Dan Jones graduated from Central Valley Christian Academy in Ceres in 1989 and never dreamed he'd one day come back aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, which he pilots.
Now a full-time Stockton firefighter, Turlock resident and part-time California Army National Guard helicopter pilot, Chief Warrant Officer II Jones dropped onto the grounds of the private school campus Friday morning as a highlight to Red Ribbon Week. Jones, the father of CVCA preschooler Mary and kindergartner Naomi, spent some time talking to students about the importance of leading drug-free lives.
Along with Chief Warrant Officer Sylvester Wilson, Jones flew the $16 million aircraft from Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, a journey that took only 28 minutes at 168 mph. On the ground monitoring the incoming flight was his wife, National Guard Captain Cynthia Jones. The helicopter flew over, double backed to make a full circle and dropped in as students turned their faces away from the blast of wind from the blades.
Cynthia Jones explained to the Ceres students that the California Army National Guard helps out in homeland emergencies, like dropping water on wildland and forest fires, evacuating people during floods and searching for lost hikers in the mountains.
"We use our aircraft to help," said Cynthia Jones, who pilots a National Guard Chinook helicopter, which Dan describes as a school bus compared to his Black Hawk.
"I never thought I'd be able to do this but it's a lot of fun," said Dan Jones. "If you think you'd ever want to do this, it is possible. I will have to say that the Army is very strict so you have to have a clean lifestyle - you know, eating right, staying healthy, working out and staying drug-free is huge. Do you think you'd be able to pilot one of these things if you were on drugs?"
After graduating in Ceres, Jones joined the Army and came back to Ceres to work as a Ceres Fire Department volunteer from 1993 to 1996. He later became a paramedic with Stockton Fire. Jones joined the National Guard, first starting out as a flight medic before deciding to become a pilot. He has flown about 1,250 hours since graduating from flight school in 2008. He deployed three times to Afghanistan to come to the aid of civilians and soldiers. He also flew over Egypt and helped three weeks with Hurricane Katrina disaster rescues.
Clearance to make the trip and landing in Ceres took over a month.
"I had to do a lot of paperwork. Ever since 9/11, schools have become extremely protected. We're not even supposed to fly over schools below 1,000 feet."
The state had to approve the application and Caltrans visited the campus to certify that it was safe enough to land. The application wasn't approved until Thursday.
Wilson said the chopper makes about 25 school or community PR visits a year.
Before letting them go inside the helicopter, students were allowed to ask questions of Jones. When asked about the Black Hawk name of the helicopter, Dan said it's the Army's tradition to honor Native American Indian tribes.
Students asked about the age of the aircraft. Jones explained that it was built in 1987.
"It's very rare that the Army gets a lot of new aircraft. They just take the old ones and keep updating them. It's cheaper to update them than it is to buy brand new ones."
He explained that under the terms of the Geneva Convention, medivacs cannot carry weapons.
"See that red cross on the side?" he asked students. "That is supposed to mean we are on a mission or mercy picking up wounded people. Technically we are not supposed to be shot at. It doesn't happen that way... we know we take a great risk going into some of these LZs (landing zones), being shot at but our mission is to get our soldiers out because they are depending on us."
One student was curious as to the "gas mileage." Jones didn't have an answer but said the helicopter can fly two and a half hours on 360 gallons of fuel.
Being that he was on a Christian campus, Jones freely noted that his dependence on God has been his salvation. He detailed the difficulties of landing on a rocky terrain one night in Afghanistan to rescue soldiers whose vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Jones explained the difficulty of flying with night vision goggles. With dust kicking up, he relied on his memory of what was below. It was a hard landing but all was okay.
"There's a lot of times I said a lot of prayers. I can't say that I ever felt scared because if you leave everything in God's hands, He's going to see you through it. I'm blessed to be back here today."
Principal Benjie Maxson was happy that the flight took place after five years of being told no because of budget cutbacks.
"They're a great family and they're super supportive of the school and they said ‘we hope we can do it," said Maxson.
Jones met his wife - then a member of the Washington State National Guard - at flight school in Fort Rucker, Alabama. They married seven years ago.
"One of her commanders said the worst thing about sending women to flight school is they always go get married and go to another state. They did not want to lose her. They offered me a job up there to keep her. I feel bad that I took her away from her state but ..."
Jones keeps the road hot between Turlock and Sacramento. Typically he drives to Mather after work and stays there two days to fly at night and come back the next day.