"Here they are, right here," an air traffic controller said, pointing to a large, circular radar screen above his console. Men in the control tower glanced at the greenish screen and then stared at the cloud cover to the northeast.
The first six jets of the 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron were coming home Wednesday afternoon to Hill. The 4th and the 421st squadrons, both part of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, left for the Persian Gulf war in late August."They're going to break through these clouds right there," said one controller, pointing outside.
The radio crackled about coming in "from the Persian Gulf." A controller said something technical and added ". . . welcomes you." Then, appearing first to the skilled watchers in the towers and later to the reporter, a pair of F-16 Fighting Falcons showed up. Two more pairs followed.
"Two by two by two," said a sergeant. The flight of six arrived in the buddy-style formation they used in combat, paired so the pilots can keep an eye on each other.
In front of Hanger 37, the base's official welcome-home station, the crowd looked as if it were 1,000 strong - adults and children waving a sea of flags, standing four to five deep behind a long line of military guards. The crowd's applause and yells competed against the engine screech of the half-dozen taxiing Falcons.
For a time, the pilots sat within their yellow-green canopy bubbles, staring out, removing their helmets. Ground crewmen hurried over with ladders, helped the pilots out, and the families of the pilots came to the jets to greet them.
The pilot in the F-16 nearest to the hanger was Col. Michael Navarro, commander of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing. He hugged and kissed his wife, Sally, then gave a big hug to their daughter, Susan, nearly 17. A general exchanged salutes with Navarro, and the commander shook hands with crewmen.
"Well, I feel great," Navarro said when reporters were allowed to meet him. He said the 388th did a marvelous job and had an opportunity to participate in a very important campaign.
"The guys did what they were trained to do, they did it very professionally. They couldn't do it better," he said.
He couldn't see the crowd from the air. But once on the ground, Navarro said, "it kind of chokes you up, you know, to see that kind of welcome."
Navarro praised public support that crossed over continents via letters, packages and televised segments.. "I think the unsung heroes are the American people, and the families and friends that supported us . . . . It really made a big difference in our performance."
Sally Navarro said it "feels great" to have her husband home. "It'll sink in as the day goes on. We just have to get them all back."
How did Susan Navarro feel when she saw her father for the first time in seven months? "I was proud and excited," she said.
Major Scott Goodfellow said the Middle East "was warmer than here. It had a whole lifetime crammed into seven months."
There were terrifying moments, he said, "but it was all worthwhile at the end, when we got in to do the job and did it quickly."
He said the F-16s flew from the United Arab Emirates to Spain. From that country, it was a 10-hour hop across the Atlantic to Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Then on Wednesday, the trip home took five hours.
Altogether, 21 of the F-16s were to land Wednesday, in flights of six. As Navarro spoke, the second group taxied up.
The 4th Tactical Fighter Squadron temporarily lost two aircraft on the way home, when they developed engine trouble. They should be back soon. Meanwhile, the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron - the other squadron Hill sent - is scheduled to return Friday.