Roger that: F-16 Fighting Falcons relish the chance to fly over Grand Lake
May 24, 2012
It’s an exciting spark of patriotism when a group of F-16 Fighting Falcons soars along the skies on a day honoring military men and woman.
Catching a glimpse of them as they roar above in formation only lasts a few seconds, but the impression of military power and protection left behind lingers long after.
In Grand Lake, flybys have become a traditional event during the Memorial Day and Fourth of July celebrations. Parents hold their children in their arms on the lakeside boardwalk or in the town park, point to the sky in anticipation and say “now watch closely for the planes.” Soon, the F-16s enter into plain sight, rumbling far above Colorado’s largest natural lake toward the highest peak of Mount Craig, then disappear into the Colorado blue as they make their way to another community.
It’s a reminder that somewhere a group of dedicated individuals is always keeping watch on our behalf.
Flybys have a long history in Grand County and are most exclusively flown by members of the 120th Fighter Squadron Colorado Air National Guard, known as the Redeyes. The squadron has serviced the nation dating back to 1923. Pilots of the squadron have flown the P-51 Mustang, F-80 Shooting Star, F-86 Sabre, F-100 Super Sabre, A-7 Corsair and now, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which is a single seat, single engine fighter jet.
Although flybys are a tertiary mission for the squadron – with its main mission fighting our country’s wars – the military men and women and their superiors consider flybys “something extra to show support to communities and veterans,” said Lt. Col. James Reeman, whose family cabin is on the East Inlet shoreline of Grand Lake.
Usually, flybys are combined with tactical missions, at the end of which remaining fuel is used to travel to a community or event for a flyover.
“In recent decades, flybys have taken on an added meaning as many of the pilots of the 120th have developed a personal relationship with the community of Grand Lake,” Reeman said. “Fighter pilots in those jets have a personal and unique connection with Grand Lake and community because of the time we’ve spent up there.”
Reeman, the current Redeye “C” Flight Commander, first flew over Grand Lake in 1994 with now-retired Gen. Mongo Stroud. He has since hosted dozens of fighter pilots and their families as guests to Grand County.
“Many of them affectionately consider Grand Lake as a second home,” Reeman said.
Another former Redeye, Lt. Col. Darryl Hejde’s family had a cabin on the connecting channel between Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Reservoir. Hejde is “another guy who always made sure Grand Lake made the list, probably throughout the ’80s before I did,” Reeman said.
The 120th Fighter Squadron is made up of 32 pilots. About half of them are full-time fighter pilots, the rest, citizen soldiers and part-time guardsmen. The squadron was deployed for missions during the War in Vietnam, and in the past decade in support of operations in the Middle East. While deployed in Iraq, the 120th Squadron received a large care package courtesy of Grand Lake citizens and patrons of the Lariat Saloon, according to Reeman. The package included personal letters and effects from the likes of Louis and Gladys Heckert, then-mayor Gene Stover and others.
“Upon (pilots) returning in the summer of 2003, residents were treated to some special flybys of appreciation,” Reeman said.
Since Sept. 11, the Redeyes have performed constant alert operations, guarding the skies of Colorado and neighboring mountain states.
The 120th Redeyes are the same pilots who perform flybys at sporting events, such as the opening of Denver Broncos games, Colorado Rockies games and Air Force Academy events.
“It’s very rewarding,” Reeman said. “It only lasts a split second, but there’s a real sense of pride. We’re not just representing the Colorado National Guard when we do that; we’re recognizing all who have served in uniform.”
The F-16 Fighting Falcons that fly over Grand Lake have the ability to fly at mach 2, Reeman said.
“But we never do that. It breaks the sound barrier at low altitude and breaks everyone’s windows.”
So pilots fly at a demonstration air speed of 300 knots, which allows citizens to see them.
On any given veterans’ holiday during which there is a flyby at Grand Lake, pilots will continue on to other communities, such as Telluride, Aspen, the cemetery in Greeley, the cemetery in Fort Logan and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
“We could cover a lot of the state in a hurry,” Reeman said. A trip from Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora to Grand Lake, for example, takes less than 15 minutes, he said.
While pilots perform the 2012 Memorial Day, May 28, flyover above Grand Lake, Reeman will have chosen to be on the ground to participate in the Grand Lake Memorial Day Parade that takes place afterward.
“Whether marching alongside Grand County veterans in a parade, or flying overhead in an F16, rest assured, Grand Lake holds a truly special place in the heart of the Colorado Guardsmen,” he said.
“Memorial Day brings out the best in patriotism as we pay respects to those who have served our nation and state, and to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in our defense. Regardless of people’s personal views, most citizens are very respectful of those who have served. And Grand County is filled with veterans, and patriots who appreciate those veterans.”
Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603