The View From The Front
It was the summer of 1976, and my crew had flown a Tanker (KC-135A) from Rickenbacker AFB in Ohio to Eilsen AFB in Alaska. We got in trouble as we were unloading our bags into a pickup truck, which was allegedly parked too close to the airplane to not have chocks installed around a wheel, according to their regs. It was acceptable according to our regs in Ohio, but we got a ticket from an NCO in a pickup truck. To retaliate, we carried a set of wooden chocks around with us and put them around our feet when we went to Tanker Ops.
So Tanker Ops already knew we were a problem on our first day. Then, to show our disdain for the highly technical and serious nature of a mission, we attended the Top Secret briefing wearing bandannas over our faces. This did not go over well, either. Somehow, probably against the better judgment of the major who ran Tanker Ops, we picked up a training flight with an easy mid-morning takeoff time. Sweet! Soon we found ourselves flying around, sightseeing over central Alaska! We saw lots of trees and rivers and even Denali (Mt McKinley at the time). At this point I will confess that I was always a little surprised that they let us fly this big jet anyway. Dave, the Aircraft Commander, was 26; years old, I was the Copilot and 23, the Nav’s name escapes me, he was probably 26 or 27, and the Boom Operator, Sandy, was 19. Our reverie was interrupted by a call on the radio from Tanker Ops.
“Where are you guys? Your receiver is looking for you!”
“Receiver? We don’t have no stinking receiver.”
OK, we didn’t say exactly that, but you get my drift.
Apparently, there was an F-4 out there somewhere expecting us to meet him for some refuelling training, so we got his position and Nav gave us a heading. We should have been embarassed by the fact that we hadn’t flight planned for this, but we figured Tanker Ops forgot to tell us about it. To expedite the flight to the fighter and get to refuelling altitude of 28,000 feet, we pushed the throttles up to Military and started a descent from 33,000 feet. The air speed started to build. I looked at Dave and pointed to the Mach meter. He nodded. He was hand flying the airplane (autopilots get awfully boring) and it felt ok to him. I got out the flight manual and calculated our true Mach number, adjusting for temperature, I think. The gauge showed about .94 Mach but the true Mach number was .98! This was trans-sonic flight! We had heard stories about the early days of the jet, but this bird was 15 years old and starting to look worn. We had never heard about anyone flying a Tanker this fast! Dave and I didn’t say anything on the intercom because we didn’t want to alarm the rest of the crew, particularly the Navigator, we just looked back and forth at each other grinning and tapping the gauge. Dave wanted to push it just a little higher, but then we reached 28,000 feet and leveled off.
I should tell you about Navigators: they are very distrustful of pilots and their primary objective was generally to get out of the Air Force alive, and as soon as possible. My first Nav tried to bail out of the jet just off the coast of North Vietnam when they were getting shot at by gunboats. (I wasn’t on the crew yet, I showed up later.) Another of my Navs tried to resign his commission in Australia and go home on a boat. (The squadron commander told him his only choices were to fly or be sent to Leavenworth. He was so unappreciative of our piloting skill that he wore his parachute the whole rest of the TDY with his survival kit next to him on the floor.) One of my Navs routinely showed for O-Dark Thirty briefings smelling like bad tequila. Another made a game out of it – during his part of the briefing, he would point out a spot we were going to overfly at which an important event had occurred 100 years earlier. He also tried, and failed, to get us to learn and play bridge with him on those long weeks of Alert duty.
Back to our near supersonic run – the jet never made any funny noises and nothing fell off, which was a relief. We met up with the F-4 like it was perfectly normal to forget a refuelling and finished the flight doing 60 degree steep turns a few miles from the base for reasons which weren’t clear to me. Perhaps Dave wanted to show off his piloting skills because he thought he was shit-hot, but this made the Nav even more nervous and distrustful.
Dave was, in fact, a shit-hot pilot, he never made an error, except in judgement, and none of those resulted in a bent airplane or failed mission or busted checkride. He got away with all his shennagans and flew until retirement with an airline. We pilots thought the Air Force gave us airplanes to have fun with, and the darker the clouds and more crazy the situation, the more fun it was. Even Tanker pilots swaggered a bit coming back into the squadron after a flight in which everything went wrong, but in which you got the mission accomplished and brought the bird back in one piece. The Nav successfully survived his time in the Air Force and moved far away and changed his name.
Eyeballing thunderstorms (we didn’t have weather radar), being a little bit lost sometimes, going missed approach at minimums because you couldn’t see the runway, running short of gas, and those finicky water injection pumps for takeoff thrust augmentation were just part of the life. The pilots these days, they’ve got it easy – engines which put out more thrust than they need, instead of less. Weather radar! Computerized everything! GPS! But they don’t have Navigators, and that just doesn’t seem right.