From the cockpit of his F-18 Hornet, Bill Noelker saw the trail of smoke below. The year was 1991, and he was in the Middle East during the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had one of the top five largest armies in the world at the time, and he had invaded Iraq. The United States was leading the effort to stop him.
The missile was heading toward Bill’s jet. The Iraqis had some missiles that could be effective all the way up to 50,000 feet. Some were radar-guided, some heat seekers; some both.
Bill had loved airplanes since he was a boy. He would make models, and at one time he wanted to be an astronaut.
At age 17, he had his first chance to fly a real airplane. He took his first lesson in a Cessna 172, a small plane with one propeller. The cockpit had an overwhelming dashboard of gauges and knobs and buttons. Unlike a car, which has one steering wheel, this had two control wheels, called a yoke, one for each pilot. The instructor got the plane rolling down the runway, and as soon as it was airborne, only about 50 feet off the ground, Bill was in for a shock.
“You got it,” said the instructor. Bill had control of the plane.
He was in love. Flying was exhilarating to him, and he watched the landscape become a patchwork quilt of streets below with tiny cars; yards and neighborhoods forming squares, rectangles and trapezoids.
Bill Noelker graduated from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky and went into the Navy in 1986. He wanted to fly fighter jets.
One of the first things they did was put him in what they call the “Spin and Puke.” It’s designed to weed out anyone who can’t handle spinning around really fast.
“It’s like a closet on wheels, and they blindfold you,” says Bill Noelker. “They spin you around and they stop. Then they spin you around again and again. If you threw up, you’d be busted out.”
He passed. He had courses in weather, aerodynamics, water survival, land survival, ejection seat training and more. Then he had a 14-week basic training with a Marine Corps drill instructor.
“That was a time when the drill instructors could still hit you,” Bill says with a wince and a laugh. “They made us tough.”
Bill graduated at the top of his class, and he had his choice of aircraft. He decided to fly the F-18 Hornet, which is a fighter jet with bomber capabilities.
“The acceleration pushes you back in your seat. It’s a much smoother ride than a prop plane, too. It’s a whole different animal. Things happen much faster. You’re going 500 miles per hour. Your reaction time has to be in milliseconds, not seconds.”
Bill remembers the first time he took a jet up to 50,000 feet. “You see the curvature of Earth. You go from blue on the horizon to black. There’s less atmosphere, so you don’t see the blue sky. If you look up, you see space.”
Then Bill went from landing on a mile-long runway to a carrier deck that was 300 feet long.
“You don’t really land, you fly the airplane into the aircraft carrier,” says Bill. Powerful cables latch onto the jet. “You go from 160 mph to zero in about three seconds.”
The margin of error is about three feet. If a pilot misses that mark, the aircraft plunges into the ocean and the pilot likely dies.
An aircraft carrier on the ocean looks like a speck. At night, it’s even worse. “It’s the most demanding thing I’ve ever done,” says Bill. “Even more than flying in combat.”
Sometimes pilots don’t make it.
Bill’s friend, Steven Pontell, was trying to land when something went wrong. “We think the throttle got jammed. He was told to go around, but when he tried to pull up, he had no power.”
The jet hit the carrier’s tower and spun around into the deck in a ball of fire and metal. Five people were killed and 17 injured.
That was the first time Bill had lost friends.
Two months later, Bill had a phone call while he was in Danville at the funeral of his wife’s grandfather. It was his commanding officer: he was going to war.
Just before Christmas in 1990, Bill Noelker found himself on a ferry off the coast of Haifa, Israel. He had been in the region just a few days, and it was just after midnight when tragedy struck.
Bill and others were taking 57-foot ferries to the aircraft carrier Saratoga. There were 3- to 4-foot waves in the dark harbor, and Bill’s ferry made it safely. Another boat, however, carrying about 100 men, capsized. It sank within seconds, and 20 men died.
“It could have been me,” says Bill. “The next day we had a ceremony where we honored those who died, but we couldn’t mourn long. We had a job to do.”
Bill’s first job was to fly a patrol in his jet near the Red Sea. He was by himself, with no other jets and no co-pilot. If the Iraqis sent jets to attack his carrier, it was his mission to intercept them and destroy them.
There were 5,000 lives below on his carrier that were under his protection. He could not fail them. “I could feel the weight of that responsibility,” he says.
He was flying at about 40,000 feet, doing giant circles for about five hours. “I could see Israel, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Red Sea, down to the carrier, and well into Saudi Arabia. The ocean was a beautiful, deep blue. You could see the Nile Delta as well, so there is some green on the Egyptian side, but mostly it’s just the brown desert.”
Bill would also be sent on attack missions. That’s when he was shot at the most. Most of the missiles came from an elaborate network of surface-to-air stations across Iraq. Captured U.S. airmen were paraded on television, most with signs of being beaten and tortured by the Iraqis.
“We just accepted it. You knew every time you went flying there was a chance you wouldn’t come back. Every time we would go in, they knew we were there and they were shooting at us.”
There was no alarm system to tell Bill when a heat-seeker was coming at him. He had to see it, or a nearby jet or ship would have to see it and let him know.
Bill saw the smoke trail. It was making an arc, following the heat signature of his jet. Instead of trying to run, Bill turned his jet and flew directly at the missile. He wanted to create more angles for the missile’s path toward him.
Bill had to be worried about getting too close before turning. “Some of them have radars that sense metal and explode when they get close,” he says. “You don’t want that to happen.”
Bill made his decision to turn, and the missile couldn’t keep up. It slid behind his jet, and he had out-maneuvered it.
Bill Noelker is now an attorney in Danville. He does bankruptcy and personal injury law as well as serving as the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Mercer and Boyle Counties. “A lot of it is fighting for the little guy,” he says. He often does free legal work for veterans, who are especially close to his heart.
Bill is not afraid of facing down problems. That’s why he’s running to be a state representative for the people of Casey and Boyle Counties.
“This is not something I ever wanted to do,” he says. “I’m doing this because I served my country just about my whole adult life. I’ve put my life on the line and watched others that I care about die for this country, and it’s incredibly important. My job is to make it better for all of us. We need to stop being selfish and realize that we are in this together.”
Learn more about Bill at www.noelkerfor54.com.