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Calendar >  Hot Wings – Thomas Calabrese

Hot Wings – Thomas Calabrese

By   /  May 18, 2019  /  23 Comments


A Big Big Man

Thomas Calabrese — Every morning at the airfield you could see him arrive
He stood six-foot-four and weighed two-twenty-five
Kinda’ broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip
And everyone knew you didn’t give no lip… to Big Gary

He called a five acre parcel in North Oceanside his home
Because it fit his easygoing comfort zone
From the highest point on his property, he could see the City of Fallbrook
and Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton.

Gary may have been quiet, but he definitely was not shy,
Most called him sir, but he didn’t mind if crews just said hi
When he was at Travis Air Station
And those who knew say this is not an exaggeration
That a single blow from his strong right hand
Sent a belligerent hotshot pilot to knockout land

Then came a day high over the Mojave Desert
When a starboard engine exploded on a C-17 Globemaster and the plane started to crash
The crew’s lives passed before their eyes and their hearts beat fast
And everybody thought they had breathed their last
 They felt that they would never survive the nosedive
Everybody except Big Gary who put his years of experience into rescue overdrive

Through the skies and clouds of this high altitude hell
Was a man that the airplane crews respected well
Gary slowly pulled back on the stick with a mighty groan
And like a heavenly angel that was on loan
He saved the plane from a catastrophic impact
Then gently set it down completely intact

Big Gary got up from his pilot seat
Because there was no time to dwell on his aeronautical feat
And opened the exit door
And the crew knew that they would live a little more
So they scrambled from a would be grave
And now there was only one left in the plane to save
Big Gary

The situation became dire
When the plane caught fire
But nobody could predict how things would transpire
Until an image stepped out of the haze and smoke
as not an optical illusion or a joke…
It was a big, big man
‘Big’ Gary Garrison

Gary Garrison was born to be a pilot; it was part of his family heritage. The Wild Blue Yonder flowed through his veins and the endless skies were his home away from home. He never felt more a part of the world than when he was looking down at it from 30,000 feet inside a pressurized cockpit. His grandfather George flew with Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington in China for one year as a member of the 1st American Volunteer Group (nicknamed the Flying Tigers) until both men accepted a commission in the Marine Corps. When they arrived in Hawaii they joined up with twenty-seven young pilots and flew to Guadalcanal in borrowed planes that were in less than satisfactory condition. On July 1, 1942, Marine Squadron-214 was originally commissioned.

On the evening of September 13, 1943 the pilots gathered together to select a nickname. Since all of the pilots were not attached to any squadrons when they got together and had few reliable planes and no mechanics, their first choice was ‘Boyington’s Bastards’. They submitted the name to the public information officer, Captain Jack DeChant who said that civilian newspapers would never print it and to come up with something else.  Captain Garrison then suggested the call sign ‘Black Sheep’ because it basically meant the same thing. The Black Sheep squadron compiled a record of 203 planes destroyed or damaged and produced nine aces that included George Garrison. They had 97 confirmed air-to-air kills, sank several troop transports and supply ships. On July 3, 1944, Major Boyington was shot down and captured by the Japanese and Captain Garrison assumed command.

VMF-214 was deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Franklin on February 4, 1945 to join

on-going operations on Okinawa. On March 19, a Japanese bomber hit the USS Franklin and the resulting fire and explosions killed 772 Americans including 32 Black Sheep members. Captain Garrison somehow managed to take off from a deck that was littered with debris. Once he was airborne he shot down four Japanese aircraft before he was killed in aerial combat.

A little over twenty-one years later on May 2, 1966, Major John Garrison’s 13th Tactical Fighter Squadron was sent to the Korat Royal Air Force Base outside Bangkok with the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing and was assigned to fly the Republic F-105 and the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom ll. The squadron flew ‘Wild Weasel’ missions to destroy North Vietnamese surface-to- air missile sites. In October 1967, the squadron moved to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base and became part of the 432nd Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, At Udorn, the 13th began flying F-4E Phantoms. The squadron later became known as the ‘Panther Pack.’ Major Garrison’s call sign was ‘Prowler’ and The North Vietnamese had a bounty on him because of his aerial dogfighting ability. By the time the war ended on April 30, 1975, John Garrison had been promoted to Colonel and was credited with 14 enemy aircrafts shot down, making him the number one ace of the Vietnam War.  

Gary Garrison graduated the Air Force Academy in 1986 and had the chance to fly with father John several times before the elder Garrison retired as the Vice Chief of Staff, the second highest ranking military officer in the United States Air Force. On 28 August 1990, Captain Garrison deployed from Nellis Air Force with the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey.

He flew 600 combat sorties over Northern and Central Iraq during the First Iraq war and became an ace with eight confirmed kills. After the conflict ended, Captain Garrison returned to the states and was assigned to a reconnaissance unit and flew the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ a long range Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft.

General Tommy Franks who commanded the invasion of Iraq met with Lt. Colonel Garrison in early March 11, 2003 to discuss an air strategy, “You were here during the Gulf War, how would you proceed?”

 Lt. Colonel Garrison didn’t hesitate, “First step is to degrade Iraqi air defenses so we can fly our sorties without surface to air missiles taking out our planes. An initial show of strength will set the tone for the rest of the war.”

General Franks took Colonel Garrison’s advice and ordered the first air strike of the war should be against Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Quesay. On 19 March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began and Lt. Colonel Garrison and Major Weldon took off from their base in Turkey, flying F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters and headed to the al-Dora farming community on the outskirts of Bagdad. Both pilots dropped four enhanced satellite guided 2,000 pound GBU-27 ‘Bunker Busters’ on the site. The bomb strikes were perfect, unfortunately the Intel was totally incorrect because Saddam Hussein was not at al-Dora; in fact he hadn’t visited the farm since 1995.

During the first week of the war, Iraqi forces fired a Scud missile at the United States Assessment Center in Camp Doha, Kuwait. The missile was intercepted and was shot down by a Patriot missile seconds before hitting the complex.  Lt. Colonel Garrison shot down two Iraqi jets then bombed the missile launcher. He also led his squadron in support of U.S. military unit in the battles of Najaf, Basra, and Karbal and participated in Operations Falconer and Viking Hammer. He also provided air cover in the rescue of Jessica Lynch and in 21 days of major combat operations, Lt. Colonel Garrison shot down seven Iraq jets making him a combat ace for the second time in his illustrious career.

Over the next 16 years, Gary Garrison flew every aircraft that the United States Air Force had, but he had become restless and unhappy. With each new assignment he became more of a bureaucrat than a pilot, spending more time in meetings and behind a desk than behind the controls of a supersonic aircraft. He approached the issue with his wife of 25 years, Charlene who had been a C-5 Galaxy pilot in the Air Force before leaving the military to fly cargo for Federal Express.

            “If you’re asking me to be honest then I have to say, what took you so long?” Charlene commented.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” Gary snapped backed.

            “You’re a pilot, just like your grandfather and father were before you, and you’re also a patriot so you’ve always gone where you were needed and followed orders. You’re going on 30 years in the military so if you’re dissatisfied then make a change. You’ve done your duty ten times over and served your country with honor and distinction. You’ve also earned the right to do what you want at this point in your life. Most important of all, I’ll support whatever you decide to do; just make sure it’s what you really want.”

            “Thanks, I needed to hear that.” Gary smiled.

Surprisingly it wasn’t a difficult decision once Gary accepted the reality of the situation and acknowledged his feelings. His plan became as clear as an enemy fighter at 12 o’clock high on a cloudless day. Brigadier General Gary Garrison put in his paperwork to transfer from active duty to the reserves; this would permit him to continue to serve the country that he loved while giving him more time for his passion…flying.

With his credentials, Gary had no shortage of offers to fly and eventually chose Sky Space Inc. a company based outside Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada that specialized in testing aircraft under the most extreme conditions. He also began racing in Red Bull races around the world with his customized P-51 Mustang that he kept hangered at the Fallbrook Airport. He was on-call with Sky Space and only worked when a new aircraft needed to be evaluated and while his racing was exhilarating, it was also a part-time activity. Gary filled in the remainder of his time by training for the Oceanside triathlon with a group of retired Marines.

After coming back from his morning swim at the Camp Pendleton 14 Area pool, Charlene reminded her overachieving husband, “There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing when there is nothing to do and you don’t have to keep looking for new things to occupy your day.”

            “That advice might have more credibility if it wasn’t coming from someone who is working full-time, volunteering at two animal rescue organizations and going to spinning classes or meeting her personal trainer four or five times a week,” Gary retorted.

            “Ever heard the saying; don’t do as I do, do as I say?”

            “Never ask anybody to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself,” Gary reminded his wife.

            “If you’re going to talk in clichés then there’s no reason to continue with this conversation,” Charlene pretended to be angry.

            “Sure there is, but since you’re wrong and I’m right and the outcome is inevitable, I can see why you would want to give up.”

Before the couple could continue with their playful bantering, Gary’s cellphone rang and he looked at the screen, “It’s Ron Pickens.” Gary answered it, “What’s up Ron?”

Ron Pickens was retired Air Force Lieutenant General Ronald Pickens, good friend of Gary and Charlene Garrison.

            “Did I catch you at a bad time?” Ron asked.

            “No, I was sitting here with Charlene discussing our recreational preferences,” Gary replied, “Can I put you on speaker?”


Gary put his phone on speaker and Charlene said, “Hi Ron.”

            “Hello Charlene,” Ron said.

            “You know I’m on the board of Techtel Martin and we just purchased RedRain International Aviation. They have two aerial firefighting supertankers and long term contracts with the U.S. Forestry Service and several western states. (The 757 Supertankers are aerial firefighting aircraft derived from various Boeing 747 models. The aircraft are rated to carry up to 19,600 US gallons of fire retardant or water and are the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world.) “We want to expand worldwide and buy two 757’s and to make that kind of financial commitment, we need to go to come up with something special. Would you consider flying one of them?

            “There are a lot of qualified pilots out there,” Gary responded.

            “Qualified yes, but I’m looking for the best. If the board can go to the stockholders and tell them that we’ve got General ‘Big Gary’ ‘The Prowler’ Garrison, it will go a long way in getting their approval.”

            “You know that I’m retired and not looking for a full-time position,” Gary said.

            “This would be seasonal and supertankers are only called out in case of the worst fires and as a last resort.”

            “Send me what you have and Charlene and I will discuss it, fair enough?” Gary offered.

            “That’s all I’m asking, have a nice evening,” Ron Pickens said.

            “You too,” Charlene added.

After looking at the prospectus, Gary came up with a counter offer, “You know that Charlene flew C-5’s, in fact she’s more qualified than me in flying the big stuff. We were discussing your offer and we’d like to go as a package deal.”

            “I wasn’t expecting that,” Ron replied.

            “We’ve got 50 years of flying and thousands of flight hours between us.”

            “That’s not it,” Ron hesitated.

            “We can’t afford to pay what both of you are worth,” Ron admitted.

            “You asked for my help and you’re my friend so I’m happy to give it. This is not about money so pay us whatever your budget allows or we’ll even fly for free. It doesn’t matter to Charlene and me. If you need some proof of our commitment then we’ll sign a two year contract. The part that is non-negotiable is that you either take both of us or you’ll get neither. That’s the best I can do for you,” Gary laid it out plain and simple.

Ron Pickens relayed Gary’s offer to Techtel Martin’s board of directors and they quickly accepted it. Over the next year Gary and Charlene flew to the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington several times during the manufacturing of the supertanker to give their input. Upon completion they tested the huge aircraft as engineers made final adjustments. When the laborious process was completed, the Garrisons took control of the ‘Prowler’ as it was named and flew it to Edwards Air Force in California where it would be based and available to fight fires.

Gary and Charlene completely familiarized themselves with every aspect of the supertanker. One of the most amazing features of the plane was how quickly the 19,200- gallon tank could be filled. By pressing a button four hoses descended from the belly of the aircraft. Two were 2.5 inches in diameters and two were 1.5 inches and once they were connected to a water source the tank could be filled in less than 20 minutes.

The fundamentals were the same as any aircraft that Gary had ever flown in his career so it didn’t take him long to get a feel for the 757, even when it was filled to capacity. The thing that took a little practice was dispersing the water over the target area. Unlike other firefighting aircraft that just opened a valve and let gravity do the rest, the supertanker used compressed air to eject the liquid through four large nozzles. The pilot or co-pilot could select how much of the 19,200 gallons to be dropped on each hot spot.    

Gary and Charlene alternated between pilot and co-pilot every time they went up. The co-pilot was responsible for the water drop while the pilot’s primary objective was getting the massive aircraft over the target. During the first year of their contract, the Garrisons flew seven times and as far as Colorado to fight major blazes. The second year was an extremely bad one for fires throughout the western third of the United States. There had been an extended drought and every tree and bush was just waiting to ignite. There were areas throughout California that had not burned in years and posed a serious threat to life and property. The humidity remained in the   single digits for over three weeks. Santa Ana winds were forecasted to be dry and extremely powerful and there were over sixty eight fires burning from the United States border with Mexico to the one with Canada.

After each drop, Gary and Charlene returned to fill up and get their new assignment and took off. Their current destination was the University of California, Santa Barbara. With Charlene at the controls, the 757 came in low over the campus and Gary released part of his load and it extinguished a rapidly approaching wall of fire. Charlene circled around and came in for another pass. The plane was buffeted by strong winds and Charlene was struggling to get the plane steady.

            “Need any help?” Gary offered

            “I got it, thanks anyway,” Charlene answered without taking her eyes off the glowing terrain.

            “Can you drop another fifty feet?” Gary asked.

            “Remember this is a 757, not a lawnmower,” Charlene snapped back and descended the requested 50 feet.

Gary let go with a strategically placed 5,000 gallon drop that saved two buildings. They dropped the remainder of their load and landed at the Santa Barbara airport to refill and took off for Thousand Oaks. When they got there they saved a housing development and refilled at Los Angeles International.

Once airborne again, they were directed to Julian, a mountain getaway located an hour east of San Diego in the Cuyamaca Mountains. Fires were racing up a steep and heavily wooded canyon toward the small town. Gary maneuvered the ‘Prowler’ into perfect position and Charlene dropped 10,000 gallons  on the flames before they reached an historical wooden structure. While maintaining  radio communications with the crews on the ground, they helped the exhausted firefighters gain temporary control of the Daniels Fire.

The weather report couldn’t have been any worse. Extremely strong, dry and downslope winds were moving in from the desert regions of Southern California and mandatory evacuations were ordered for Fallbrook, Vista and East Oceanside along the Highway 76 corridor.  Residents were told by ongoing radio announcements to go to Mission Vista High School for sanctuary. Hundreds of people were on the school property when a fire tornado or ‘firenado’ as they are sometimes called was induced by a whirlwind and composed of flame and ash. It was on a collision course with the school.

Gary and Charlene were refilling at Miramar Air Station when they received word of the extreme danger in North County.

            “Can you speed it up?” Gary asked.

            “Got the pumps going at full speed,” A Marine commented.

Ten minutes later they were back in the air, the sky was black with smoke and visibility was limited. They flew by their home in Morro Hills and saw that it was safe. They had seen the destruction of fires in their area in past years up so they hired a Wildfire Defense company to design and install an elaborate sprinkler system around their home and on the roof and all flammable vegetation had been removed at least 50 yards from any structure.

When Charlene looked down at her home, she sighed in relief, “Aren’t you glad I talked you into fire protection. Now we can focus on the task at hand.”

            “If I remember correctly, you said we ought to take some precautions and I replied good idea,” Gary responded.

            “Same thing,” Charlene saw something that she had never seen before and commented in stunned amazement, “What the hell is that?”

Gary’s eyes opened wide when he saw the spinning vortex of flames and ash rising from the ground into the sky.

There was a distress call from rescue personnel. “The fire is approaching Mission Vista High School. We need help! We have a lot of people on site and there is no way for us to get out in time” Mayday! Mayday!”

There was only one way to get to the people on the school grounds and that was to fly directly into the firenado. Gary looked over at his wife, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

            “Even before you thought it,” Charlene smiled reassuringly.

Once the massive plane entered the spinning inferno, it was bounced around like a toy and Gary struggled to maintain control. Flames completely engulfed them and there was barely enough visibility to see the school buildings below. Emergency lights started flashing as the powerful Pratt& Whitney 2000 jet engines began sucking in debris.

Charlene cautioned, “If we don’t get of out this, we’re going to lose power.”

Burning embers started slamming against the windshield and Gary knew that the wise decision was to exit the area, but he wasn’t prepared to do that. “If we leave, they’ve got no chance. We’ve got to get lower.”

Charlene joked, “If I wanted to be safe, I would married an accountant instead of a ‘hell bent for leather’ aviator. Go for it.”

Gary descended to seventy five feet right into the midst of a roaring blaze and he could almost feel the heat of the wildfire inside the cockpit. Charlene began doing water drops and after two minutes the firenado dissipated and the Santa Ana winds abruptly ceased. Hundreds of people had been saved and now all Gary and Charlene had to do was keep from crashing.  The closest airfield was Camp Pendleton’s 6,005 foot runway, this was about 1,500 feet shorter than what was recommended for a plane the size of a 757, but they didn’t have any choice but to try.

Requesting emergency clearance to land at the military base Marine Corps crash crews positioned their fire trucks along the runway as Gary and Charlene dumped every bit of fuel before touching down. Just as their wheels hit the tarmac, their engines began smoking and completely shut down leaving Gary and Charlene no other option but to stop the aircraft using the brakes alone. The plane went to the end of the runway before stopping.

The bright silver and red plane was completely covered with black soot and ash. When Gary and Charlene exited the plane, she noticed burning embers stuck under the wings and commented, “Your new call sign should be, Hot Wings.”

One young Marine Corps helicopter pilot turned to his squadron commander when he saw Gary Garrison, “Who is that guy, sir?”

The veteran Marine snapped to attention, rendered a crisp salute in a sign of respect and admiration, then responded with a smile, “That is the kind of pilot that everyone of us wishes we could be when we first get our wings and then as the years pass and the flight hours accumulate, we come to realize that we’ll never be that good. That is a Big Big Man; that is the legendary Big Gary.”

The End

Aspiring Writers Join us on the 3rd Saturday of each month between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm. Veterans Writing Group of North County (non veterans are welcome) 1617 Mission Avenue , Oceanside,Ca. 92054 (619)  991-8790 www.veteranswriting group.org – www.facebook.com/VMGSDCounty


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  • Published: 9 months ago on May 18, 2019
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  • Last Modified: May 24, 2019 @ 7:53 am
  • Filed Under: The Back Page

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  1. Robert says:

    Another entertaining story, good job.

  2. John Michels says:

    Tom seems like you have flying stories around Memorial Day every year. I really enjoy them. That was some song you composed at the start of the episode.

  3. Ronald B Pickett says:

    Good Story Tom and thanks for the VWG plug.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Big Gary will be added to the long list of Tom’s heroes…really enjoyed the story

  5. Cary says:

    Very entertaining story and once again plenty of historical and technical facts to think about

  6. Larry says:

    Thanks for another good story

  7. Steve says:

    Big Good Gary and Big Bad John, that would be a hell of a team!

  8. Guy says:

    If I’m ever caught in a wildfire, I hope they sent Big Gary to save me

  9. Bart says:

    Good one for Air Force people

  10. Kyle says:

    Great Poem..A Big Big Man, You don’t give no lip to Big Gary

  11. Mike says:

    Hot Wings…I won’t look at them the same after this story..excellent job

  12. Dan says:

    Very enjoyable story..keep them coming.

  13. wolf wolf says:

    Thanks goodness for tankers. They are game changers.

    about 6 years ago I was heading home to my house in Sycamore Springs development. Sky was black and I was passing cars headed in opposite direction with lights on at 3PM. Not a good sign.

    My house is on a cul de sac and when I got there, there were fire trucks were lined to go thru emergency gate to fight fires raging on the hillside about 400 meters from my backyard on CAMPEN.
    My area was deserted after reverse 911 calls.

    Got my cat, $$ and passport and was debating on whether to evacuate.

    A friend called and asked if I was watching the news. I said I am the news as a water tanker appeared and made a water drop on the burning hills. I could feel the spray on my face. In a matter of seconds, 10 foot ten foot flames reduced to a back yard barbecue.

    Put the cat back in the house and watched the news.

  14. Jocelyn says:

    Any of us who live in wildfire areas know the value of water drops, thanks for a interesting story about a pilot who flies one of the big planes.

  15. Tony says:

    Fantastic, really great story. What a versatile writer. Mr. Calabrese has a great talent for writing exciting stories about exciting people and varied subjects. “Hot Wings” certainly keep me on the edge of my seat with every line I read. To think there are people like “Big Gary” and Charlene among us.

  16. Josh says:

    Another exciting story with a great family background

  17. Janet says:

    I’m a regular reader and this story was another very good one. The Garrison family, a legacy of service and heroism

  18. Clyde says:

    Once again I learned something in Tom’s stories that I didn’t know. This time it was the supertankers that fight forest fires.

  19. Tanya says:

    You know what they say? the family that flies supertankers together stays together.

  20. Tamara says:

    Very good story…loved the relationship between Gary and Charlene

  21. Joe says:

    Very entertaining, a lot of aviation history

  22. Stephanie Boren says:

    Love a good story with a husband and wife team.

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