Steve Goldstein is a magazine staff writer. Contact  him at 202-383-6048 or slgoldstein@krwashington.com.


Posted on Sat, Apr. 13, 2002

Into the night High over the Indian Ocean, the airmen knew they had to get out of their B-1 bomber. What they didn’t know was whether they’d survive the escape.

The world on the night of Dec. 12, 2001, was a dangerous place. Violence surged in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. In the United States, the anthrax threat lingered as spores used in the attacks were found to match anthrax produced by U.S. Army scientists in the early 1990s. The day before, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, became the first person tied to the Sept. 11 attacks to be indicted.

In eastern Afghanistan, the siege of the Tora Bora mountain-cave complex had reached a critical stage.

Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces were being pounded by American B-1 bombers based 2,500 miles away on Diego Garcia, a 17-square-mile British-owned atoll of coral and sand in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

For the aviators based on Diego, this evening resembled so many others over the previous two months of Operation Enduring Freedom. The often-capricious weather was no better, but no worse, than usual, with heavy clouds and a few scattered thundershowers making for a dark night.

Shortly before 10 p.m., signals received by Diego’s control tower and the destroyer USS Russell, patrolling off the coast of the island, gave fear a new shape in the war on terror.

A B-1 was going down.

About an hour earlier, Capt. William “Stainless” Steele and three crew members had taken off from Diego in a B-1 bound for the Afghan theater. The sleek, massive B-1 – roughly two-thirds the length of a 747 jumbo jet – can fly 4,000 miles with a full payload without refueling and is the only supersonic bomber in the U.S. inventory. One B-1 can carry more than eighty 500-pound bombs, a load that would otherwise require a squadron of fighters. It has been the workhorse of the Afghan campaign.

But a troubled workhorse: From its introduction in 1985 through 1998, six of the $280 million aircraft had crashed, making it far more accident-prone than the B-52, which it was built to replace. The pilots call the plane the Electric Jet, because it depends so heavily on complex electrical systems, resulting in a thin margin of error when those systems fail.

The four men in the Dec. 12 crew, part of a squadron of 60 aviators at Diego, were flying their first mission together. “Rooster,” the copilot, 31, was out of Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, as was Allen “Lost” Griffis, 30, the defensive-systems officer, charged with watching for enemy radar “painting” the B-1, and with controlling electronic countermeasures. The two were acquainted.

The offensive-systems officer, who aims the bombs, was John “Iroc” Proietti, 27, originally from Englewood, N.J., and, like Stainless, out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, where they knew each other casually.

Stainless was one of the first pilots checked out in the B-1, back in 1986. His crew, lean and muscled and trained and retrained to leave nothing to chance, prided themselves on being interchangeable parts, able to work with any other crew on the jet. Even though they told everyone it was just a job, they exuded a lot of that Tom Cruise/Top Gun confidence that came with flying a hot, sexy bomber.

They were a new crew, but it hardly mattered. “Anytime you fly over badguyland, it could be your last flight,” Lost said, “so you bond quickly.”

Leaving about 9 p.m., they expected to be over their target in about four hours, with midair refueling from a KC-10 tanker on the way back.

But about 15 minutes after takeoff, about 100 miles north of Diego as the jet approached its cruising speed of 600 miles per hour, Stainless noticed a glitch in the plane’s onboard systems. Moments later, other systems failed.  Faced with multiplying malfunctions, Stainless turned the B-1 back to Diego and radioed that they would attempt an emergency landing.

In less than five minutes, 60 miles from the airfield, Plan A was going to hell.

Fifteen thousand feet above the Indian Ocean on a moonless night, Stainless and Rooster were finding it nearly impossible to control the shuddering, diving plane with its payload of bombs. They went through every procedure to keep the B-1 flying. In a few short minutes the situation went from bad to catastrophic.

Stainless declared an emergency; landing was no longer an option. The choice was to get out or ride it into the ocean.

Ejecting from a B-1 is never an easy choice. “One of those things we don’t like to think about,” Rooster would say. In the six previous B-1 crashes, only 15 of the 26 crewmen who ejected survived. And never before had a B-1 crew bailed out over water – or in wartime conditions.

The ejection system – the best the Air Force has, one used in other jets as well – is routinely described by ejectees as the most violent thing they have ever experienced. Aviators are shot from the cockpit by rockets, with a G force that punishes them with 14 times their body weight.

Fourteen G’s is enough to compress the human spine by one inch. Every time an aviator “punches out,” he gets shorter. After two, or at most three, ejections, an aviator is grounded forever. The compression can cause bladder malfunctions and other internal injuries. One ejection too many – even if the system works perfectly – can result in death from a ruptured organ.

At subsonic speeds, the windblast on exiting the plane is itself enough to cause serious injury or death. Only one aviator is known to have survived ejection at supersonic speeds. In 1995, traveling at 780 miles per hour – more than 1,100 feet per second – Air Force Capt. Brian Udell punched out of his plummeting F-15 off the coast of North Carolina and was severely mangled – his clothes shredded, his right knee and left arm dislocated, his left ankle broken, ribs cracked, teeth chipped, and all the blood vessels in his face broken. His copilot died.

“Speed is life when you’re flying a plane,” Udell has reflected, “but not when you’re trying to get out of one.”

So Stainless’ decision – three miles above the ocean – was a last resort. Each crew member knew what he would be facing. Or at least thought he knew.

The cockpit of a B-1 feels cramped, like a cave. Rooster sat to the right of Stainless. Iroc and Lost were eight feet behind them, separated by a partition. With substantial cabin noise, they communicated by radio headsets. In their flight suits, helmets, oxygen masks and parachute harnesses, with 9mm pistols and maybe a spare emergency flare tucked into the small of the back, the aviators looked like Michelin men. Tension made the tight quarters feel even closer.

As the B-1 bucked and dived, the four agreed to exit by pulling their own levers, rather than engaging an automatic sequence. The manual method allows better control but requires exquisite timing. Stainless reviewed the ejection sequence with the crew. Everyone was silently thankful for the “egress” training that B-1 aviators must take twice a year.

The rear seats exit first; otherwise, the explosive blast from the front seats would scorch the two in back. The cockpit of the B-1 contains hundreds of explosive charges to blow four hatches, eject the crew, and deploy parachutes.

Stainless radioed to the base that they were ejecting; then came the “air dump”: controlled depressurization of the cabin, which the crew felt as a small explosion. Next, each man put his hand through the yellow metal D-ring alongside his knee. The ejection handles have to be pulled with 45 pounds of pressure – far more than you’d need to start a pull-cord lawnmower – so the chance of dislodging it accidentally is remote.

Pulling the handle is the last voluntary act. From then on, you’re just along for the ride.

When a flier pulls the handle, an explosive called the shielded mild detonating cord blows off the hatch above him. Then his seat drops and slides back onto a set of guide rails. In a fraction of a second, an explosive charge blasts the 140-pound seat and its occupant along the rails and roughly 200 feet into the air. “Going up the rails” is aviator-speak for the ride.

As each man pulled his D-ring, his life now depended on his seat. Known as the ACES II, for Advanced Concept Ejection Seat, it was his ticket out of harm’s way – but it could also kill him.

The ACES II vaguely resembles a commercial airline seat – about 50 inches high and 26 inches wide – but it is more akin to a cannon.

The $250,000 seat, made by Goodrich Corp., replaced the Martin-Baker seat beginning in the late 1970s. “Meet your maker in a Martin-Baker” was a common aviator’s refrain. The ACES II has a far better success rate.

Aviators are taught to sit ramrod straight, with their heads back against the seat, to avoid serious spinal or neck injuries. Arm and leg restraints automatically deploy; if you don’t have your arms and legs tucked in when you go up the rails, you may leave a limb behind.

The order of escape was this: First Iroc would pull his handle, followed at two-second intervals by Lost, Rooster and Stainless.

When Lost’s turn came and he gripped the handle, he could feel his wedding ring digging into his left hand. A week before the mission – against regulations – he’d put the ring on. He yanked the handle.

In front, Rooster counted to two after he heard Lost go up, and tugged the D-ring flush with his palm. There was smoke in the cockpit and a gunpowder smell. His life spooled before his eyes. He was scared, knowing the consequences of a bad ejection. He sat upright and pressed his head back. After his hatch blew off, he could feel the heat from Lost’s seat leaving the aircraft. Even with his eyes closed he saw a bright flash.

When the rocket engine shot him into the air, he was mashed back into his seat as if on an accelerating roller coaster.

Many pilots have lost consciousness – blacked out or “grayed out” – leaving the aircraft, coming to only after their chutes have opened.  Some have had their flight helmets ripped from their heads.

Rooster felt a huge rush of air as he went up, experienced a split second of weightlessness, and then fell; then a sharp jerk as a drogue chute opened. From the moment he pulled the handle, two seconds had elapsed.

The small chute slowed him down and stabilized the seat to keep it from tumbling. A sensor determined the airspeed and altitude, and once he had dropped to 12,000 feet, a mortar shell fired to open the full parachute. 

(Thin air at high altitudes magnifies the jolt from the chute’s opening.)

Rooster gazed up at the full canopy and was swept with relief.

It’s hard to imagine being more alone than each of the four was at that moment, floating two miles above Earth in the cold pitch black. There was no moonlight, only pinpricks of stars. No horizon or water – visibility was nil. If any of them could hear the disabled B-1, it was already miles away.

As the shock of the ejection wore off and he felt a surge of adrenaline, Rooster ran through his checklist: Make sure the chute is full and untangled; flip up the helmet visor to get an unobstructed view; detach two clips on the side of the helmet to release the oxygen mask so it doesn’t slap you in the face when you hit the water; confirm that the seat kit has deployed.

When the main chute went up, a separator motor fired and the ACES II seat fell away, leaving Rooster with his life preserver, an inflatable life raft, and a 16-by-16-inch item that looked like a blue stadium cushion – the seat kit. Vacuum-packed inside was a survivalist’s dream: rucksack, wool socks, sun ointment, whistle, desalinization kit, radio, spare batteries, iodine tablets, flares, matches, emergency beacon, poncho, raft repair kit, wool gloves, penlight, sea dye marker, five-inch knife, food rations, and a survival book.

Rooster got himself into the correct landing position, with feet and knees together and his knees slightly bent. His life raft had inflated automatically. He put his right hand on the manual chute release, to avoid being dragged through the water in the event it didn’t separate automatically. After landing, he’d either swim to the raft or haul it in with a lanyard. If the seas were heavy, he could even zip himself into the raft to avoid being swamped.

Iroc was near splashdown. He had grayed out during ejection and felt disoriented. His ribs ached horribly, and his shoulder was jammed.

He quickly realized there was something wrong with his parachute; it seemed to be oscillating back and forth, out of control. It freaked him out. He pulled a line that caused tiny razors to sever four cords on the chute, opening a small slipstream. Now the parachute billowed properly, allowing a smooth glide down. Iroc inflated his life preserver and checked that his life raft was hanging below him.

It was incredibly dark. All Iroc could hear was the wind in his ears and the flapping of the chute. He was a bit shocked at his predicament. The ride out of the plane was so brutal, he was actually looking forward to hitting the water. His mind drifted to the rest of the crew. Had they gotten out?

The trip down seemed to be taking forever, but it was really less than 10 minutes.

A short distance from Iroc – though neither of them knew it at the time – Stainless hung in his chute. Adrenaline flooded his body, and his mind raced as he fought to calm down and go through his checklist and prepare for what he hoped was a water rescue. He’d been badly shaken by the ejection. Right before he pulled the handle, he’d thought of his wife at home in South Dakota. Would he see her again?

Stainless could smell saltwater.

Lost, for his part, heard the ocean lapping below him. He was dazed. He checked again behind him and confirmed the bad news: his life raft was gone. Nor could he see his seat kit. Stars were visible through the nylon chute, but not much else. His right arm had a small but painful burn from the ejection. He concentrated on a smooth water entry.

After that, he didn’t know.

The pilotless plane flew about 30 miles before crashing into the sea at 10:30 p.m.

An Air Force KC-10 refueling tanker already in the air on an unrelated mission had been monitoring the B-1’s emergency calls. The pilot, Maj. Brandon Nugent, heard that the aircraft was returning to land. The B-1 crew said it was going to circle the airfield and burn some fuel. Then, nothing.

Minutes later, the KC-10 began picking up a signal from the B-1’s emergency locator transmitter – giving the plane’s last known location as the crew ejected.

Nugent, a reservist from California’s Central Valley, normally flew for United Airlines, which had two of the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11. He felt a strong personal calling to go to war.

After they lost radio contact, Nugent flew the KC-10, call sign Denver07, toward the bomber’s last known coordinates – about 30 minutes away – to begin searching. The tanker flew tight, low circles at about 5,000 feet, not an easy thing for a plane known as the “flying gas station.” Another aircraft, a Navy P-3 Orion, was also looking for signs of life.

Nugent was in contact with the Russell, the destroyer patrolling the Diego Garcia waters, which had gone into search-and-rescue mode. Navy Cmdr. Hank Miranda ordered the Russell to proceed at full speed toward the emergency transmitter, 50 miles away.

But Miranda already knew the Russell would not be able to get very close to the crew – assuming any had survived. The signal was coming from just inside the Great Chagos Bank, an area roughly the size of Connecticut notorious for shallow water, coral reefs and shoals that could tear the bottom out of a ship.

When the Russell was about a mile from the bank – about seven miles from the emergency transmitter – it stopped. The destroyer could safely go no farther. The only way to get the fliers was by using RIBs – 16-foot-long, rigid-hull inflatable boats – that could motor through the shallows.

Two RIBs were prepped for launch.

Iroc, the first to eject, was first in the ocean, a clean entry, and he was pleasantly surprised at how warm it was.

But what other, unpleasant surprises awaited him? Land survival after ejection had its own challenges, yet this seemed almost perverse: He couldn’t see anything, he was in the water miles from land, and he had no quick way of telling whether anyone knew where he was.

This was hairy.

A saltwater-activated device separated Iroc’s chute from his flight suit. His life raft was right in front of him. He knew there had been three shark attacks at Diego in the last year. He was hyper-alert to a fin or a bump; having that 9mm pistol was awfully comforting.

Iroc’s ribs and back were hurting, and his arms felt almost lifeless. Still, he leaped at the raft, like a salmon heading upstream. Made it. He’d been in the water for only about a minute. He was elated to be alive and thought about his parents and his siblings at home. For the first time since ejecting, he believed he’d see them again.

Less than two hours had passed since leaving Diego en route to Afghanistan. Sunrise was still six or seven hours away. Dry land might be as close as 30 or 50 miles, the nearest continent a thousand miles away. Were there any boats searching the black night for four pieces of human jetsam?

Iroc checked to see if he’d missed any other injuries, then inventoried the life-support and survival equipment. He signaled in several directions with his flashlight.

In the darkness he saw a light and then heard a yell, a familiar yell – it was Stainless!

Iroc yelled back. Within a few minutes, Stainless was paddling to him. Iroc was hurting, but he knew he had never been happier to see anyone.

“Ohmigod,” Stainless yelled in disbelief, “great to see you.”

They linked the rafts together. Thank God the seas were calm. Stainless used his Global Positioning System receiver to get a bearing, and then called out on his radio to any military personnel who might be listening.

Minutes later, he got an answering call from Denver07. Stainless gave the KC-10 his location and pointed the beam of his flashlight strobe into the night sky. He could count on its lasting for several hours.

Before long, Denver07 said it had picked up the strobe. The refueling plane was nearby. Help, the two aviators were told, was on the way.

The two talked quietly, expressing disbelief at their situation. They went over what had happened in the jet and whether they had done the right thing. Crashing a $280 million bomber is something no one wants on his resume, but they had no choice, right?

Iroc got emotional, but both men focused on staying alert. Iroc felt the adrenaline and shock drain from his body and the pain increase. He took strength from Stainless. It was scary and bizarre, but being together made it bearable.

Rooster was several hundred yards away, and he was in pain. He’d gotten into the raft, but his shoulder was jammed and he couldn’t reach all of his equipment, including the strobe. He tried thinking only about his wife and two young daughters. He worried about his crewmates and he yelled out into the blackness. He wouldn’t swear to it, but he thought he heard a voice. Too far away to make out any words. The wind was blowing the sound around. Still, it felt like someone was out there and it gave him some relief.

Minutes later, he heard a plane overhead. He popped the first of his two signal flares and prayed that its crew would see him.

It took Lost several minutes to get oriented. I was comfortable in a plane a few minutes ago, he thought, and now I’m treading water and I don’t see anyone around me or hear anything.

What do I do now?

His life preserver seemed a little soft, so he bent his head down to blow into the valve. All he heard were bubbles – the unit had blown.

Lost checked for his other equipment. Most of it was gone. No raft. No signal flares, no radio, no seat kit.

Don’t panic, he told himself. You can tread water for hours.

Having to tread water for any length of time anywhere – in a backyard pool, a mountain lake – is no small task.

This was not a lake or pool, but the middle of the Indian Ocean, in one-to-three-foot swells, in pitch darkness in the middle of the night, in water known for sharks and razor-sharp coral that could slice a foot easier than a sushi knife. Lost’s training, and his sanity, were fully engaged.

He slipped out of his chute harness – he didn’t need that extra 20 pounds. It was in his fingertips and he was about to let go when he decided to check the pockets. He found a strobe flashlight and a survival knife. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

And to think he’d almost let it float away.

Overhead, it had been extremely tense in the KC-10.

From the time the crew’s transmissions from the B-1 went silent, no one spoke for the 30 minutes, the time it took to get to the crew’s predicted landing area.

As they circled, Tech Sgt. Joe Huhn spotted, as much as a mile away, what he thought was a flare.

Everyone in the tanker plane got excited, Capt. Mike Dali got on the radio, and soon he was talking to Rooster, using code words to confirm the pilot’s identity.

How was the ship going to find him in the middle of the ocean?

Rooster asked. He had one flare left. Rooster asked about the other crew members. They told him they were in contact with Stainless and Iroc. It was great to talk to the guys in the KC-10. Rooster’s morale soared.

In their rafts, Stainless and Iroc could hear Rooster talking to Nugent, so they knew three of them had survived.

No one had heard from Lost.

Most of the life preserver was useless, and Lost needed something to stay afloat. He twisted off a part of the preserver – about the size of a balloon. He had to hold it at one end to keep it from deflating, and there was a valve at the other end. Every three or four minutes, he’d have to reinflate the thing. Tread water, blow, then rest for a minute or two. Repeat.

He felt panic rising every so often, like bile in his throat, and pushed it down. He wasn’t very tired. He felt he could go like this for six, seven hours.

Lost told himself to relax. The water was warm, the swells weren’t too bad. A thought crept into his head: sharks. If I run into one, he’s going to have a bad day, Lost vowed.

He concentrated on other things.

Here I am, treading water in a black hole called the Indian Ocean. He felt the ring on his left hand and smiled. Air command didn’t want men to wear rings, partly for safety reasons and partly because it could give the enemy a psychological edge in the event of capture. Only a week before, he decided that if he ever went down in a crash he wanted to be wearing it, rules or no. He couldn’t see it; it was too dark.

Lost thought of Lisa: I’m not going to leave you. Even if I have to dog-paddle all the way back to Diego.

Navy Lt. Dan Manetzke was in command of the first of the two RIBs.  Waiting for the craft to be lifted off the Russell’s deck by crane, the RIB crew of six basked in the bright glow of the destroyer’s lights. As soon as they moved away it was like turning off a light switch.

Manetzke made sure radio contact with the ship was good, and headed on a course to the east.

As Manetzke moved deeper into the bank, he spotted the lights of the circling KC-10 tanker and the P-3. The crew used the planes as a guide. All six on the RIB were very quiet. About three miles from the Russell, Manetzke could smell aircraft fuel, probably from the B-1. He saw no wreckage. He worried about running into something his crew couldn’t see.

Then his radio picked up the tanker talking to two of the B-1’s crew. Manetzke wondered about the others. No one in the RIB spoke. Would they find all the crew afloat?

With his eye following the circling KC-10, Manetzke noticed a dim strobe light maybe 2,000 yards – a little over a mile – away and steered for it. As they halved the distance, he spotted what appeared to be a second beacon off the starboard side. Manetzke radioed to the trailing RIB crew and asked them to check out the light to starboard.

His heart beating wildly, Manetzke piloted to the first beacon until the RIB’s searchlights hit two tiny canary-yellow rafts. It was Stainless and Iroc. They were grinning as Manetzke cruised next to them.

“We’re glad to see you,” Stainless said in his classically understated way.

Manetzke asked how they were, medically. Stainless said he was fine despite a cut on his face, but Iroc was hurting. It appeared he was having back spasms. A medical officer and the rescue swimmer reached over the side of the RIB and got their arms under Iroc and gently cradled him into the RIB. They got him lying flat and put some warm blankets on him.

Stainless and Iroc had been in the water for almost two hours.

Lost was treading water and blowing into what was left of the life preserver. He kept checking his watch. After an hour in the water, he thought he heard the distinctive engine of a KC-10. Then he heard a prop, probably a P-3.  They had searchlights but seemed to be lining up on someone else. Lost pulled himself as far out of the water as he could, frantically waving the strobe.

I’m probably the biggest piece of shark bait known to man, he thought as he thrashed in the water.

The planes continued orbiting. Twenty minutes passed, then another 20 and another. Lost knew they were searching the area and figured they’d find him eventually. The P-3’s searchlight seemed to be on top of him.

After 30 more minutes – he had been treading water for almost two hours – Lost saw a white light way off in the dark. That was good – wing lights were green and red, and the aircraft searchlights were much brighter. He waggled the strobe.

Then he heard the chut-chut of a motor. It was a boat.

The second RIB had trailed Manetzke by about a half-mile. After the call from Manetzke, it turned right until the crew could see a very faint strobe in the distance, maybe 1,000 yards away. Everybody in the boat got excited.

As they came up on Lost, they were shocked to see he was treading water.  The strobe light was obviously beginning to lose power.

“Hey, how are you doing?” Petty Officer James Emmons yelled from the boat.

Lost was alarmed at how fast they were closing.

“Good,” he said, “but don’t run me over.”

They went to grab him and pull him in, but they gripped the burned arm.

Lost screamed. “Ouch, lemme go.”

They were more careful the second time. No one asked him about his missing gear, and Lost didn’t volunteer anything. Emmons said Stainless and Iroc had been picked up, and they had been ordered to take him back to the Russell.

No good, said Lost: Let’s go get Rooster.

Nugent had kept the KC-10 circling over Rooster.

After Stainless and Iroc were picked up, he directed Manetzke’s RIB toward Rooster’s general location. Unable to reach his strobe, Rooster had one signal flare left, and when the boat was close enough, the KC-10 directed him to fire it.

Manetzke saw the flare go up and linger in the night for about 15 seconds. Two of the RIB crew put on night-vision goggles as they set course for the point where the flare had originated, perhaps a half-mile away.

They spotted Rooster in their lights about 300 yards away.

When the boat got close, Emmons went into the water to cut away any stray lines from the chute that might foul the RIB’s propellers.

Emmons swam over to the raft. “OK, what’s the drill?” Rooster asked.  Emmons asked him to roll out of his life raft, then he swam Rooster over to the boat. Rooster said how sore his ribs were. “Go easy,” he said. They gently pulled him into the RIB.

“Guys, I’m glad to see you,” Rooster said. He shook hands with Lost. The crew on the RIB started applauding.

Everyone was ecstatic. They radioed back to the Russell that everyone was safe and on board, and headed back to the destroyer.

Rooster said it was actually worth being the last one out of the water to see such happy faces.

The RIBs were back at the Russell a half-hour later.

The crew waited on deck and cheered wildly as the B-1 crew was brought on board. Iroc was put on a spine board as a precaution. Stainless, Lost and Rooster got some fresh dry clothes and were checked over by the ship’s doctor.

As the ship steamed back to Diego, the four crew members had a reunion in the ship’s galley over steaming coffee. Rooster couldn’t believe he was drinking Starbucks. They sat on the couches and tried to calm down.

It was now six hours since the night  first went wrong, two since they knew they’d been spotted and would make it out OK.

Rooster daydreamed about getting home and putting his arms around his wife and kissing his girls. He considered himself lucky: The equipment had worked well, and they went down near Diego and not in Afghanistan. Iroc, who’d been hurt the most in the ejection, ended up in the water just yards from his mission commander, the only guy he really knew in the crew. No one knew what the record was for plucking a crew out of the middle of the ocean, but four-plus hours had to be close. Rooster couldn’t believe that they were all up and around and talking with each other. Very cool.

Lost called his wife from the hospital in Diego, and after he assured her he was fine despite the ordeal, he began laughing helplessly.

“What is so funny?” Lisa Griffis asked, perplexed.

“I just had probably the worst day of my entire life,” Lost giggled, “and I’m just really happy to hear you right now.”

Iroc, the most banged-up of the crew, was hospitalized in Diego for several days. Every day, some of his squadron mates came to visit. He’d never been through anything remotely like it, he told them.

And the three guys he’d barely known before seemed like brothers.

“If you go through something that dramatic with people you cared about but didn’t know, then it’s something you share that no one else can understand,” Iroc said.

For some time, words failed him, except when he was with the other three.

Iroc was 6 feet tall before the mission. Now he was 5- foot-11. It didn’t matter, as long as he could fly again.

“This is not something that haunts me,” he said. “It’s broadened my outlook on how lucky I am.”

The B-1 lies at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, unlikely to be resurrected, as a military investigation convenes to find out what went wrong the night of Dec. 12.

All four fliers have returned to their home bases in the States. Lost is flying out of Mountain Home again, and every chance he gets to fly to Ellsworth he stops in to see Iroc and Stainless and have a beer.

“We don’t even talk about the ejection a lot,” Lost said. “It’s just a smile that we share.

“We all almost lost our lives that night, but everything went as it should have. And even when things didn’t go well for me,” he said, “I had enough to live.”