Veterans Day 2017: The extraordinary life of Willie McCool

by Charlie Epperson
Stripes Guam
About the Author: Charlie Epperson is a competitive distance runner, a Coast Guardsman, and a former resident of Guam. He has survived more than one McCool Hill Climb.
 
Just over 22 years after the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia, Commander William Cameron McCool sat in the same seat with likely a similar understanding of the risk he and the crew were about to undertake.  Two weeks later, McCool was at the controls of the Space Shuttle Columbia (NASA Mission STS-107), on Feb. 1, 2003, as the Orbiter began to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere    after a successful 16-day scientific mission.
  
William Cameron (Willie) McCool was born in San Diego in 1961 to a family with a strong military background.  Willie’s mother, Col. (ret.) Audrey McCool, was a dietician with the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Specialist Corps.  His father, Lt. Cmdr. (ret.) Barent “Barry” McCool, was a former Marine that served two tours in Vietnam before finishing his military career as a U.S. Navy aviator, provided the guidance and motivation that would shape Willie’s future.   Willie aspired to be pilot and follow in his father’s footsteps.  And, much later his little brother, Shawn McCool, would follow this familiar path, becoming a U.S. Army Blackhawk pilot.  The family tradition of serving their country continues: Willie’s oldest son Sean McCool is  a major in the U.S. Marine Corps. 
 
WILLIE’S PATH
His life as a military brat provided Willie his first opportunities of adventure and exploration.  In the early 1970’s, the McCool family shipped off to Guam for a four-year assignment.  Although his father was a newly minted ensign, the Navy offered him housing in the senior officer-housing complex at NAS Agana due to having older dependents.  Living near the old FAA Housing complex allowed Willie and his siblings a chance to explore the jungle and remnants of the WWII era structures around present day Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station (NCTS) Guam located in Dededo.
  
Willie’s father, Barry, recalls spending time with his kids launching remote control planes off the network of abandon roads behind their housing complex.  It was also during this time that Willie tried his luck in sports playing both football and joining the NCS Seahorse swim team.  A natural athlete, Willie broke his leg playing football at JFK High School, while on Guam.  While under the advice of the attending orthopedic surgeon, Willie was encouraged to take up running as a way to regain his strength and rehab his injury.
  
Shortly after his setback in football, Willie would discover two constants that remained central in his life.  The stories of his youth allude to him being drawn to the John F. Kennedy High School track team due to the presence of a lovely Guamanian girl named Lani.  And, the second spark that would endure throughout his life was a passion for long distance running.
  
Before Willie had a chance to finish high school at JFK, his family would relocate to Lubbock, Texas.  While in Lubbock, Willie continued to excel in both his running and academics. Due to his hard work while a student at Coronado High School, he graduated number two in his class; this led to appointments at both the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.   While Willie may have left Guam, the time he spent together with Lani appears to never leave his mind. 
 
After graduation from Coronado High school, Willie chose to become a Midshipman and departed Lubbock, Texas for his plebe year at the U.S. Navy Academy in Annapolis, MD.  He quickly earned a spot on Navy Cross Country team led by Coach Al Cantello.  Over the next four years, Willie laid the foundations for his future.  He again graduated second in the Class of 1983 and served as the team captain of the Cross Country team during his senior year.
 
Due to his high class standing at the Academy, the Navy sent Willie to continue his academic and professional development at the University of Maryland, where he completed a master degree in computer science in 1985.  By 1986, Willie completed naval flight school and was assigned to his first operational tour with the Tactical Electronics Warfare Squadron 133 in Whidbey Island, WA.   Willie reconnected with Lani and it wasn’t too long before they took steps to ensure a life together.  The couple wed in 1986.  Lani had two boys from a previous marriage, Sean and Christopher.  Willie became their adopted father, then, in 1987 Lani gave birth to their third son, Cameron.
  
While assigned to NAS Whidbey Island, Willie would make two deployments aboard the USS CORAL SEA (CV-43) before being selected to attend U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, Class 101.  According to Dr. McCool, Willie knew taking the assignment as a test pilot meant uprooting the family which lead to him strongly considering turning down the opportunity.   Barry was brought into the discussions to talk sense into his young son; it didn’t take long before Willie and the family departed for Maryland.
 
Willie was awarded best thesis in his test pilot class.  His next assignment was as a test pilot on the EA-6B and TA-4J airframes in Patuxent River, MD.
   
Willie’s follow-on assignment was as the Operations Officer in VQA-132.  It was during this assignment that he learned of his selection by NASA into the Astronaut Program. Barry flew out and met with Willie and the Commanding Officer of VAQ-132.  As the Squadron Operations Officer during the midst of work-up for a West Pacific Carrier deployment; Willie was very concerned that his departure to NASA would leave them shorthanded.  The Commanding Officer knew what a privilege this opportunity was both to Willie and the Navy and reasoned with him on how important it was to the EA-6B Prowler community.  With that, Willie headed to NASA and his Naval aviation career was put on hold.  As a Naval aviator, Willie flew 24 different aircraft, logging over 2,800 flight hours with more than 400 carrier arrestments.
 
Once committed to the Space Program, Willie undertook two years of training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston before achieving qualification as a Space Shuttle pilot.  The NASA Class of 1996 earned the nickname “Sardines” due the sheer number of prospective astronauts.  Unfortunately, Willie and his crew would have to wait longer than normal for their opportunity to go to space.  First, his crew was bumped due to the necessity to retrieve and repair the Hubble Space Telescope and later for an emergency resupply of the International Space Station.
 
While NASA kept the crew busy in Houston awaiting their mission, Willie still found time to enjoy his passion for running and spending time with the family.  Willie’s son, Cameron, remembered his father rousing them for early morning runs.  After the crash, NASA astronauts remembered Willie’s devotion to his family and memories of soccer games amongst their small and tight community.  This period of their life would be the last memories they would share together.
  
As Willie prepared to launch into space in early 2003, he gathered small symbols that represented each chapter of his life for the journey.  A rally towel from his high school in Lubbock, a pennant flag that highlighted Navy’s dominance over Army throughout his coach’s career, and a Guam flag that was carried during the first Liberation Parade provided by former Guam Congressman Robert Underwood.  

THE MISSION
As most of us remember, NASA’s post-incident investigation determined the primary cause and contributing factors that led to the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia actually occurred during the launch and not during reentry.  NASA’s findings indicated:
 
At 81.7 seconds after launch, when the Shuttle was at about 65,600 feet and traveling at Mach 2.46 (1,650 mph), a large piece of handcrafted insulating foam came off an area where the Orbiter attaches to the External Tank.  At 81.9 seconds, it struck the leading edge of Columbia’s left wing.  This event was not detected by the crew on board or seen by ground support teams until the next day, during detailed reviews of all launch camera photography and videos. This foam strike had no apparent effect on the daily conduct of the 16-day mission.
 
The foam strike discovered the next day alarmed at least one NASA engineer.  The L.A. Times published a report in the months after the accident that NASA Chief Engineer Rodney Rocha expressed concerned over the potential damage to Columbia’s thermal protection system that “could present potentially grave hazards and that heating could occur in the most critical locations inside the orbiter’s left wing.” (LA Times, Apr. 1, 2003)  As early as Jan. 22, 2003, Rocha encouraged NASA officials to request the use of spy satellites to fully understand the extent of damage, if any, to the left wing of the Orbiter.  This request gained no traction and outside of internal emails amongst NASA engineers, it was not openly discussed with the Columbia crew.
 
The Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) was specifically configured as a scientific and research mission platform.  In that, they used the robust payload capacity to conduct over 80 experiments by working around the clock in rotating shifts throughout the mission.  To conduct these scientific missions, the Columbia (STS-107) did not carry the equipment necessary to dock with the International Space Station (ISS).  Furthermore, redirecting the Columbia from their current orbit to intercept the space station would have been nearly impossible.  Although a number of potential rescue theories emerged in the post-incident investigation, it is important to remember that NASA officials were not overly concerned during the mission itself.
  
In the early morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the Columbia crew enjoyed their final hours orbiting earth.  A video recovered after the crash shows the crew laughing and commenting about the plasma shield that begins to take shape around the shuttle during reentry.
   
As the shuttle entered the earth’s atmosphere, Columbia reached speeds of Mach 24.5 that generated a tremendous amount of heat from compressed atmospheric gases due to their supersonic speed.  As temperatures rose to an estimated 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit on parts of the orbiter’s exterior, structural components within the left wing overheated and ultimately failed.  On the ground at Mission Control, NASA operators received a series of alarms as indicators either failed or reach limits beyond measurement.  Mission Control struggled to grasp the severity of the alarms, they sent a capsule communicator message to the crew notifying them of the indicator alarms and potential lost of tire pressure in both landing gear.  Shuttle Commander Rick Husband responded, “Roger, uh, bu- “ (voice cut off in mid-sentence].  It was the last communication received from Columbia’s crew.
 
At exactly 9:00, eyewitness video on the ground near Dallas, TX taped the final moments as the Space Shuttle Columbia broke into a starburst across the otherwise calm Texas sky.  The crew was exactly 16 minutes from touchdown. 
  
AFTERMATH
In the weeks after the crash, members of the family spoke with Good Morning America about the impact Willie had on their life.  Willie’s oldest son Sean painted a vivid picture of a caring and attentive father.
  
“He was the greatest guy, he was always my soccer coach or baseball coach,” Sean McCool said. “He always made us go for runs, he was big into running. He would drag us out and make us run in the morning before school and things like that,” he said.  Less than a year later, Sean would join the U.S. Marine Corps where he still serves today as a Major stationed in the Pacific theater.
 
NASA launched one of the largest search and recovery operations in history that included thousands of volunteers combing the Texas landscape.  The debris recovered allowed investigators to piece together the final moments of the flight determined a number of actions taken by the crew.  It wasn’t surprising to learn that Pilot Willie McCool had fought to stabilize the shuttle and restore auxiliary power during those final moments of flight.  Willie had prepared his entire life to perform under pressure in very complex and unknown situations- his final actions would serve as a testament to his professionalism and approach to life.
 
Addressing the families during the memorial of the Space Shuttle Columbia Crew, President George W. Bush shared his appreciation of crewmember’s sacrifice and the families’ loss.   President Bush offered, “This cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart … We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.”
 
TRIBUTES
As the 15th year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster approaches, we are reminded that astronauts, like Willie McCool, risk peril to further the advancement of mankind.
 
I was slightly amazed by the number of tributes that recognize Willie for his achievements and ultimately sacrifice.
 
Shortly after the Space Shuttle crash, Guam Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo, wrote H.R. 672, a bill proposing the renaming of the school in Willie’s honor.  The bill drew upon Willie’s connection to Guam and was quickly ushered into law.  Formerly known as Guam South Elementary/Middle School, the Department of Defense facility was renamed at a ceremony on Aug. 29. 2003.
 
Willie’s mother-in-law, Atilana Rambayon, a Filipina who thought the best way to honor his legacy was to donate a hectare of her family land to build low-income houses in the Philippines.  Honoring his desire to see a borderless world, more than 50 single-family homes were erected and in a community setting named the “Willie McCool GK Legacy Village.”
 
Camp McCool, located at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan, was first occupied by Navy Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 142, a Prowler squadron, in December 2003.   Since 2009, the camp had been occupied by a Marine Prowler community. Since the camp’s opening, over 3,800 soldiers have lived and worked there while deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
  
Since running was a significant part of Willie’s life, the running communities on Guam and in Lubbock, Texas sought to recognize his accomplishments and life.  A few years after the disaster, the Guam Running Club (GRC) renamed one of their popular and toughest events, the McCool Hill Climb, to honor his legacy.  Always ran on the late afternoon on Veteran’s Day, the McCool Hill Climb is a daunting 5-mile vertical run from the base of Nimitz Hill to the peak of Mt. Alutom.   Each year prior to the start, GRC’s members take a moment to speak about Willie’s achievements and his connection to their island.
  
With an initial climb well over a mile at a 9% gradient, the McCool Hill Climb is nothing less than grueling.  Midway through the race, participants are rewarded a few rolling miles before climbing the last two miles to the peak.  There are no awards or medals, but it’s a great way to celebrate the lives of those that served our country and for a few minutes one in particular.
 
In Lubbock, Texas, the running community with the help of the Silent Wings Museum honors Willie McCool with a half marathon, 10K, and 5K events each April.  Each year, the race donates a portion of their proceeds to the Willie McCool Scholarship that awards a graduating senior at Coronado High School, who intends to major in math, engineering or pre-medicine with financial assistance for college.
 
However, as a runner it is fitting that I found myself unknowingly gravitating toward a monument erected by the persistence of his USNA coach on the grounds of the Academy golf course in Annapolis, MD.  During a recent morning run, I thought the coast was clear to enjoy a few miles on the rolling hills of the Academy golf course before the arrival of golfers made it too risky.  Cross-country season was in full swing and the golf course (that also serves as the Naval Academy’s home cross-country course) was freshly marked from a recent meet.
   
As I made my way along the more remote side of course, I could see a monument in the distance. Over the years, I had heard the story of Willie’s life and knew what his legacy represented. As the marker “16 Minutes from Home” came into focus- I was able to fully appreciate what an extraordinary man the world lost that day.

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