the holiday season in Kansas, Thomas and Amy Innis are back in Bitburg, Germany.

There's a strong possibility that Thomas, an F-16 crew chief for the U.S. Air Force, soon will return to Qatar, where he served during 2003. Qatar is in the Persian Gulf, southeast of Iraq.

For Thomas and Amy, who are both 20, the overseas assignment has provided the opportunity to tour Europe. The couple has traveled to Poland, Belguim, Luxembourg and France. And they've visited England, as well. A future excursion likely will take them to Paris, just three hours away, where they plan to view the capital of France from the Eiffel Tower.

Living in an apartment on base has its advantages -- especially when it comes to shopping, Amy said.

"When I go off base I can't find anything I like," Amy said.

Dressed comfortably in an "Air Force Wife" T-shirt, jeans and running shoes, Amy said she didn't plan to follow the current popular European fashion trend -- slacks gathered at the calf worn with high-heeled, pointed toed boots.

"It's hideous," she said.

Signing on

Thomas, who signed up for the Air Force prior to his senior year of high school, started his military service June 6, 2001. He took basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and then went to Shepherd Air Force Base, also in Texas, for a nine-month technology course. After an assignment in Arizona, Thomas was sent to Spangdahlem Air Force Base, which is in southwestern Germany near the border of Luxembourg. He arrived April 10, 2002.

According to an Internet Web site, Spangdahlem Air Force Base includes about 1,282 acres of land (two square miles), a 10,000-foot primary runway, an 8,074-foot secondary runway, and more than 500 buildings. The base (along with Bitburg Annex) is now home to approximately 5,000 U.S. active-duty military members and 7,000 dependents.

Supporting role

As a crew chief, Innis, who holds top security clearance, primarily is responsible for one F-16.

"We're assigned to one aircraft and we essentially own the jet -- it's ours," Innis said, explaining that most crews consist of two or three people.

"I do everything that can be done to the jet maintenance," Innis said. "Everything from normal day-to-day operations from servicing, taking oil samples. ... If something breaks, we fix it, anything and everything."

Although crew members are around the jets constantly, they rarely, if ever, fly on them.

"The only time you get to fly is if you're lucky enough to get a familiarization flight," Innis said.

In fact, he fell into that category this fall when he flew in an F-16 over Poland.

Impressed with the F-16, Innis said it is the most versatile jet there is.

"It can carry any type of munitions -- everything from air-to-air missiles to nuclear," Innis said.

But he said his missions are different.

"There's only three squadrons in the entire world that do what we can do," Innis said.

Their goal is to suppress the enemy air defenses, he said.

"What we do is we fly in and wait for those surface-to-air missiles to lock onto us and then we destroy the surface-to-air missiles," Innis said.

As far as flying, the F-16s are useful in many situations.

"They're so maneuverable," Innis said. "They can fly circles around pretty much anything."

Regardless of his appreciation for the aircraft, Innis said he has no desire to become a pilot.

His wife applauded that comment, saying, "I like him staying on the ground."

Paths that crossed

Innis, who enlisted for six years, said he plans to re-enlist and cross-train as a B2 bomber crew chief.

There's a simple reason for that, he noted, as he sat on the couch at the home of his parents and wrapped his arms around Amy.

"I like the idea of staying home with my wife," Innis said. "And the B2s are stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Knob Noster, Mo."

The B2, he said, is a long-range bomber that flies around the world to drop bombs. A B2 could fly from Missouri to Iraq and back in one day. And, all the B2s are headquartered in Missouri.

The couple, who married on June 22, 2002, have spent much of their married life apart.

While living in Germany, Amy worked in a daycare on base. And in her free time -- because she didn't know her way around off the base and didn't know many people on base -- DVDs kept her company.

And, although during the major part of the war, they didn't talk on the phone, they could still communicate by e-mail.

"The only time I was really worried was when it went down to no phone calls," Amy said. "I didn't know what was happening in Qatar because that was a place that there wasn't coverage from."

Understandably, she was almost more worried about Thomas' cousin, Brian Monroe, a Marine who served on the front lines in Iraq.

At one time in an odd sort of way, the paths of Brian and Thomas crossed.

"One of my jets went out and took out a group of republican guard and an armored caravan," Innis said, noting the group was going to flank the Marines.

"It turned out that my cousin was with the Marines that they were going after. That's when you realized what you're doing -- it's a feeling you can't explain."

It really wouldn't matter

And this is partly why Innis said, if he had known a war was approaching, he would have enlisted in the Air Force anyway.

"We all knew about it -- when we signed up we knew it could happen," Innis said. "And we're on the hook 24-7 -- when anything happens we're ready to go. We're saving all these lives and we're proud to do it, we're happy to do it -- it's our job. At times it sucks, but without us, then how many other people would be killed in the next 10 to 20 years by this dictator who has no respect for anything. ... We didn't join up to say hey we're in the military, we joined up to fight if we were needed to."

As Innis paused, searching for words, Amy affectionately poked him in the ribs and quipped: "Do you have any idea what you're saying?"

After a few moments of packed silence, Thomas continued:

"It's worth the risk," he said simply and with humbleness. "It's worth all the risk -- all the sacrifice."

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