Friday, April 7, 2006

Marines find 'Semper Fi' friendliness

Small-world marvel plays its charm for jet fighter pilots

Express Staff Writer

Maj. Chris Baird prepares Tuesday to fly out of Hailey in his F-18 Hornet jet fighter on the second leg of a required Marine proficiency flight mission for reservists. Photo by Willy Cook

It'll take some doing to top this "what a small world this is" tale.

After landing their F-18 Hornet jet fighters at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey on Sunday, three Marine pilots headed for steak dinners at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum.

The three—Lt. Col. R.J. Harries, Maj. C.J. Leeuw and Maj. Chris Baird—had completed one leg of a required periodic Marine proficiency flight mission for reservists that includes navigation, night landings and instrument flying.

Based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, they also are professional commercial pilots in civilian life—Harries and Leeuw for FedEx, flying Boeing 727s, and Baird for Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, flying Boeing 747s.

Enter small-world coincidences.

Also having dinner in the Pioneer were two locals, retired developer Jim Toohey and retired Pan Am 747 pilot Mike Burke—both of whom also had been Marine jet pilots 40 years ago during the Vietnam War.

Spotting the flight-suit patches of Marine squadron VMF-134 on the three pilots, Toohey and Burke strode over to the table of the young Marine officers to say hello. They, in turn, identified themselves as pilots of the Vietnam-era supersonic Navy and Marine jet, the Chance-Vought F8U Crusader, distinguished for its gaping, mouth-like air intake under the nose. More coincidentally, they were members of a companion Marine squadron, VMF-334, stationed at California's El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

As the evening wound down (and Toohey picked up the dinner check), other small-world surprises were in store for the visiting Marines.

Another Wood River Valley resident, Bill Mirams, would join them on Tuesday. Also a VMF-334 F8U Crusader pilot, Mirams has a special 1960s claim to fame: he had to eject from his jet at 400 feet in the landing pattern of Miramar when the aircraft's hydraulic control power systems failed.

But there's more.

Maj. Baird also discovered prior to his Tuesday departure that he might well be a distant cousin of Rick Baird, Friedman airport's manager, who met and chatted with the Marines prior to their takeoff.

The Marines didn't leave empty-handed: Valley novelist and former Navy SEAL Dick Couch showed up at the airport to give them copies of his latest novel, "Covert Action," the 11th of Couch's series of novels and non-fiction books on the military.

The Marines also hit Bald Mountain for a few ski runs on Monday, and promised they'll try to return for the 2007 Airport Appreciation Day at Friedman and put F-18 Hornets on display during the public open house.

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