05/26/11 — Shuttle escort

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Shuttle escort

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 26, 2011 1:46 PM

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Capt. Neil Mercer

A 4th Fighter Wing F-15E -- and its crew -- take in the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour May 16. Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Strike Eagles were in the skies as part of an Operation Noble Eagle mission.

From the backseat of an F-15E Strike Eagle, Capt. Neil Mercer took it all in -- an object breaking through the clouds; the slow climb and sudden burst of speed unfolding across the clear, blue sky.

"The whole time we're taking pictures, but, at one point, I'm like, 'I've got to put this thing down so I can enjoy the scene,'" he said. "You know, I've seen a lot of stuff in the Strike Eagle, things that people just don't get to see -- whether it's when we're just up there practicing dogfighting ... or downrange when you're up there thinking, 'Man, I can't believe I just saved that guy's life.' Those are just great feelings. That was another one."

Members of the 4th Fighter participated in what they characterized as a once-in-a-lifetime event May 16, as Seymour Johnson Air Force Base aviators were tapped to support the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

But for Mercer, that six-hour sortie was about far more than maintaining a secure block of airspace.

It was a chance, he said, to live a boyhood fantasy.

"I think it's everybody's dream, you know, when they grow up, to want to see the space shuttle," Mercer said. "Especially in the military community, I know there are plenty of people who grew up thinking, 'Oh yeah, I go fly fighters and I could be an astronaut.'"

But Mercer and the other officer in that F-15E were not the only local airmen who got to lay eyes on the shuttle.

In fact, hours before they took flight, another Strike Eagle formation arrived at the scene.

"We didn't actually get to see the launch, but we got to see the shuttle on the pad," said Capt. Ryan Lippert, a 336th Fighter Squadron pilot. "Even that was an awesome experience."

And it was "humbling," he said, to be a part of such an historic moment.


Just before the launch, the anticipation was building inside the cockpit of Mercer's jet.

"They gave us a two-minute warning ... and they had us off in our little corner of airspace where we could stay clear of its trajectory. So we're out there, just waiting for it to happen and it's like, 'What's going on?' Nobody's telling us anything," he said. "Then, all of a sudden, you see it just poke through the clouds."

Maybe the fact that one of the astronauts on board, retired Col. Gregory Johnson, was once a 4th Fighter Wing aviator, made it such a special moment for the young officer.

Or perhaps it was simply being so close to something so iconic that brought it all home.

Either way, it was "absolutely amazing," he said -- an experience he vowed never to forget.

"It was pretty emotional," Mercer said. "Without a doubt, one of the greatest experiences of my life."