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Alex, left, and Dalton wave American flags as they watch their dad Lt. Col. Hank Reed land his F-16CJ aircraft at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Thursday. About 24 airplanes of the 52nd Fighter Wing's 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons returned to this base in Germany's Eifel mountains from an undisclosed location after flying missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Reed is the commander of the 22nd Fighter Squadron.
Alex, left, and Dalton wave American flags as they watch their dad Lt. Col. Hank Reed land his F-16CJ aircraft at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Thursday. About 24 airplanes of the 52nd Fighter Wing's 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons returned to this base in Germany's Eifel mountains from an undisclosed location after flying missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Reed is the commander of the 22nd Fighter Squadron. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Alex, left, and Dalton wave American flags as they watch their dad Lt. Col. Hank Reed land his F-16CJ aircraft at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Thursday. About 24 airplanes of the 52nd Fighter Wing's 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons returned to this base in Germany's Eifel mountains from an undisclosed location after flying missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Reed is the commander of the 22nd Fighter Squadron.
Alex, left, and Dalton wave American flags as they watch their dad Lt. Col. Hank Reed land his F-16CJ aircraft at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, Thursday. About 24 airplanes of the 52nd Fighter Wing's 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons returned to this base in Germany's Eifel mountains from an undisclosed location after flying missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Reed is the commander of the 22nd Fighter Squadron. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
Connor O'Malley, 2, looks a little shy as he and his mom, Samantha, welcome dad, Capt. Derek O'Malley back to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
Connor O'Malley, 2, looks a little shy as he and his mom, Samantha, welcome dad, Capt. Derek O'Malley back to Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (Michael Abrams / S&S)
A U.S. Air Force F-16CJ rolls down the runway after landing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany on Thursday.
A U.S. Air Force F-16CJ rolls down the runway after landing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany on Thursday. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — The jets appeared in the sky 40 minutes ahead of schedule.

It could have been they’d had a tailwind on their way back from the Middle East and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Or maybe the men at the controls were simply anxious to get home.

“I knew it was part of the ballgame when I signed up for it,” said Capt. Derek O’Malley, a 29-year-old pilot from Albuquerque, N.M. “The hardest part of the job is the amount of time you spend away.

“Boy, it’s just great to be home.”

O’Malley and 23 other pilots from the 22nd and 23rd Fighter Squadrons came home from the war on Thursday. They’d spent the last four months preparing for combat, going over plans, practicing scenarios and ultimately fighting the battle.

But this day was for simpler things. Instead of gripping the controls of his $18.8 million F-16CJ Fighting Falcon, the young captain now embraced something even more valuable: his wife, Samantha, and their 2-year-old son, Connor Martin.

“It’s something I’d think about every day since I left,” O’Malley said as he cast a loving gaze toward his little boy. “Especially during this age — they change so fast.

“I’m glad to say I still recognized him.”

The jets arrived ceremoniously from an undisclosed location in the Middle East, each taking a fly-by before touching down on the runway. Small groups of spectators wandered up to the runway to watch them land. Some covered their ears as the planes roared to a stop.

“It’s great to see them come back,” said Senior Airman Andre Tondreau, a jet engine mechanic from the 52nd Component Maintenance Squadron. “Now that they’re back, we’ve got a bunch of work ahead of us — everything that had to be fixed but had to wait until now.”

Tondreau said he and his mates would inspect the planes, change engine parts that were overdue and so on.

The 22-year-old from Cumberland, R.I., allowed himself a moment of envy for the pilots and his other comrades still at work at temporary bases in the Middle East.

“I wouldn’t mind being deployed downrange at the flight line as a mechanic,” Tondreau said, “to be right there and get a piece of the action.”

Senior Airman Joe Gaspero, a 21-year-old from Chicago, has the job of checking out tools to the guys who work on the planes.

“I’m just glad to do whatever I can do to help the mission,” Gaspero said.

Some officers rolled up in their vehicles to watch the jets land. They saluted each other and smiled.

A little boy held a sign that read, “Welcome Home Dad,” but he had to put it away because the wind was blowing too hard. Other kids held little American flags that snapped in the breeze.

Despite the return of the 24 pilots, Spangdahlem was not made whole. About 800 airmen — munitions experts, engineers, mechanics and other members of the supporting cast — are still serving at temporary bases in the Middle East.

Three hundred more were scheduled to come home on Saturday. Others are expected to be rotated out.

But Thursday was for the pilots.

The first group to land was transported in a short, blue bus from the paddock to the reception area. The bus door opened and the pilots stepped out — some into the arms of loved ones, others simply into the pool of well-wishers.

Some, such as O’Malley, were young and fresh-faced. Others, including Lt. Col. Hank Reed, commander of the 22nd Fighter Squadron, had a more seasoned look. Each pilot grinned big, toothy smiles as though it were the happiest day of their lives.

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