HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Mandi Gable stood in a hangar, waiting for her husband and father of their two boys to come home.
“There they are! Woohoo!” Drew Gable, 10, shouted, pointing up at the sky as four F-16 Fighting Falcons flew in to Hill Air Force Base as the sun began to set.
Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Gable, of the 421st Fighter Squadron, had been in South Korea for four months, and as soon as he was out of the cockpit, he kissed his wife and pulled Drew and 8-year-old Ethan into his arms for a long-awaited hug.
He was one of nine airmen who returned Wednesday from their deployment to Kunsan Air Base as part of a routine security package rotation. After a long flight across the Pacific Ocean, friends and family were waiting for them with warm embraces.
The nine pilots flew back in eight jets, one a two-seater. The flight was a cramped one too, said Capt. John Loveman said.
“I was the first one out of the cockpit,” he said, finally making use of his legs. The cockpits of the F-16 jets are the smallest there are, making for much more cramped quarters than flying coach on a commercial plane, he said. As an example, he realized halfway home that he had tied his shoe too tightly, but there was nothing he could do about it.
But an air traffic controller in California noticed them flying over and thanked them for their service.
It may not seem like much, but it meant a lot to him, Loveman said.
As he got his feet on the ground, his wife and three children rushed to him.
“Do you like my new shoes, daddy?” his 4-year-old daughter, Catherine, asked, pointing out her purple shoes. It was a moment of every day life, the first of more to follow, after the tensions following North Korea’s swift and unexpected transition while Loveman and his fellow airmen were there.
During their stay, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il died of heart complications. The uncertainty of what would happen next made for a tense atmosphere, Loveman said.
But now he’s back to admire his girl’s new shoes and to hold his boys in his arms.
After complimenting her shoes and how they match her shift, Loveman added “Catherine, I love you.”
The time away is difficult, but it’s harder on the loved ones left behind, said the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Paul Schulze. He had deployed several times before, but only recently after he and his wife had children.
The airmens’ families carry the load while they’re away, he said.
But Schulze is back, and after shaking hands and saying hello, he picked his 2-year-old daughter Sarah up in his arms to carry her home.
About 35 maintainance personnel and two other pilots were originally scheduled to return Wednesday, but they were delayed because of a fueling problem. They plan to return today, said base spokeswoman Andrea Mason.
About 200 more airmen from the same wing, the 388th Fighter Wing, are expected to return to the base Saturday morning. Their arrival marks the last of Hill Air Force Base’s presence in the country.