Remembering Rob Skiba: The Death Star Trench Run

by | Nov 3, 2021

The following script derives from my disbanded book anthology series, The Unexpected Cosmology, which sought to chronicle the lives of flat earthists and also those within the Torah community. Hours upon hours of interviews were recorded. It was truly a project of love. Though written as a biography, the narrative takes its form from literal conversations held between myself and those being interviewed. This is just one segment from Rob Skiba’s life. For a slightly fuller context, I recommend reading another section from the same book, Kiss Alabama. Shalom.

Noel

THE DEATH STAR TRENCH RUN | Rob Skiba

 

MOST OF US cannot remember a time in our life when Star Wars was not a part of it. Perhaps I can only speak for myself. One of my earliest memories is anxiously standing in line for Return of the Jedi. The very fact that I knew what an Ewok was, or more precisely, that I even knew to call an Ewok an Ewok, when the movie itself never once utters the word Ewok, proves a well-orchestrated corporate merchandising machine was already work. Being raised in a Christian home, I can recollect a knowledge from Scripture just as assuredly as I rehearsed stories from a galaxy far, far away—thanks in part to the printing press, and then Betamax and VHS. In other words, though it is true that a Bible could easily be found on any number of shelves, I would have to cross the bedroom rug, littered with Kenner Star Wars toys, in order to find one.

If a child begins to amass lasting memory around three years of age, then Rob Skiba was the very last generation who might narrowly recollect a reality without employing Star Wars for its filter. He was born in June of 1969, one month before the Apollo 11 moon landing. July 20, 1969, while Neil Armstrong set foot upon the moon, the Skiba household didn’t simply watch from their living room with the rest of America. His father stood in front of the television snapping prints in order to make a lasting monument of the event. As the Apollo moon missions came to a close in 1975, those who were born and yet still remember a time before finally came to a close. But Skiba remembers.

With its release on May 4, 1977, that and July 20, 1969 would seemingly be fused together into one entity. Skiba was still seven years old when he caught his first screening. He would watch it at least a dozen times in the theater during its initial run. Previously, his parents had Adolf Hitler as a stand-in for terror incarnate, but now there was Darth Vader. But even more importantly, he could gaze at the glowing moon, and rather than squinting his eyes, seeking out an American foot print, he could imagine the Death Star looming above him. And he wanted to go there.

He even made a declaration at the whereabouts of his eighth birthday.  He would either be an astronaut, a filmmaker, or an actor by the time he was thirty—or he’d be dead. Upon close inspection, all three goals combined separate ingredients that, when blended together, made up one movie. Essentially, Skiba would be Luke Skywalker or Han Solo and step foot on the Death Star, he’d be the actor playing Skywalker or Solo stepping foot upon the Death Star, or he’d be the guy writing the characters into being. “And it wasn’t that I had a death wish, but thirty to an eight-year-old is an old man. My thinking was, ‘if I hadn’t achieved one of those things, by the time I was thirty, it would be because I was dead.” Astonishingly, Rob Skiba would devote the bulk of his adult life pursuing all three of the goals first perpetrated in 1977.

Coincidently, he became a Christian that very year.

BOOT CAMP was only a memory. With the first hurdle to the moon already behind him, Rob Skiba then turned his attention to Fort Eustis, Virginia and tech training. Despite a rocky start at Fort McClellan, Skiba graduated at the very top of his class. At his 67 Victor helicopter mechanic school and even beyond, his overachievements would become the trend.

At Fort Eustis they made him squad leader.

The job title secured Skiba with his very own room. “Everybody else was in the barracks. That came with its own set of headaches and everything, and of course you were responsible for anything that went wrong in your squad, but I appreciated the challenge. And my dad had taught me some secrets on how to polish the floor and polish your shoes, and be squared away, as they called it.” But then one day, combined with the tricks of the trade which his father had taught him, Skiba had an idea all his own. “They call it a bus driver hat. It’s for your dress uniform. And the bill of your hat—you had to polish it along with your medals and badges and what not. So, I found this stuff that you’d use to polish up the vinyl and stuff in your car. Armor All. That worked amazingly on my hat.”

He tried it on his shoes. Beautiful.

A spitting image

He then had the bright idea to try it on the floor.

“We had to use car wax and stuff on the floor, and then get out these buffer machines until the floor was shining.” Skiba decided to apply everything he’d taught himself regarding the shining powers of Armor All and wax the entire floor. “Sure enough, it was like a mirror. My floor was amazing.”

When the drill sergeant came in, he slipped.

WHAT THE HELL DID YOU PUT ON THIS FLOOR, PRIVATE SKIBA!

Skiba said, “Uuhhh, Armor All…?”

THE GOAL obviously was NASA. “So, I wanted to accelerate to the top of my class in everything I did, and was successful, for the most part.” With his graduation from tech school squared away, Skiba was a fully certified 67 Victor mechanic. Second hurdle. “And within a short period of time I actually got a full-time job. I was in a National Guard unit, which would have been one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, but they had a job opening for a full-time technician. So, I was basically regular Army. I was there every day.”

One can only wonder how many times Rob Skiba blinked before they handed him the rank of Sergeant. “And so, I was paid as an E-5 Sergeant on the weekends and on the two-week summer deal. But during the week I was paid a wage grade servant, kind of like a postal employee. So, I got paid quite a deal more than my E5 counterparts in the regular Army.” He climbed the ranks so quickly that he even maxed out his pay at wage grade 11, step 5, “which is about as high as I could go in my pay grade scale without going into management. And I didn’t want that headache, so I was content there.”

Sergeant Skiba was only twenty-two years old.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of incentive to stay because there was nowhere else left to go.”

Throughout his various schools, all of which hoped to prepare him for NASA, Skiba continued graduating with distinguished honors. He was a helicopter pilot initially on the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse helicopter, but “as I climbed the ranks, they gave me more aircrafts.” That included the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, nicknamed Huey, and the Bell AH-1 Cobra. “I actually had several helicopters that were specifically assigned to me, that I was responsible for, and my team was responsible for. That was cool, essentially having ownership of these crafts, and when you get assigned aircraft for yourself, and not just randomly working on others, you can really take pride in taking care of them. I wanted to know how they worked because, before I flew them, I wanted to know how to fix them quickly if I needed to.”

His father had been a career aviator—a pilot in Vietnam. “He taught me tricks, like how to hover—tricks that I could do to help me hover quicker. And one of the things was, taking a five-gallon bucket that you could get at Home Depot, filling it up with water, and getting a broom stick that you can cut in half, and trying to hold it in the bucket of water without making ripples. So, if you can hold it without making ripples—okay great. Now put a board on top of the stick and try to balance the board with the stick in the water without making ripples. If you can do that, then put a marble on the board and try to balance the marble on the board on the stick without making ripples in the bucket. So, he taught me tricks like this ahead of time, which I very quickly mastered.”

“The hardest thing about flying helicopters is learning how to hover. It can take anywhere from ten to fifteen hours when you’re going through flight school to figure out how to do it.”

Skiba mastered it in about two hours.

With Skiba’s marble perfectly secured upon his perfectly balanced board on top of his half-cut broomstick in his five-gallon bucket of water from Home Depot—no ripples, his instructor (he was a Vietnam veteran too, and like Skiba’s own father, a war pilot) was like:

“Damn, Skiba, alright.”

“He had nerves of steel,” Skiba recalled.

Instructor, “You got that down. You want to go have some fun?”

Skiba grinned.

Once again, Skiba graduated at the top of his class.

In flight school, he learned to handle the Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter. “And when I came back to my duty unit, we had OH-6’s,” or the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, “which I was already familiar with as a mechanic. And sometimes the pilots would take me up on a test flight, you know, if I’d just fixed the transmission. It’s sort of an insurance policy. If you just fixed something major, take the mechanic on board with you.  If I’m willing to get into that thing after I fixed it, that’s probably a good sign that I’m confident and I did a good job. So, sometimes the pilots would let me have the controls. That was pretty rare until I came back from EAO School. They called it Enlisted Aeroscout Observer School. And at that point we became a scout weapons team.”

With Terry—Terry Knight, the pilot-mechanic relationship was nurtured. Actually, a friendship was kindled. “We flew together as a team a lot, and we quickly became good friends, so we were like Goose and Maverick in Top Gun. We would go up to this training area in western Massachusetts, not too far from the New York border, and there was an area called October Mountain, and that was our training area.”

While scouting the terrain over and around October Mountain, Skiba and Knight happened upon a long narrow pass, where trees were being cleared for the installation of power lines. “But they weren’t there at the time. It was just this swath of trees cut out from the mountain—a clearing of trees that we could fit through in helicopters.” Knight had seen Star Wars too. Who hadn’t? Finally, Skiba and Knight had the Death Star trench run that their child counterparts had dreamed of navigating. Cue John Williams. “So, of course, all of us, being Star Wars geeks, we would play Star Wars with helicopters.” This would involve making their approach to the Death Star trench. All wings report in. It even included a hole at the end which was not quite unlike the target which Luke Skywalker was aiming for with his photon torpedoes. Their combat training was achieved through a Star Wars simulation.

Not too far from the trench run, Skiba and Knight happened upon a dam, replenished with water. “That would be an area where we would land and do a fuel consumption check and just make sure we had enough fuel for our mission and getting back. That was part of my job. My primary job was navigation, threat identification, finding the bad guys, doing calls for fire, and doing pre and post flight checks, and fuel consumption checks. Those were my primary responsibilities. And I would have to be able to handle an aircraft in the event that the pilot got shot. That’s why I had to know how to fly. I was an enlisted pilot, but my primary job was to do threat identification, threat ID, and calls for fire.”

“We flew what they call Nap-of-the-earth flying. We just called it sneak and peek. Essentially, the body of the aircraft was below the tree line, and the rotor blades were just right at treetop level. So, we’re flying low and slow through the woods, and we would pop up if we had any indication that there would be enemy movement somewhere. Pop up briefly. Pop back down. And if I spotted enemy, ground or air, I was to mark down the grid coordinates and radio that to the fire control battery that was behind the line somewhere and do a call for fire. So. if I identified tank movement or something, I’d say ‘I got tank movement at such and such coordinate, call for fire.’ They’d lob a few rounds into that general area, and I’d pop back up to see where the rounds landed. If they weren’t close enough, I would have to, what they call, walk it on target, and give them various coordinates to do so. And then they’d fire again, and if they were really close or on target, I’d say, ‘fire for effect.’ And that was like having Thor’s hammer. This reign of terror would come down and just blow up everything.”

Skiba made sound effects over the phone.

Calling for fire during a sneak and peek “felt like you had the power of the gods at your fingertips.”

His duties as a helicopter mechanic also entitled Skiba to the position of crew chief, usually on a Huey, which also afforded him the added responsibility of making sure passengers on board were secured, the equipment properly stowed, while simultaneously lobbying off rounds as the door gunner—if need be. Tied to a harness and bungee cord, Skiba would man an M-60 on a swivel, “and so, if you remember John Rambo with the M-60, I got this M-60 rigged with two handles, hanging outside of the Huey shooting up targets on the ground. That was a lot of fun.”

He was then careful to add: “Of course, nobody was shooting back at me.”

“A lot of the guys that I flew with let me on the controls. They would really give me the time to get good at it.” Often, they would come to rest upon the low-laying land near the dyke, in order to complete a fuel consumption check. “There was a pretty good-sized boulder there.”

Skiba looked over at Terry. Knight was eyeballing it too. Knight turned Skiba, and Skiba to Knight. 

“You thinking what I’m thinking?”

“I think so,” Skiba.

Knight said, “Let’s do it.”

Skiba unbuckled himself and managed to haul the boulder into the helicopter. Piloting in the summertime “was like flying in a Jeep with the doors off,” Skiba recalled. With the boulder secured and the doors of the helicopter already removed, they spiraled upwards some 3,000 feet.

“Pilot to bombardier,” Knight said.

“Bombardier ready,” Skiba.

Launch!

Skiba removed the package from 3,000 feet. “It flew down into the lake and made this huge explosion. I never had to do any of this in an actual combat scenario, thank God. So, for me, it was all peace time exercises, which was a lot of fun, and almost too much fun for any twenty-year-old to have the responsibility of doing. You know, they’re putting twenty-year-old’s in command of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, and sending us off to play Star Wars.”

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