Sacred mission: Pilots bring fallen heroes home

  • Published
  • By Christin Michaud
  • AFMAO Public Affairs
Three planes sit on a small section of the runway at Dover Air Force Base and help fulfill the wing's motto: "Deliver!"

They aren't the typical big cargo planes like the C-17 Globemaster or the C-5 Galaxy people are accustomed to seeing on the runway here.

The Falcons, although smaller in size, have a big mission - they carry sacred cargo - the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Three flight crews from Kalitta, a contract carrier with the government, are responsible for bringing fallen heroes to airports close to their final resting place as part of the reverse dignified transfer process.

The crews consist of a captain and a first officer for each flight as well as two mechanics that provide ground support here.

Their team stands by before takeoff as various volunteers from units across the 436th Airlift Wing here conduct a reverse dignified transfer placing the flag-draped casket onto the Falcon. The plane carries the remains of the fallen service member and the military escort to a local airport by the final resting place.

Ryan Wetzel, of Midland, Mich., a captain with Kalitta, made his first flight carrying a fallen hero more than six years ago. Since then, he has spent a considerable amount of time supporting the mission.

"This has actually turned into a second home for us," he said. "We come out for two weeks at a time, and then go home for a week. I've been doing that pretty much since the beginning."

Kalitta initially began with a bridge contract Jan. 1, 2007, when alternate methods of returning fallen heroes were being explored.

While considering the mission at the mortuary, the company had to make some modifications, including developing an on-board lift device in their engineering section, said Steve Greene, Dover AFB project manager for Kalitta Charters.

"I can honestly say that we considered everything -- or so I thought," said Greene. "We left no stone unturned when it came to testing and building in redundancy."

Then the time came to put their ideas into action.

On the first day of operations, all four aircraft flew out on missions. Greene said everyone was nervous - the Air Force, the military liaisons and the staff from Kalitta.

"I remember observing the reverse dignified transfer from the mortuary vans onto our aircraft," said Greene. "When the first aircraft taxied out, the tears were inevitable. I knew where they were going, and I knew there were parents, a wife and children waiting on the other end for their father.

"I was on the ramp that evening when the first Falcon came back into Dover, and I asked the captain to brief me on activities and procedures at the destination. He was quiet at first," said Greene. "And then with his eyes welling up, he asked, 'do we have to talk about this right now?' I thought I had considered everything. But I had not considered the emotional toll it would take on our crews."

Greene then asked the mortuary chaplain for assistance to help the Kalitta crews with their new mission. The chaplain here sat down with the crews to offer him the same care he would for those who work inside the mortuary walls.

It helped, but Silvestre "Sly" Brito still gets emotional after three years.

"For me to do my job, I try to know as little as I can," said Brito. "Hard to fly an airplane when you are crying. I know what we are doing is part of the healing process for the family. I'm happy to be a part of it."

As a Marine himself, there are times when families come up to the casket during the dignified arrival and while he is standing there with them, for a brief moment, he said it feels like he is part of the family.

"The company realizes more than you might think about the mission," Greene said. Kalitta has several personnel who are veterans and some guardsmen who have deployed. In October 2008, the son of one of Kalitta's chief pilots at the time was killed in action.

Brad Clark had trained all of the crews who were based at Dover, Greene said. On the mission to fly his son Michael home, the first fuel stop was at Kalitta's base, Willow Run Airport (YIP) in Ypsilanti, Mich.

"Brad boarded the plane in YIP and continued the mission to fly his son home to California."

Greene knows he has a responsibility to all the families of the fallen heroes. He consulted with his father, who is retired from the Air Force, to make sure they get right. He has that retired technical sergeant in Tennessee to answer to.

"As a company, we realize that this mission is the most important thing we will ever do," Greene said. "We all operate in the knowledge that this is a zero-fail mission, and we do absolutely anything and everything it takes to perform to that standard."

One Air Force veteran in the company, first officer Royce Linton, remembers his first mission like it was yesterday.

When they brought the family up to the casket after he arrived in Stockton, Calif., he said the tears just rolled.

"What are you going to do?" he said. "You just can't help it."

Linton said he got a lot of experience in a hurry, because they were so busy in 2007. But years later, it still doesn't get any easier, he said.

Through the years of experience, particular moments stand out for the Kalitta crews which make them proud to fulfill the sacred duty.

For Wetzel, it was a trip to what he called one of the nosiest airports. He used to fly into Vegas with the company and was used to the bustle.

But when he flew in with a fallen hero, he remembers shutting down and stepping out of the airplane into a reverent silence.

"We looked around, and nothing was moving," he said. "The whole airport shut down. That's amazing - they had enough respect that nobody was moving."

As much as each of the pilots said they loved to fly and were proud to have a small part in honoring those who paid the ultimate price, Ryan recalled a time when he was here for two weeks and never flew.

"Those are really good times," he said. "It means things are going really well."

But when the U.S. needs the fallen heroes flown home with dignity, honor and respect, these flight crews are ready to answer the call.

"It's probably one of the most important things you can ever do," Wetzel said. "Right now, I can't imagine doing anything else."