Mike ‘Big Daddy’ Holder inherited the flying fever from his father, Jim Holder. The elder Holder flew C-119 Boxcars and C-121 Constellations in the Air National Guard. Confirming the quick wit of a pilot, Jim said, “I couldn’t pass the sergeant’s test so they made me a lieutenant.” Jim also flew 27 years for Eastern Airlines.
His son, Mike ‘Big Daddy’ Holder, was born in Gulfport, Mississippi but raised in Georgia. A 1981 graduate of Heritage High School, Mike recalled, “My nickname ‘Big Daddy’ developed during Heritage’s Marine Junior ROTC program. I figured the nickname would vanish upon my arrival at North Georgia College. Not a chance. Most of my ROTC buddies followed me to North Georgia so the nickname stuck. ROTC was fun at Heritage but we discovered North Georgia College dead serious about their military program.” Mike graduated from North Georgia in 1988.
Not too fond of the Army program, Mike joined the Air National Guard to hopefully become an Air Force pilot upon college graduation. “Well, that didn’t pan out,” he admitted. “My EPA at North Georgia was less than stellar, something like 2.00001, if not worse. The Air Force wasn’t impressed but an Army recruiter called with his pitch line. I didn’t buy it. I wanted OCS at Fort Benning, aviation, and flight school. He didn’t buy my pitch line either, so we agreed on Warrant Officer Training. The W.O. program gave me aviation and that’s what I wanted.”
After completing basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Mike’s next stop was Warrant Officer Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, or as more commonly known, UCLA: Ugliest Corner of Lower Alabama. Halfway through flight school the Army switched seats on Mike, from the reliable old Huey to the sleek Cobra gunship. His Army wings were pinned on in December of 1989.
On flying choppers: “As they say, ‘to fly is heavenly, to hover divine.’ I loved choppers. The Cobra is only 3’ wide. It feels like you’re crawling into a fighter jet. I suppose that’s why they call it ‘the skinny chariot of death.’ It’s a blast to fly. Comparably, the Huey is a tadpole, the Cobra a Cadillac. Firing the cannon is awesome as is hearing rockets ‘swishing’ out of the pods.”
Fort Campbell, KY — Jan, 1990 — The 101st Airborne ‘Screaming Eagles’: Mike recalled, “I was with the 101st for 2 years, and all of that training came into play in Saudi Arabia. We deployed in Sept of 1990 for Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Our base at King Fahd Airport was a shocker; the heat felt like I was walking around with a tormentor holding a hair dryer on me at all times. The Army is beans and bullets. We slept on cots in a parking garage, no ice chests but tons of water bottles warm as bath water, we were endlessly seeking shade and ice. Our choppers showed up two weeks later.”
With most service activities done by TCN’s, Third Country Nationals, the Army pilots and crews trained in desert conditions and waited word for the war to commence. Mike said, “For 2½ months we ate MRE’s, Meals Ready to Eat, until finally served a decent meal for Thanksgiving. MRE’s aren’t all that bad; what’s bad is knowing your next meal is an MRE, and the next one, and the one after that. Then the Air Force flew in their A-10 Warthogs and set up on the opposite side of the runway. That, was a real eye-opener!”
The Army boys conducted sneak attacks on their Air Force brethren. “I couldn’t believe it,” Mike said. “Those Air Force guys lounged around in air-conditioned trailers, their chow hall was loaded with food, ice cream and a salad bar. We’d pull the Army insignias off our flight suits before strolling into their chow hall as if we were Air Force. That was my first inkling that I might consider going back into the Air Force.”
Asked how the Cobras adapted to desert conditions, Mike said, “Poorly. Sand was in everything, in the chopper, in your body. It was miserable. The mechanics were exceptional. They worked in the blistering heat on the flight line under parachutes held up by big tent poles installing IPS’s (Inlet Particle Separators). The IPS’s hopefully filtered out some of the sand. If sand gets into an engine it turns into glass from the heat and degrades power. You see, the A-10s landed on a runway, no sand, but the choppers landed in the sand stirring up clouds of fine dust-like grit. It was a maintenance nightmare.”
The Cobra crews trained nonstop, especially night flying with the older version night vision goggles. With very little ambient light in the desert, Mike compared the night training, “like flying inside a green ping pong ball.” Mike added, “It wasn’t really training for the offensive because we thought the Iraqis would come across the border before we could pool our forces together.”
Mike flew with the ECAS (Enhanced Cobra Armament System). “They took off infrared suppressors, radar jammers, radar warning receivers, I mean we were really stripped down. You’re stuck in 130 degree heat, so instead of 750 rounds of 20mm we only carried 200; instead of 38 rockets, we carried 24; instead of 4 TOW missiles we carried 2. Max gross weight of a Cobra is 10,000 pounds but in actual combat 10,500 pounds. We were at max.”
January 17, 1991 — 0200: A thunderous noise rattles the Army cots and awakens Mike and his buddies. The chopper pilots jump out of bed and rush outside. There on the flight line they witness a spectacular cabaret of American power - Air Force F-16 Falcons and other jets are taking off at short intervals on full afterburner. “It was awesome,” Mike recalled. “The noise was tremendous. The flames from those engines looked like they were 100 feet long. Those Air Force pilots that we had considered pampered were taking off to make the first strikes of the Gulf War. We wished them Godspeed.”
As Air Force and Navy aircraft pounded Iraqi targets, Mike’s squadron of 18 Cobras deployed just inside the Iraqi border as part of Operation Viper. “We were in the middle of the desert and anxious to get into combat,” he said. “But our mission was scouting and protecting the OH-58s observation choppers. We found a bunch of Iraqis on hills but their weapons were stacked and there was no fight left in them. They were surrendering by the thousands. By the time we set up for action, the war ended.”
Single at the time, Mike was one of the last pilots sent home. “I arrived at Fort Campbell, KY in April of 1992,” he said. “There I met my future wife and we had several dates before I was informed her father was the number one enlisted man on base, the Division Sergeant Major. I guess love conquers all; we got married anyway.”
Next stop, Fort Rucker, Alabama: Mike had been selected for a trade-in; his sleek Cadillac Cobra for the new Lamborghini of the Army, the deadly Apache assault helicopter. He said, “Everything wrong with the Cobra they fixed with the Apache; engine power, stand-off gun range, 30mm instead of a 20mm, hellfire missiles instead of the TOW. I loved that chopper.”
Mike and his new bride took ‘an extended honeymoon’ near Frankfurt, Germany with the 1st Armored. “That was a 3 year duty,” he said. “We traveled to Amsterdam, Switzerland, Paris, England, Belgium, and were at Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of the invasion. That was really neat, talking to the veterans of that historic battle.”
Mike continued, “After Germany we went back to Mother Rucker (Fort Rucker, Alabama). By that time I was an Apache instructor pilot. The training and flying, as always, was great, but I was getting tired of playing Army. No reflection on the Army, that’s where I learned all my skills and that’s where I was given a chance to be a pilot, but in the Army, just like in the Marines; you’re an infantryman first, then warrant officer, then aviator. After nine and a half years of 1- mile ruck sack marches every three months, wearing Kevlar and toting M-16s, I started looking for an ‘inter-service transfer’ to the Air Force.”
An Air Force internet advertisement fit the bill; the flyboys were looking for former Apache pilots to fly ‘Special Ops.’ Mike said, “The Air Force offered me a lot of carrots, including a regular commission, so I made a big jump at 34 years of age.” Mike trained with men in their early 20s at Maxwell AFB. He recalled, “That was a 12 week pain in the backside experience, but nothing like the Army or Marines. I received orders for Kirkland AFB in Albuquerque to sit behind the controls of the Pave Low. My dad got to pin my butter bars on me in a special ceremony. At that time I was the highest paid 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force.”
Mike trained for a year on the MH-53 Sikorsky Pave Low, a two-engine 50,000 pound beast capable of carrying 40 soldiers in back plus a crew of 6. During training each crew member had an instructor looking over his shoulder. Mike recalled, “That’s a lot of chatter to filter out on the intercom, but you learn to adjust. I’ll admit it was a big jump from a 2 man helicopter crew to a large crew plus snake-eaters and door kickers in the rear...uh, that’s the nation’s finest warriors, the Special Ops guys, some of the most dedicated and courageous men I’ve ever met.”
September 11, 2001: Mike was on leave when the Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon attacked, and a plane load of American heroes perished in a Pennsylvania field. All his training and expertise would come into play in the War on Terror. And in Mike’s future lay two prestigious Mackay Trophies, whose predecessors include ‘Hap’ Arnold, Chuck Yeager, and Jimmy Doolittle, for the ‘most meritorious flight of the year’ by an Air Force person. Mike would also be among the first pilots chosen to fly the revolutionary Osprey, half-airplane, half-helicopter.
Next week: Part II – “Big Daddy and Special Ops”
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.