Major Taj “Cabbie” Sareen Is A Hero To Remember On This Memorial Day

He loved fast cars and fighter jets and wanted everyone else  to love them too.

Tyler Rogoway

I met Taj years ago while working at NAF El Centro doing photo coverage for their yearly air show. Jets were streaming in to be set up for static display and I would catch them taxiing in and get some great shots of the aircrews if they wanted them, and they always did.

I was going about my business, zooming in a golf cart from location to location as yellow shirts “caught” each arriving aircraft, a bright white F/A-18D came screaming into the overhead pattern. Everyone stopped for a second as the gorgeous, angel-like jet executed an eye-watering break over their heads. Moments later the gleaming fighter was on the ground being guided to its parking spot for the upcoming show.

The aircraft turned out to be the USMC F/A-18 training squadron’s (VMFAT-101 “Sharpshooters”) most cherished bird, the “Medal of Honor” painted theme Hornet. Taj “Cabbie” Sareen, an instructor with the squadron at the time, just so happened to have been flying it.

As Taj taxied the jet in he spotted me and gave me a big point and then gestured for me to go over to where he was parking. The canopy popped open and Taj actually greeted me, not the other way around, and as the Hornet’s twin GE-F404 turbofans wound down he yelled “hopefully you got some great shots, we saw you and tried to take it as slow as possible! Wait let me pop the speed brake for you, you will love it!” From that point on I knew that this guy understood how awesome his job and the jet he was flying was, and that he wanted to do whatever he could to share it with others.

Tyler Rogoway

Afterwards we chatted for a while, and got some awesome shots him and his co-pilot friend in front of and on top of the special Hornet. We also talked about getting some great departure pics that he could share with his commander who had wanted some really high-quality images of the specially painted white and green Hornet with a huge Medal of Honor on its speed-brake.

Later that evening Taj waved me over at the informal pre-party to the next day’s airshow and we had a beer or two and talked a bit. He asked all about photography and my work and I learned a bit about him and his love of very fast and exotic cars and what he did for a living. Taj was clearly unique to say the least. Sort of like a really humble Bruce Wayne. He flew Hornets by day and blasted around on exotic motorcycles and in Italian sports cars by night.

After the show, we executed our departure plan exactly as we discussed. They towed the jet into the light. Taj cranked it up, and pirouetted all around, giving me a big wave before he blasted off back to MCAS Miramar.

Tyler Rogoway

Days later I got an email from him to exchange contact info and to thank me once again for taking the photos as his commander loved them. We communicated back and forth after and he offered multiple times to give me the “the best tour ever” of his squadron’s operation at MCAS Miramar and to support any article or project of mine he could, after which we would go out for drinks.

Sadly and stupidly I never took Taj up on his incessant hospitality. A move I greatly regret now.

Popular culture casts fighter pilots in the Top Gun “Maverick” mold, which is ridiculous. The truth is they are all over the board personality-wise, from introverted to grinning wise-crackers. Taj was sort of his own thing though. He was professional and confident but he was highly interested in you, not himself. Really he seemed to not only love what he did, but felt fortunate to have been able to do it above all else.

Since meeting Taj I learned that my experience was not uncommon. Other aviation photographers, journalists and even just aviation enthusiasts had interactions with Major Sareen, many of them actually, and all were similar. He was an absolutely outstanding ambassador of the Marine Corps and made a very positive impression on all who met him.

In the years that had passed I knew that Taj had been assigned to VMFA-232, the Red Devils, a land-based Marine fighter-attack squadron, and last summer I had knowledge that they were on deployment to the Middle East. Then, on October 21st, 2015, as I was jamming away on the keyboard with the news playing in the background, a usual setup for what I do on a daily basis, a report came on saying an F/A-18 had crashed in England.

The civilian military aviation enthusiast community has pretty much eyes everywhere, all the time. I had seen photos in the previous days from various photographers of Red Devil Hornets passing through RAF Lakenheath on their way back from deployment.

Seeing that there are no Hornets based in the UK, it was very likely it was a VMFA-232 jet that went down. Whenever these things happen, you think of who you know in the squadron, and Taj immediately came to mind.

My heart sank.

Soon photos and reports from the scene began to pour in and they were not promising when it came to the survival of the jet’s pilot. Within hours, an idea of what happened began to coalesce:

Early in the morning a gaggle of Red Devil F/A-18Cs departed from Lakenheath for the trans-Atlantic leg of their journey back to MCAS Miramar in San Diego. The jets were returning from a months-long tour fighting ISIS over Iraq and Syria. These ferry flights, or “tanker drags” as they are called, involve external tanker support and are complex affairs logistically. Getting the jets in working order for the trip and doing so on schedule is always a big effort, especially war-weary and many decades old Marine F/A-18s.

During departure, Taj’s Hornet had a serious problem at seemingly the worst time, low and slow while weighed down with gas shortly after leaving the ground. The F/A-18C ended up careening into the ground with an ejection attempt occurring too late in the chain of events to have been successful.

Taj “Cabbie” Sareen had perished in the incident.

Multiple reports have stated that Taj changed course and stayed with the aircraft to avoid homes that were in the stricken jet’s destructive path. One local farmer even stated that he knew Taj saved his life. Knowing what I do about Taj, especially after his death, I can fully believe that he would have stayed with the aircraft as long as he thought possible to avoid hurting innocent people on the ground. It appears he did just that.

Think about this deeper for one moment. Taj could have pulled the ejection handle during the emergency and would have likely walked away from the incident, but knowing that the thing he loved so much, flying jets for the USMC, could hurt, or even kill an innocent person on the ground changed his priorities. Taj put his own safety last and that of people he had never even met first.

In the end, Taj gave his life so that others may live, and did so not on the battlefield that he had just left, but over the serene English countryside.   

Hero is a grossly overused word in our culture, one that is drunk on celebrity and sports star sensationalism. That is unfair to people like Taj Sareen. The guy was not just a hero the day he died, but he lived a hero’s way of life, enriching others with his accomplishments and opportunities and treating seemingly everyone he knew with respect and kindness. It was Taj’s hero lifestyle that allowed him to be a hero in his last moments of his life when it mattered most. This is a code of honor that is so rare these days that it is hard to even comprehend.

For me, it is eerily fitting that the guy I first met getting out of a jet painted to honor those who made the biggest sacrifices and executed the most courageous acts, died doing exactly that.

Taj left behind a little daughter. In fact, he had bought her a gift right before his last flight that was lost in the crash, but amazingly fulfilled anyway by a local shop owner and Taj’s friends and family, a touching story unto itself you should read about here. Taj also left behind a loving family and an army of friends, including his beloved Marine Corps family and Red Devil squadron-mates.   

One of these fellow brothers in arms was Brad Danforth who was in officer training alongside Taj very early on in his military career. Brad describes his friend in wonderful detail:

“While Taj Sareen’s passing is a horrible tragedy, it’s tough to think about this loss without remembering what an incredible person he was and the joy he brought to everyone he encountered.  Many will remember Taj as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, a man who loved speed, motorcycles and beautiful fast cars.  While this is an accurate description of Taj, it just barely scratches the surface of what an amazing person he was.

Taj is the type of guy that would go the extra mile to help out a stranger and would repay any kindness tenfold. With an infectious smile that could light up a room, Taj was hands down the life of every party he ever attended.

The Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” had nothing on Taj Sareen. 

Every person who ever met Taj has a Taj story. There are many unbelievable tales of Taj offering to loan his Ferrari to people he just met and yes, Taj really did do that. Taj always instructed me not to get a rental car when coming to San Diego as he always had “something” I could borrow. Regrettably, I was always too scared to drive one of his amazing cars. 

Given Taj’s determination, intelligence and outgoing spirit, he could have done anything he chose to do after graduating from college.  With this in mind, Taj chose to be a United States Marine during a time of war.

Image courtesy Brad Danforth

During his time in the Marine Corps, Taj was known as an incredible pilot and a consummate professional. Being a Marine Corps pilot is a great honor, but being a leader of Marines is one of the greatest honors and responsibilities this nation can grant its young officers. This is an honor Taj cherished, and a responsibility he never took for granted.

Above all, Taj was a family man. In the year and some change that I lived with him as a roommate and neighbor, I cannot recall a day when he hadn’t spoken to his family and friends back home in San Francisco. Taj’s love and closeness with his family will always be what I admired most about him.  Despite being a continent or a half a world apart, Taj always knew what his family was up to back home and vice versa. At the same time, it breaks my heart that his one-year-old daughter will never get to remember what a loving, caring person her father was.

Trying to sum up Taj in a few paragraphs and do him justice is one of the toughest tasks I’ve had in a while. Taj isn’t someone you can just explain to people who have never met him and fully paint an accurate picture of who he really is.  Taj was just someone or something you had to experience… almost like driving a new sports car, or flying a fighter jet.”

Brad’s words are not uncommon in the least. “Beautiful person,” “most generous man I have ever met,” “one of the best pilots I have ever flown with,” are just a few short descriptors from other people who knew Taj Sareen far better than I did.

Taj had a quote he loved, you can still see it on his Instagram account:

“Speed is life, altitude is life insurance.”

Eerily true words from a man that truly loved what he did and all that life had to offer.

Taj “Cabbie” Sareen, a one of a kind hero that earned that status not just in the way he died, but in the way he chose to live, remembered on this Memorial Day.

If you have the means please donate to Taj’s daughter’s fund that is linked here, it is the least we can do.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com