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A pilot and weapons systems operator aboard an F-15E Strike Eagle wave to family members and squadron mates Wednesday afternoon on their return to RAF Lakenheath, England.
A pilot and weapons systems operator aboard an F-15E Strike Eagle wave to family members and squadron mates Wednesday afternoon on their return to RAF Lakenheath, England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
A pilot and weapons systems operator aboard an F-15E Strike Eagle wave to family members and squadron mates Wednesday afternoon on their return to RAF Lakenheath, England.
A pilot and weapons systems operator aboard an F-15E Strike Eagle wave to family members and squadron mates Wednesday afternoon on their return to RAF Lakenheath, England. (Ron Jensen / S&S)
Darci Beatty points out "Capt. Daddy" to her daughter, Elliana, Wednesday afternoon at RAF Lakenheath, England. Capt. John Beatty, called "Capt. Daddy" by Elliana, was in one of six F-15E Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing that returned from a three-month deployment to the Middle East.
Darci Beatty points out "Capt. Daddy" to her daughter, Elliana, Wednesday afternoon at RAF Lakenheath, England. Capt. John Beatty, called "Capt. Daddy" by Elliana, was in one of six F-15E Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing that returned from a three-month deployment to the Middle East. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Like teenagers joyriding in Dad’s Pontiac, six F-15E Strike Eagle pilots traced swooping arcs above their home base Wednesday afternoon, while their wives and children below tilted their heads back to watch, smiles on their faces and hands on their ears against the noisy greeting.

Elliana Beatty, 2, cloaked in the arms of her mother, Darci, was waiting for “Capt. Daddy,” she said, referring to Capt. John Beatty, a pilot returning from a three-month deployment to the Middle East.

Six jets returned Wednesday afternoon, but six others were left behind because tanker support, which is needed for air-to-air refueling on the flight back home, was unavailable. They will return as soon as possible.

“I think a lot of stress is going to come off me as soon as I see him walk off that jet,” said Bethany Bush, wife of Capt. Richard Bush, a weapons system operator on one of the two-seater aircraft.

The mission was a busy one, returning crew members said. Missions were flown every day from a country neighboring Iraq, which the Air Force has asked not to identify. Crew members generally flew daily, with each mission lasting about 12 hours.

“It’s a long day each time. It’s a full day,” said Lt. Col. Henri Castelain, a weapons systems operator.

The missions were varied, but they were all flown to support the troops on the ground doing the dirty work. Sometimes the jets provided reconnaissance, scouting ahead along a convoy route. Sometimes they stayed above a convoy as an extra layer of protection, or, perhaps, prevention.

Lt. Col. Christopher DiNenna, the squadron commander, said sometimes the noise of the jets blasting overhead was enough to make people with bad intentions think twice.

Sometimes the jets’ two-man crews used their onboard cameras to show ground commanders where a crowd was gathering on a nearby street or if potential problems were ahead of a convoy.

Whatever the mission, the purpose was to lend a helping hand to the soldiers.

“We supported them day and night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” DiNenna said.

Some of the most critical missions popped up without notice. Soldiers would find themselves in a tight spot and need the close air support Strike Eagles can provide. It was important duty.

“The work we were doing some of the days was saving lives,” Castelain said.

Ground controllers communicated by radio to let the pilots know where the targets were.

“You can hear in their voice sometimes the sense of urgency,” he said.

The target could be anything from armed men taking shots at coalition forces to a bunker to “whatever was putting them in danger,” he said.

From their airborne vantage point, the men from the 48th Fighter Wing could see what soldiers on the ground endure each day, from attacks on convoys to improvised explosive devices to hit-and-run mortar and rocket attacks.

“We gained a lot of respect for them, We talked to them every day,” DiNenna said. “We see what they go through after an IED goes off or a convoy is attacked.”

That kept the mission in perspective for the young crew members, said DiNenna, who had flown in the area with another squadron only a few months before this mission.

He said the entire effort was designed “so that our ground forces know we’re there for them.”

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