On the morning of February 1st, 2003 I was flying with CW4 Wayne Keeton in a UH-60 Blackhawk from the Dallas AASF to the Austin AASF. It was our drill weekend and we were on a routine flight that was about to become anything but routine.
When we landed in Austin, a leader came out to the helicopter and told us “the space shuttle blew up” and “we were supposed to go immediately to Barksdale AFB and find a guy named Dom Gorie”. After the fastest refuel ever, we launched in the Blackhawk to Barksdale by sucking the guts out of the engines and leaning forward in the shoulder straps.
Upon getting to Barksdale, we went into a small room that was the impromptu “Command Center” for the Columbia “Search and Rescue”, which is what it was called at that point in time. Wayne and I were allowed in and escorted to “the guy named Dom Gorie”…I had no idea who I was about to meet! It turns out that Dom was one of the main astronauts at the time, and a two-time space veteran. But none of that was known at the time by either Wayne or myself. He was in his blue flight suit and had O-6 Rank on his shoulders. He brought us to a large crude map that had been taped to the wall and a bunch of colored pins marked the spots where different types of items from Columbia were found…one color stood for fuselage parts, a different color for engine parts, a different color for other pieces from the shuttle accident, and so on. Since it was a “Search and Rescue”, we wanted to get in the air quickly to have the best chance of finding Dom’s buddies, if that were possible.
Here’s my favorite part of the story…as Wayne and I were standing there, Dom asked for the Pilot-in-Command (PIC) so we could go file the flight plan. When I stepped forward, I could see the shock register on Dom’s face. Wayne was standing right there, was 20 years my senior, and had (at least) 5,000 more flight hours than I had. He could have easily been the PIC, but since I was the Instructor Pilot (IP), I was selected. In all fairness, Wayne was simply being gracious, but we thought it was just a routine flight to Austin. So, Dom and I stepped outside to go to Flight Ops to file the flight plan. About 10 steps outside, Dom stopped and turned to me to ask, “Are you sure you’re the PIC?” as he stared at the butter-bars on my shoulder. In fact, I had just been pinned a 2LT, but what he didn’t know was I had been a Warrant Officer for 10 years and was an experienced IP/IFE/PIC and had nearly two thousand hours in the Blackhawk. This mission was really quite easy for me. However, the butter-bar really threw him.
This brief encounter gave me the opportunity to tell him about my credentials and how I was completely qualified, but it also allowed me to tell him about my faith. I forget exactly what I said, but I did assure him that I was sorry for the loss of his friends, that I was a committed Christian, that the God I knew was unquestionably still in-charge, and that no more astronauts were going to die today, at least not under my watch if I could help it. As we drive to Flight Ops we continued to talk and quickly developed a relationship that has continued for many years. I’m convinced that 10 minute conversation on the way to Flight Ops carried more “Meat and Potatoes” that most conversations ever do. He needed to gain some trust quickly and somehow, he was willing to get into the back of my Blackhawk to go fly over East Texas.
We flew for the next 5 or so hours finding virtually nothing of value to the “Search and Rescue”, but we did provide a presence to the populace that was affirming and we were glad to have tried. Dom left my helicopter by the second day and I continued flying “Recovery Missions” with Wayne for about a week after the event.
Since that time, the real character of Dom Gorie (and his fabulous wife Wendy) became truly evident. They invited Wayne and me over to their house one night for dinner. When I deployed overseas they were there to see us leave the US. Dom agreed to speak at the “Beast Feast”, a wild-game dinner we hold each year at my church. He gave my whole family a personal tour of NASA. Dom even gave my family VIP passes to the night-time launch of STS-123, his fourth space flight and third time to command the Space Shuttle.
From an aviator stand-point, Dom has some of the coolest stories to tell, but he always had time to listen to my stories too. Even though he’s flown aircraft that I’ll never get to fly, he still appreciates the flight experiences I’ve had. I got the feeling from him that, “it doesn’t matter what you are flying, it matters that you get to fly.” I sensed that flying a Piper Cub would have been enjoyable to him, certainly in a totally different manner than flying an F-18 or gliding the space shuttle, but yet flying was flying and there was a kinship that existed because of it.
About February 3rd most of the aviation assets activated in support of the Columbia Recovery (including the Blackhawk I flew) were moved to the Lufkin Airport (KLFK) so as to be more centrally located to the debris field center of mass. As I write this, I’m sitting on a super-nice “memorial bench” at the Lufkin Airport which has the names of the astronauts that died on February 3rd, 2003.
It is a fitting reminder to all of that fateful day and those who gave their lives in our national quest to explore. I frequently fly to KLFK, see the bench, and am reminded of my time with Dom and the other NASA team members. Although a true national disaster and a tragedy for the families of those lost, a silver lining of the Columbia disaster is that for about a week East Texans came together in a powerful way solidified in our support of NASA. Ask any East Texan about February 1st, 2003 and they’ll have a story to tell about unlikely friendships made as the week unfolded. My unlikely friendship was with Dom, a guy who has my professional respect as an aviator, but who gained far more respect as I got to know him personally.