Oceana chief: Right man at right time for jet crash

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH

(Ross Taylor | The Virginian-Pilot)

Bob Geis, just three weeks into his job as commander of Oceana Naval Air Station, is flying back from an aviation conference in San Diego.

It’s midday on April 6, 2012 – Good Friday.

Hundreds of miles away, at Oceana, an F/A-18 Hornet rockets off a runway at 160 mph. Almost immediately, the aviators know something isn’t right.

In the sky above north Texas, Geis and his wife, Teresa, talk about lessons from the Navy conference, where they had attended a lecture on leadership in times of crisis.

They sip water from small plastic cups and discuss strategies for getting off to a good start during his tenure leading the master jet base.

By the time the Hornet’s second engine stalls, there’s nothing the pilots can do. After 25 seconds of flight, having reached an altitude of 452 feet, the fighter jet starts to fall.

Geis is seated along the aisle, as is the case every time the career aviator flies commercial: “If something ever went wrong,” the Navy captain reasons, “I’d be in a better position to get up and help people.”

The airliner cruises 30,000 feet above green prairie and winding rivers.

On the other side of America, a blur of gray metal explodes into the Mayfair Mews apartment complex. Residents run out of their homes and scream for help as flames and thick black smoke shoot into the sky. Calls pour into 911 dispatchers and to the Oceana command center.

Midway through his flight, Geis sits back, closes his eyes and nods off to the drone of the plane’s powerful twin engines – oblivious that this would be one of the most trying days of his life.

His cellphone, tucked away in his pocket, doesn’t make a sound.

***

Jim Webb was loading up his car for a long weekend on the Eastern Shore when his wife rushed outside; TV news was reporting a jet had gone down near the Oceanfront.

Webb pulled out his cellphone and made a call to his old office at Oceana.

A few weeks earlier, this would have been his problem. Capt. Webb, the former commander of Oceana, had recently handed over the reins to Geis, who spent 18 months as his executive officer, or second-in-command.

“I called over there and asked if there was anything I could do to help,” Webb recalled last week from his office in Seattle, where he works as a test pilot. “I knew Capt. Geis was traveling and wanted to lend a hand.”

The new executive officer of the master jet base, Capt. Christopher Chope, told Webb things were hectic, but they had everything under control.

Oceana emergency responders train regularly with the city, Webb said. “So when something terrible like this happens, everyone knows exactly what to do and where to go.”

In that way, it didn’t matter that Geis was far away and unreachable at the time of the crash, Webb said.

His biggest challenges would come in the aftermath. At the very least, Webb thought, dozens of people had been displaced from their homes, if not killed, and the Navy was responsible. Property had been destroyed; photo albums and family heirlooms had gone up in flames. People’s lives had been shattered.

“There was not a doubt in my mind he was going to be great in the job,” Webb said of Geis. “I just didn’t have any idea that was going to be tested so quickly.”

***

Moments after touching down at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Geis flipped on his government Blackberry. His wife’s phone came alive first, beeping with alerts.

She had several new text messages, saying things like, “We’re praying for you guys,” and “I know Bob must be busy,” and “I hope everyone is OK.”

Puzzled, Geis looked at his phone.

Once it finally connected with the satellite, he was besieged with dozens of text and voice messages and more than 50 emails.

Two hours had passed since the jet went down, and details were spilling out of his inbox.

As the plane taxied toward the gate, Geis dialed Chope’s number, pulled the phone to his ear and cupped a hand over his mouth. He moved to his wife’s inside seat so he could talk without causing a commotion on the crowded plane.

His executive officer updated him with the latest information. A Hornet from a training squadron had gone down about a minute after taking off. Both the pilot and the backseat weapons operator had ejected seconds before impact and were receiving medical care. Several apartment units were destroyed. No word on possible casualties.

Inside the airport, Teresa went to work persuading airline officials to move her and her husband to an earlier flight back to Norfolk.

Geis, phone pressed to his ear, walked up to a television in the airport lobby as he talked with an official at the scene. CNN was broadcasting aerial footage of the crash site and interviewing eyewitnesses.

The view was familiar; he had flown numerous missions over that sliver of Virginia Beach, between the base and the Oceanfront. But this was different.

Whole apartments had been leveled, and several others were smoldering as crews sprayed foam onto the wreckage. Black smoke billowed from the complex as frantic residents described the horrifying sound of the crash.

Geis hung up the phone, stared at the screen and wrestled with a thought that had nagged at him from the moment he learned of the accident: Would it be appropriate for the commander to attend funerals of residents killed by one of his base’s jets?

Would the families even want him there?

***

During a recent tour of Oceana, Geis led a group of employees and visitors up to the observation tower overlooking the flight line.

“Who remembers what happened here around this time last year?” Geis asked the group.

“A jet crash,” one woman said.

“The Good Friday miracle,” said another.

Geis nodded and pointed out to Runway 5R as a line of jets queued up, waiting to take off.

He described the scene on April 6 last year. He talked about how a Hornet from Strike Fighter Squadron 106 – the same training squadron he flies with once a week – had suffered a rare dual-engine failure moments after taking off; how the jet could easily have slammed into towering Oceanfront hotels; how he and others were stunned a day later when they learned that nobody had been killed.

Most everyone in the room already knew the story. The defining event from Geis’ tenure at Oceana dominated headlines for weeks afterward.

One woman on the tour said she was impressed with the Navy’s response and told Geis someone from the government ought to take notes from him on how to respond to a disaster.

“I am from the government,” Geis said, laughing.

Geis joined the Navy and entered flight school 26 years ago after earning a degree in communications – an odd educational path for a fighter pilot, but one that has paid off in his dealings with the public. He answers to “Goose” when he’s in the air – he earned the call sign because his name, which rhymes with “ice,” is often mispronounced “geese” – and seems genuinely enthusiastic about naval aviation.

At first glance, the smiling 49-year-old from San Diego looks half his age.

Geis started giving monthly tours to Oceana employees not long after the crash. The idea came after an employee at the base gym approached him while he was working out. The man told Geis that he had been working there for six years but had never been on the flight line.

“I couldn’t believe that,” Geis said.

He figured letting employees get up close to fighter jets would help them take greater pride in their work, especially those who fill potholes or mow grass.

“I want them to know that what they do makes all of this possible,” Geis said. “They have a role in supporting our warfighters.”

During the tour last week, Geis took extra care to use descriptive language while talking about the jets and other sights along the way. A visually impaired worker from the base convenience store had joined the group, and Geis didn’t want him to feel left out.

That anecdote didn’t surprise Webb.

“Capt. Geis is a deeply compassionate person,” he said. “He is an absolutist when it comes to what’s the right thing to do, and he will absolutely drop everything when he needs to help somebody.”

All of those traits were tested last spring.

***

The wreckage was still smoking when Geis got to the crash site shortly after sunset that Friday.

Nobody had been found dead, and only a handful of residents remained unaccounted for, but Geis wasn’t ready to start counting blessings. It wasn’t until days later, when crews removed the jet’s tail from the site and confirmed that nobody had been pinned beneath it, that Geis relaxed.

“Every time someone said, ‘miracle,’ I was like, ‘I hope so,’ ” Geis said. “I think the worst thing I could have done was to go out and say, ‘This is great,’ then lo and behold, someone who wasn’t even supposed to be there was there and was hurt or killed.”

Miracle or not, the crash displaced more than 100 people. Geis met personally with many of them the next morning and promised he would do everything in his power to take care of them.

The quick emergency response was the result of repeated practice; caring for residents and cleaning up the site in the aftermath took more creativity.

In the weeks that followed, Geis became the face of the Navy’s relief and cleanup efforts. For days afterward, he made himself available to reporters during daily briefings at the site. He also took time to respond to residents’ concerns.

Geis deflects compliments, instead praising Navy leadership and his team for their response to the crisis. But those who were there on the ground credit Geis with bringing a sense of calm amid chaos.

“He was awesome,” said Earl Mawyer, the former manager of Mayfair Mews, who worked closely with Navy officials throughout the cleanup. “I remember him saying, ‘Whatever it takes. Whatever they need, let’s get it.’ He’s a real stand-up guy.”

Days after the crash, Mayor Will Sessoms took Geis to dinner to thank him for his efforts.

“He was at every meeting and reassuring,” Sessoms said. “He said all the right things and followed through with actions. I don’t think I know a better person.”

A month later, not long after some residents were allowed to return to their homes at the apartment complex, a handwritten note appeared on Geis’ desk.

He tucked the card away in his gym bag and still carries it everywhere he goes.

It came from Joanie Coleman, an 80-year-old Mayfair Mews resident who witnessed the crash, which she said took her back to her childhood in London during the German blitz of World War II.

A jet from his base had crashed into her apartment complex, and she had written to say thank you.

“How do you describe that?” Geis said, holding the card at his desk as jets rumbled overhead. “It’s beyond words.”

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