Air Force Capt James M. Steel
KIA April 3, 2013
Operation Enduring Freedom
Assigned to 77th Fighter Squadron, Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina
Air Force Capt. James Steel died April 3, 2013 in the crash of an F-16 near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. While returning to the airfield from a close-air support mission, Capt. Steel was flying his F-16 low to prepare for landing but could not see the mountain in his flight path due to poor weather conditions. According to the crash investigation report, Steel’s plane had a low altitude warning that sounded before he crashed. However, his Predictive Ground Collision Avoidance System did not warn him about the mountain because it was not connected to the digital terrain database. Capt. Steel began to pull up when the PGCAS emitted an altitude warning, but not enough to avoid the mountain. Capt. Steel was on his first deployment to Afghanistan and was due to come home in just three weeks.
“He was always smiling, always happy,” James’ mother, Dee Steel, said, “He loved life. I think he lived two days for every one day. He just got the most out of every day.” Dee recalls that though James was not the oldest of his four brothers and one sister, he took the lead from the very beginning. Every Christmas, James told his siblings what gifts they would get their parents and how much they each owed him. James taught himself to play guitar, had a love for skydiving, working out, and fishing.
From as far back as Dee can remember her fearless son wanted to be an F-16 pilot like his father, retired Air Force Major General Robert Steel. James’ mother had also spent 4 years in the Air Force, as well as both grandfathers, who were Air Force veterans. James ran cross country and track in high school, graduated valedictorian and, like both his parents, went on to the Air Force Academy where he was commander of the same squadron to which his mom and dad belonged more than two decades before. Col. Clay Hall said, “Mano [Steel’s call sign] was proud of serving his country, proud of being an F-16 pilot and proud of being a ‘Gambler.’” Col. Shaun McGrath, 20th Operations Group Commander, honored Capt. Steel by allowing members of the 20th OG to wear 77th FS “Gambler” red and black t-shirts under their duty uniforms. On an internet post dedicated to James, the words “Once a gambler, always a gambler” appear next to his name.
Capt. James Steel was 29 years old from Tampa, Florida
Original portrait was presented December 22, 2014 during a private presentation held at the Steel family home in Herndon, VA
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