Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Alert Two-step

As a B-52 crewdog, about a third of my life was spent on Alert. That meant we worked, played, ate and slept right next to our heavily loaded, heavily armed BUFF's. And because we were working for SAC, the Strategic Air Command, we knew that there would be very little time during our seven days of alert that we weren't being trained, tested, and prodded. In other words they had us prisoner; why not screw with us! For instance we knew that at least once during each tour we would be subject to the rude sound of the klaxon. When the horn blew we were supposed to get to our airplane as quickly as possible, start the engines, decode a message from headquarters, and do exactly what it said. And we were timed to make sure we were ready to go to war immediately. So one bright and sunny day on alert at a base on the west coast (that doesn't exist anymore) we heard the call of the klaxon, jumped into our truck and blasted out to the ramp to our own special bomber. As the pilot popped the cartridges that fired the engines, the Nav and I copied down the coded message from command post. It usually decoded to a message that told us to just start engines and equipment and report ready to go or do all that and taxi to the runway to show how fast we could lean that much farther forward. We decoded, agreed, and told the pilot it was a taxi exercise. We moved out of our parking stub heading for the runway when the whole crew heard me and the Nav say, "Oh, shit!" We had both discovered our error. It wasn't a taxi exercise. We were supposed to stay put. The pilot just about lost it. Results from each exercise were reported to the head of SAC almost the minute they happened. We were about to become famous. The only thing we could do was get back to our parking place as soon as possible. But moving a big-assed bomber full of fuel and weapons is no easy thing. Finally the pilot team decided that going down the runway and back the taxiway would get us home in the shortest amount of time. We got clearance on the runway and hit the power for a high speed taxi. But we forgot to tell command post what we were doing. Two full colonels, a major and three captains almost had heart attacks when they thought a bomber loaded with major crowd-pleasers was about to launch. Once again we had blown it. We belatedly told everyone what we were doing, hopefully preventing any further heart attacks and silently headed back to the alert pad. "Man, are we going to be deep in the barrel when we get back," the pilot said. "Yeah," said the gunner. "But I don't think we're going to be on the bottom." "Why's that, guns? Who's going to be in deeper shit than us?" "Oh, probably those guys behind us." The pilot and copilot almost wrenched their necks to check and confirm that someone else had followed our mistaken lead. Yep. There they were. The good old number one elite Standardization and Evaluation crew. They hadn't even bothered to copy and decode the message. They just followed us out. And when everyone in charge was through yelling at them they barely had breath enough left for us. I guess two wrongs don't make a right...but it sure worked for us!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Where's George?

Okay, this is an air traffic control "war story" from one of my friends who worked in the tower of a large metropolitan city airport. The city will remain nameless to protect the reputation of everyone there named George. My friend was working in the control tower on a busy weekend night at local position. "Local" is the position and/or the controller who clears aircraft to takeoff and land. In other words local control if where most of the action takes place. While my buddy, Phil (a real name...just not my buddy's real name) was clearing airplanes to do various things and trying to make sure that they all did them without running into each other he heard this from the primary frequency speaker; "Hey, where's George?" He keyed his mike and said, "Say again for tower." "I said where's George?" Phil looked around at the other controllers who all shrugged back at him. They didn't have any idea what the call was about either. Phil said, "Aircraft making the last transmission, say your call sign and repeat your question." "This is Piper 65 Papa, where's George," came the immediate if somewhat slurred reply. "Okay Piper 65 Papa, this is the tower. Who's George?" "George. You know, George, my passenger." "65 Papa, you've lost a passenger!?" "Yeah, tower. He was right here beside me when I went to take off. Now I can't find him. He's going to be late getting to Albuquerque." Phil just stared at the speaker in front of his console. He looked around bewildered. Then he grabbed the strips that showed the last few airplanes taking off. Sure enough there was a Piper with the call numbers that ended in 65 Papa. "Hey, Jerry," he turned to his ground controller, "Turn up the runway lights on 29 right." As the lights got brighter on the runway that the Piper airplane had used for take-off, he picked up his binoculars. Sure enough, there next to the numbers lay a prone figure, probably named George. Evidently both the pilot and the passenger had had one too many cool drinks before take-off. As the pilot started the take-off role George had opened the door to up-chuck and fell out of the airplane. The medics picked him up and and confirmed that drunks have way too much luck. And the FAA was waiting for 65 Papa at Albuquerque with a Breathalyzer and a police escort.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Last One Out is a Rotten Crewdog!

Okay, this is one of my favorite stories but I've heard different versions of it. I got it from someone who was there (and will remain nameless.) SAC made a big deal about getting everywhere the B-52's flew exactly on time. It was something about the timing of the next big war being very important but I think the whole command got a little anal retentive. Anyway when entering a low level training route the crew tried to make it exactly on the scheduled time. They did try hard because if you were late and the next aircraft scheduled in was early there was an increased possibility of an aluminum shower. So the unnamed crew of the Buff from the unnamed base was approaching low level and the FAA center hadn't cleared them for entry yet. They were about to fly past the point, when Center realized their predicament and cleared them in. The crew of the B-52 that day was seven men strong because an instructor pilot or IP from Training Flight was sitting in the jumpseat between the pilots. Anyway, the Nav realizing that the entry point was passing rapidly to their right ordered an immediate 120 degree turn. The pilot banked the aircraft sharply to the right. The IP noticed that in his attempt to get to the point on time, the pilot was wrapping it up a little too tight. As the turn bank approached 90 degrees (something that should never happen in a B-52) he yelled over the intercom, "Roll out!" The gunner who had been half asleep thought he heard "bail out," so without a second thought, he did. The copilot saw the ejection light come on and yelled over the intercom, "Who bailed out?!?" The electronic warfare officer, or EW, saw the hole in the aircraft above the empty gunner's seat and heard someone yelling about a bail, out so he punched out. The nav team saw light above them coming from the open hatches above the EW and gunner's positions and thought the aircraft was breaking up so they both punched out. The copilot looked around at the chaos flying around the cabin behind him and promptly rotated his trigger handles, squeezed the triggers, and left the plane. The pilot turned to IP, shrugged his shoulders, and also jettisoned the aircraft. At this point the IP, the only crewmember not in an ejection seat, sat stunned as the aircraft righted itself and regained straight and level flight. As far as he could tell there was not a thing wrong with the jet...except for the lack of crew and a few holes where hatch covers had been. He called the command post back at his base and explained the situation. When the screaming and tearing of hair finally died down he explained that he was going to see if the B-52 was still flyable. There was one big problem. When the pilot team left they took their seats with them. The IP really needed a seat for several reasons, not the least of which was to be able to see out. He tried sitting on equipment cases and seat cushions but nothing seemed to work. He finally set the aircraft on a course that would take it to a gradual crash landing away from populated areas, reported his position to the command post and went down stairs and jumped out the hole where the nav seat used to be. SAC send up some fighters to make sure the aircraft came down in the right place and reluctantly sent helicopters to pick up the crew. And the crew became the leper crew of SAC...until the next major screw-up.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Grandpa and the Sho Sho

My grandfather was a great storyteller. He was in the army in the "Big Red One," the first Big Red One. The one that started in World War One. But when he headed off to war he wasn't sure what he was in. The army was so anxious to get them to the war that they sailed off before they even had uniforms...or weapons. They learned weapons drill on the ship using brooms wearing their civis. Grandpa didn't get a helmet with a red one symbol on it until he got knee deep in the war. And the weapons they had were less than spectacular. The army didn't have a reliable machinegun so they bought some from the French. It wasn't until they started using them that they found out that the French didn't have a reliable machinegun either. Grandpa and his team were given a Chautchat or as they called it a "Sho Sho." (They also called it several other things, none of which should be used in pleasant company.) He said time and time again they would be set up with targets moving into their area. They would strip the guns, make sure they were clean and operating, and then have them jam in the face of the enemy. As soon as the enemy was safely away the guns worked fine. It was amazing but when his unit moved forward every single one of the machinegun teams accidentally forgot to bring their Sho Sho's. In fact he said when they chased the Germans out of a small town they found a neat stack of Sho Sho's that the Germans accidentally forgot to take with them.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Low Level Excitement

We used to fly a lot of low level in the B-52. It was thought to be the only way to avoid the radar sites protecting the USSR so we practiced it a lot. One balmy afternoon we we flying a low level route in the midwest. It was an upgrade ride and the pilot and the radar nav (yours truly.) We were getting evalutated for advancement to instructor. And evaluator pilot was sitting in the jumpseat between the pilots and his counter part nav was sitting downstairs with me and the nav evaluating me. We entered the low level training route flying at 400 feet above the terrain and about 300 miles per hour so we were all on our toes. Then the pilot calmly reported, "We have a fire warning light on engine number 3. Let's climb." I rogered him, checked my chart and told him to climb to 4500 feet. We started to climb when he reported, "Okay, now we have a fire light on number 4. We're shutting them both down. Nav, give us a heading back to base. Radar (that's me. There are 2 navigators on a B-52; the navigator who plots our position and the Radar Nav, or RN, who updates the system and drops the bombs.) report that we're aborting the route and get us clearance to the homedrome." I contacted the FAA controller and told him we were climbing out of low level and wanted to go direct back to our base in Texas. He asked if we were declaring an emergency and the instructor pilot chimed in on the radio that we were definitely declaring. Declaring an emergency would give us preferencial treatment by all the air traffic control agencies. Now a fire light on an engine in a BUFF ( ackronym for Big Ugly Fat F**ker the standard crewdog name for a B-52) is bad but not terrible. It usually goes out when the engine is shut down. And since the BUFF has 8 of them it's no big deal to shut down one...or two. But 2 fire light in two engines right next to each other is cause for tension. We got headed back to the base on a direct course and we cleaned up the airplane from training. The IP took over command of the aircraft from our pilot as he is required to do by regulation. Just as he got on the interphone he said something that just about stopped my heart. He said, "Holy crap, look at that explosion!" I grabbed the leg straps of my parachute, tightened them so tight that I cut of circulation, unstowed the trigger ring of my ejection seat and was just about to jettison the aircraft when the copilot said, "Sir, you think you should tell the crew that the explosion was on the ground?" Yep. We were flying near a gunnery range and the jerk saw a practice round go off. And he nearly got the whole crew to bailout. And he bought the beer for the next two weeks.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Phantom Broadcast

When I first started out in Air Traffic Control our base was training aviators in the venerable F-4 Phantom, the work horse fighter/bomber of Viet Nam. It was a great aircraft in one respect for controllers because it's engine churned out so much black smoke that you could see it for miles. But it had a lot of bugs and things were always breaking. One day a crew came in with a stuck mike. In other words everything the pilot said was transmitted to the tower...and recorded for posterity. Here's what we heard: "DM tower, DM tower, DM tower this is Fox 14." "" That's squeal is what we heard when the controller tried to answer Fox 14 because his mike was stuck open. "DM tower if you can hear me rock your wings. Ha, ha, ha. Well I guess we're definitely NORDO" (AF acronym meaning no radio.) "This has been a fucked up mission: no radar, no radio, and the damn seat won't go down. Well let's make a low pass and see if we get a green light to land." The tower tried to signal a green light to clear Fox 14 to land but then they heard the pilot tell the back-seater, "Did you see a light? Nah, I didn't either. Screw 'em, let's land land anyway." Then as they turned base they saw someone else on approach. "Hey, let's cut inside this dick. We'll make a t-bird approach and come in hot. Wheeeeeeee!" After they landed we heard the canopy come up and the pilot yell over the roar of the jets, "What? It's stuck?!? Oh great. Now how do I get it unstuck?!?"
We played the tape for every squadron on base. It made the top ten.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Becoming a Flyer

I started my Air Force career as an air traffic controller. They say that flying is hours of boredom spiced with moments of sheer panic. Controlling air traffic involves a lot more panic. The trick is not to let on how scared shitless you really are. When you're calmly saying over the radio, "American Airlines 165, turn left and decend immediatly to 9000 feet," your brain is screaming "HOLY SHIT, EVERYBODY DUCK!" I swear controlling is so nerve wracking that I actually heard a doctor tell a controller to start smoking again. Anyway, after six years of working traffic and wondering how anybody survives the friendly skies, I volunteered to start flying for a living. I applied for and was accepted to Air Force Undergraduate Navigator Training. I loaded up the family and headed to Sacramento California to join my class. I pulled up to the gate, showed my ID card and my orders, received a sharp salute from the sky cop on duty, and asked how to get to Nav School. He didn't even crack a smile. He just said, "Sir, you pull through this gate, make a left 180, and head back down the road you came in on about 16 miles. " I had just proven to the guard and to my family why the Air Force had such faith that I would soon be an outstanding Air Force showing up at the wrong base!