by Keith Nordstrom
BY CRAIG BORGES / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF
David Buckley doesn't have
to do this. Nor do his fellow crewmen, Bernard Duszkiewicz,
Dr. James Hennessey, Kevin McDonnell, John Sullivan, or
Jeffrey Burch. Individually, they do all right, most working
as pilots for commercial airlines and Hennessey as a physician.
the men, members of the Rhode Island Air National Guard
whose nickname is appropriately "Lobsters and Mobsters,"
are here flying 17,000 feet above Europe in an aging camouflaged-painted
C-130 called "Providence," not so much for the
money, but for the work itself -- bringing troops safely
into and out of a war zone.
Buckley, a former Attleboro
resident who fondly recalls that as a boy he delivered The
Sun Chronicle, holds the rank of lieutenant colonel and
is mission commander of this Wednesday morning flight from
Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to Skopje Airport in
Macedonia. He says most of the guys enjoy the work and are
eager to help out, considering their stints in Europe are
usually for only two weeks at a time.
"We don't do the seven-month
thing like the army," he says while giving a Sun Chronicle
reporter a tour of the plane's tight cockpit as the aircraft
crosses into Italian air space. "These guys do pretty
well in their civilian jobs. If the tour was too long, they
probably wouldn't do it."
That very thing, he says,
happened during the Gulf War.
Too long a tour of duty
caused a lot of pilots to opt out of the Air National Guard.
"Now, we come in for
a few weeks, get the job done, and everyone's happy,"
The job Buckley speaks of
isn't exactly one of the safest one around, either. On this
day, there are more than 70 soldiers, including both active
duty and reserve, crammed onto red hanging nylon benches
in the cargo hold of the 1963 plane.
There is no air conditioning
on board. There are no in-flight meals or flight attendants.
There are no in-flight movies or music. The sound of the
engine is so loud, everyone wears earplugs and screams to
be heard. This is barebones flying, and into a war zone
Most of the soldiers are
heading to a tour of duty as NATO peackeepers in either
Macedonia or Kosovo, or returning to their posts in the
Balkans after taking leave in Germany. They sit in two long
rows facing each other, shoulder-to-shoulder, kneecap-to-kneecap.
There is no room to move much more than a few inches, never
mind stretch out. The heat is intense and a paper coffee
cup acts as a urinal for the men, a bucket is ready for
flight takes four hours from takeoff to landing. As the
plane approaches Yugoslav airspace, Buckley and his crew
perform a maneuver that rocks the plane's passengers in
their seats but enables the plane to dump its excess fuel
into the air high above the mountainous terrain. The move
is an international requirement for planes entering a war
zone. If the plane were to draw enemy fire, less fuel would
mean less chance of the aircraft blowing to bits in the
air. Buckley says the fuel never hits the ground because
it dissipates in the high altitude.
The crew consists of nine
men besides Buckley: Maj. Duszkiewicz of East Matunick,
R.I. as plane commander; Col. Hennessey of East Greewich,
R.I. as flight surgeon; 1st Lt. McDonnell of Warwick, R.I.,
as navigator; Maj. Sullivan of North Kingstown, R.I. as
the co-pilot; Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Burch as flight engineer;
Staff Sgt. Gregory Boutella of Warwick, as crew chief; Chief
Master Sgt. Kevin Canfield of North Kingstown, as loadmaster;
Master Sgt. Jerrald Ducharme of Burriville, R.I. as loadmaster
and Capt. Kristopher Norwood of Minnesota as an observer.
Buckley, 46, is a captain
for TWA flying out of Boston and New York City. He moved
to Attleboro when he was 9, left for Pawtucket when he was
11 and now lives in North Kingstown with his wife Leslie
and children Kaitlin, David and Meghan.
He says the Rhode Island
Air National Guard prepares year-round back in the Ocean
State for missions like this by flying tactical sorties.
"But as much as you
fly and practice, you can't really prepare for people shooting
at you," he says.
His family, he says, takes
his European duty in stride, considering he flies for a
living and has been in the Guard for 20 years now. But his
oldest daughter did let him know her concern in a subtle
way, he says.
"My 17-year-old gave
me a big hug and said 'Dad, don't do anything stupid.' I
plan to follow her advice."