A Vital Link
photos by Keith Nordstrom

OPERATION KOSOVO
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.

But 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," he says.

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 to boot.

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 the women.

The 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."