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Gulf War pilot still enjoys big birds

Gulf War veteran Mike Pompoco has his feet on the ground after decades of flying high in the Air Force and commercial airlines.

CANFIELD — After decades of flying the big birds, Gulf War veteran Mike Pompoco has switched to big birds of prey as he enjoys the hobby of falconry. It seems a fitting hobby for someone who spent so much time flying in the clouds.

Pompoco is a 1978 Chaney graduate who went on to play baseball at the Ohio State University. He said the original goal was to get into a wildlife career and when he found the OSU elective of a ground school for flying, he enrolled. He thought having a pilot’s license would be an asset for tracking wildlife.

His father, Jim Pompoco, was a key influence on him going to college. Jim was a Marine Corps drill instructor and knew he wanted the best for his son.

“He told me he saw how officers were treated and he saw how enlisted men were treated,” Mike said. “He told me I was going to college.”

After passing the OSU ground school for flight, he still needed “tickets” in various subjects like instrument panels. Those tickets would go toward getting him a commercial pilot’s license, but the expense of obtaining them was a little high.

“I thought maybe the Air Force could help me reach my goal and would cover the cost of a commercial license,” Pompoco said. “My last month at OSU, I took a test for a pilot’s slot in the Air Force.”

Pompoco was in, and he was sent to Columbus and from there to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas where he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. At Lackland, he entered an officer training school and took a 90-day course.

“We were often referred to as 90-day wonders,” he said.

From Lackland, Pompoco was sent to Reece Air Force Base in Texas where he put in two years and seven months. Normally the training lasts two years, but near the end, he experienced some numbing in his legs. Each month, for the next seven months, Pompoco received a spinal tap to attempt to find out what was causing the numbness, but to no avail. Eventually he was cleared to fly and was transferred to Castle Air Force Base in California.

In his pilot’s training, Pompoco had a choice of two paths. He could head down the “fighters” path that would qualify him to fly fighter aircraft, or he could choose the “heavy” class that would include larger aircraft like the B-52 bomber. His decision was made, based on another of life’s special moments that happened in 1984.

“I married another Chaney graduate, Melissa,” Pompoco said. “Being newly married, I found out that heavy pilots were not moved around as much as fighter pilots.”

After his training in Castle, Pompoco went to Loring Air Force Base in Maine, where he served as a B-52 pilot.

“We were stationed there nine winters,” he said. “We never called it years in Maine.”

In August of 1990, Mike’s unit, or wing, was deployed to Diego Garcia off the tip on India. Pompoco said the base is the emergency landing spot for the space shuttle.

“We were one of the first units to deploy for the Gulf War,” he said.

He was part of the 69th Bomb Squadron of the 42nd Bomb Wing, but once in Diego Garcia, they became the 4300th Provisional Unit.

In June of 1990, he was ready to get out of the service. He was made a captain and was requested to stay in as the U.S. needed pilots at the time. He did stay in and became a Wing Tactics Officer, whose duty it was to meet with navigators, bombardiers, and electronic warfare officers to plan missions. He said the Air Force always wanted an experienced pilot on the planning group to offer the logistics on what the aircraft could or could not do.

Pompoco went on 12 missions in a B-52 during the Gulf War, which also included Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield.

In August 1991, with the Gulf War over, Pompoco’s service was complete and he was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life. He applied to American Airlines and spent two decades as a commercial pilot, going on disability in 2012.

He said during his time as a commercial pilot, he was walking in a terminal and his eye sight suddenly became like tunnel vision for a brief moment. He went to a physician to get it checked out.

“The doctor heard my symptoms and then asked me to take my shoes off,” Pompoco said. “I asked what my feet have to do with my eyesight. He did a test on the bottom of my feet, and then told me I had multiple sclerosis (MS).”

He was able to get a waiver to continue flying with medications, but eventually the MS worsened. In 2012, it was hard to get around and Pompoco decided it was time to step down.

Today he still enjoys his pastime of bow hunting and gets around on a track chair that was provided through the Veterans Independence Fund. He also enjoys falconry, which he said he got involved with 22 years ago.

In falconry, Pompoco said he first had to take a test in Columbus that covered the birds of prey habits, life style, and medications. He passed the test by over 80 percent, which is required. He then served two years as an apprentice falconer.

After meeting those guidelines, Pompoco had to construct a large cage in his backyard and have it inspected by the state. After that was approved, Pompoco was issued a permit to trap a wild bird. After eight years of working successfully with the bird, he became a Master Falconer.

He enjoys his hunting, his bird, and his son Michael Jaye Pompoco, who plays for the eighth-grade Canfield football team where he is a fullback and nose guard. Pompoco is also a member of American Legion Post 177 in Canfield.

jtwhitehouse@tribtoday.com

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