'Nightmare's Prayer': A Jet Fighter's Missions

Ret. Lt. Col. Michael Franzak went to Afghanistan as a Marine jet fighter pilot in 2002. His squadron, known as "The Flying Nightmares," flew ground cover during Operation Enduring Freedom. Liane speaks with Franzak, whose new book is called A Nightmare's Prayer.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Michael Franzak went to Afghanistan as a Marine jet fighter pilot in 2002. His squadron, known as the Flying Nightmares, flew ground cover during Operation Enduring Freedom. Franzak was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2005. He packed it in a trunk, along with three journals he'd kept, which now form the foundation of his new memoir, "A Nightmare's Prayer." He joins us from the studio of member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL FRANZAK (Former U.S. Marine Pilot; Author, "A Nightmare's Prayer"): Thank you for having me on your show.

HANSEN: You flew 117 combat missions. You write with such detail. It feels like we're in the cockpit with you. I kept getting images of, you know, the "Star Wars" movie, where the jets would go into the Death Star and then come out. Well, your Death Star happened to be the mountain range in Afghanistan. And the weather - there were a lot of snafus, I think, is probably the best way to put it.

Mr. FRANZAK: Sure.

HANSEN: Yeah?

Mr. FRANZAK: Yes.

HANSEN: And part of it had to do with the jet that you were flying, the AV8B -the Harrier. Why is it called the widow maker?

Mr. FRANZAK: It's called the widow maker because it killed a lot of Marines. And some of them - I lost a lot of friends flying that airplane. During my flying career of flying the Harrier from 1990 to 2006, 16 years, the Harrier had an accident rate that was three times as high as the other Marine Corps' airplane, which was a F-18 Hornet. So you were three times as likely to die or be in a major accident flying a Harrier than you were a Hornet.

HANSEN: Are Harriers still being used, and what was it that made them so dangerous?

Mr. FRANZAK: Well, Harriers are still being used in the fight over in Afghanistan. The Harrier is a dangerous aircraft to fly because it's very unforgiving. And the airplane has had some mechanical issues throughout its history. The engine has been unreliable over time. And when you have one engine and it's unreliable, that sometimes isn't a good thing.

HANSEN: Was there any time where you really hesitated to pull that trigger?

Mr. FRANZAK: Well, I pulled it several times. And I think the first time that - before I pulled it there was a millionth of a second hesitation. Before I'd seen death so much over there, heard it, supported the guys, we'd chase the enemy. They'd escape back to Pakistan. Can't get them. You know, I was sad and I was sick about that. And that's what brought along a lot of the anger of just being frustrated after eight months of not being able to get the enemy.

So in this one incident when I come in and it's that first time and, all of a sudden, the FAP tells me you're cleared out on that target, I realized that when I pull the trigger, death is one second away and it's going to come from me. And I just thought: What do I do? But right away, my - I knew the answer. The answer is training takes over, and you pull the trigger. There was no question, afterwards, and I had no remorse whatsoever about what I did.

HANSEN: What does it feel like now, given that you flew Harrier missions? What do you think of the use of drones in the war now?

Mr. FRANZAK: I support it. I think that we need to be able to go after and attack the enemy. That said, I certainly believe that the war is not going to be won by air and by Predators. A Predator or drone doesn't sit down and have tea with the local head honcho. He doesn't shake hands with the school children. He doesn't find out the projects that the local community needs. We need people on the ground that are going to be able to do that. I believe confidently that if the war is to be won - first of all, it's going to have to be won by Afghanistan itself, deciding that it's going to stick with it. But it's going to be won by boots on the ground.

HANSEN: Pilots are known for being a...

Mr. FRANZAK: Egotistical.

HANSEN: ...yeah, and you know, like to do - you did something interesting. You would occasionally lift up your night vision goggles while you were flying missions, you know, with mountains on either side of you. I mean, what were you thinking?

Mr. FRANZAK: I was thinking about getting a thrill. I would peek under them. So, I would be down in the valley, bustering along at 500 knots, over 550 miles an hour, and would probably be about 500 feet above the ground. The minimum altitude was much higher than that. It was 10,000 feet we weren't supposed to go below. But there were times when we got tasked with missions of going down and making a lot of noise so that it appeared something was going to happen. And this was one of those nights that I was running down the Pech River Valley.

So I'm running down the valley, and it's one o'clock in the morning, and there's a full moon and you've got mountain peaks on both sides. And I knew -you know, a friend of mine had turned me onto this trick that when you peek under the goggles, you can't see anything. And, of course, you're going 500 plus miles an hour, and just a flinch of the stick, you can hit the ground. So it was always just a thrill just to peek up and go man, I can't see anything there.

HANSEN: What are you doing now?

Mr. FRANZAK: I'm a contract pilot, and I go to places like Afghanistan. The nice thing is instead of flying bombs, I fly ice cream and parts and people around. It's not as exciting, but I kind of like that.

HANSEN: Michael Franzak is a retired Marine Harrier pilot. His new memoir about the war in Afghanistan is called "A Nightmare's Prayer". He joined us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina.

Thank you very much.

Mr. FRANZAK: Thank you for having me on your show.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.