Hurlburt Field, FL – The crewmembers of the last gunship out of Iraq expected a warm welcome home from close friends and family, but they were not prepared for the tribute they received from a group of strangers.
When the AC-130U Spectre gunship was diverted, requesting a last-minute landing at LaGuardia Airport, New York City, the crew was met with a sight that humbled them so much the pilot recalled his hands shaking.
Capt. Justin Harvey, a pilot at the 4th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., called the surprise welcome home one of the top five moments in his Air Force career.
“It is indescribable the feelings our crew had as we taxied up to the amazing reception,” Harvey said. “I could hardly taxi the aircraft. My hands were shaking as we pulled into parking.”
Emergency vehicles lined the gunship’s path to the gate, their lights flashing in welcome.
Members of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey positioned two fire trucks on either side of the plane. The gunship taxied beneath an arc of water from the hoses of the trucks that served as a salute to the service of American military members.
When Thomas Bosco, general manager of LaGuardia Airport, received word the last gunship out of Iraq would be stopping en route to Hurlburt, the retired Army colonel passed the word to his employees. The Port Authority and LaGuardia workers spontaneously rallied to put together a tribute for the crew in about two hours.
“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,” Bosco said.
As the crew disembarked, about 50 cheering civilian employees and police officers greeted the Airmen. Some waved flags. Others rendered salutes. The gratitude was palpable.
Bosco welcomed the crew as they disembarked and ushered them through a tunnel of cheering supporters. A catered reception awaited them.
It was organized by Robert McAdams, station manager for LaGuardia’s fixed, based operator, SheltAir Aviation.
Police Sgt. Dan Francis, a 30-year officer set to retire, was among the welcome team. Francis, who Bosco says has seen it all, called the reception one of the most striking and heartwarming moments of his career.
The welcome holds additional special significance to the Port Authority workers, and the men and women of New York City.
“We want the crewmembers to know New Yorkers, and indeed all Americans, are grateful for their service to the nation in defense of our liberty,” Bosco said. “As Port Authority employees who lost scores of our own friends and coworkers on Sept. 11, we also want the servicemembers’ families to know we deeply appreciate the sacrifice they’ve made, enduring long months of anxious waiting for their loved ones in uniform to return home from combat.”