NY airport greets aircrew with impromptu welcome home

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Stacia Zachary
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
LaGuardia Airport personnel received an unexpected arrival Dec. 27, when the 4th Special Operations Squadron aircrew radioed the airport requesting permission to land.

The unexpected arrival of an AC-130U Spooky Gunship, which was on deployed in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn since 2003, on its final leg home became an opportunity for everyone at LaGuardia Airport to honor the crew in true New York fashion.

"Robert McAdams, the station manager for SheltAir Aviation, LaGuardia Airport's fixed base operator, notified my office of the AC-130U's scheduled arrival time and that the aircraft was en route from Iraq to Hurlburt Field," said Thomas Bosco, the general manager for LaGuardia Airport.

Time was of the essence as the staff responded with the singular goal of honoring returning service members who were travel-weary and itching to set foot on U.S. soil.

"The Port Authority (of New York and New Jersey) earn their living by thinking, organizing, and acting quickly and decisively," Bosco said. "So, it wasn't difficult at all for them to organize personnel and equipment for the event. As the word spread of the AC-130's arrival, airport workers who could safely break away from their duties for a few minutes did so in order to render a heartfelt "thank you" to our brave men and women in uniform."

The aircrew was bringing one of its most battle-tested assets home. The final AC-130U Spooky Gunship from the 4th Special Operations Squadron was closing in on U.S. soil -- something the plane had not touched down on since 2003.

Taxiing into the designated parking spot, the crew was overcome with emotion. For many, this was their first glimpse of the U.S. in months. Off the nose of the aircraft, emergency vehicles lined the taxiway with their flashing lights beckoning them forward into the parking spot.
Personnel from every section at the airport stood cheering and waving American flags as well as fire trucks symbolically saluting the aircraft and her crew with water cannons.

"It is indescribable the feelings our crew had as we taxied up to the amazing reception," said Capt. Justin Harvey, the AC-130U Spooky Gunship pilot with the 4th SOS. "For me, this was a top-five moment of my Air Force career at this point. I could hardly taxi the aircraft; my hands were shaking as we pulled into parking."

Choosing to land at LaGuardia Airport became a symbolic nod to Americans whose lives were irrevocably changed by 9/11. While the aircrew was coming home from Iraq instead of Afghanistan, the homecoming had a reassuring effect on those who attended.

"Port Authority police and civilian airport workers felt compelled to organize a warm and appropriate welcome to our returning heroes," Bosco said.

While the homecoming was deeply appreciated by the aircrew, it left an even more lasting impression on the LaGuardia staff.

"Welcoming the AC-130 crew was one of the most striking and heartwarming moments of my career," remarked Port Authority Police Officer Dan Francis.

Kevin Dauwalter, the chief operations supervisor at LaGuardia Airport, said he was deeply moved by the homecoming and grateful for the opportunity to say thank you to those who risk their lives to defend freedoms at home.

The aircraft's return represented the end of Hurlburt Field's commitment to the Operation New Dawn mission, but underscores Hurlburt Field's commitment to protect America and its allies.

"Although this aircraft's arrival signifies the end of one chapter, we remain engaged in operations around the globe and vigilant in the defense of our country's freedom," said Col. Jim Slife, the commander of 1st Special Operations Wing.