Stow veteran reflects on Afghanistan tour

59-year-old pilot's love of flight carried his military career

by Jeremy Nobile | Reporter Published:

Stow -- Blaine Wyckoff, Ohio Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 2, prefers to keep his head in the clouds.

The military pilot confesses a particularly strong love of flight that has propelled his entire 40-year military career.

Wyckoff assumed an administrative role while stationed in Kosovo between 2004 and 2005 -- but little did he expect a second deployment to a much more hostile area just a few years later.

On Dec. 12, 2011, just five years after he could've retired from the military, Wyckoff, who was 58 at the time, and his unit were called to serve in Afghanistan.

"I could've gotten out because I had no service obligation," said Wyckoff. "But that to me was not right because now you're going to cut and run when I was holding a legitimate slot that would leave them one pilot short in that unit, and there would be no way they'd be able to get another pilot in there and trained up to go off to war."

Today, when reflecting on his last tour, Wyckoff candidly says, "I would not go on another mission like that."

A passion for flight

A native of Akron and a graduate of Hoban High School, Wyckoff caught the flying bug at just 11 years old during a trip to Shawnee Airways at Akron Municipal Airport ­-- a trip that was meant to replace a visit to Cedar Point that was canceled because his parents overslept that morning.

Wyckoff sat up front in the single-engine Cherokee, and he still recalls the excitement he felt when the pilot, Ernie, let him take control of the second set of controls.

"He let me make turns, climbs and descents. Ever since that day, I knew I wanted to be a military pilot," he recalled.

Wyckoff, now the director of campus operations at Northeast Ohio Medical University, remembers having $200 in the bank as a 16-year-old and taking $160 out to pay for his flying lessons at Freedom Field in Medina.

He said he learned to fly solo in just 10 hours.

"I picked it up right away," he said.

He earned his civilian pilot's license at 16 and continued to further his licensing after high school and throughout college while he attended Kent State University.

He said he grew an affinity for helicopters because of the variety of different maneuvers a chopper can do that small planes can't, including backing up in mid-flight and hovering -- his favorite maneuver.

Wyckoff, a pilot in the B Company, 3rd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment, enlisted in the Ohio Air National Guard in 1972 and transferred to the Ohio Army National Guard shortly afterward.

Rising through the ranks, Wyckoff became a commissioned officer in 1976 and a colonel in 2002.

In 2006 ­ -- four decades after becoming a commissioned officer -- Wycoff's mandatory removal date approached.

"In June 2006, they were going to kick me out," he said. "But I still enjoyed flying, and it was still a great part-time job."

He decided to take a step down in rank, dropping from a colonel to a CW2. Because warrant officers don't have mandatory removal dates like commissioned officers, he was able to stay active in the military and continue flying with the National Guard.

"You just don't hear of a colonel going down to a CW2 in the Army," he said.

It may be equally as rare to hear of a nearly 60-year-old pilot serving a tour in the Middle East.

An Average day in Afghanistan

Wyckoff's unit deployed to Afghanistan on Dec. 12, 2011.

"This was the first time since I've been in the Guard that I was in an area with people shooting at Americans," he said.

Pilots in Wyckoff's unit usually flew CH-47 Chinooks, which are twin-engine, heavy-lift helicopters.

Missions most commonly included combat resupplies. Sometimes the cargo included ammunition and provisions, and other times it was troops themselves.

Wyckoff flew during both the day and night -- most missions in hostile territory were conducted in the shroud of night, though.

"We flew that way because we were a big target," he said.

While his chopper was never hit with the enemy's small-arms fire, he told of how pilots could see bullet tracers at night while flying with night-vision goggles and no lights on the aircraft visible to the naked eye.

"The enemy doesn't have night-vision goggles, and when you're flying around in the mountains, the sounds of the helicopter echo all over the place, so they would just shoot blindly up in the air," Wyckoff said.

Wyckoff said he always felt safer in his chopper than on the ground. He noted that he was never shot at in the air, but one time, while sitting at a landing zone, he remembers an enemy mortar round striking the ground just 40 yards from his aircraft.

"We didn't waste much time getting out of there," he said.

The 'Hairiest' Situation

Wyckoff said the "hairiest" situation he found himself in occurred June 1 at Forward Operating Base Salerno -- an attack that was widely publicized in national media.

"I had just walked into the dining facility about 12:45 [p.m.]. There was a loud explosion, and the ceiling started to come down while we were in there. I got underneath the table because the entire building was starting to collapse. I thought at that time it was mortar fire or rocket fire," Wyckoff recalled.

"I thought the first round was dead on, and if they know they're dead on, they'll start dropping more of them," he added.

After the ceiling collapsed, Wyckoff and others in the facility checked to see if others were OK before leaving for a bunker.

"I didn't find out until later on in the day it was an insurgent that had a flatbed truck with 22,000 pounds of explosives on it, and he came and hit the perimeter fence line," said Wyckoff. "They blew it up, put a big hole in it, and then a van full of 14 insurgents came through with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns and all that.

"It was a suicide mission, and they all knew it because they were wearing suicide vests," he added.

The attack took two American lives. All the insurgents were killed.

Wyckoff's wife, Carla, still doesn't like hearing the story.

His deployment over, Wyckoff arrived in the Akron-Canton Airport Nov. 16 -- a day before his 59th birthday.

Wyckoff said whether he would do the tour again is an easy question.

"When I was over there, I saw all the waste, fraud and abuse, and all the taxpayer's money being wasted," he said. "I don't feel the U.S. military should be involved in these kind of missions."

Wyckoff said he believes the amount of lives and money lost in the Middle Eastern conflicts is unjustifiable.

"We just need to cut our losses and get out," said Wyckoff passionately, "and that's just my feelings."

Email: jnobile@recordpub.com

Phone: 333-541-9400, ext. 4179

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