Rooks home to roost

Prowler pilot Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Craig endured cold weather and blowing sand in Afghanistan, and sub-zero cockpit temperatures in the last few months, but he still made it home for his daughter Madison’s sixth birthday.

“Dada it’s my birthday!” she told him over and over as the returning fliers of VAQ-137 Rooks hugged and kissed their families at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Thursday.

In their six-month deployment the Rooks earned the distinction of being the first EA-6B Prowler squadron to leave their ship and operate from a land base.

In November the Rooks were on a port of call in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, when they got the call that a detachment from the squadron was needed at the old Soviet airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan.

With less than 48 hours’ notice, the squadron had 17,000 pounds of cargo and 30 crew members on the ground, far from the deck of the USS Enterprise.

“The men and women of this squadron have done a great job of pulling together and making it happen,” commanding officer Cmdr. Jeff Ruth said at that time.

The squadron flew 1,130 hours and 520 sorties in support of Operations Iraqi And Enduring Freedom.

At Bagram they endured conditions far different than the climate-controlled shipboard environs. Temperatures ranged from 50 degrees during the day to 20 degrees at night. There was no running potable water; hot showers were never guaranteed.

The blowing sand and dust that coated everything and lack of access to the ship’s maintenance supplies made keeping the aging Prowlers flying even more of a task than usual, but Maintenance Master Chief Petty Officer Bussard said the crew rose to the challenge.

While they had day to day operations under control, one incident occurred that tested the training of the Rooks, and earned a crew medals for their actions.

Cmdr. Ruth, Lt. Steve Shauberger, Lt. j.g. Travis Hartman and Lt. Cmdr. Craig were seven hours into an 11 hour mission when their plane’s dual temperature control valves failed — in the full cold position.

Flying at 20,000 feet, the failure caused sub-zero air to pour into both the fore and aft cockpits, introducing “a whole new set of contingencies for the crew to deal with,” Rook reporter Lt. Victor Dymond later wrote.

The water in their back-mounted water packs froze, they shook so badly it was difficult to operate the controls, and equipment began to malfunction.

Craig’s seat motor froze in the fully lowered position, which meant he could not have seen to land the plane on a ship.

For their successful efforts in controlling the situation, the crew was awarded Air Medals by Gen. Richard Meyers, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ruth and Craig missed the actual medal ceremony aboard the Enterprise. They were still in Afghanistan.

Everyone was present for Thursday’s homecoming though, and newly 6-year-old Madison was proud to tell people that her daddy got a medal.

Craig was humble about his role in the deployment, as he hugged Madison, his wife Allison and twin 2-year-olds Cole and Jack.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience,” he said. “When you’re gone six months, it’s nice to have something to do.”

More than 150 VAQ-137 maintenance and support personnel returned home Friday.

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at mmiller@whidbeynewstimes

.com or call 675-6611.

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