Photograph by Jamie Betts
Photograph by Jamie Betts

As pilots prepare for takeoff, they go through a preflight checklist.

Fuel? Check.

Windows and doors? Closed.

Beacon? On.

Controls? Checked.

With every flight, the steps become ingrained, routine. A roughly 15-minute process that verifies all switches, buttons, and levers are in position. That all necessary equipment is at the ready. That the flight will arrive safely at its destination, with no surprises along the way.

Portrait of Ian Hutter, photograph by Jamie Betts

But let’s say it’s a military flight along the border between Pakistan and Iran during the Arab Spring, when demonstrations and riots are taking place throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Flying along the “boulevard,” the nickname for the path across the border, comes with its own routine. Aviators have to stick to a specific altitude and stay to the right — just like a driver on a road. They travel for about an hour down the path with a hostile Iran just a few miles away. They talk to the “eye in the sky,” a contingent of U.S., Italian, and British forces deciding who needs air support and which pilots are being sent where.

Military aviators must pay attention to the troops on the ground and try not to get in the way of other potentially more important missions. Sometimes their presence is all that’s needed to support the troops below. Other times further engagement might be necessary.

That was the checklist going through Navy Lt. Ian Hutter’s mind in the early hours of May 2, 2011, as he stepped into an F/A-18 combat jet. It was on that flight that he unknowingly escorted al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s remains as SEAL Team 6 made its way to the North Arabian Sea.

• • •

Ian Hutter was just a few weeks into his first year of college when he watched two planes fly into the World Trade Center. With the brash bravado of an 18-year-old, Hutter was ready to enlist in the military and ship out to Afghanistan right then.

His response didn’t come from left field. Hutter was already in ROTC at the University of Virginia. His father, Paul, served in the Army for years, both on active duty and as a reservist. He had posts with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs before President George W. Bush named him the VA’s general counsel.

So when Hutter called to tell his father, “I’m quitting school. I’m enlisting. I’ve got to go get these guys,” Hutter listened when his father tried to talk him out of it.

“My dad, very calm, very cool, said, ‘I respect your opinion, and I respect your feelings. [But] think about how valuable you could be as an officer in the military,’” Hutter says. “He told me, ‘You just have to wait three years, and you can do all of these things. And you’ll more quickly have an opportunity to lead.’ So I did.”

Hutter stayed the course, graduated, and was commissioned into the Navy. He was selected as a naval flight officer — “That would be Goose, not Maverick,” he says, referring to the film Top Gun — and spent two-and-a-half years in flight school in Pensacola, Florida.

Flight school felt different from college, he says.

“It felt a little bit more real,” he says. “This is my job. This is my profession. It’s not something that’s leading up to it.”

He first flew a Cessna 172, the four-seater, single-engine plane that most pilots learn on. From there, the students are grouped by skill and preference to train on specific aircraft. Some might be assigned to a P-3 Orion, a large maritime surveillance aircraft. Others might land in an E-2 Hawkeye, an airborne early warning aircraft.

Hutter’s sights were set on the F/A-18 Hornet, a combat jet frequently used for escort, close air support, and reconnaissance. The F/A-18 is an aerodynamic twin-engine supersonic jet capable of hitting Mach 1.8, or 1,190 mph. It was designed as both a fighter and an attack aircraft and can carry a variety of bombs and missiles.

At first I thought, 'I really want to drop a bomb...' then you have to grow up a bit...

“At that point, I wanted to be the best at my job, and F/A-18s were considered by most the hardest thing to do,” he says. “Of course jets seem sexy and cool, but for me, it was like, ‘If I’m going to be the best at this, then this is the route I want to take.’”

In 2010, Hutter received his first deployment orders. He was sent on the USS Enterprise from Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the early days of Arab Spring, a particularly volatile time in the Middle East.

He was excited about putting his training to the test in a real environment.

“At first I thought, ‘I really want to drop a bomb. I want to legitimize all this training I’ve done,’” he says. “And then you have to grow up a bit, to realize that the goal is not to drop a bomb. The goal is to be there in case someone needs help.”

That help was frequently supporting soldiers on the ground. If they landed in a challenging situation or had trouble moving or holding their location, they called for air support. That could mean a show of force, flying low to the ground to run off anyone shooting at U.S. troops.

If that didn’t work, Hutter says they might escalate and drop a small bomb on a pinpoint location below, intending to make a statement while limiting collateral damage.

“It’s tough because we’re looking from 20,000 feet,” he says. “We’re looking at the camera, and we’ve got a lot of checks we have to go through to make sure that we know who’s who. It’s a very serious thing, and it’s a lot of responsibility. But it should be hard, and there should be guys who are making tough decisions and doing everything they can to minimize the negative impacts of those decisions.”

Hutter logged thousands of hours in the air completing such missions. While a typical aviator training for deployment might spend 20 or 30 hours in the air each month, that number doubles on deployment. In his busiest month, Hutter says he logged nearly 100 hours in an F/A-18.

That repetition teaches aviators to react quickly when met with repeated circumstances. It’s not quite muscle memory, when motor skills kick in without attention or conscious effort. Rather, it’s about finding familiarity in a high-stakes environment — and having the experience to know how to respond.

So when Hutter received an assignment in May 2011, it registered as routine. He was leaving Afghanistan, flying along the boulevard, when he was told to escort an MV-22 Osprey, an assault support aircraft. He had no way of knowing that SEAL Team 6 had just raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing bin Laden.

“For good reason, those guys were not advertising what had just happened,” he says.

Hutter and the members of his team were ordered to conduct armed overwatch, essentially supporting the MV-22 so that nothing interfered with its movements. Hutter and the other F/A-18s escorted the Osprey to the USS Carl Vinson and returned to their own aircraft carrier.

“That’s when I figured out what I had just been a part of,” Hutter says.

Hutter is quick to say that his role in the operation was very small. “I absolutely do not take credit for the guys that did so much great work,” he says.

He was more excited to share the news with soldiers in remote areas of Afghanistan.

Flight Path
Map of the region where Hutter flew the support mission for SEAL Team 6 (left); Ian Hutter with his wife, Morgan (right)

“I think the best part was the day afterward when I was able to tell these guys that had been in the ditches what had gone on, that Osama bin Laden had been killed,” he says. “These soldiers are in the Hindu Kush and have no way of getting current news. They’d been living pretty rough lives, and to know that a goal of the campaign was accomplished was motivating.

“It almost sounds terrible that a dead person instills a sense of patriotism. I think it’s more that we’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s easy to lose sight of what the end goal is.”

• • •

A mentor once gave Hutter a piece of advice: You have to take care of your people, those who report to you. And you take care of your family. And you take care of yourself.

“You don’t at any point let any of those falter,” he says. “It’s just the order in which you approach your work.”

As an ROTC student and a newly commissioned officer, Hutter’s focus was on his military development — learning to fly, lead, and understand how his decisions impact others. With each flight and deployment, he became more focused on supporting his crew and, later, as an instructor at Topgun’s satellite school in Virginia Beach, teaching the next generation of strike fighter aviators.

“I’d spent over three years only worrying about my own progression,” he says. “I wasn’t responsible for anyone else. The leadership responsibility was a real change of perspective for me.”

When Hutter met his wife, though, his attention began to shift to family and back to himself. Together, they started to picture a life outside the military, one that soon included Richmond Law.

With only a semester behind him, he’s not sure where he’ll land (maybe a law firm, maybe criminal prosecution). Behind all his options is a sense of duty and service to others.