E-mail number 32 in my inbox was titled Unbelievable. It was
from Comdr. Chip King, the blue-eyed, square-jawed Navy pilot
who allowed me the privilege of filling two Glad bags with my
hurl in the backseat of his F-14D Tomcat (SI, Sept. 20, 1999).
We've kept in touch. He occasionally does flyovers at sports
events I'm covering. Our kids are the same age. He's funny. But
this e-mail was a little different. It came on Oct. 8, from the
It was like the Super Bowl of the World, truly amazing. I don't
think I will ever forget this experience. And to be the
Commanding Officer and overall lead--what an honor! As we were
flying at 32,000 feet, 200 miles south of Kabul, we saw the
first TLAMs [Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles] hit....
Just to add to the excitement, 100 miles from the target, we
were informed that our backside tanking [midair refueling
aircraft] wasn't there. I determined to continue. If [I'd]
decided to abort, we wouldn't have had enough fuel to make it
back anyway. Plus, it gave them an extra 20 minutes to find us
How is everyone in the States? It's my hope and belief this will
help give us our confidence back. It's a hell of a lot different
when someone is shooting at you, though. When we got back my RIO
[navigator] looked like you did after your flight.
O.K. You know you're in a new kind of war when the first pilot
over Kabul e-mails you the next morning. It's not exactly spam.
It's chilling and emotional and uplifting. I wrote him back.
He answered--and keeps answering. Each day I get an e-mail from
King, aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian
Sea. He commands Fighter Squadron 213, the Blacklions. I ask him
questions, and if the information isn't classified, he answers.
During raids over Kabul, "the whole sky looks like the Fourth of
July," he wrote. "[The missiles] look like corkscrewing bottle
rockets....If I'd been sitting on a lump of coal, I could've
made a diamond."
The sorties are "grueling"--three hours just to get to the
target--so the whole wing has to refuel three or four times en
route. "Imagine a gas station in the sky, with 10 cars turning
in...at once," he wrote. "You can't get out of the way if
anybody screws up. If you run out of gas, you crash. And they
won't be coming to pick you up in an ambulance."
From planes with I LOVE NY written on the tail, he and his
squadron drop bombs night after night. I asked him if he ever
thinks about the fact that he may be killing people. "No," he
wrote. "When you deliver weapons, it's just a target. It's not
about taking human life. It's about breaking their will to wage
Then there are the nighttime landings onto a ship that looks
like a Kleenex bobbing in the black sea. "Man, my heart is
beating like crazy," wrote Chip, a former linebacker at
Randolph-Macon College outside Richmond. "It's kind of like
heaving a game-winning Hail Mary at the end. I know that's when
I'm like those athletes, I'm in the zone."
I asked him if he's scared. "Nervous, maybe. Proud. Not scared.
I haven't had time to think about myself. I've got five other
Tomcats and 20 other support planes out there to worry about."
It's been more than three months since he's seen his wife and
three daughters. "Every time I talk to my wife, she breaks out
crying," he wrote. "It's been hard on the kids. I worry about
our youngest. This is the first deployment that she is really
old enough to understand. Unfortunately, she understands too
Last Friday night his middle daughter was crowned a homecoming
princess at her high school. "Her swim coach is driving her
around in my '65 'Vette," he wrote forlornly. "God, how I wish I
could be there!"
His e-mails have changed me a little. Now, when I find myself
sweating stupid stuff, like a hotel room on too high a floor or
whether I'll be able to take the guy in seat 14C, I think about
Chip dodging Taliban missiles with his gas needle on E. I thank
God there are men with that much guts and skill wearing the
uniform. I also worry that one morning the e-mails will stop.
"How's Michael Jordan look?" he asked in his latest one. "That
guy's my hero."
Yeah, well, over here, some of us are finding new ones.
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
You know you're in a new kind of war when the first pilot over
Kabul e-mails you the next morning.