December 31, 2001
In eight hours they’d fly into a war.
His commander liked him, too. He knuckled under and agreed to send Speicher on the strike. He never returned. He and his jet vanished that night and left behind a series of puzzling clues, jumbled further by government misstatements and mistakes. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher would later gain a grim distinction: the only American from any war that the government still lists as missing in action.
What happened that January night torments his family, battle-toughened pilots and intelligence agents.
In the planning room, Speicher and Albano learned that they’d take off well after midnight, to return around dawn. They decided they’d better get some sleep and walked back to the stateroom they shared.
Speicher crawled into the top bunk, Albano into the bottom. They lay still for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, hearts pounding, minds racing.
“I can’t sleep,” Albano finally said softly. “I can’t, either.”
Around 1 a.m., they put on their flight suits, boots and gear, walked through the mess deck and up to the flight deck. Speicher, Albano and others from their squadron, the VFA-81 Sunliners, slapped hands.
“See you back on deck in a couple of hours,” Albano told his buddy. They were all nervous. Barry “Skull” Hull knew he must be more uptight than he thought because his mouth was so dry. “God, I need a drink of water,” he kept thinking.
The Saratoga’s crew launched 40 jets, one every 30 seconds, into the darkness, and the pilots headed for their rendezvous point, a fuel tanker flying over Saudi Arabia.
One by one, they rotated into position to stick a probe into the tanker and fuel up. Hull pulled his jet away, slipped to the back of the formation and looked down into another pilot’s cockpit.
He didn’t know who it was and couldn’t ask; they flew “comms out,” staying off the radios to avoid adding to an airwave overload. But Hull marveled at what he saw below: the glow of the instrument panel and the green formation lights of the F/A-18, an aircraft many thought to be the most versatile military jet yet made.
“Man, that is so cool,” Hull said to himself. “Think of the power.”
Hull knew the Hornet could do it all. It was designed for both air-to-air combat and bombing ground targets. The F/A-18s sported a sophisticated electronic identification system and packed two Sparrow and two Sidewinder missiles for taking on enemy jets.
Near the target, the pilot could flip a switch, go into attack mode and drop a bomb. On this night, Speicher and VFA-81 pilots each were loaded with three high-speed anti-radiation missiles, or HARMs.
The mission was to take out Iraqi radar, command and control centers and surface-to-air missile sites. The Hornets would come in seconds after a volley of cruise missiles. The Iraqis would detect the cruise missiles, flip on their radar, man their SAMs and, just then, the Hornets would launch their radar-seeking HARMs and slam Iraqi defenses.
Then a third wave of bombers would come through and hammer the targets. It was an intricate plan, relying on precise flight paths and accurate information from AWACs planes, airborne radar and communications stations that monitored the sky.
The pilots needed every warning that technology had to offer, because on this first night, they flew straight into and through one of the most sophisticated air defenses ever encountered. Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, in charge of the air campaign, had told allied commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf that one of every five of his aircraft might get shot down.
That would mean hundreds of losses.
Within minutes of leaving the tanker, Speicher and the other Hornet pilots got a close look at what worried Horner.
They crossed rugged terrain along the Saudi border, entered Iraq, and anti-aircraft fire streamed up at them.
Bob Stumpf was already anxious. Stumpf, a commander with VFA-83, VFA-81’s sister squadron, had gotten behind an A-6 Intruder pilot at the tanker, and the pilot must’ve had the jitters. The guy took a long time to get fuel, and Stumpf had to head for the target without a full tank.
Now, as he zoomed at 690 miles per hour, his radar warning devices filled his cockpit with warbles and whistles and deedle-deedles.
He looked to the horizon and saw something glowing. It pulsated. It seemed alive. In the clear night sky, he couldn’t tell how far away it was. It could have been five miles, or 50.
Stumpf had flown in the 1986 raid on Libya, but that was routine compared with what he saw and heard on the first night of Desert Storm.
Orange balls, anti-aircraft fire, came up at him. He thought he was going to die.
Each pilot was assigned an altitude in the 25,000-to-30,000-foot range to make sure they wouldn’t collide, but Stumpf started flying up and down quickly to become a tougher target.
Hull saw the pulsing glow, too. At first, he thought it must be an optical illusion. Then he thought that the Middle East must have something like the northern lights.
Soon, he was in it. It was in front of him, behind him, to both sides. The glowing vat turned out to be Baghdad.
Hull’s warning gear also chirped like crazy. He remembered what the Vietnam pilots sometimes did, reached over and turned it off.
“Screw it,” he said, and started using his own eyes to look for missiles.
Just then, the controller plane called out: “I’ve got a pop-up, SA-6.”
The SA-6 was one of Iraq’s most feared surface-to-air missiles. Pop-up meant that the satellites hadn’t shown it. The 18-foot rockets, mounted on tanks, could reach a jet at 30,000 feet and explode when they detected the heat of its engines.
Hull waited for someone to ask for the missile’s location. No one did. “Damn it,” he said. “Give me the coordinates!”
The controller rattled them off. Hull jotted the location on his kneeboard and compared it with where he was.
“Oh God no! I’m dead over the top of an SA-6.”
He pushed on, and never saw the missile.
The pilots looked outside their cockpits for immediate threats and glanced down at their radars, sweeping for enemy fighters.
The AWACs controllers described the air picture, as the pilots pushed toward Baghdad. Normally, a Navy E-2C Hawkeye watched over Hornet pilots, but on this night, the Air Force AWACs ran the show.
A little over two hours into the mission, the pilots heard their strike leader and Speicher’s skipper, Michael “Spock” Anderson, break into the radio frequency.
“I’ve got a fast-mover, on my nose, he’s hot,” Anderson called out. “Confirm bandit?”
Anderson needed the controller to call the fast-mover a bandit, an enemy, instead of a bogey, an unknown. The rules of engagement that night were strict. With hundreds of jets in the sky, the possibility of “blue on blue,” of a friendly fire kill, was extremely high.
The Hornet pilots had to confirm an enemy fighter at least two ways before firing a missile: They could see it with their eyes (nearly impossible at night), they could ID it electronically or the controller could declare it hostile.
The hair on the back of Hull’s neck shot up. He had been so concerned with shooting his HARMs that he had his Hornet in bombing mode, instead of sweeping for enemy fighters.
“Oh my God! What was I thinking?!” Hull flipped the switch and started scanning for air threats.
The call also jolted other pilots. Albano flew a few miles behind Anderson. Albano knew what “hot” meant: The Iraqi fighter’s nose pointed almost directly at the nose of Anderson’s Hornet.
A couple of pilots thought they heard Anderson identify the enemy as a MiG-25, a Soviet-made jet that could fly at nearly three times the speed of sound.
The controller answered Anderson:
“NEGATIVE . . . negative bandit, confirm BOGEY.”
Anderson and the Iraqi pilot roared through the dark sky at each other. Anderson didn’t want to shoot down one of his own. No stain clung to an aviator more than a blue-on-blue kill. Fellow pilots would talk behind the pilot’s back, ask what was wrong with him, get antsy about flying with him. Horner’s staff feared half a dozen or more friendly fire kills in the first two weeks.
Anderson wanted someone else to see what he surely saw. They’d been told dozens of times: Better to let a bad guy go than shoot down a good guy.
“Confirm BANDIT?” Anderson said again, not yelling but punching the words more strongly.
“Negative bandit,” the controller said. “Declare bogey.”
Now sweeping, Hull spotted the enemy jet on his radar, but it wasn’t coming toward him.
Albano and the others desperately looked for it but couldn’t find it.
Anderson asked a third time, even more firmly.
“Negative . . . bogey. Negative . . . bogey.”
The Iraqi fighter and Anderson’s Hornet zoomed past each other, at a combined speed near 2,000 mph. Neither fired a missile.
The pilots figured the jet “bugged out,” just kept flying away from the Hornets, knowing they didn’t have the power to catch him. Some A-6 pilots a few minutes later saw the massive exhaust, nearly 300 feet long, of a MiG right over their heads.
Dave Renaud, from VFA-83, heard Anderson say the MiG had turned “cold,” flown out of firing range.
A few minutes later, he saw a big explosion off to his right. It seemed close, maybe five or 10 miles away, and at his altitude.
Its bright flash mesmerized him. He watched it sparkle and glow all the way to the desert floor.
Must be an Iraqi jet getting knocked out by an F-15, he thought. That made sense. Air Force F-15s had launched ahead of the other jets and were to sweep the skies of Iraqi fighters.
The radio frequency was still buzzing, so Renaud didn’t report the explosion.. Nor did he mark his latitude and longitude. Just in case, though, he did talk into a tape recorder running in his cockpit.
“I see a big explosion off to my right,” he said.
Stumpf saw it, too. The blast lit up his Hornet like a strobe.
Pay attention, Stumpf told himself, and don’t do anything stupid. They pushed toward the targets, fired their HARMs, then turned south toward the tankers.
Stumpf wanted to haul out of there, but instead had to chug back to conserve fuel. It seemed to take forever to near the Saudi border.
Hull lit his afterburners to blaze back, then remembered that would make him an easy mark for a heat-seeking missile. He backed off.
They all converged at the fuel tankers. They had to pass through a gateway, a specific location and altitude that would let others know they were not enemy aircraft trying to slip through.
About 20 miles from the Saudi border, pilots started checking in with the AWACs. Speicher should have reported in before Albano but didn’t. Anderson asked Albano to try to reach Speicher.
Albano tried a tactical frequency only used by VFA-81.
“Spike . . . Bano . . . you up?”
“Spike . . . Bano.”
He switched to another frequency.
“Spike . . . Bano . . . you up?”
Albano radioed Hull and asked him to try.
“Spike . . . ? Skull, have you got me? Spike, come in. Spike . . . How
Hull radioed Albano and said he couldn’t raise Speicher. Albano relayed the message to their skipper.
“Bano’s back up.”
“Any word?” Anderson asked.
Not a good sign, but Albano thought Speicher probably had a mechanical failure, turned around and went back to the ship. Or maybe he flew to one of the diversion airfields for an emergency landing.
The possibilities raced through Albano’s mind.
Speicher could have ejected and been rescued by special operations teams, or worst case, ejected and started evading capture.
Albano and the others flew in silence back to the Saratoga.
Dave Renaud was shell-shocked.
He strode through the passageways of the carrier Saratoga, his mind replaying that night’s strike, working to unscramble the radio calls about the MiG, the fireball he’d seen and the other pilots trying to get a response from Scott Speicher.
He couldn’t believe that, of all the pilots in the sky, he had the best view of the explosion. It seemed so big, like no one flying over Iraq at the time could have missed it.
He chastised himself. He should have marked his position. He should have broken onto the AWACs frequency and reported what he saw, but the radio was busy, he had missiles to fire and he kept quiet.
When he landed his F/A-18 back on the Saratoga, he went straight to the ship’s intelligence center, where pilots report the details of their missions.
The intel officer asked Renaud if he’d seen anything out of the ordinary. Renaud told him about the fireball, how big and bright it was and how he watched it fall into the desert.
“It didn’t look to me like that was a survivable explosion,” Renaud said. “You know,” the intel officer told him, “Speicher did not come back. Go straight to Spock Anderson and tell him what you know.”
Renaud found Michael ”Spock” Anderson, Speicher’s skipper, in one of the ready rooms. Renaud always flew with a tape running in his heads-up display, a monitor that records the action in front of a Hornet and in the cockpit. On a night mission, the video would be worthless, but he’d still have the sound — the radio communications and anything he said.
They listened to the tape a couple of times, found where Renaud was when he spoke into his microphone about the explosion. They matched that against other Hornet data that tracked Renaud’s flight minute by minute.
If a surface-to-air missile or an enemy fighter had knocked Speicher out of the sky early that morning, Anderson would have to know precisely where to get special operations forces to search.
They pulled out Renaud’s flight chart. Renaud scribbled a circle where he thought he saw the explosion.
Next to it, he wrote, “Spike.”
Twelve hours later, military leaders in Washington briefed the media about the first night of the Gulf War. It was January 17, 1991.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell described an incredibly successful series of airstrikes.
“There’s been a single American aircraft lost,” Cheney told reporters. “It involves a single casualty. I don’t know that we want to identify the aircraft, do we?”
Cheney looked at Powell.
“It was an F-18,” Powell said.
Was that a wounding or a death? a reporter asked.
“A . . . ,” Cheney hesitated, “a death.”
Cheney didn’t name Speicher, but the pilots back on the Saratoga knew whom he was talking about. As soon as the squadrons returned that morning, Speicher’s fate became the buzz of the ship.
Cheney’s statement assumed that the blast Renaud saw was Speicher’s jet and that he couldn’t have survived the explosion. That theory would fuel assumptions for years.
Bob Stumpf, of VFA-83 squadron, heard that Speicher hadn’t tried to contact anyone with his survival radio, but he also had heard that VFA-81s’ new radios wouldn’t fit in their pockets. Maybe Speicher lost his when he ejected and couldn’t contact anyone.
He knew that Renaud hadn’t seen a parachute after the explosion, but it was the middle of the night. Stumpf thought they would only declare Speicher killed so quickly if someone had found his body.
“They know something we don’t know,” Stumpf thought when he heard of Cheney’s remarks.
If Speicher wasn’t dead, the pilots knew what Cheney said could doom him. If the Iraqis had captured Speicher and if President Saddam Hussein knew U.S. leaders thought he was dead, maybe Saddam would keep him. An American pilot could be a trophy prisoner.
Fellow pilots hadn’t assumed Speicher was dead. If a missile had slammed into Speicher’s Hornet, he likely ejected, they thought.
“Poor bastard’s probably in the desert somewhere trying to find water,” Stumpf thought.
Later that day, Anderson called a meeting of his officers. Barry Hull remembers Anderson giving the news straight. He didn’t speculate.
“Guys, you know Spike didn’t make it back last night,” Anderson said, “and he did not divert, either.”
That afternoon in Jacksonville, Florida, Navy wives and relatives anxiously wondered which Hornet pilot had been killed.
A middle-class neighborhood had sprouted under the flight paths of Cecil Field Naval Air Station. Kids went to Nathan Bedford Forrest High School, Speicher’s alma mater, where there’s no ignoring the jets when they roar overhead.
Navy representatives drove down the street, past the yellow ribbons and red, white and blue streamers that had been tied to lampposts five months earlier when the ships first deployed for Desert Shield.
They could have stopped at many homes in that neighborhood, but they knocked on the door of Joanne Speicher. She had quit her job teaching home economics at Forrest High School to have Meghan, now 3, and her husband’s namesake, Michael, nearly 2.
She had heard what Cheney said, but didn’t know who’d been killed. They told her. The Boy Scout, the kid who had balanced on the end of the diving board for a shot in the high school yearbook, the husband who sat on the floor with the 4- and 5-year-olds in his Sunday school class to help color and paste, would not be home when the war ended.
The Pentagon reported that an Iraqi surface-to-air missile had knocked Speicher’s Hornet from the sky. No American fighter jets had been lost to air-to-air combat, the Pentagon said.
After the family was told, Michael Scott Speicher, 33, became a headline.
David Rowe, a friend of Speicher’s from high school and Florida State University, had just finished a day of deer hunting in Eustis, Fla., when he flipped on the TV.
A day after the airstrikes began, war coverage still transfixed most Americans. Rowe knew many Navy pilots from living in Jacksonville, and he knew others from his job at the Naval Aviation Depot.
The United States has lost its first pilot during Operation Desert Storm, CBS’s Dan Rather reported.
A photo of a smiling pilot in a flight suit flashed on the screen.
Scott Speicher, his buddy with the impish grin. The kid from Missouri who moved to Florida and loved to sunbathe: “You’re living in Florida, man, you gotta have a tan.”
The guy who one-upped his Florida State buddies on the rite of passage of diving from a 30-foot cliff into Big Dismal Sink. Speicher watched his friends jump in, then stood at the edge of the cliff and grinned.
“Is that the best you can do?” he yelled down.
Speicher climbed an oak tree on the edge of the sinkhole and soared headfirst about 50 feet into the water. Rowe thought right then that Spike was destined to get catapulted from aircraft carriers for a living.
When Rowe saw that picture on TV, nausea swept over him, he slid off the couch onto his knees, slapped the floor and cried.
The pilots on the Saratoga kept focusing on their missions.
They did not yet control the skies over Iraq. The night after Speicher went down, the Saratoga lost two A-6 jets and a few days later, an F-14. To the other pilots, dying on a mission became a real possibility.
“Spike, he’s better than me and he got it,” Hull kept thinking. “That means I can get it.”
For Stumpf, a 17-year veteran pilot, getting back into his F/A-18 for his second mission was the toughest thing he had ever done. Stumpf, Hull and the others tried to block out what had happened on that first strike and bear down on knocking out Iraqi air defenses.
Two weeks passed quickly. The captain of the Saratoga told Joanne Speicher that the military was making every effort to find her husband or his remains.. Spock Anderson sent her this message: “All, repeat, all theater combat search and rescue efforts were mobilized.”
But no one ever went looking for Speicher.
General Norman Schwarzkopf had put Army Colonel Jesse Johnson in charge of combat search and rescue efforts for allied forces opposing Iraq, and Johnson set up strict guidelines for launching a search. The teams would have to hear from a downed pilot, find out his location and assess the risk before going into Iraq.
That was a drastic change from Vietnam, where teams would head out and search when they heard that a pilot had gone down. Seventy-one search and rescue team members were killed, but Air Force rescuers saved more than 4,000 Americans, and the Navy picked up hundreds of others. In the Persian Gulf War, 35 allied jets went down, but Johnson only launched search teams for seven of them. They rescued three pilots.
Speicher’s disappearance didn’t meet the requirements.
After the shooting stopped, about six weeks later, Navy officers called Speicher’s roommate, Tony Albano, and instructed him to go to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Iraq had released its prisoners of war, and Albano was sent to see if Speicher was among the men who walked off the plane.
He wasn’t overly optimistic, but there was a chance.
The hope died quickly.
By the time the plane touched down with 21 American POWs, Albano had been told Speicher wasn’t among them. He flew back to the Saratoga.
That same day, Army Capt. Timothy Connolly of the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion was stationed in the Iraqi desert. His special operations unit had set up Camp Mercy to deal with people the Iraqis were freeing from prisons. Connolly was called over to talk to a Kuwaiti man who had been captured by the Iraqis four months earlier.
The man told Connolly that he was a colonel with the Kuwaiti secret police and that he’d been in a hospital just days earlier in An Nasiriyah. In the bed next to him, he said, was an American pilot. Connolly sent a message to headquarters and said the Kuwaiti had offered to look at photos of American pilots. Not necessary, came the response.
“The prisoner exchange has taken place. We’re not missing anybody.”
The Kuwaiti went home, and Connolly jotted the encounter in his log book.
A few weeks later, Iraq sent remains to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Iraqis said they belonged to an American pilot named “Mickel.”
The remains went to Dover Air Force Base, then to Dr. Victor Weedn at the office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. Weedn was in charge of building the Department of Defense DNA Registry, a pioneering effort that included an identification laboratory. Later, he would use the technology to identify victims of the TWA Flight 800 crash, those who died when the Branch Davidian compound burned and the remains of Czar Nicholas II.
But this was 1991, and the science was shaky. Before Desert Storm, Weedn asked to collect DNA from every member of the military, but some superiors were skeptical and denied the request.
Then came “Mickel,” literally a pound of flesh. It was dried skin with some hair on it. Weedn saw that the remains came from a Caucasian but someone with a darker complexion.
Without Speicher’s DNA to compare to Mickel’s flesh, Weedn had to try another route. He got stubble from Speicher’s electric shaver. He sent some of the flesh to a commercial lab with which he had contracted. While he waited for those results, he tested the DNA of the flesh another way and compared that with Speicher’s.
They didn’t match.
The other results came back: They didn’t match, either.
On May 6, Weedn reported that he didn’t know whose flesh he was sent, but it definitely didn’t belong to Speicher.
Two weeks later, the secretary of the Navy’s office said there was “no credible evidence” that Speicher survived his crash. Weedn was surprised, but figured it was the Navy’s call. They must know something more. On May 22, the Navy held a memorial service at Cecil Field Chapel. The place was packed. Speicher’s college friend David Rowe was so proud of what Anderson said during his eulogy.
“He was one of the best, if not the best, aviator in the wing,” Anderson said. “To watch Spike land an F/A-18 on an aircraft carrier was a work of art.”
That same day, the Navy declared Speicher KIA/BNR, killed in action, body not recovered. Later, he got a marker at Arlington National Cemetery. Florida State University announced it would build the Scott Speicher Memorial Tennis Center. Lake Shore United Methodist Church also built a memorial.
And Rowe and some of Speicher’s college friends decided to hold a golf tournament in his honor. Rowe went over to Anderson’s home one night, and they talked about the golf outing and swapped stories about Speicher.
Rowe told him about the time Spike jumped from the cliff. Anderson told Rowe one of his favorite stories:
The pilots were relaxing at a hotel in the Middle East. They were several floors up on a balcony, having a cookout, and Spike looked across the street at some construction.
“Twenty bucks I can hit that bulldozer with this kielbasa,” Spike said.
You’re on, the other pilots told him. So Spike grabbed a whole kielbasa, ducked into the room to line up his shot, then quick-stepped to the railing and tossed it.
It hurtled up, out across the street and then smacked right on top of the bulldozer. The operator looked over and started yelling. The pilots cackled.
“DIRECT HIT! DIRECT HIT!”
Anderson and Rowe had a good laugh. Then Rowe asked, if Anderson didn’t mind saying, what had happened to his friend.
“It was a SAM that got him?” Rowe said.
He remembers the look that came over Anderson. How his eyes filled with tears. “It was no SAM that got Spike,” he said. “Let me tell you what happened.”
So Anderson told Rowe about how Spike came to him begging to go on the mission, and Anderson said no. And Spike came back a second time, and Anderson changed his mind.
Then he told Rowe about the MiG, and how the rules of engagement leaned toward letting an enemy fighter go if you weren’t sure. For months, the Pentagon had stuck to the story that Speicher had been downed by a surface-to-air missile.
“I’m telling you right now, don’t believe what you’re being told,” Rowe remembers Anderson saying. “It was that MiG that shot Spike down.
“I HAD him, Dave, and I could have taken him out.”
With that, the official story of what happened to Scott Speicher started to come unglued.
Two years later, it would fall apart completely with an unexpected discovery.
The convoy rolled out of Baghdad the morning of Dec. 10, 1995, and headed toward the crash site.
Nine months had passed since Iraq agreed to allow a visit to the wreckage of Scott Speicher’s F/A-18, though Baghdad had postponed it three times. A year had gone by since Timothy Connolly urged his superiors at the Pentagon to secretly dispatch a team to the desert.
Two years had passed since Qataris found Speicher’s jet.
Only the night before in Baghdad, the International Committee of the Red Cross had given the Iraqis the latitude and longitude of the crash site. But as the team neared the wreckage, Bedouins stood along the sandy path and waved their arms, directing the vehicles to the site. The United States had sent investigators from the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, including an anthropologist to help examine human remains. Experts from the Navy’s crash investigation unit in China Lake, California, also went to the site, along with a medic, an explosive-disposal expert and three linguists.
The ICRC sent four people. The Iraqis sent two people and ordered soldiers to encircle the perimeter of the camp for protection.
The group had left the fertile flatlands and lakes surrounding Baghdad and, just three hours later, stood on a moonlike surface. They were 1,000 feet above sea level, in the desert. As far as they looked, all they could see was sand and a few scattered clumps of grass, shrubs and vines.
Just to the north, trails radiated out from Bedouin camps.
Speicher’s Hornet was right-side up. Big chunks of it, easily recognized parts like its engines, lay in a circle no more than 60 feet wide.
Without moving one shovel of sand, military experts knew what that meant. The jet had lost power, gone into a flat spin and dropped almost straight to the desert floor.
Speicher’s jet had not, as first thought, been blown to bits in the sky.
Investigators quickly noticed one other thing: The cockpit was missing.
Obviously, others had gotten to the crash site before the Americans.
Investigators started at the nose of the F/A-18 and roped off an area to excavate. It looked to them like the wreckage had been searched by people who knew what they were doing.
A pile of backfill, a mound of sand dug from somewhere else, had been heaped near where the cockpit should have been. Popped rivets lay on the ground nearby. The backfill, the experts thought, was less than a month old.
Components from the Hornet’s computer had been removed, too.
As the work near the jet continued, other members of the team formed skirmish lines, spreading out and walking slowly to look for other evidence.
Two thousand feet to the north, they spotted something man-made, a tall arch sitting upright on a sandy knoll. They got closer and saw that it was the frame of the canopy, the transparent shield that covers the cockpit. It looked like Bedouins had stood it on end as a landmark.
To the south, they found one of the HARM missiles Speicher was to drop on the first night of the Gulf War.
A couple of days later, Navy flight mishap investigator Bruce Trenholm got a call on his radio. The other team members had found something a couple of miles away and wanted him to look at it.
He drove north and found the group standing in a circle. One of the Iraqis said a Bedouin boy had found a jumpsuit while herding his sheep.
They told Trenholm it was Speicher’s flight suit. Trenholm could see that it was a U.S. NOMEX suit, standard aviator coveralls resistant to fires up to several hundred degrees. He also could see that it had faded from its usual olive color to a more greenish yellow.
He’d have to investigate to make sure it was Speicher’s.
Near the flight suit, they found a cluster of pilot survival items: pieces of straps from a parachute, an inflatable raft, a 20 mm shell and pieces of an anti-G suit that a pilot wears to lessen aerodynamic forces.
They found a signaling flare. Someone had tried to light both ends, one for daytime and one for night. The pyrotechnics were still inside the night end, which meant maybe it hadn’t worked.
On the team’s fourth day in the desert, Trenholm spotted a small item sitting on a rock. Part of it had been sheared off when the jet hit the ground, but he knew what it was: the data storage unit of a Hornet. If the information could be recovered from it, the DSU could unveil a minute-by-minute mechanical account of Speicher’s last flight.
On their last day in the desert, the team anthropologist and others excavated a rectangular rock pile near the canopy. They thought it might be a makeshift grave. They dug down several feet but found no remains.
The next day, Dec. 15, the team pulled out. Some of the most valuable evidence would turn up in the weeks to come, as the DSU and the flight suit were analyzed.
But during those five days, team members got a look at what Speicher would have seen if he’d landed safely. Miles of sand in any direction, far from anybody who could help him.
One other thought picked at Trenholm’s brain. It was cold. Freezing.
This was December. Speicher was shot down in January.
If it was cold now, in a tent, with plenty of layers and thick sleeping bags, Trenholm knew it would have been bone-cold for Speicher.
A few weeks later, Tony Albano got a message during a training flight that Trenholm was trying to track him down. Albano, Speicher’s roommate on the carrier Saratoga during the war, by that time was with a squadron in Meridian, Miss. Albano and Mark Fox, another
squadronmate from VFA-81, agreed to meet Trenholm at Florida’s Cecil Field. In Jacksonville, Trenholm explained that he had been on the International Red Cross mission to the Iraqi desert, they had found a flight suit and he wanted Albano to look at it and see if he thought it was Speicher’s.
He told them about the Bedouin boy who said he found the suit and that most
of the Red Cross team members figured the Iraqis had planted it. He told them that the legs were slit in the back, like an emergency worker or doctor would cut a suit off someone who was face down. He told them he’d estimated Speicher’s height at 5 feet 11 inches, his weight at 168 pounds and his flight suit size at 38 long. The suit was a 38 long.
Then Trenholm reached into a paper bag and pulled it out. The last time Albano had seen that suit, Speicher was wearing it, and they were slapping hands, wishing each other luck on their first wartime missions.
Now, here it was, found lying in the sand, coming out of a bag.
Albano saw that the suit was a little tattered, pockets were missing and the patches were gone. He knew that pilots remove those patches to “sanitize” their flight suits before flying into enemy territory.
He looked at Trenholm.
“I’m positive that’s his flight suit,” Albano said.
Then Fox hopped into his car, went to his house and grabbed his old flight suit. A circular patch of Velcro fastener on Speicher’s right sleeve matched Fox’s “Sunliners-Anytime-Anyplace” patch. An oval of Velcro on the left sleeve lined up perfectly with a patch that read, “F/A-18 Hornet 1000 Hours.”
Trenholm then told Speicher’s squadronmates about the condition of the jet, and the canopy and the parachute straps and the life support gear.
Five years after that awful night, there seemed to be even fewer answers. And the same old question.
“Oh God,” Albano thought. “Well, what happened to him?”
Soon after the team returned to the United States, a top official at the Defense Department’s POW/MIA office met with Sen. Robert Smith to tell him what the group had found. Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, was on the Senate Armed Services Committee and had tracked the Speicher case since the Qataris found the wreckage in 1993. Smith’s own father was a naval aviator who was killed near the end of World War II, two days before Smith’s fourth birthday.
On Jan. 17, during his briefing with the POW/MIA official, Smith heard grave news: The Red Cross team had found nothing to suggest Speicher could have survived.
A few weeks later, the aircraft investigators, life support experts, aviation engineers and anthropologists filed their reports. Their findings colored in a fairly thorough picture of what had happened to Speicher during his final mission.
That picture differed sharply from what Smith had been told.
On Feb. 15, an aircraft mishap investigator at the Navy’s Safety Center in Norfolk reported a time line of Speicher’s last flight. The information had come from the damaged memory unit the team recovered.
Speicher lifted the Hornet off the deck of the Saratoga at 1:36 a.m.
At 1:43 a.m., his jet recorded a code indicating a HARM launch computer failure. One, two or all three of his missiles might have been inoperative. Two hours later, nearing the target, the jet’s computer recorded another code: Speicher’s ALR-67 radar warning receiver. The device would have detected threats from air or land. It might have had a minor problem or a complete failure. Speicher could have looked at another gauge to see how well the device was working.
At 3:49, Speicher turned off the jet’s autopilot.
Seventeen seconds later, something slammed into his Hornet so hard that it lost power. Engineers reported that the rocket motors that blast the canopy from the aircraft had burned even marks on its frame. That signaled a good ejection. They determined that the charred paint on the inside of the canopy, and the way the outside had melted, meant that Speicher had been engulfed for about three seconds in a 600- to 700-degree fire.
Speicher would have had second-degree burns on exposed skin, such as the back of his neck. But because of survival vests, the NOMEX suit and his anti-G suit, it would take a fire hotter than 700 degrees and longer than 10 seconds to cause fatal burns.
One of the engineers wrote: “This pilot was over enemy territory, in extremis situation and sitting in the middle of a hot cockpit fire. Logic dictates that the only way this pilot is getting rid of his canopy is by ejecting.”
Trenholm’s report picked up with the ejection.
He determined that the canopy’s distance from the wreckage meant that when Speicher pulled the ejection handle, it separated as it should have. The flight suit, signal flare, life raft items and anti-G suit materials were all in pretty good shape. If the ejection had failed, Trenholm knew, those things probably would have burned until they were unrecognizable.
Up to that point, 58 air crew had ejected from F/A-18s. Six had been injured fatally, and a majority were injured either from the jolt when the parachute opened or from landing.
But most pilots who ejected lived.
Trenholm found out that China Lake, years earlier, had issued a warning about the GQ 1000 Aeronautical Parachute that Speicher was using. Those parachutes sometimes allowed pilots to fall too fast, causing landing injuries.
His report concluded that Speicher probably had been injured either when the parachute opened or during his landing. Speicher’s flight suit had some stains, maybe blood, but not enough to suggest that he had serious injuries. Smith had been told the team found no evidence that Speicher survived. But no one had turned up any evidence he had died, either.
Any day now, the call would come.
Scott Speicher’s widow, Joanne, and her husband, Buddy Harris, would be told on which day Speicher’s status would be changed to missing in action. President Clinton had signed off.
It was early January 2001, 10 years since Speicher’s F/A-18 had been shot down over Iraq, nearly as long since the Navy had declared him killed in action.
What was about to happen would make history.
No American service member, from any war, had ever been taken off the KIA list and switched back to missing in action. Despite being KIA, Speicher’s career had flourished: The lieutenant commander who entered the Gulf War had been promoted to commander. The Navy gave Joanne his back pay. Soon after he was listed as MIA, she would start receiving Speicher’s monthly salary of $6,313.
Joanne and Buddy knew the story would stir the media. They’d have to talk to the kids, Michael and Meghan. They were 1 and 3 when their father was shot down. The couple worried that this would jumble their lives again.
“The worst thing that’s going to happen,” Buddy remembers telling them, “is that somebody is going to come back into your lives who loves you more than anything else. Having more than one person love you can’t be bad.” Word of the announcement leaked a day early, and reporters surrounded the Harris house in Jacksonville, Fla.
Joanne and Buddy stuck with their plan: They packed up the family and left town for a week. The Navy announced Speicher’s status change on Jan. 11 in a four-paragraph statement. But President Clinton created a frenzy.
“We have some information that leads us to believe he might be alive,” Clinton told reporters later that day. “And we hope and pray that he is. But we have already begun working to try to determine whether, in fact, he’s alive, if he is, where he is and how we can get him out.”
Alive? What did the government know? Or had Clinton, 10 days before leaving office, gone too far? Hours later, he tried to temper the statement.
“Well, I don’t want to say more than we have,” the president said. “All I want to say is we have evidence which convinced me that we can’t ensure that he perished. I don’t want to hold out false hope, but I thought it was wrong to continue to classify him as killed in action when he might not have been.”
The next day, the story made the front page of newspapers across the country.. Speicher’s squadronmate Barry Hull and Sen. Robert Smith appeared on CBS’s “The Early Show.” The show’s anchor asked Smith why the U.S. government had waited seven years, from the time Speicher’s jet was found, to try to locate the pilot.
Smith said he couldn’t understand that, either. He said that up until 1998, he had been misled, and he promised to deal later with those who had steered Congress awry. There’s not one shred of evidence, Smith said, that shows where, how or even if Speicher died.
“This pilot, if he’s alive, has been there for 10 years with nobody looking for him. And that’s just plain outrageous.”
Hull began by saying hello to his combat buddies: Ammo, Banker, Bano, Bert, Chauncy, Coop, Donor, Hoff, Jonah, Maggot, Mongo, Cong, MRT, Oscar, Polecat, Spock and Whip.
“And, Spike, if you’re out there, we’re thinking about you, buddy.”
The anchor asked Hull if he really thought Speicher could be alive, after 10 years.
He didn’t think so, Hull said, but he couldn’t be sure.
“I believe I read somewhere where the North Vietnamese held prisoners for, held the French prisoners for 20 years. So it has happened before. And there’s no assurance that he’s dead.”
The question had haunted Hull, his squadronmates, Spike’s friends and the government for a decade. It confounded them more, not less, as each year passed. Former Pentagon official Timothy Connolly says there is no evidence to support the idea that Scott Speicher was killed during the Persian Gulf War.
Tony Albano may have been the last pilot to speak to Speicher. They were roommates on the carrier Saratoga, about to fly off the ship on their first strike. “See you back on deck in a couple of hours,” he told Spike.
Albano stayed with the Navy and is now a captain. He’s commander of Training Air Wing Two in Kingsville, Texas. He’s still loyal to the Navy, but frustrated that the service, the Department of Defense and other government agencies only passively pursued finding Speicher at key times.
In his darkest thoughts, Albano thinks Speicher may have been captured and held prisoner for a couple of years.When the Iraqis found out the United States knew what happened, they executed him.
“Saddam Hussein is, from what I understand, he’s basically whacked in the head and he’s a trophy keeper,” Albano said. “That would be my worst thought… here’s my first capture and that’s my trophy.”
One time, Albano offered a more benign theory to a superior. Speicher had a dark complexion, and if he grew facial hair he could have blended in pretty well. Maybe he slammed his head during the ejection, got amnesia and wandered around.
“That’s a little bit ridiculous, Bano,” his superior told him.
David Rowe, Spike’s old high school and Florida State friend, doesn’t have any theories about what happened. Rowe still lives in Jacksonville and works as an environmental consultant. At this point, he’s not even sure what to hope for.
When he first heard that Spike might have ejected, he thought about watching his friend pirouette off that oak tree and dive headfirst into Big Dismal Sink.
“I knew that Spike punched out,” Rowe said. “I knew it, I knew it in my heart and soul that he had punched.”
But that leads, ultimately, to the idea that Speicher landed, lived and was captured. Rowe can’t stand to carry that any further.
“Oh, that’s hurtful. I mean, I want my friend to have survived, but to think what he’s been through . . . ”
Timothy Connolly left the Pentagon in 1996 and is waiting on paperwork to allow him to teach middle school social studies. To this day, he is the only deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations who served in one of those services, the Army Rangers. He’s been connected to the military for more than 20 years, so it pains him when new service members ask what would happen if they went down behind enemy lines.
“My view is, right now, that I could not tell you with any degree of certainty that if you are either captured or fall behind enemy lines that the U.S. will go and get you,” he tells them.
He still thinks the Pentagon blew it when Secretary of Defense William Perry and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili refused to covertly search Speicher’s crash site. Intelligence agents could have worked the information from the wreckage through their channels and by now may have known what happened.
Over the years, Connolly pieced together his own theory:
Speicher ejected, got hurt and left an evasion symbol near the crash site. Then he fled. He was captured by Bedouins, who turned him over to Iraqi military forces. Connolly’s unit during the war seized an air force base, so he knew that many of the Iraqis were essentially reservists.
He figures the reservists took Speicher and turned him over to regular forces, around An Nasiriyah, where he was put in a hospital.
By the time the leaders in Baghdad found out they had an American pilot, Dick Cheney had already pronounced him dead. With nobody looking for him, they kept him.
Connolly admits his theory is patched together, but:
“That’s as good a scenario as anyone could come up with that he had died, which was zero.” For those who wonder whether Speicher could still be a captive, reports emerged from Iraq just two months ago that make it plausible:
Defectors who had been guards said Iraq had an underground prison, below a grove of trees, betrayed only by an air duct on the surface. They said Kuwaitis captured during the Iraqi invasion 11 years earlier were in the cells.
Bruce Trenholm is still investigating flight mishaps for the Navy. As much as he’s tried to move on to other cases, he can’t get away from the Speicher investigation.
Every year or two, sometimes more often, government investigators will look him up and start asking questions.
“This thing grew this big head later,” Trenholm says of the case. “I don’t know what the big deal is. The guy was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, no big deal, just a pilot, just doing his job like every other pilot was, and he happened to get whacked. It’s just one of those unfortunate things that happen in war.”
But as hard-edged as the ex-Marine sounds, he, too, is spooked by what may have happened.
Last fall, while on assignment in Maryland, he took a late-afternoon drive toward Point Lookout. He saw a sign outside a restaurant advertising all-you-can-eat crabs for $15 and stopped in.
The waitress spread old newspapers on his table. He looked down at a USA Today from Jan. 21, 1991. There was a front-page story on Speicher. He tucked it away to keep and asked for more newspapers.
Trenholm still thinks Speicher ejected, probably was hurt and likely died of exposure on those cold January nights in the desert. But he doesn’t know. He does know this:
“That man deserves, I don’t care if it’s his toenail, deserves the right to have it buried on American soil, not on Iraqi soil. His family and his kids have a right to say, `My father was buried HERE.’ A little mom, apple pie there, but that’s the way I feel.”
Trenholm took one of his photos from the crash-site visit down to an aviators’ bar in Pensacola, Fla. There on the wall, covered with pictures of jets, pilots and admirals, he hung a snapshot of the team at the crash site.
He wrote on it the name of the mission: “Operation Promise Kept.”
Whenever he goes to Trader Jon’s, Trenholm looks at the picture and drinks a toast to Scott Speicher.
David Rowe was not surprised to find out that his old friend had ejected. But it hurts to think Speicher might have been held captive this long, Rowe said.. Buddy Harris knows he’s in a weird position: looking for his wife’s ex-husband, who is missing in action.
He started investigating Scott’s disappearance before he and Joanne began dating, the two developed a bond, it just happened, he says.
When they first got together, the kids had a blast going through his old photos, shots of Buddy and Scott, Joanne and Scott, Buddy, Scott and Joanne.
Buddy figures he wound up with this role for a reason. He was put in the Pentagon, assigned to that original work group, kept informed for a reason.
“I think I’m the only one that can speak for Scott, because I know him,” Buddy says. “Certainly, now at this point in time in my life, I know him better than anybody in the world.
“If I was over there and he had this information, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would be continuing to push it and probably doing a better job.”
He avoids speculating on what may have happened to Scott. Until someone turns up evidence that Scott died, he’ll press forward assuming that he’s alive.
If he finds Scott, he knows there will be a media crush that will probably last for several years. His and Joanne’s life, their kids’ lives, would not be the same.
The only thing that has saved them from that so far, he says, is that Joanne has refused interview requests all along.
Buddy has decided that it’s time to talk, to keep the pressure on. If it’s possible, he wants to bring Scott home.
What would his family do then? People always ask.
First, Buddy says, they’d throw a party. The biggest welcome-home party ever.. Then they’d figure things out.
Victor Weedn’s DNA work continued, and he set up the first military identification program. If a pilot went down today and a foreign country sent a pound of flesh, scientists could quickly compare the flesh’s DNA to the DNA of any service member. The Defense Intelligence Agency last year set up its own unit to investigate missing service members.
In May, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence agreed to formally investigate the intelligence community’s work on the Speicher case.
A few months later, after Sept. 11, several of those agencies would be questioned over lapses similar to the Speicher investigation: Did they share information? How good were they at analyzing data? Could they oversee and critique their own work?
To Speicher’s fellow pilots and others steeped in military culture, the one thing they can’t understand is why the government took so long to react.
When it signed a treaty to end the war, the United States didn’t put Speicher’s name on a list of POWs. The government didn’t officially ask Iraq for information on Speicher until January 2001.
Nor did the military search for him when he went down. And they waited two years to look after finding his jet.
Even the Iraqi government blames the American government for not accounting for the pilot sooner. It claims to know nothing about what happened to Speicher.
Barry Hull says he won’t believe Speicher is dead until he sees some evidence. Without proof, he says, ”we still don’t know.”
Sending Americans into combat in a foreign land requires loyalty and faith, from both ends of the pecking order. That’s what bothers the pilots.
“That’s part of the deal,” Barry Hull says. “When I hang my ass out and go across the border, if I get shot down or something happens to me, I absolutely know, there is no question in my mind, those guys are going to do whatever they have to do to get me.
“If they know in their minds I am dead, well, they’re probably not going to come get me. If it’s three or four years later and they find out something different, they better get over there.
“And we had an opportunity to do it, and we made a conscious decision not to.”
Hull is now commander of a reserve unit, runs Sunliner Tire and Auto Plaza in South Carolina and flies for American Airlines. He’s got a successful business, a pretty girlfriend, a good life, he says, and at best Speicher is sitting in an Iraqi prison.
He has often thought back to that first night of the war. He can pop up one picture like it happened yesterday: sitting in his Hornet at the fueling tanker, looking down into another pilot’s cockpit, thinking about the power and maneuverability of one of the United States’ hot new fighter planes.
But not just that, the power of the country, to set up a fighting force that far from its shores, to help patrol the world.
He later asked others when they left the tanker, trying to figure out whom he had watched refuel. Eventually, he eliminated everyone he talked to.
That January night, looking into that cockpit, he had gotten his last view of Scott Speicher.
And all the power and agility of the Hornet, all the political and economic might of the United States, didn’t help to save Spike. It hasn’t helped to find him.
The same question that rattled the Saratoga after that first strike still can’t be answered. Where’s Spike?