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Tip of the Spear

Aug 11, 2011
by Brian Thompson, '95

Air Force Major served in Iraq and Afghanistan, trained other pilots, and now will work behind the scenes at wars’ command center

For James Scheideman, flying fighter jets into combat is a far cry from what’s portrayed in movies like “Top Gun.” No trigger-happy pilots dog-fighting Soviet MiGs or Hollywood dramatics.

Sure, you can’t beat the adrenaline rush of flying an F-15 Strike Eagle — a $31 million jet that can top mach 2.5 and unleash a torrent of weapons — but when you’re screaming over the mountains of Afghanistan with bombs strapped to each wing, there is little time for movie-star bravado.

“It is demanding,” he said. “It’s not Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun.’ It’s very rigorous.”

Scheideman, ‘94, is an Air Force major who flew dozens of combat missions in Afghanistan in 2008, and before that in Iraq. He said the job requires focus, intense training and the constant awareness that lives are on the line.

“The thing that has you kind of clinching and thinking tightly through scenarios is when you have that guy on the ground literally meters from the enemy,” he said. “That’s when you know you’ve double-checked the coordinates for the bomb, and you’ve verified you’ve seen the enemy in relation to the friendlies. Nobody wants to live with that mistake of injuring a friendly force or dropping too close to those guys.”

More and more, fighter pilots are flying in support of combat troops on the ground as they engage enemy forces. That’s why a sign at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base reads: “The mission is an 18-year-old with a rifle.”

“It reminded you that anything that occurs after you go out there, start up your jet and get airborne is not about what you’re thinking. It’s not about your personal opinion on things. It’s about that guy on the ground getting shot at and saving his life.”

Now back in the states working at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base — the command center of both wars — Scheideman said he never lost sight of how critical a role he played in keeping “grunts” on the ground alive.

Scheideman, who won this year’s Flagler College Alumni Professional Achievement Award, trained fighter pilots at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina before moving on to MacDill.

At Central Command, he will see another side of the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His role there will be ensuring the rules of engagement are followed during an air strike and that collateral damage is limited.

“With the progress we’ve made [in Afghanistan], we can take so many steps forward, but then have a casualty of the civilian population or a civilian building struck by accident, and we then take leaps backwards. It’s hard to regain that trust.”

For Scheideman it will be a chance to see the war from a new perspective, surrounded by decision-making brass, rather than seeing and hearing it on the front lines.

Scheideman said the most rewarding part of being in combat was knowing he helped save the lives of American troops on the ground, whether it was taking out Taliban leadership, supporting special operations missions or targeting Taliban ambushes.

“A good half of our missions over there, we flipped over to a frequency to contact a ground controller and soon as we [did], we heard nothing but gunshots and screaming,” he said.

Scheideman’s path to a seat in the F-15 wasn’t exactly clear-cut. He was a communication major at Flagler, played in a band and had no intention of following the footsteps of his father, who had also been an Air Force pilot. But he credits his wife with helping him make a 180-degree turn that ultimately led him to join the military.

He joined the Air Force in 1999 after graduating from Officer Training School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and went on to become a C-130 navigator in the 517th Airlift Squadron in Alaska. But sitting behind pilots looking out side windows on massive cargo planes left him wanting more. “I would look at them flying and say, ‘You know, that’s where I want to be,’” he said.

In 2002, he transferred into flight training and was selected to attend the elite Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. There he trained for two years with pilots from 15 NATO alliance nations.

In 2006, Sheideman was sent to Qatar as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he got his first taste of combat flying missions up the Persian Gulf and then into Iraq. Two years later, he would deploy to Afghanistan. Scheideman said he dropped far more ordnance there than in Iraq and found himself working closely with special operations forces on the ground. All totaled, he has flown more than 420 combat hours and 76 missions.

One mission more than any other sticks out in his mind. He was flying in support of Chinook helicopters, which were transporting special operations troops into the treacherous mountains of Northeast Afghanistan. He figured it would be a routine flight. But as ground forces were dropped in a rocky riverbed, he could see on his cockpit monitors civilians in the nearby village running for cover.

“[The special operations forces] ended up taking fire immediately after the Chinooks departed and for the next four hours it was just non-stop shooting … We deployed every ordinance we had that day.

“That day stands out, first of all, for the immensity of the situation. But also the rules of engagement weren’t spelled out. We encountered an environment that put our wings on the line. We as strike aviators, we don’t just start bombing indiscriminately. We have to verify the target, positively identify it and make sure there is a threat.”

After returning from Afghanistan, Scheideman’s mission switched from dropping bombs to training the next crop of F-15E fighter pilots. As chief of training for the 333rd Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, he trained a new generation of F-15E combat pilots, as well as oversaw the squadron’s 60 instructor pilots and weapon system operators.

But he said he is most proud of his time in Afghanistan.

“It’s definitely been the most rewarding part of my Air Force time, going over there and doing the mission,” he said. “You are the tip of the spear out there. You are fighting back, right there on their territory.”

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