The Colgate Scene
July 2002

A son's duty, a parent's ordeal

Air Force Captain John Proietti '96
[Photo courtesy of Frank Proietti]

The first indication Frank Proietti '56 had that his son, John Proietti '96, was in harm's way came from a news item he read on the Internet.

It was the afternoon of December 12, three months after the terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., and two months after the United States commenced military action against Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. News outlets were reporting that a B-1B bomber had crashed into the Indian Ocean shortly after taking off from Diego Garcia, a British-owned atoll that is home to one of the largest U.S. military installations outside the United States.

In the early evening, after watching televised reports about the crash with his wife, Susan, in their home in Englewood, N.J., Frank Proietti decided to call his son's squadron commander in Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

"My first thought was that I hoped John has the presence of mind to e-mail us that he wasn't on that thing," said Susan Proietti.

"I didn't think John would be on that plane," said Frank Proietti. "He had been there for three weeks prior doing training."

The elder Proietti is himself an Air Force veteran, serving in Europe during the early 1960s. Frank Proietti was a navigator on an RB-66, a radar reconnaissance plane, whose mission was to fly along the border between West and East Germany to monitor the activities of Warsaw Pact forces. He knows that anything can happen, and usually happens fast, when flying high-performance aircraft.

An Air Force official told the Proiettis that while he couldn't release the names of the aircrew involved, they had all been rescued and were safe.

"He finished by saying that we would hear from the base commander within two hours," said Frank Proietti. "Right away I figured John had to be on that plane."

Air Force Captain John Proietti was flying his first combat mission on the ill-fated warplane. A B-1B carries a four-person crew, including a pilot, co-pilot and two weapons systems officers, one for defense and the other for offense. Trained to operate both the defensive and offensive weapons systems, John Proietti was in the offensive role on this mission, tasked with aiming and launching weapons at targets in Afghanistan.

The younger Proietti, whose code name is Iroc, and his three fellow crew members had taken off from Diego Garcia around 9 p.m. local time bound for Afghanistan. The B-1B is the only bomber in the U.S. inventory capable of supersonic flight. Roughly two-thirds the size of a 747, the plane can fly 4,000 miles with a full payload without refueling. It is also an aircraft with a checkered history. Cancelled by President Jimmy Carter, the plane was resurrected in the early 1980s by the Reagan administration during the largest peacetime defense buildup in U.S. history. Since the B-1B became operational in 1985, seven (including Proietti's) of the 100 bombers built have crashed. Air Force pilots have dubbed the $280 million aircraft the Electric Jet, because of its complex and temperamental electrical systems.

An Air Force investigation into the December 12 crash concluded that the aircraft crashed because of massive electrical and mechanical failure, John Proietti said. Whatever the cause, about an hour after take- off, he and his crewmates found themselves in an inverted dive in a plane whose instruments had ceased functioning. When the B-1B reached 15,000 feet, Proietti ejected, followed immediately by his crewmates.

Frank Proietti '56 and his wife, Susan
[Photo by Shannon McAvoy]
After landing in the shark-infested waters of the Indian Ocean, John Proietti scrambled into a life raft and soon met another crew member who had landed nearby. In the meantime, a search-and-rescue operation began and the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Russell eventually recovered the entire crew, barely two hours after they ejected from the stricken bomber.

Not long after coming aboard the Russell, John Proietti called his parents to tell them he was safe.

"When we heard his voice he sounded stressed but in control," Susan Proietti said. "He sounded tired and awfully relieved."

John Proietti's injuries were more severe than his parents initially realized. Those who have survived it have described ejection from a fast-moving aircraft as the most violent thing they have ever endured. When the ejection system commonly used by the Air Force is engaged, aviators are shot clear of the cockpit by solid-fuel rockets, with a force equal to 14 times their body weight.

His ejection left John Proietti with eight cracked ribs, a broken shoulder blade and nerve damage in his neck and shoulder. By May, Proietti was nearly fully recovered from his injuries, although he had only regained 70 percent mobility in his left arm. One physical condition is likely to be permanent. Proietti was six feet tall before the mission but now is 5 feet, 11 inches tall. The force of the ejection compressed his spine by one inch.

After recovering on Diego Garcia for a few weeks, Proietti was flown to a hospital at Travis Air Force Base in California on Christmas Day. After spending three weeks at Travis enduring a battery of neurological tests and physical therapy, Proietti flew to New Jersey for a reunion with family and friends in February.

A history major who wrote a senior paper about the uses of air power during World War I, John Proietti joined the Air Force because few of the career options his friends were choosing interested him very much.

"I felt that if I went down the road as a banker or lawyer I would regret missing an opportunity to do something exciting and different," he said.

After officers' candidate school, Proietti attended advanced flight training at the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla. Although he initially found himself behind Air Force Academy graduates, Proietti believes his Colgate education helped him close the gap.

"Colgate students are obviously very bright," he said. "We know how to discipline ourselves and get things done."

Cleared to return to flight status, Proietti headed to Dyess Air Force Base in June for training to become an instructor on the weapons systems he's trained to use. He is hopeful that he will eventually return to combat duty with his squadron.

"As a member of the military, you can't wait to be part of getting some payback for what happened on September 11," he said. "When I saw our country attacked I couldn't wait to exact a measure of justice."

Although they share the concerns common to all parents whose children chose a hazardous profession, Frank and Susan Proietti say their pride in their youngest child helps them to cope.

"I'm very proud of him," said Frank Proietti. "I'm coping because it's a job that he wants to do."

"Of course, we wish that he didn't have to have this kind of assignment, but he's a very determined man. He's doing what he wants to do," Susan Proietti said. "It's a little scary, though. We like having him on this side of the ocean."

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