Scott air tanker unit mourns loss of commander of doomed spy plane

News-DemocratNovember 23, 2013 

The late afternoon sun had just begun to set when Navy Capt. Phillip Cyr walked to a lectern at Three Springs Park in Shiloh.

The 24-hour vigil and run around the park in honor of Veterans Day was winding down. Capt. Cyr had been asked to speak to the crowd of several dozen people before him, most of them active duty personnel from nearby Scott Air Force Base.

"I want to talk about two things," Cyr said, "heroes and friends."

Cyr looked past his audience, most of whom were bundled against a sharp November wind. His eye caught the small knot of Air Force officers off to his right.

They had come from all over, these KC-135 pilots and crew, some journeying thousands of miles, to honor Cyr's son, Air Force Capt. Brandon Cyr.

Six months before, the MC-12W surveillance plane the younger Cyr was commander of crashed 110 miles northeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, killing Cyr, a Scott Air Force Base KC-135 air tanker pilot, and three crew members.

"The world needs more heroes," the elder Cyr said. "And I'm not talking about Ironman or those heroes in D.C. Comics."

The members of Cyr's temporary unit, the 906th Air Refueling Squadron, continue to grieve the loss of Brandon Cyr, a popular officer who seemed to have a knack for making friends everywhere.

Everyone in the squadron had a special connection to Cyr, said Lt. Col. Doug Edwards, who until recently served as the 906th's commander before taking a job at the Pentagon.

"You never want to lose anybody," Edwards said. "But why does it have to be one of the good ones?"

Brandon Cyr, 28, who was stationed at Scott and living in Shiloh, had been loaned out to the 306th Intelligence Squadron at Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif. By all accounts, he was a talented aviator and consummate military professional with a gift for making people feel good.

There was his smile, which could light up a room, but also the positive energy he emitted.

"There are those people out there who are just on a positive vector all the time," Edwards said. "I was selfish with him because I knew that no matter how crappy my day was going, you know, or whether my day was going good, it would continue to be great after I talked to him."

Cyr was a fitness buff and food fanatic who nonetheless hated vegetables, said David Quesenberry, a retired Air Force chief master sergeant who runs the Air Force JROTC program at North Valleys High School, in Reno, Nevada.

"He didn't like anything green," Quesenberry recalled with a laugh.

Cyr had volunteered a week each summer for nine years to help run the school's senior leadership program, Quesenberry said.

"Cyr was a caring individual," he said. "When I would ask him to play the disciplinarian in summer leadership program that was hard for him. But he was able to do it and did a good job with it."

Cyr had moved around a lot with his parents and sister -- who declined to be interviewed for this story -- and he had spent a lot of time in Hawaii.

There he had acquired one of his signature greetings: the Hawaiian sign for "hang loose" -- right hand held up, thumb and pinkie finger extended.

Cyr also had a wicked sense of humor.

"Guaranteed, if you were going to take a picture, he'd do something goofy in the background," Edwards said. "His tongue out, eyes crossed, a goofy smile, it'd be something."

The friends of Cyr's who were interviewed for this story said they were not at all surprised when they had heard Cyr had volunteered for temporary duty as an MC-12W pilot.

"I knew he enjoyed flying. He could fly the KC-135, and it's challenging, but at the same time it can be boring," Quesenberry said. "Because flying a KC-135 you do a lot of 'racetrack flying'," i.e., flying in a huge oval to allow aircraft to be refueled.

"That could get kind of tiresome, I would imagine," he said.

In essence, "I think flying the MC-12 just presented a new challenge to him," Quesenberry said. "And I think he was a young man who relished a challenge, so I think that's why he probably volunteered for it."

The word came down more than a year ago that the Air Force needed a pilot from Scott Air Force Base to serve a nine-month tour with the MC-12W program, Edwards said.

"The way the deployment system works is the squadron, for the lack of a better term, we'd get a bill to pay. In that particular case, we had to fill a nine-month position in the MC-12," Edwards said.

Cyr immediately stepped forward, which didn't surprise Edwards.

A year ago, before leaving for Beale Air Force Base, Cyr and Edwards talked about his new assignment.

Cyr volunteered "because he always talked about wanting do something different, contribute in a different way," Edwards said. "And also get closer to direct support of the warfighter on the ground."

The spy plane Cyr had volunteered to fly, and later command, had already racked up a sterling reputation for effectiveness and safety.

MC-12W entered the war in Afghanistan more than four years ago, after battlefield commanders begged the Pentagon for a set of "eyes in the sky" that was more nimble and responsive than a robotic drone, and that could beam back live video feeds to both Army and Marine units on the ground, as well as intelligence and special ops units.

The MC-12W filled that bill perfectly, proving a huge hit with ground units and achieving a success rate of 99.96 percent, or in other words, virtually every "time a ground force commander expected to have an MC-12W overhead, it was there," according to the crash investigation report.

A military version of the Hawker Beechcraft Super King Air 350, it is a twin-engine turboprop aircraft that, stateside, is popular with business executives looking for a reliable, fuel-efficient air transport.

Crammed with state-of-the-art night vision cameras, radios and sensors, the MC-12W set new standards for what a battlefield spy plane could do -- from damage assessment after an airstrike, to verifying the identity of top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders for later Predator drone strikes, to scanning huge swaths of Afghanistan on the look-out for insurgents planting roadside bombs.

Robotic drones controlled by pilots thousands of miles away are also highly effective surveillance tools, but the MC-12W held two big advantages over them:

First, they could fly in bad weather; drones generally can't.

Second, "When you have a crew of four in the loop, they can talk to the person on the ground. You not only get the camera, but the eyeballs," said Col. Phillip Stewart, commander of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB.

Battlefield commanders in Afghanistan regarded the MC-12W as a godsend. In 2012, the program accounted for 73 percent of all intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights in Afghanistan. It was credited with the killing and capture of more than 700 insurgents, including some of their top leaders, according to the Air Force.

Cyr's plane, call sign Independence 08, left the airbase near Kandahar shortly before noon on April 17, and after 30 minutes reached a point 110 miles northeast of the city. After 10 minutes doing aerial observance of the area, the aircrew spotted potential enemy targets.

A few seconds later, mission control back in Kandahar instructed the pilot, Capt. Reid Nishizuka, to ascend to 23,000 feet. The pilot obeyed, banking toward the left as he continued his climb.

That's when Nishizuka made his first mistake. Apparently he had banked too far left while not simultaneously boosting air speed, according to the crash report.

The heavy cloud cover masked landmarks and other visual cues Nishizuka could rely on to determine his position and speed. Nearly half a minute passed before Nishizuka realized his plane was slowing down as it climbed.

The first sign of trouble emerged when Nishizuka acknowledged the airspeed had dropped.

"A little slow, correcting," he said.

Independence 08's airspeed fell from 150 to 116 knots. Almost immediately, the crucial airlift under the wings began to fade.

Another seven seconds elapsed before Cyr spoke, according to the cockpit voice recorder.

"Alright, firewall," Cyr commanded, in effect, telling his pilot to push the plane throttles to full forward -- "through the firewall."

The cockpit stall warning alarm sounded.

"Max power, max power," Cyr said, ordering the pilot to focus on aircraft instruments, according to a transcript of the cockpit recorder.

The plane began to spiral downward.

"Alright, eyes inside, eyes inside," Cyr told Nishizuka, commanding him to focus on his instrument panel.

"Whoa, pull up!" Nishizuka said as he tried to turn against the spin.

The last words recorded inside the cockpit were from Cyr.

"Eyes inside... My aircraft," Cyr said, signaling that he was taking control of the plane. "Power back."

Entering its final spin, the plane hurtled earthward at nearly 370 miles per hour. The nearly $20 million plane vanished from ground radar screens at 15,000 feet altitude.

The remains of Cyr, whose hometown is listed as Woodbridge, Va.; Nishizuka, 30, of Kailua, Hawaii, and the sensor operators -- Staff Sgt. Richard A. Dickson, 24, of Rancho Cordova, Calif., and Staff Sgt. Daniel N. Fannin, 30, of Morehead, Ky. -- were discovered two hours later in a valley 110 miles northeast of Kandahar.

Brandon Cyr was undaunted by the prospect of flying in combat.

"Part of what's in the DNA of all pilots is, if it flies, we think we can operate it,'" said Edwards, the former 906th Air Refueling Squadron commander.

That attitude comes from the nature of Air Force flight training, he said.

"Our training is the best in the world. It's second to none," he said. "You see the direct results of the intense training that the Air Force gives and skills that you acquire. From where you start to where you finish, in any of the training aspects, it's amazing, it's truly amazing."

Sienna Benton, a college ROTC cadet who worked with Cyr at Two Valleys High School, recalled the final night of the leadership program a few years ago. The instructor cadets had gotten together for a night of stargazing.

Cyr opened his heart up to talk about his plans for life after the Air Force, Benton said.

"He was just talking about his dreams and his goals, and how he wanted to become a whole person," she said. "He still knew he wasn't a whole person yet. He was basically just talking about finding out what it is what makes a person truly happy inside."

The night before Cyr was to leave Beale AFB, where he had done his MC-12W training, and head over to Afghanistan, Cyr met Quesenberry at a restaurant outside Sacramento.

"Basically we talked about life and I asked him about the mission," Quesenberry said. "'How's your mission going to be?' Obviously anyone I care about who is going to Afghanistan or into an area like that, I'm concerned about their safety."

Cyr answered, "Well, it should be a relatively safe mission," Quesenberry recalled.

Cyr felt safe because of the MC-12W's track record.

"Brandon said, 'We haven't lost any of those aircraft yet, none have been shot down,'" Quesenberry said. "So I felt very confident that things would be OK for him."

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