US Customs pilot flies again after being ambushed by gunman
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Eight months and three days.
That’s what it took for Drew Stokes to be able to get on board his huge P-3 Orion aircraft at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations at Cecil Airport and return to a job he loved.
Smiling as he quipped Tuesday that he hadn’t made this walk “in a long time and it feels good,” Stokes well remembers “fighting for my life” after five bullets pounded into him outside the Oakleaf Commons Publix.
As the veteran aviation enforcement agent recuperated in Orange Park Medical Center, he said he longed for this day to hear four Allison turboprops with 4,600 horsepower each “crank up and feel the power.” And with a huge grin, he opened the hatch as a radar dish spun overhead, more than ready for his re-certification.
“I’m just ready to get back in the air, to get back to my normal life and back to where I was Sept. 26 at 2 p.m.,” he said before he hauled the entry ladder up, further proof he was ready for flight. “It’s nice. They are beautiful. I spent my whole adult life in these airplanes and I am ready to get back in it and get on with my career. ... It’s just the way I remember it, exactly the same.”
Joining Stokes was Clay County sheriff’s deputy Jacob Hawkins. The first deputy to get to the federal agent the day he was shot, Hawkins literally plugged a bullet hole with a finger to stem bleeding. He said it’s a blessing to see his new friend flying again after numerous hospital visits to watch him recuperate.
“I wanted his wife to understand that I talked to him and he was a fighter all the way through,” said Hawkins, who used his SWAT and tactical medical training to stop Stokes from bleeding out.
“The sheer will and determination he has to survive this, then come back eight months later and be back flying, is amazing,” Hawkins said. “I am honored to be back with him, that he would call me and say, ‘Hey, this is my first flight.’ It is truly a blessing.”
Stokes, who has been flying for 17 years, was scheduled to fly a mission Sept. 27. But late Sept. 26, he walked out of Publix in his flight suit with “CBP Federal Agent” on his T-shirt and his shoulder holster visible. Eighteen-year-old Thomas Jacob Lewis, who had just learned that a Clay County arrest warrant was out for him, yelled, “I hate cops” and shot Stokes, then killed himself.
Knocked off his feet, bullets wedged near his spine, hit his liver and intestines, right hip, shattered the other and went through his left arm as he pulled his own gun. Two weeks in a medically induced coma, Stokes said he fought hard to return to “chasing drug smugglers, which I was born to do.” By February he was on limited duty, still recuperating with wife Amanda and his flight crew at his side. Given permission to return to full duty a few weeks ago, he was glad for the hours in the gym since the ladder was “as heavy as I remember it.”
“She was ready for me to go up. I had been anxious all weekend waiting for this moment,” he said of his wife’s send-off Tuesday. “I just told her I loved her and I would see her when I get back.”
Two planes flew the mission. Pilot Orie Doffin handled the P-3 with the huge radar disc that Stokes would control, using it and a high-definition nose camera to track Air Interdiction Officer Colt Reiswig’s sister plane. As Reiswig bobbed and weaved, Stokes re-honed tracking skills used to target drug-smuggling boats and planes.
“Suspect airplanes fly a certain way. If there was a suspect airplane out here, it wouldn’t be using its IFF code. It would just be flying, not squawking, not talking to anybody,” Stokes said, then smiled. ”... I am just happy I remember how to do all this stuff. It’s just like riding a bicycle. It feels like it’s old hat and it comes right back.”
These flights can last up to 10 hours, the reason why there are four bunks in back.
“We chase them for as long as it takes,” Stokes said as he worked radar able to see as far as Tallahassee. ”... Sometimes they can be 600 to 800 miles away and you have to play a chess game to get bad guys to go where you want them.”
Then the pilots on Stokes’ P-3, a constantly updated aircraft built in late 1966, began flying low passes over Northeast Florida as if searching for a smuggler’s boat. They circled Green Cove Springs as Stokes showed off the gear’s abilities to Hawkins and Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels. Then after almost three hours of flight, Stokes said he has another timetable. But it’s a lot longer, and happier, than eight months and three days.
“I have about nine and a half years left to go, and hopefully we keep these things (P-3s) around for a while,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling to be back in the air. ... This feels like home. I have missed it so much for the past eight months.”
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com