Aviator bids farewell to 'green air'
September 11, 2007
TIKRIT, Iraq-Disco and polyester pants are a few of the memories people have of the '70s. However, for one young man, the '70s is a reminder of an Army recruiter giving him the wrong job, a mistake that would ultimately have a lifelong effect.
With hair down to his shoulders and wearing faded blue jeans with holes in them, Charles Carlos Cantu, now a chief warrant officer 4 and an aviator with 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, was on his first Army flight to Ft. Jackson, S.C., Aug. 5, 1975. He was on his way to Basic Combat Training with the dream of being an Army firefighter, but as destiny would have it, Cantu took a different path.
"I thought I signed up for fireman, and the recruiter gave me aircraft fire control repair man," said Cantu with a chuckle. Cantu quickly realized the mix-up when he made his way to Advanced Individual Training and discovered his fire stations were aircraft hangars.
"When I walked into a hangar and saw a Cobra helicopter, I was confused on why there weren't any fire trucks," he said with a laugh. "I realized then my job was to repair missiles fired from Cobra - that's how I got into aviation."
As Cantu continued his enlisted career working on Cobras, fate once again stepped in to take him on yet another path.
One day at work Cantu noticed a co-worker leaving the hangar with clearance papers.
"I found out he was leaving for flight school," Cantu recalled. "I was amazed ... I thought only doctors or lawyers could be pilots, so I took my Alternate Flight Aptitude Selection Test (AFAST) and was on another plane to flight school."
Throughout the next 30 years, Cantu, whose friends call him Chico, would experience things that most people only dream of while continuing to overcome both personal and professional challenges.
"The biggest heartache I had in my career was joining after the Vietnam War and not being able to do my part immediately in a combat zone," he said somberly. "Nevertheless, in 2004, we were activated and I had to get the guys [aviators] proficient enough to deploy. It was one of the biggest challenges for me, but I finally felt like I was giving something back."
Cantu faced another fork in the road when he became a single parent to a preteen daughter who was more interested in makeup and boys than family time.
"Being a single parent I had to manage time, health, money and love while establishing values in her," Cantu said, gleaming as he spoke of his daughter. "I had to balance the time I spent working, as well as making sufficient time to be a dad to her ... not just a father, but a dad."
Instilling values in his daughter was imperative to Cantu, even during times when his daughter would rather hang out with her friends.
"Sundays were family day, and we spent that day together whether she liked it or not," Cantu said with a grin. "I would sit at the picnic table on the beach, and she would sit in the car sulking. After about a half hour, she would get out, and we would have fun for the rest of the day. It's growing pains, but I wanted her to understand the importance of family values."
Through challenges and interpersonal relationships, the Chinook pilot spent 32 years making an impact on those with whom he interacted.
Cantu recalled being an instructor and the day a brigade commander was so impressed after sitting in on a class, that he awarded Cantu an impact Army Achievement Medal.
Although Cantu was a mentor and teacher to some, he stressed the importance of the team concept.
The team effort came together Aug. 5, when friends gathered to celebrate Cantu's last flight at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, here.
"Ironically, 32 years later from the exact date I joined the Army, I flew my last flight as an Army aviator," Cantu said to friends at his retirement ceremony. "What better place to have your last flight than in a combat zone with all of your friends."
During his 32-year tenure, Cantu has logged more than 11,000 hours of accident- and incident-free flight time, and more than 1,100 hours of combat flight time, which included 288 combat missions.
Cantu said he will miss a number of things about Army aviation.
"I am going to miss the 'juice' - the adrenaline rush from flying an air assault mission," he said. "I will also miss flying the 'green air' [flying with night vision goggles], along with all the guys joking around and having fun out here."
"It's not just one person making things happen, but an entire team," he said. "It's the pilots, crew chiefs and door gunners that make for a safe and uneventful outcome during missions."