The Desert: Part four

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. (Ret) Bill Gilliland
  • 190th Historian
The war went on for only 38 days, but the pace was such that many Airmen who went through it can only remember it as a sort of blur, with certain moments standing out.

That is easy to understand when you look at the final totals for those 38 days: 16,959.6 total tanker flying hours; 3,496 sorties with an average of 4.9 hours per sortie; and 81.3 hours of tanker flying time per each 24-hour day. 241,452,700 pounds of jet fuel was offloaded during this time. Totals almost beyond belief. It was a combined effort from everyone stationed at Jeddah. Guard, Reserve and active duty Airmen can be proud of what they accomplished.

Five days after the ground war started, it was all but over. The cease fire was called, and while it was still 24/7, the flying and refueling was reduced to a shadow of what it was just a few days earlier.

Restrictions were lifted, and life at the compounds was nearly back to normal. But it didn't take long for the members of the 190th to get restless. They had been away from home now for more than two months, and without the war to keep them busy, they soon became homesick. Even the good news of the war's end could not console them.

Rumors became popular, and all sorts of news seemed to be in the air. Ramadan would soon be coming, and the Saudis were also restless. So when Col. Charles "Mick" Baier, 1701st Strategic Air Refueling Wing (Provisional) commander and 190th member, called the 190th together on the evening March 11 the expectations were high. Col. Baier did not disappoint.

He said that since they were the first to arrive at Jeddah, they would be the first to leave. They were to return home in three days. Three days! Cheers rang out, and the men and women of the 190th finally had something to celebrate. It got even better when he told them they would arrive in Topeka on March 14, and that there would be a local welcome home party.

But first, the Saudis hosted a farewell party. And what a party it was. It was held in a large hall used for weddings by wealthy Saudis. The hall had a chandelier in the foyer that was at least 10 feet tall and 12 feet across. After the usual speeches and presentations, a laser light show was presented to the delight of all who saw it.

Later, the guests were led outside to a garden with long tables of meats, rice, vegetable dishes, fruits and elaborate desserts. After weeks of compound food, it was delicious! There were even tables of traditional Saudi food, which some of the more adventurous of the 190th tried.

Early the next morning, loading the tankers commenced and the process of returning home got underway. For the next two days, the packing and loading of jets was the first priority of 190th members.

Col. Baier said they would arrive in Topeka in formation at 3 p.m., 10 tankers flying over the Kansas State Capitol and the city of Topeka, then landing at Forbes Field to a welcoming crowd. Many wondered if he could pull it off. After all, it was a long trip with a refueling stop, and it would require joining up over the Atlantic.

Could it be done? No one was sure, but everyone was eager to get home.

The 190th departed Jeddah early on March 14, and had an uneventful trip to Moron, Spain. Things got a little iffy there when a starter shaft on one of the tankers broke. The decision was made to leave it behind until repairs could be made, but that was like throwing down a challenge to the maintainers of the 190th. They had it fixed in no time, and the late tanker quickly caught up to the rest of the formation over the Atlantic.

Chief Wilson, in the lead jet, could see the other tankers gradually forming up. "It was beautiful," he said.

Lt. Col. Dillon recalled, "As we entered the United States, each of the aircraft was leaving a big contrail. We flew right over the top of Chicago. As airliners would ask about the large formation of aircraft, the air traffic controllers would say, 'That's the Kansas Air National Guard, they are coming home from Saudi.' The airliners would patriotically reply
'Great job, Kansas, Welcome home.'"

Only a few minutes after 3 p.m., just as Col. Baier had promised, the 10 KC-135s of the Kansas Air National Guard flew over the Kansas State Capitol and the city of Topeka. Hundreds were waving from below, a sight that would surprise even the most ardent 190th supporter.

What they did not know was just how hard the rest of the 190th and its Family Support Group had worked to make this a very special day. Even the National Guard Bureau had sent Lt. Gen. Phillip Killey, director of the Air National Guard. A crowd of up to 10,000 people came to Forbes Field to welcome home the Kansas Coyotes. The base had put out hundreds of small American flags, which became immediate souvenirs, and the crowd was waving them like crazy. Several high school bands added to the festivities, and the music served to excite the crowd even more.

But most exciting was the sight of the 190th tankers as they appeared on the horizon. At first, it was just the landing lights that could be seen, but soon, each set of three tankers was visible. Soon the first three were overhead, and the jet noise and crowd noise was just tremendous. Next came the second set of three, and the noise just got louder. The last set of three was soon overhead and again the noise got even louder. It was almost sad to see the last tanker come in alone, but that soon faded as the first of the tankers peeled off to make its landing approach. Soon there were others coming around, and the excitement got even greater.

In a few moments, the lead tanker with Col. Baier at the controls touched down on Forbes Field. The landing took the aircraft over a slight rise in the runway, and for a few minutes, no one could see any of the jets. They must have stopped and waited a few minutes for all to join up on the taxiway, because when they came into sight again, they were all in a line and proceeding to their parking spots. What a site it was, 10 KC-135s all in a row, taxiing down the ramp, many with American flags displayed out windows, doorways, and even the sextant porthole at the top of the cabin. The crowd went nuts.

Families had been given the tail number of the jet their loved one was on, and they began to form into groups in anticipation of meeting them. Security police had a difficult time holding them back until engines were shut down, and as soon as that happened, the surge was on. People rushed to the respective jet in search of their family member, and as they emerged from the big jet, tears and shouts of joy rang out all up and down the ramp.

What a day it was! Never to be forgotten by those who were there. It was incredible. You could actually feel the excitement in the air. It was a day for the record books, maybe never to be repeated again.

About this series: Retired Chief Roger Wilson and retired Maj. Shelly Sweeney both made major contributions to this article. Chief Wilson wrote his own excellent history of the 190th in the desert that was published in the 1993 yearbook, which was dedicated to the Gulf War. Major Sweeney who was at that time, Tech. Sgt. Shelly Buck, served as the unit historian during the later phase of the war and did a wonderful job of collecting articles, interviews and artifacts, and by writing an especially good history of that period. One more thing, the NCO mentioned in a caption in a part two picture was Master Sgt. Bob Davis.
-- Bill