It was just before 10am on Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Already another hot day in the desert, a portion of the morning Weapons School sorties were either in the overhead or landing and the first launches of the morning go for this Red Flag 08-3 mission were holding at EOR. The radio was a constant stream of instructions and replies and there was a gaggle of photographers between runways 03L and 03R trying to get in the perfect position to capture the massive wave of jets getting ready to launch.
I remember the day it like it was yesterday. Some heavies went up first, including a Minot B-52, French Armée de l’air C-130, and a Brazilian KC-137. Next was a small group of Vipers from the 4th Fighter Squadron with a lone Rude Ram tail in their flight. The third group to line up for departure were those twin tails and unmistakable camouflage scheme worn by the Eagles of the 65th Aggressor Squadron. The lead Eagle was a blue on blue single-seat F-15C followed closely by a pair of brown and tan two-seat F-15Ds. The remainder of the blue air and red air launched and all was good (and hot!) as we took a short break to hydrate and grab a snack prior to the recoveries.
Shortly after the first few aircraft returned, I noticed a pair of HH-60’s launch from the Jolly ramp. Something didn’t feel quite right in my gut, so I decided to snap an image of them departing. More and more aircraft were recovering at that point, but we still hadn’t seen the first trio of Eagles return yet. It’s normal for them to drive to the tanker for gas and stay up longer than members of the blue strike package, but only a few aircraft remained airborne and yet still no sign of the Flankers.
As Nellis began to recover aircraft, word slowly started spreading around that there was an aircraft down on the Nellis Test and Training Range, hence why the helos had launched earlier. Eventually it was determined that the missing jet was one of the two-seat 65th Eagles and there was a palpable concern for the downed airmen. By this time we were wrapping up our now-somber visit and the buses were heading back to the parking lot, with no word on the fate of the Eagle driver and his backseater.
Later that evening after we returned to the motel, we were constantly scanning the radios and television to find out more about what happened that afternoon. Eventually we would find out that the pilot didn’t make it and the backseater suffered injuries as well.
In the days following the incident, we learned the pilot of the ill-fated Eagle was the 65th AGRS commander, Lt. Col. Thomas ‘Moses’ Bouley, and in the backseat was a Royal Air Force exchange pilot assigned to the Aggressors. Moses left us with over 4,200 hours under his belt, but that stat belies his true importance to those under his command. He was a great pilot and a well-respected leader within the F-15 community.
For those of us at Nellis that day, the loss was a punch in the gut. Before that day, I had never seen an aircraft launch that never made it back. It’s also strange to think this is one of the last ever photos of Moses doing what he loved.
Moses, we thank you for your service, and thank you for embodying what we imagined fighter pilots would be like when we were young boys. You are not forgotten by the men and women who served under you, and your legacy carries on to this day.
It’s okay to slow down and realize that flying fast jets is a very dangerous business. For those of you in the cockpit, our best wishes are with you.
Today we salute you Moses, this Burner Saturday is for you.