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Over the years I have flown a lot but flying in military aircraft has almost always been more interesting than civilian flights.
The first military flight I can remember turned into a real epic. I had been sent to a school at NAS (Naval Air Station) Lemoore, California from my assignment at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Beaufort, South Carolina, some time in 1970, I think. I don’t remember how I got there but I definitely remember the trip back. (The school, by the way, was to teach us how to repair the TSEC/KY-28, which was a voice encoding, and decoding unit for use with radios. I believe that it turned out later that the Walker family had already compromised this whole family of cryptography equipment, but we were still using them my second time in the Marine Corps, as late as 1987.)
At the end of the course, on a Friday, I ended up on a MARLOG (Marine Logistics Command) flight back in the general direction of the East Coast. The aircraft was a C-130. I didn’t mind the aluminum and nylon sling seats and the ride really wasn’t bad at all. From Lemoore we flew up to Whidbey Island off the coast of Washington State and then finally headed east. I’m pretty sure that C-130’s fly at less than 400 miles an hour, possibly a lot less, so it was going to be a long trip. I don’t believe that the crew had originally planned to stop for fuel until we got to MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, but it didn’t make any difference.
I was sitting across the aisle from an officer in flight coveralls with aviator’s wings, who I assumed was a pilot. Somewhere near the northwestern Oklahoma border we all noticed quite a bit of smoke coming out of the overhead ducts. (Believe it or not this had happened to me once before on a civilian flight from California to Hawaii and we had made a precautionary landing at Wake Island, the only way that I would have ever had the opportunity to see that place. We ended up flying the rest of the way to Hawaii with the heat turned all the way up. It was a miserable flight.) I was a little concerned because the ‘pilot’ across the aisle was getting quite concerned. This time we landed at Tinker Field Air Force Base, in Oklahoma and sat around in the air terminal, which had closed for the night, for several hours. The plane was fine when we took off again, and eventually we got to Cherry Point some time in the early morning. I was a Corporal at the time and couldn’t get a flight out for 36 hours, so I racked out in the transient barracks. I was issued a blanket, two sheets, a pillow and a pillowcase and pointed towards a squad bay door. There were only two empty bunks in the squad bay, the upper and lower of the same bunk. Someone had yakked on the lower mattress, so I carefully swapped the two. The mattress that had been the upper wasn’t too bad. This turned out later to be a bad move, though.
I made up my bunk and crawled in. Pretty soon it became apparent why these two bunks had been empty. They were within a few feet of a window that had been knocked completely out of the wall, including the frame. The hole had been covered with a sheet of plastic, but it was not very well attached. It was also very cold outside, and where I was trying to sleep. I finally got to sleep and was only awakened once, when someone else came in and took the top bunk, turning the mattress over first so that I was showered with leftovers. I wasn’t feeling well at all, so I didn’t even move. When I finally woke up, the squad bay was empty except for me. The people that had been there had all been on leave from the Marine Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and their plane had left early Sunday morning. I caught a helicopter ride from Cherry Point to Beaufort in the early afternoon. (I stayed in the same bunk in the same building 15 years later and nothing had changed except that the window had been fixed.)
I think I took a ride in a CH-46 (Sea Knight) during my first enlistment in the Marine Corps, during Infantry Training in 1968. It didn’t make much of an impression on me. I think I also caught a few rides on CH-46s the second time I was in the Marine Corps, probably in 1983 or 4. Same impression.
I know I took one ride in a UH-1 (Huey) while I was in Primary NCO Course in the Army, at Fort Hood, Texas, in late 1975. It was mainly memorable because we got off at a small landing strip somewhere in North Fort Hood, were immediately ambushed, and spent the next two days on the run.
I had two memorable rides in CH-53s (Sea Stallion) the second time I was in the Marine Corps, when I was with TOW Platoon, 6th Marine Regiment. The first was at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for a training exercise. I was only a Sergeant and Section leader at that time. I had two TOW launcher jeeps and my own jeep, which carried spare ammunition for the others. TOW jeeps have to be backed into CH-53s when they are going to be air lifted, and the second jeep in is actually perched on the ramp at the back of the helicopter. One of my gun jeeps would be on another CH-53. I was the second jeep in and we stayed in our jeeps during the whole flight. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the flight.
To allow time for the preliminaries, the helicopter I was on flew out and circled over the ocean for about 45 minutes before we headed in for the insertion. The crew that was in the jeep that was completely inside the helicopter seemed pretty nervous. I ate a few of the ham sandwiches that I had brought along even though I had promised myself to ration them. When we were finally dropped off, it was déjà vu all over again. We were immediately ambushed and you should have seen the scramble. I was amazed that no one was killed by the 13 jeeps that were careening around madly looking for a way to get off of the LZ. (I had been on foot during that ambush at Fort Hood. To paraphrase the old saying, “It isn’t the flying that kills you, its what happens a few seconds after you land.”) It was an interesting exercise because I think we only moved about 3 miles in 4 days. It was a retrograde exercise (controlled retreat while springing ambushes on the bad guys whenever they come into sight.) and we could see our LZ from the last position we occupied, so we must have done pretty well. (One thing that bothered me about exercises was that it was often very difficult for us to find out how well or poorly we had done during them, unless we had done notably poorly. I think our motivation would have been a lot better if we had been told about times that we had been successful.)
We did this again at MCB 29 Palms once and it was pretty much the same except that there was no ambush and no ocean to circle over. I was disappointed. The operation lasted a lot longer and that part was a lot of fun except for the heat and tear gas.
I had more opportunities to fly when I was in the Air Wing, later on. I caught a ride from MCAS Yuma, Arizona back to Cherry Point on a KC-10 Extender once, and that was a good flight. We were the re-fueler for a squadron of Harriers and I got to see the boom operator in action several times. I think I slept most of the way. I caught a flight with a TAOC (Tactical Air Operations Center) van inside a C-130 over northern Norway once. The TAOC van is still 8x8x10 but it has a crew of six, mainly officers, that handle air operations from within 30 miles of the FEBA (Forward Edge of the Battle Area). The TAOC van was designed to be wired right into the aircraft and use its antennas, and its generators as a power source. It was interesting until it started getting very cold inside the plane. I did notice that the pilot feathered some of the engines while we were circling. I had heard about that but never seen it. It drastically increases linger time.
I spent a lot of time on C-141s flying to places like Norway, or back, or to Korea. I would have to say that the article I did about how far it is to Norway included the most comfortable trip I ever took on a C-141. The worst ones were when I flew in a full plane. This usually involved having a load of cargo strapped to the loading ramp, possibly a generator or two next, and hundreds of people in sling seats forward of that. The distance between the seats, which faced each other, was such that we had to fly with our knees in between the knees of the person facing us. There were four columns of seats, so their were two longitudinal aisles, but it was not possible to walk from one end of the plane to the other in the aisles because of the intertwined knees and the fact most people went to sleep as soon as they got settled. If you wanted to go to the Porta-John back near the cargo ramp you had to walk along the backs of the center rows of seats, on a rail a few inches wide, and steady yourself with whatever was overhead that you could reach. We had to make special allowances for some of the Woman Marines who were too short to reach any of the overhead nets or ducting. The ride was all right but the service was not five star.
I’ve seen a lot of military aircraft over the years that I didn’t get rides on. During my first enlistment it was mainly F-4 Phantoms. (We had to provide radios for a small van that parked in between the runways at Beaufort. Whenever a squadron had planes up it was required that an officer from that squadron be in that van to remind pilots to put down their landing gear before landing and not afterwards. This may sound like I am picking on the pilots, but they actually had a lot to do during simulated carrier landings.)
While I was with the 1st Cavalry Division, I saw a demonstration of the C-5A’s cargo carrying capabilities. We loaded one of every type of vehicle in the division onto it, and were given a tour of the interior. I was amazed that there were seating and even sleeping quarters for a large number of people up along the top spine. This was when they had the ‘economical’ wings so, although the suspension and engines (supposedly) would handle taking off and landing with at least one M60A1 inside, the wings would not. A single tank crew let loose in the passenger spaces of one of those would have been in heaven. I’ve actually seen a lot more of the C-5 since I got out than when I was in. I think I was at the Waco, Texas, airport once, on the way back from a natural gas pumping station startup and there was a C-5 doing ‘touch and goes’ on an airfield nearby. It might have been Houston, though.
I saw an A-10 ‘Warthog’ demonstration in Germany and their maneuverability is alarming.
I saw OV-10 Bronco reconnaissance planes a lot at ‘dog and pony shows’ while I was in the Marines. During one of these demonstrations something went wrong. The plane was supposed to drop a 4 or 5 man Force Recon team near the display area. To do this they fly low over the field and then stand the plane on its tail. When it reaches a certain height the jumpers just let go and fall out of the very small, very dark, cargo bay. This time they landed in the trees and one of them ended up with a broken back. The others finished the demonstration by ‘spie’ rigging out, hooked to a CH-53.
I saw a lot of Harriers taking off and landing in various strange places. Personally, if I was going to be a pilot, I’d fly an F-14 or F-22, but Harriers have been amazingly effective over the years, when they stay right side up.
The most impressive airplane that I have ever seen, though, was the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’. We were at Kadena Air Force Base, on Okinawa, ready to board C-141s on our way to Korea. We missed our window by a few minutes and ran over into the Blackbird’s launch window. Before a Blackbird launches, everything in the air within miles is grounded. Then a full squadron of fighters launches. Then the Blackbird (Called the Habu in Okinawa after a local extremely venomous snake) is pulled out of the hanger and lit up. It doesn’t spend more than a few minutes on the ground before launch. If anything at all is wrong, it goes right back to the hanger. The noise is awesome. After all of the aircraft that I had previously heard take off, this one was special. You can see it leaking fuel everywhere because it is actually cold (about 90 degrees F) compared to its normal temperature and things are a little loose. It needs a very long runway to get off the ground and has to be refueled almost immediately, as I understand it, but when it goes nose up, it goes like a rocket and disappears in a few seconds. We were told not to take pictures. I didn’t.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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