“At one mile, however, I saw the large numerals “35” on the concrete strip to the right. That was the runway, I was lined up on the taxiway. I did a quick dip to the right and lined up on the runway,” Jay Lacklen, former C-5 Pilot
Jay Lacklen is a former C-5 pilot with 12,500 flying hours and the author of two books, Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey and Flying the Line: An Air Force Pilot’s Journey Volume Two: Military Airlift Command. The following story comes the last book of the trilogy, in progress: “Flying the Line, an Air Force Pilot’s Journey,” book three, “Air Mobility Command, 1993-2004,” in progress.”
After the Kobar towers bombing in 1996 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the Air Force decided to move to a more remote location to maintain easier control of the area outside the perimeter. They chose Al Kharj airfield, initially nicknamed “Al’s Garage” by the airlift crews. It became the main Saudi air base. Eventually it would be renamed Prince Sultan Air Base, or PSAB, for short. It would also, reportedly, be the burr under Osama Bin Laden’s saddle that caused him to plot for the 9/11 attack.
My first mission to Al Kharj from Ramstein in early 1997 got quickly out of hand as we approached what we thought was Al Kharj. While I had flown the Saudi Arabia many times, this was my first trip to our new home. Unknown to us, the Ramstein command post had neglected to give us a special package explaining Al Kharj procedures, frequencies and location. We had filed to the Al Kharj navigation beacon that we believed to be the field. Al Kharj also had an approach plate in the Saudi low-level approach book.
Inbound to the navaid, the jump seat pilot was scanning the air route chart and made a startling discovery, there were three Al Kharj air fields! One was 40 miles east of the one we were headed for, and one about 60 miles west. The only piece of information about the real Al Kharj we had was the radio frequency of the air force airlift control element (ALCE) on the airfield.
Calling the ALCE initially did not help much. I asked them which field of the three fields they were on—they didn’t know. I asked for an approach control or tower frequency—they said there were no other frequencies because the field was not officially open yet and these had not been established. I finally asked them if they had any information about the field. The said that the TACAN frequency was Channel 87, but it hadn’t been certified yet.
I quickly inserted Channel 87 into our TACAN and got a quick lock-on to the Al Kharj to the east. Well, that was something anyway, so we canceled IFR with Riyadh and headed east. Checking the chart, the only pieces of information we could find were the field elevation, 1750 MSL and the surrounding obstacles. No sweat, I thought, I’ll just do a VFR arrival. I started a descent to 5000 feet. I was still missing several crucial pieces of information, like an altimeter setting and the length and alignment of the runway, or runways (minor details!!!) since I lacked all the information in the package Ramstein had neglected to provide me.
Then it got worse. While we had clear visibility at altitude we gradually lost it as we descended through 10,000 feet. The visibility dropped to about three miles due to blowing sand. This was compounded by sunrise whose low perspective through the blowing sand limited visibility. Since the TACAN had not been certified I had to trust that its DME (distance measuring equipment) was giving valid information. Even if it were, I didn’t know where it was located on the field. The ALCE, again, did not help since they didn’t know where it was either.
So, I found myself in a “there I was” moment approaching a field I had never seen and would not until I got with about three miles or less, whose runway alignment I did not know and with no one on the field to talk to except the clueless ALCE.
What should I have done? I should have climbed back to altitude and gotten a clearance to Riyadh and landed there. Then I thought about the questions I would get about why I landed at an unscheduled field. Not knowing I had been crippled by the lack of the Ramstein information package, it seemed this would fall on me for poor planning, somehow.
This was only months after the Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown’s CT-43 crash in Croatia where the crew flew into a mountain on an approach they were not equipped to fly. They, however, had much more information about their field than I had of mine. This would look really bad if I continued and it didn’t work out.
I finally got the runway alignment “17/35” out of the ALCE but they didn’t know where the TACAN was located on the field so distance from the threshold would be a guess until we had the visibility to see it. And, of course, they didn’t know which way the wind was blowing or which runway it favored. I used my wind at 5,000 and presumed it would be similar on the ground, so Rwy 35 would be landing runway.
I decided to go for it. We descended to 4000 MSL, or about 2500 AGL (above the ground) ten miles out on the TACAN 170 radial headed inbound on a 350 heading. I had the copilot fly the approach. I looked outside ready to take over to land, or to go around if something didn’t look right. I gained some confidence because I could see the ground directly below us but with little lateral or forward visibility.
I told the copilot to begin a 700-fpm descent at 6 DME that would have us at about 400 ft AGL at the TACAN. But, again, I did not know its relative position on the field or relationship to the threshold of RWY 35. If I didn’t break out by 2 DME, I’d have to go around and proceed to Riyadh.
At 6 DME the copilot began his descent with me straining to see through the dust. I had to keep “Croatia” out of my mind as the altitude decreased but I still could see nothing but the ground directly below. Blessedly, at 3 DME I saw the airfield and several long strips of concrete, but I still didn’t know which was a runway and which a taxiway. I took the airplane from the copilot and continued to the concrete strip I was lined up with. At one mile, however, I saw the large numerals “35” on the concrete strip to the right. That was the runway, I was lined up on the taxiway. I did a quick dip to the right and lined up on the runway. As I approached the threshold I glanced over and saw other C-5s on the ramp, a confirmation I at least had the correct airfield. We landed and taxied off.”
Photo credit: Senior Airman William Coleman / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com