My MacDill is…
“Navy Zero Fox Zero Six, Tampa Approach, contact MacDill Tower now, 294.7.”
“Zero Fox Zero Six, two niner four point seven, switching.”
It’s a beautiful spring day as I descend over Tampa Bay!
MacDill Tower, Navy Zero Fox Zero Six, three down and locked, full stop.”
“Zero Fox Zero Six, MacDill Tower, cleared to land Runway 4.”
“Cleared to land Runway 4, Zero Fox Zero Six.”
The 11,400 foot runway stretches in front of me, longer than most runways I’m used to. Rolling out, off to my right, the flight line is full of camouflaged F-4 Phantoms, my orange and white T-2 Buckeye jet trainer standing out in stark contrast. Taxiing to the transient line, we shut down the jet and unstrap. Welcome to MacDill AFB! I’m an Ensign and I’ve just completed my first cross-country flight. For now, my only focus is earning my wings. Little do I know that this base…an Air Force base…will figure prominently in my life for the next 37-plus years!
Heading out to the Fleet, I bounce between naval air stations on both coasts, deploying to the Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf. And for the next two decades, I will pass through MacDill on cross-countries, for air show static displays, or just shooting approaches and touch and goes.
As the 1990s draw to a close, I actually find myself assigned to MacDill…a senior Commander on the CENTCOM Air Ops staff. As a Navy brat who grew up just north of Orlando, being assigned close to home is a special treat! But it’s also a sort of “full circle”…the young Ensign on the MacDill T-line all those years earlier returning as the “salty” Navy flier. In a pre-9/11 world, CENTCOM’s pace is busy, but not frenetic. Promoting to Captain, I begin to wonder who this guy staring back at me in the mirror is, the one with the embroidered eagles on his flight suit. He sort of looked like the Lieutenant and Lieutenant Commander I once remembered…just older and wishing he could still fly airplanes.
11 Sep 2001 started much like any other day. I was coming in late that morning due to personal business, putting on my desert cammie uniform, the TV tuned to one of the morning network shows in New York City. And then the world changed forever!
When the second airliner hit the World Trade Center, there was no doubt what was happening. I phoned my office and, “Get back here now…we’re standing up the CAT!” was the response. CAT meant Crisis Action Team…that part of the staff tasked to spool up the CENTCOM Crisis Action Center, a facility that would be renamed the Joint Operations Center or JOC. I raced to the base, only to run into a two mile long line of traffic on South Dale Mabry…all the base facilities were closed, so the daily influx of retirees and off-base dependents was being turned around at the main gate, creating quite a traffic jam. Security Forces airmen, who typically just carried sidearms, now carried rifles and other “battle rattle” while an armed Humvee was parked nearby.
The next couple of months were a blur. On 9/11, CENTCOM’s staff was a fraction of its current size and we worked round the clock on 10 to 12-plus hour shifts. As an O-6, I was a Chief of Current Ops and one of the JOC Directors, working 13 hours on, 11 hours off, supervising 50-odd duty officers and support folks with a one-star overseeing me.
The pace was grueling, but no one complained…they may have called it Operation Enduring Freedom, but behind all the political speak, we had been attacked on our own soil and we knew this was war! For some of us, it also hit closer to home! An Air Force Major working for me in the JOC, a U-2 pilot, lost his roommate from the Air Force Academy on 9/11…his roommate was the copilot of United Flight 93.
My orders to CENTCOM were originally slated to end that October, but in July I had volunteered to extend until January. Those orders were later pushed out to April…and then they were changed: walk across the canal from CENTCOM headquarters and report to Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) as their new ops boss, officially Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations. For the next 2-plus years I ping-ponged between MacDill, Bahrain and Qatar for Operation Iraqi Freedom, to include turning over NAVCENT’s MacDill complex to the Marines.
Departing Qatar and Bahrain, I took command of an air group in San Diego consisting of eight squadrons…of which one was always in the CENTCOM region…so I still found myself making frequent visits back to MacDill. And for my “twilight tour,” I asked to return to CENTCOM and MacDill. Finally, with 30+ years in uniform, my retirement ceremony was held in Hangar 3 with an F/A-18F Super Hornet as a backdrop.
I accepted a civilian position in Orlando, figuring my association with MacDill was done…only to find myself returning to CENTCOM and MacDill months later in civilian clothes. And it’s where I remain today! In 38 years, I’ve seen many duty stations, afloat and ashore, around the world. But it is MacDill… ”my MacDill”…that remained the “magnet” in my professional life that always kept drawing me back!
Jim “Byrdman” Philpitt
Captain, US Navy (Ret)