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Inside the cockpit of Bone-34: Meet Capt. Dustin Willard

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Nicole Ferrara
  • 7th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
(Editor's Note: This is part two of a five-part series highlighting the B-1 Bomber aircrew who was awarded the 2012 Gen. Curtis E. LeMay Outstanding Bomber Aircrew Award.)

If not for landing a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship to the University of Iowa, Capt. Dustin Willard may have spent the spring of 2012 teeing off from a green at Pebble Beach Golf Links, perfecting his game in between long hours at the office.

"Flying was something I had always been interested in, and if I wasn't a pilot, I probably would have wanted to be a doctor. Those were my two dreams--that, and maybe to play on the PGA tour," Willard said.

Instead, his days were spent in the left, front seat of the world's most lethal bomber, traversing the skies overlooking Afghanistan and carefully positioning the aircraft to loiter 20,000 feet above enemies on the ground, his "office" the cockpit of the Air Force's B-1B.

It was during long flights into Afghanistan that Capt. Dustin Willard earned himself a reputation as the "life of the party," telling jokes and sharing comical, personal accounts to pass the time.

But according to his B-1 crew mates, who have marked his stories "classified" and refuse to share details of Willard's narratives, a knack for storytelling isn't his only talent in the aircraft. He is also regarded as the confident, steadfast aircraft commander of Bone-34.

"If he was the mission lead, there were never any unanswered questions about what we were to do," said Capt. Travis Keene, weapons system officer on board Bone-34. "He always knew his stuff, and he always made the right decision."

According to Willard, remaining calm, cool, and collected in the jet can mean the difference between life and death for both the aircrew and the troops on the ground.

"Every aviator has had a moment while flying that the hair on the back of their neck stands up--especially doing what we do," said Willard. "Have I ever been fearful for my life? Thankfully no, but I credit that to our training and expertise."

Willard added that having confidence in the skills of fellow crew members is also crucial to executing the mission.

"The people I have flown with in combat have become not only my friends, but my family," he said. "The B-1 community is by far one of the most tight-knit flying communities you can be a part of. We know how to look out for each other, and we are hard on each other because we want the best, and we expect the best."

Working in a crew setting is especially valuable when the B-1 is supporting troops-in-contact, said Willard.

"JTACs are relying on us to be able to deliver a precision airstrike at a moment's notice," he continued. "When things start to go downhill for the guys on the ground, our ability to work as a team becomes paramount. Communication barriers with ground forces add more complexity to the mission, but because we have four people who can aid in the communication process, it won't keep us from getting the job done."

The teamwork, communication and leadership skills of Bone-34 were tested and proven during a particularly hairy close air support mission in Afghanistan. Arriving overhead a densely-populated urban area where U.S. and Afghan National Army soldiers were entrenched in a tense ground battle with Taliban fighters, the aircrew knew that immediate action needed to be taken.

However, after several hours and numerous failed attempts at establishing positive identification of the target, the crew lost radio communication with ground units altogether. Finally, using a separate air asset to relay information to and from the Joint Tactical Air Control party on the ground, the target was confirmed.

Bone-34 released two 500-pound precision-strike munitions on an enemy strong hold, muting an attack on the National Directorate of Security Headquarters building and ultimately saving the of hundreds of U.S. and coalition forces. Their actions also destroyed numerous enemy rifles, grenades and suicide vests, and lead to eight enemy killed in action.

It was for this mission that the operators of Bone-34 were named the 2012 Gen. Curtis E. LeMay Outstanding Bomber Aircrew of the Year.

"I think any other crew would have made the same decisions we did, but we worked extremely well together, exercised tactical patience and made certain that nothing went wrong when so many things could have," said Willard.

Of winning the title, Outstanding Bomber Aircrew of the Year, Willard says that while it is nice to be recognized, it should never be what motivates you to do something.

"If you work hard and strive for excellence, the rest will follow," he added.

Willard remembers a grueling but gratifying operations tempo during that six-month deployment to Southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

On a typical day, his alarm sounded five hours before takeoff so he could fit in a sweat session at the gym before showering, filling his thermos with homemade coffee, and making his way to the chow hall to meet his crew for eggs, crisp bacon, hash browns and wheat toast.

After fueling up for the taxing day ahead, the crew would head to the operations building, where a parade of briefings began in the vault, with military intelligence specialists relaying information about the potential threats and geopolitical climate in the areas they would "visit" during their mission.

Their next stop was the step desk, where they conducted one last crew briefing, solidifying their game plan before hitting their lockers for helmets, harnesses and survival vests.

Once ready for takeoff, Willard would apply max afterburner to the jet, piloting it down the runway and launching it into the sky to begin a 12-14 hour mission.

"When all is said and done, we get back to our rooms after being up for 20-22 hours, skype with the family, go to sleep and get ready to do it all again the next day," Willard said.

"It is very rewarding to know that what we do over there is fighting for freedom, justice, and each other," he continued. "I can't begin to tell you the feeling you have when a deployment ends, just this overwhelming feeling of happiness and confidence that you just spent the last six months fighting for freedom and your brethren on the ground. But when it's all over, the best part is being welcomed home by my family, friends and girlfriend."

Willard still sings the praises of the B-1 community, but he has since traded the bone's close air support mission to play "big brother," taking an assignment to fly MC-12s out of Beale AFB, Calif., conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in support of national objectives.

"With this career broadening opportunity, I am able to bring my experience to a relatively new community," he said. "But in the short time I've been gone, I do miss the bone, and I will hopefully make it back to the airframe someday!"