“The mission would take us around the world, eastbound, through Pakistan, Australia, Samoa, and Hawaii,” 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. He’s working on the last book of the trilogy.
In November 1992, my Westover C-5 crew got “picked off” from our scheduled mission to fly another mission. The original mission was a standard Navy run to Rota, Spain; Sigonella, Italy; Bahrain; and return by the same bases to Westover.
When we alerted at Sigonella for our next leg, the command post offered us another mission. It seemed a Travis AFB active duty crew was in delay at Sig and their flight engineer was going non-current for a check ride and could not complete the mission. They asked if we would assume that mission instead of continuing our own.
The new mission would take us around the world, eastbound, through Pakistan, Australia, Samoa, and Hawaii. Had this been a crew with standard reservists, who needed to be home on time for their “real” jobs, we could not have taken the new mission. But this crew consisted of reserve bums (no other job) and ARTS. If I’d had a standard reservist crew, when asked if they would volunteer, they would have said “Hell, no!” But the bum/ART crew said “Hell, yes!” So around the world we would go. This would be my final mission hurrah at Westover.
The first leg would be a max crew-day body wrecker: Sig to Bahrain; to Islamabad, Pakistan; to Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We took off late in the afternoon from Sig, quick-turned Bahrain for fuel around midnight, and arrived overhead Islamabad just before sunrise.
I hoped for daylight because we would be within 20 miles or so of the Himalayan mountain chain and its 20,000-foot peaks. I didn’t want to fool around in the dark at an unfamiliar field with towering mountain peaks. Thankfully, the early predawn light allowed us to see the mountain outlines as we began our steep penetration to the field.
Our approach went routinely until we departed the final approach fix. I then saw as bizarre a sight as T have ever seen. In the dim predawn light, a heavy smoke fog rose from dozens of individual chimneys used to make bricks. These were apparently personal kilns for small family-run brick businesses, and even in the dim light I could see smoke rising that gave the area the look of an industrial ecological disaster, a dark sooty landscape that might have appeared similar to thermal vents on some alien planet inhospitable to humans.
In another surprise, about an hour later, the sun rose above the mountains and revealed an entirely different view. The Pakistani air base seemed Mediterranean in its climate. Warm air from the south provided short-sleeved shirt weather, and colorful flower gardens surrounded by verdant grass covered the base campus. We could have been back in Sigonella.
The base seemed a typical military outpost; cadets marched in formation and uniformed Pakistani Air Force personnel went about their tasks as we do in the States. After this second quick turn, we took off in bright sunlight headed south down the Indus River valley to the Indian Ocean enroute to Diego Garcia, about five and a half hours south.
Again I found the unexpected while flying down the Indus Valley. The river’s shores were barren, as was the entire valley. At least the Nile had a ten-mile, or so, wide strip of green along the river, but the Indus had once. It seemed to run through a barren desert, a landscape unchanged by its presence.
I had stayed awake the entire mission thus far, almost 20 hours, and I was winding down hard as we approached the Indian Ocean. My two fellow pilots, Keith Guillotte and Craig Peters, had taken sleep breaks previously, so I told them they had the leg to Diego and I hit the bunk to sleep like a dead man.
The other pilots rousted me out of my slumber cave in the forward bunk room prior to descent late in the afternoon on a sunny tropical day. After landing and getting our rooms, we visited a beachcomber style bar and grill that provided a marvelous view of the ocean waves breaking on the reef about a mile away, as picturesque a tropical view as I’ve seen. Unfortunately, that is about all there is to see on Diego.
Late the next afternoon, we alerted for the second leg of our eastward journey, about 2,500 nautical miles and six hours to Darwin on the north shore of Australia. We flew this segment almost totally at night, and rarely have I felt more alone in the universe, with no signs of land or humans for hours on end over the East Indian Ocean.
My only connection with civilization, the HF radio, made communications, as mentioned previously, sound as if I were calling Oceanic Control from Mars from my spaceship.
Finally, the lights of Darwin appeared far in the distance surrounded by nothing, the outback to the south and the Indian Ocean to the north. I’d report to you on Darwin except I saw almost none of it except base operations at the air field. We refueled, filed our flight plan and ate in about three hours. Then we launched south across the Australian continent for the three-hour flight to the isolated radar tracking station of Woomera, 300 miles north of the south coast port city of Adelaide. On the way we would pass almost directly over Alice Spring in the interior.
Midway in our climb to FL 330, the earth below us went black with no signs of human habitation. The view remained this way for most of our cross-continent trek across the outback.
After a while at cruise, I sat alone as Keith and Craig slept. Checklists were complete and there was no chatter on interphone. I experienced silence and darkness for long stretches of time, except for the stars. The stars! I remembered the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Southern Cross” and my promise to finally see this constellation mostly invisible from the Northern Hemisphere.
I didn’t really know what I was looking for—something the size of Orion or the Big Dipper? There was something of a moon lighting the sky so only bright stars shone brightly enough to be seen as I scanned the cosmos. After a few moments I looked up and there it was, a large four-point cross in the southern sky, four bright stars rising above me. I stared in awe at this symbol from heaven that southern mariners had used for thousands of years to guide them. This seemed a near-religious moment, and I felt as if I were in a celestial cathedral with a soaring needed to complete the moment.
We landed in morning sunshine in Woomera for a stay of several days. On landing rollout, however, we got a “Det Fail” light on our annunciator panel telling us one or more of our 24 wheel brakes was free-wheeling and not providing any braking action. Sometimes this malfunction can be cured by adjusting the wheel hubs, but sometimes it cannot and more extensive maintenance is required. Except there was no maintenance in Woomera and such a fix might require a week or more to fly in from Travis AFB in California. We adjusted the hubs and hoped that would be sufficient, something we would not know until takeoff roll.
I had anticipated Woomera providing an outback showcase of the Australian interior, a hiking opportunity and photo bonanza. As soon as I exited the plane, however, I met the scourge that would hound us over the entire crew rest, leave us cowering inside buildings in self-defense and longing for an opportunity to leave this hell hole.
When outdoors we constantly employed what the locals term the “Woomera wave,” or a flapping arm motion in front of your face in a futile attempt to hold the creatures at bay. As the only targets for miles in any direction, we became the hunted prey for these outback denizens as they invaded Woomera in huge swarms. Being indoors provided some relief, although the pests had penetrated even this space to a minor extent. Outside excursions around the small town that covered only a few dozen acres were limited to the local bank to cash checks (debit cards were still ten years or so in the future) and grocery store.
My one unrequired foray to the modest zoo on edge of town left me longing for a hat with mosquito netting. l employed a constant Woomera wave while quickly reviewing the caged kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras, and parrots before fleeing back to the hotel.
After a few days in this purgatory we launched for Sydney. At 60 knots on takeoff roll, the “Det Fail” light again illuminated – and no one said a word. Technically this would demand an abort call and termination of the takeoff, but that would mean perhaps a week in Woomera waiting for a maintenance team from the States to fix the problem. No way, Jose, we were leaving this place!
On landing roll at Richmond AFB in Sydney a few hours later the “Det Fail” light again illuminated and immediately all three of us shouted “Det fail light!” We told the station manager he’d have to fly in a Maintenance Recovery Team from the States to fix this gear malfunction. He said he had a C-141 due in the next day and could do that. Drat! The next day? However, when I called in the next day, the manager apologized profusely that Travis had sent the wrong parts! “Oh, no!” I replied, smiling. “Call us when you have the parts,” I continued. “We’ll be roaming Sydney until you do!”
This good fortune could not be fully exploited, however, because much of the crew, to include all three of us pilots, were coming down with head colds. This had been precipitated by several grueling crew days that impaired our immune systems and would crimp our forays around Sydney to allow us extra sleep time to fight the malady.
We spent three days in Sydney, mostly nursing our head colds. What a waste, to finally get to Sydney and then get sick for most of the stay.
Our next trip segment promised to be exotic in a South Pacific manner, five hours to Pago Pago in American Samoa and about another five hours to Hickam AFB, Hawaii. We took off in early morning sunshine and stayed in it all the way to Hickam.
Pago Pago proved as marvelous as I anticipated, a small speck of green on an endless blue ocean, about twenty miles long east to west and ten miles wide north to south. The runway seems built on the ocean, as waves break almost on the edges of the concrete.
Just to the north the highest island peak rose 2145 feet above the Pago Pago harbor. That is about as much of the island as we saw. We spent our three-hour turn time in a large open-air thatch roofed arena where Samoan dancers performed for us.
We had to be on our way, unfortunately. My cold had gotten worse as it threatened to close my right ear’s Eustachian tube and cause an ear block on descent. I kept my sinus spray at the ready as we took off and climbed out to the north toward Hawaii, five hours away.
I knew from flight surgeon briefings and from experience not to use the nose spray on the way up. The air pressure in my inner ear would soon be greater than cabin pressure and would blow congestion out of the ear tube. About thirty minutes prior to descent I would use the spray and hope it dampened Eustachian tube inflammation and prevented the ear block. This rarely worked, however, because the spray only briefly passed by the Eustachian tube entry into the throat and had limited effect. And, sure enough, my right hear blocked on descent into Hickam. However, this would be a relatively mild block that cleared a few minutes after landing. It did ground me for three days, something my squadron mates back at Westover found suspicious. Yeah, sure, you get yourself grounded in Hawaii, what a fairy tale! The other two pilots were also grounded for the same style head cold, so they provided me with cover.
Photo credit: Brett Snow / U.S. Air Force
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com