Guest Column: Stu Witt
Witt takes 'last flight' with 1st lt.
By STU WITT
Special to the News Review
Longtime Ridgecrest resident, Mojave Airport District manager and former top-gun pilot Stu Witt shares a moving experience he had on return flight from Washington, D.C.
Feb. 17, 2007, 0350 curbside at 24th and M, Washington D.C., 16 degrees with a light breeze. Going after my second week of freezing temps to my home in SoCal. Fly my aircraft, 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 engaging the self-serve ticket machine, and it delivers my ticket, baggage tag and boarding pass. Hmmm, that Marine is all dressed up early. Oh, maybe . . . hmm. "Good morning, Captain, you're looking sharp."
Pass Security and to my gate for a quick decaf coffee and five hours sleep. A quick check of the flight status monitor, and UA Flt 211 is on time, I'm up front, how bad can it be?
Hmmm, 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?
"Attention in the boarding area, we will begin boarding in 10 minutes, we have some additional duties to attend to this morning but we will have you out of here on time."
That captain now has five others with him. Bingo, I get it, he is not visiting his lady, he's an official escort. How I remember doing that once. I still remember the names of the victim and family, the Bruno Family in Mojave. Wow, that was 24 years ago. I wonder if we will ever know who and why?
On board, 0600: "Good morning folks this is the captain. This morning we have been attending to some additional duties, and I apologize for being 10 minutes late for pushback, but believe me, we will be early to LAX.
"This morning it is my sad pleasure to announce that First 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, brother and uncles.
"Please join me in making the journey comfortable for the Landaker family and their uniformed escort.
"Now sit back and enjoy our ride. We are not expecting any turbulence until we reach the Rocky Mountains, and at that time we will do what we can to ensure a smooth ride. For those interested, you can listen in to our progress on Button 9."
Up Button 9: "Good morning UA 211 you are cleared to taxi, takeoff and cleared to LAX as filed."
From the time we started rolling we never stop. First Lt. Landaker begins receiving his due.
Four hours and 35 minutes later over Big Bear Mountain, the AB320 makes a left roll and steep bank and then one to the right. Nice touch, Captain.
Five minutes out from landing, the captain says, "Ladies and gents, after landing I'm leaving the fasten seatbelt sign on, and I ask everyone in advance to yield to the Landaker family. Please remain seated until all members have departed the aircraft. Thank you for your patience. We are 20 minutes early."
On rollout, I notice red lights, emergency vehicles everywhere. We are being escorted directly to our gate, no waiting anywhere, not even a pause. Out the left window are a dozen Marines in full dress blues, Highway Patrol, Police, Fire crews all in full dress with lights on.
A true class act by everyone, down to a person from coast to coast. Way to go, United Airlines, for doing the little things right, because they are the big things, Air Traffic Control for getting the message, to all law enforcement for your display of brotherhood.
When the family departs the aircraft, everyone sits silent, then I hear a lady say, "God bless you and your family. Thank you." Then another, then another, then a somber round of applause.
The captain reads 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 is nice to have Jared home."
After departing the aircraft, I find myself along with 30 others from our flight looking for a window. Not a dry eye in the craft. All of us are bawling like babies. It is one of the most emotional moments of my life.
We all stand silent and watch as Jared is taken by his honor guard to an awaiting hearse. Then the motorcade slowly makes its way off the ramp.
I have finally seen the silent majority. It is deep within us all. Black, brown, white, yellow, red, purple, we are all children, parents, brothers, sisters — we are an American family.
What you don't know is that on the flight I was tapped on the shoulder by Mrs. Landaker who introduced herself to me after I awoke.
Early in our taxi out from the gate at Dulles, the gent next to me (a Fairfax City Council Member and acquaintance of the Thuot family) were talking to the flight attendant and mentioned that we had sons serving on active duty.
"What do you say? How tragic — they must be devastated." He said many of the passengers had told him the same thing, so somewhere in the flight he shared his tidbits with Mrs. Landaker.
Our flight attendant had been struggling with what to say, to find the right words, so he told the Landaker family of passengers who were parents of servicemembers who connected with their grief as parents. After I gathered myself, I stepped back to their row, two behind me and introduced myself to Mr. Landaker (a veteran of Southeast Asia as a tanker) and Jared's uncle and brother. What a somber moment.
Their Marine captain escort was a first-rate class act. He had been Jared's tactics instructor and volunteered for this assignment, as he said, "Sir, it is the least I could do, he was my friend and a great stick. He absolutely loved to fly, It's an honor to be here on his last flight."
On my connecting flight, my mind raced. How lucky I was to have had an opportunity to fly my father to Spain and ride the carrier USS John F. Kennedy home in 1981, the same year Jared was born. How lucky I was to have my father on the crows landing when I made my final cat shot in an F-14. Jared's father never had that chance. Jared was at war 10,000 miles away.
When Mr. Landaker and I were talking he shared with me, "When Jared was born he had no soft spot on his head, and doctors feared he would be developmentally challenged.
He became a physics major with honors, was a high school and college athlete and graduated with distinction from naval aviation flight school.
"He was short in stature, but a Marine all the way." You can visit his life story at www.bigbeargrizzly.net. Bring tissue.
Feb. 7, 2007, Anbar Province, Iraq. First Lt. Jared Landaker, United States Marine Corps, hero, from Big Bear, Calif., gave his life in service to his country. Fatally wounded when his CH-46 helicopter was shot down by enemy fire, Jared perished along with all of his crew.
His life was the ultimate sacrifice for a grateful military family and nation.
His death occurred at the same time as that of Anna Nicole Smith, a drug user with no pedigree who dominated our news for two weeks while Jared became a number on CNN.
And most unfortunately, Jared's death underscores a fact that we are a military at war, not a nation at war. Until we become a nation committed to winning the fight, and elect leaders with the spine to ask Americans to sacrifice in order to win, we shall remain committed to being a nation with a military at war, and nothing more (and possibly no funding if Congress has its way!)
First Lt. Landaker, a man I came to know in the skies over America on Feb. 17, 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.
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