Sailors lined the runway of NAS Jacksonville as the remains of Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher returned to his northeast Florida home Thursday afternoon.
The charter aircraft arrived at 3 p.m. -- right on time -- more than 18 years after his FA-18 Hornet was shot down on the first night of the Gulf War.
By military custom, the casket was received in a solemn ceremony that is used for all those killed in action. Speicher's widow and each of the couple's grown children laid flowers on the casket before it was carried to a hearse for a short ride to All Saints Chapel on the base.
Sailors, Marines, law enforcement personnel and others saluted for the entire length of the one-mile route to the chapel, where the casket lay in repose overnight.
"We're gathering today and tomorrow to pay our respects to a fallen shipmate and to his family," Adm. Thompson Alexander said. "I'd like to express my deepest condolences on behalf of the Navy to his family. They continue to be in our thoughts and prayers during this most difficult time.
"As sad as we are with the loss of Capt. Speicher, I think we should all be very humbled by the service and sacrifice that he and his family have given our Navy and our nation."
Speicher's best friend Buddy Harris, who married Speicher's widow a few years after the crash, said the return of Speicher's remains has been very emotional for the family.
"This has been a long, long road for us," Harris said. "Long turns, highs, lows. No rollercoaster's been invented that's been the ride that we've been on."
Some locals also reacted Thursday as Speicher's remains arrived home.
"I'm really, really proud that I can be part of this," local Helen Gilbert said. "This is important to our city and for our country."
"It's an honor to be here because he was an American who gave his all for his country," local Michael Lewis said. "I'm glad closure is coming to this event."
Most people at NAS Jacksonville didn't know Speicher, but they know his story and his sacrifice.
"We're glad he's home, and that's the most important thing is that he's finally home," Chief Petty Officer Victor Burgos said.
Channel 4 learned that Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll was the Navy's official escort bringing the casket to Jacksonville. Also aboard the plane was to be former Navy pilot Albert "Buddy" Harris, who was Speicher's best friend and who is now married to Speicher's widow.
After the family spent private time in the chapel, any service member, contractor or dependent with credentials to get aboard NAS Jacksonville could pay their respects at the chapel.
On Friday, Speicher's casket will be first taken to the Veterans Memorial Wall for a brief service to be attended by Gov. Charlie Crist and other dignitaries. Then hearse and a motorcade will drive by locations associated with Speicher's life, including Lake Shore Methodist Church, Forrest High School and what used to be Cecil Field Naval Air Station, where his squadron was based.
Several businesses along the route have put messages paying respects to Speicher on their signs. Many organizations, including the Boy Scouts, plan to line the streets to pay their respects.
Police said there will be rolling roadblocks but no complete road closures.