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Furloughed Pilots Take Flight Over Afghanistan Battlefield

Posted on 29 April 2009

ABOARD A NAVY C-130 OVER AFGHANISTAN — For pilot Wilbur Hudson, the Navy isn’t just an adventure. It’s a job.

The lieutenant commander needed one pretty badly. In early November, he was sitting in the first officer’s seat of a TWA MD-80 passenger jet, flying domestic routes out of St. Louis. But the airline, swept up in the industrywide crisis, furloughed him, and it was a no-brainer when his Navy reserve unit started hunting for cargo pilots to send to the front.

“This being the Christmas season, it’s one of the harder times to get people to volunteer,” says Cmdr. Hudson, who flies for the Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 54 out of Naval Air Station Belle Chase, La. “But since I was out of work, I volunteered.”

The skies above Afghanistan, central Asia and the Persian Gulf are full of military reservists who lost their airline jobs in the wake of Sept. 11, as would-be travelers decided to stay home, alarmed by the sight of hijacked planes slamming into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside.

The pilots are uniformly a patriotic bunch, glad to contribute to the war effort by flying cargo to the soldiers at the front. Co-pilot Hudson and the plane’s captain, a full-time reservist who asked to be identified only as Cmdr. John, have photos of President Bush, the Pentagon and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld posted on the rear bulkhead of their cockpit. Some crew members wear squadron patches depicting a skull in a purple, gold and green Mardi Gras jester’s cap.

In the cargo bay of the four-prop Hercules sit two large generators destined for the Marines at Camp Rhino, a rough airstrip in the Afghan desert south of Kandahar. This is only the unit’s second flight into Afghanistan. The pilots were nervous during the first one. “But now everybody is loaded for bear,” says Cmdr. John, while a pink-skirted hula doll wiggles atop the instrument panel in front of him.

More than the Marines in the foxholes below or the fighter pilots on the aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea, the laid-off reserve fliers have an economic incentive to get a piece of the war. They may even choose to go overseas, since reserve units often start by calling for volunteers from among those with eligible skills.

That makes them luckier than many commercial pilots who have been furloughed in recent months. “A lot of guys don’t have a fall-back job to go to,” says Cmdr. Hudson, who has a nine- and a seven-year-old at home. “This has now become my primary means of living.”

At least four pilots in Cmdr. Hudson’s Navy unit have lost airline jobs, he says. The 732nd Airlift Squadron of the New Jersey Air Force Reserve expects five or perhaps even 10 of its 80 pilots to be furloughed by commercial carriers on Jan. 1, adding to the pool already rotating through the war zone. Aviation Information Resources Inc. of Atlanta estimates that about 6,375 pilots have been furloughed this year, nearly all of them since Sept. 11. That’s nearly 7% of the nation’s roughly 94,600 airline pilots.

Flying a C-141 Starlifter transport from one secret U.S. airbase near Afghanistan to another in the Persian Gulf, 732nd Capt. Joe Rubler reflects on his aborted career as a commercial pilot. The 33-year-old from Mount Laurel, N.J., flew full time for the Air Force until May. A qualified instructor, he could work as much as he wanted with the reserves, but his goal was a job with the airlines. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines had him lined up to start training on Oct. 1, and he expected to be told what kind of plane he would be flying on Oct. 2.

In the seat next to him sits Capt. Craig Wenz, 33, from Maple Shade, N.J. Another instructor, he left active duty in July and sent a flurry of applications to the airlines.

Like many Americans, the pilots watched in horror as the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon burned, and it didn’t take long for the events to hit home. That same day, the Air Force put both men on alert. On Sept. 12, American Airlines called Capt. Rubler to break the news that the airline was suspending all new-hire training, but promised he would be at the top of the list once the company starts hiring again. “Everyone knew the industry was going to go into flux,” he says.

By mid-October, both men had shipped out for their first, one-month stint in the war zone. They returned again in the middle of this month. They hope flying for the military while they are out of work will ultimately make them more employable once the economy picks up.

“It’s like being a doctor or a lawyer, where you have to practice as often as possible to stay sharp,” Capt. Wenz says.

Airlines want pilots to fly at least once a month. The war has kept the captains far busier than that, and kept them on their toes when they are flying. Some reserve pilots in Afghanistan have had to land on the dimly lighted, soft-dirt runway at Camp Rhino, and could at any moment have to launch diversionary flares and take evasive action to fend off surface-to-air missiles from remaining pockets of Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.

Those are skills Capt. Wenz is unlikely to use should he get his wish and land a job with a commercial airline. Thirty-five thousand feet above the coast of the United Arab Emirates, he carries with him the business card of the personnel director at JetBlue Airways of New York. He interviewed with the young and growing carrier on Dec. 12 while home between rotations and expects to hear in February whether he landed a position. “There’s actually one company that still seems to be pushing forward,” he says hopefully.

But generally the news is bad for the pilots, if good for the military. “Some guys have families and need the money,” says Capt. Wenz, who recently got engaged. “We try to spread the wealth — we’re like a family or brotherhood.”

There should be enough military work for everyone. Sometimes it is a little glamorous. Not long ago the Starlifter crew carried singer Wayne Newton, comedian Drew Carey and two of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders to perform for the troops at a location the pilots aren’t allowed to disclose. Mostly, however, they shuttle food, water, aircraft parts, bombs, missiles and the like from base to base to keep the U.S. war machine moving.

“It’s both a matter of pride and monetary value,” Capt. Wenz says.

“And necessity,” Capt. Rubler adds over the cockpit headsets.

The pilots worry about medical coverage, since they say their military insurance covers only them, not their families. They fret about making do on military pay. Cmdr. Hudson figures he earns half as much flying for the Navy as he did for TWA, a unit of AMR. Capt. Rubler says his full-time military pay was $5,800 a month, before taxes. That, the Air Force pilots figure, is more than he would earn in his first year at an airline, but worse than he would do by his third year flying commercial jets.

On the bright side, military personnel don’t have to pay federal taxes while they are in the theater of operations; some soldiers on temporary assignments even try to stretch out their assignments to the reach the first of the month, which qualifies them for an additional month of tax-free status.

As the pilots discuss salaries, their flight engineer, Tech. Sgt. Mark S. Chalupa, 43, of Philadelphia, listens over his headset. “You can be furloughed and not be in the reserves,” he chimes in. “What a pay cut that is.”

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