One Weekend & Six Months among the Black Sheep
On Memorial Day weekend 2008 — two monster missions, one in the mountains, one on the plains — called upon the Colorado Civil Air Patrol’s best
Story by CAP/Black Sheep Squadron Historian 1Lt. Ed O'Brien
On May 22, 2008, a big white monster F-3 tornado, nearly one mile wide, blew into and through the small rural town of Windsor, Colorado. This monster careened on for another 35 miles, taking a life and shredding hundreds of structures in Larimer and Weld Counties (both are about 50 miles due north of Denver). Within minutes of this catastrophe the Salvation Army put out a call for responders and from Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, Greeley, and Denver, the Colorado Civil Air Patrol came running, and in force.
“It was an awful thing,” said Thomas Coupe, 87, of Windsor, Colorado. “A big white monster.”
Stacked up right behind this calamity came the call of a missing plane in the high country, a father and son on board a Cessna 310 lost between Hayden and Greeley, Colorado. An airplane gone, two missing, but never abandoned. In both cases — the aftermath of a tornado and a missing plane — the Civil Air Patrol mustered to assist.
The F-3 tornado on May 22 came with winds of 130 to 150 miles per hour and produced a path up to one mile wide. It carved a storm path 35 miles in length and was the fourth-costliest tornado in Colorado history.
From Black Sheep Squadron in south Denver, 70 miles from Windsor, CAP officers Don MacCleod, Sim Coleman, Jim Jenkins and Sid Altum were among those called to the scene. In the next few hours and over the following days about ninety Civil Air Patrol senior and cadet members brought order and relief among piles of splintered debris. They unloaded semi-truckloads of supplies, organized relief through the Salvation Army, walked the debris-laden streets of Windsor handing out bottled water, gathered residents to an emergency kitchen, and surveyed and documented the scene for news-crews, police, officials, and fire fighters. Uniformed CAP officers and cadets meant order and help — even among knee-deep devastation — was ready and at hand.
LEFT The May 22 tornado
destroyed about 80 houses and damaged about 770 in Windsor. The storm produced more than $147 million in total insurance claims.
BELOW Members of the U.S. Civil
Air Patrol from Ft. Collins, Colorado, load boxes of prepared meals to distribute to nursing homes in the area following the a tornado in Windsor. The tornado struck the area Thursday afternoon. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
I am a new member of the Civil Air Patrol. My name is Ed O’Brien. I’ve been training next to and working with all the men of this story for about six months. During this weekend I wasn’t certified to hand out water — yes, you’ve got to qualify for even the petty jobs lest you cause more havoc than you resolve. And so, I wasn’t ready this weekend. As a small repayment, for these men coaching and instructing me, let me tell you the story of the “Two Monsters and My Six Months among the Black Sheep.” In this CAP setting, the story is not of heroism or courage. The heroes and the courageous were those that survived, people who now needed help. Rather, this is a report on commitment to duty, organizational skills, and the undaunted initiative that comes with every Civil Air Patrol response. Jack Rogers, a Windsor resident and former Air Force sergeant, said: “You’re sitting in a house with no windows or doors thinking the world isn’t safe and you can’t figure what to do next.” His expression clouded as tears welled in the eye-lids of this white-haired man … “and then you see a uniform and you know help has arrived.” Jim Jenkins, Sim Coleman, Sid Altum, Don MacCleod, and other CAP/Black Sheep members may have been merely handing out water and snacks, but to the recipients, their actions meant “Help had arrived.” In the aftermath of such a violent act of nature, survivors not only have to cope with the devastation of homes and shattered plans, but confusion and a loss of personal possessions. Barricades control mobility and restrict looting and gawkers, too, but with wallets and pets missing, the familiar patterns of life were disrupted. “You couldn’t leave the area because you couldn’t prove where you lived to get back in.”
In the Colorado Wing of CAP, the Black Sheep are better known as the “Squadron of Colonels.” In Black Sheep there’s more brass and scrambled eggs than you’d find on a holiday tour of the Pentagon — this squadron is built of brass from the Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force, Navy, and the Marines — including former Wing Commanders, regional Wing Commanders and other ranking staff members. This level of accomplishment doesn’t mute their call to service or commitment to bear burdens ... this is a team unafraid to get its hands dirty. The Black Sheep Squadron is a cadre of highly trained equals, humble in the presence of one another and the public they serve. These are men who have already served their country with fine military careers. It seems even when they can retire, they won’t stop serving.
It is in this environment that the sight and presence of uniforms represents comfort, security, and support. Maj. Sim Coleman, Black Sheep Squadron member, listened to one neighbor vent as she retold her story of living 24 hours amid the shambles of her house. Coleman, in his modest style, leaned in to hear the whole story, nodding quietly, supportively, as her fearful tale was once more told. It was a moment of tenderness among the splinters and shards. Sim Coleman has the manners of an Alabama gentleman raised right — he says “yes sir” and “no ma'am” reflexively. But in the rescue of shattered dreams, his response is: “I’m sorry ma'am, so sorry. What can I get for you ma'am, what do ya need?” Words of respect as refreshing as iced southern sweet tea. “You can’t believe how nice they were, really how happy they were, that someone just handed them water,” said Maj. Coleman. In the odd way trouble seems to come, in twos and threes, right on the heels of the Windsor tornado a plane went missing. A twin-engine Cessna on a trip in good weather disappeared without a radio call or an emergency beacon signal somewhere between Hayden and Greeley, Colorado. A distance of one hundred and forty air miles, most of it over unpopulated rough and high alpine territory. Being that this was Memorial Day Weekend, the Colorado Wing and Black Sheep were depleted of crews who could respond. Lt. Colonels Jim Jenkins and Sid Altum, who worked the tornado on Friday, were pressed into double duty. Assembling for a RedCap Mission at Denver Metropolitan (formerly Jeffco) Airport, the Incident Commander Maj. Mark Young mustered every available plane, staff, and qualified crewmember he could find. Mountain flying in Colorado’s high country isn’t easy. The terrain can come upon you with surprise and the turbulence can wear you down. On Memorial Day weekend the
THIS IS A REDCAP ALERT I SAY AGAIN THIS IS A REDCAP ALERT FOR A SEARCH MISSION Colorado Wing requests full aircrews to search for an overdue aircraft from HDN to FNL. If you are a qualified aircrew member or have achieved trainee status, and you are available to fly immediately, please call Brandon at 303-472-xxxx, I say again 303-472-xxxx. Please leave your name, aircrew position and a return cell phone phone number. END REDCAP ALERT
snow in this territory remained deep, ground crews needed snowmobiles above elevations of 8000 feet, and the effects of a long day in Windsor wasn’t yet gone from Jenkins and Altum’s bodies. Lt. Mark Patton of the squadron climbed on board as scanner and the Black Sheep launched in what would turn out to be another 10 hour mission day. Meanwhile, in my basement, working on my computer, I am taking tests. Reading for hours, making copious notes and then taking more on-line tests. I am struggling to answer lots and lots of questions. Capt. Brandon Nadrash is running many of these relief and rescue missions from his own home office while calling and emailing me in mine. It is a war fought on two fronts. One war jams paper through a bureaucracy on a holiday weekend, that’s Brandon and me. The other war is everything else. Route searches, followed by grid patterns, followed by creeping lines, followed by a gasup at Steamboat Springs, followed by another route search. Bone Lt. Col. Jim Jenkins weary, the crew pitted themselves against time, fatigue, terrain — and eventually dark — to find the missing Cessna 310. A father and son were gone, the snow was deep, the plane was Bristol-snow white, the air was standard high country rough, and the day was long. The Black Sheep Crew returned disappointed but hopeful. They had covered much of the route. Between themselves and the other Civil Air Patrol teams there remained a spirit. “We thought we knew where they weren’t,” said Col. Jenkins. “We looked at the first logical places … the higher peaks and passes around Rabbit Ears, North Park, all the way to the Wyoming border and up in 1Lt. Mark Patton Rocky Mountain National Park, but nothing.” Jim Jenkins took Sunday off but saddled up again for a crewing on Monday. The conditions — snow laden clouds — wouldn’t allow air searches that day. One day later the wreck of the Cessna Twin was found near Buffalo Pass in an area that had taken many planes in the past. A ground crew on snowmobiles sniffed a trail of av-gas right to the crash-site. Two bodies were inside.
Invisible from the air, it was only when the ground crew literally pointed it out could it be recognized from above as a crash-site; a small avalanche of powder snow marked the location of the wreckage. “Apparently it went straight in, no fire, no beacon.” It is not just a personal mission that draws the Black Sheep to duty on days like Memorial Day Weekend 2008. It is not simply a want for glory or reward that these men and women come when called. It is being among fine people willing to shoulder burdens, over and over and over. It is a classic case of “never wanting to let the squadron down” that drives the Black Sheep emergency crews.
The Cessna crash turned out to be about six miles east of Steamboat Springs, in rugged snow-covered terrain that hid the crash site from the air.
A few weeks ago I went back to Windsor and witnessed a clean-up that is moving along. Rebuilding has nailed up much of what the storm brought down. Bulldozing is taking out the rest. When I asked residents about the day of the storm, the replies include standard stories: a dark wall of wind, the ominous sound — like a freight train, many say — and hail the size of tennis balls. Today, the fear has drained along with the water and each has recited their story enough to embellish their tales with humor or fear. There are stories of herding a scared cat into the basement while it slashes at its beloved owners arm and families separated, then reunited. And when you ask about the rescuers — the relief workers, the National Guard, the firemen, the police — each will pause and say in a tone reserved for the holiest moments. “They came running to us as fast as they could.” “I don’t know who any of them were, but thank God they were here.” “I couldn’t believe how generous these people were … just when I had nothing somebody gave me a drink of water and asked if I was all right. You tell ’em I’m just fine now. I pray that if they ever need help I’ll be there for them. They are bigger than that monster that went through here and I owe them.
Col. Edward Phelka, Commander Colorado Wing CAP stated, ”I was so impressed by the effort put forth by members from all four groups during the month of May that I nominated the entire wing for a Unit Citation Award. This recommendation is currently awaiting approval at the National Headquarters Awards Committee.” Under Presidential Disaster Declaration 1762 and CAP Mission 08-C-5563 a Disaster Relief Ribbon with “V” Device were awarded to each volunteer for their work in these relief efforts. • 48 officers and 53 cadets responded to support disaster relief efforts following the EF3 tornado that cut a 35-mile-wide path in Weld County. • Tornado relief efforts accounted for 64 ground sorties and over 6,068 miles driven • Responded to two counties’ requests for other disaster relief sorties including flooding and landslide spotting • Executed a large-scale search for a missing Cessna 310 in mountainous terrain • Flew 88 cadet orientation flight sorties • Amassed 373.9 hours of flying, exceeding the highest total for the fiscal year to date by 69%.
Tell’em that, tell’em for me. THEY were the biggest thing to come through Windsor before or after that storm!” To say what the Civil Air Patrol does is remarkable is to justify the obvious. People who volunteer, diligently train, sacrifice time, spend energy, give money, and open hearts to help others are all remarkable. The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, police, and firefighters do good … yes, do-gooders all, each one is remarkable. Don’t forget that anytime you are in need, someone has planned and trained for the day. Worked to be ready to give you just what you need. It may be handing out water or offering a shoulder to lean against or it may be an unproductive day bouncing through rough air for hours on end, looking for signs of hope. I now have my initial qualifications to go on missions. I’m not going to be left alone to do anything except as I am told. I’ve got large shadows that fall over me as I stand besides these men. I’ll do what they say as best I can. In their midst I find purpose and wait for the next mission. I will take that oath, I will give my pledge.
Maj. Sim Coleman teaching a Mission Scanner class at Buckley Air Force Base, five days before the Windsor Tornado relief mission. In one week, Maj. Coleman volunteered four very full days to the Civil Air Patrol. In the Black Sheep this kind of dedication is considered routine.