In this article:
‘“Where are you Hey Joe?”
‘“On your nose for three miles.”
‘Peering up through the eyebrow windows, two Tomcats roll inverted on their backs and pull hard as they can toward the Boom,’ Mark Hasara, former KC-135 Pilot.
The following cool story, that exclusively appears on The Aviation Geek Club, is taken from Mark Hasara’s book Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit. For twenty-four years Mark Hasara operated one of the Air Force’s oldest airplanes, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. His career started during the Reagan Administration, carrying out Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrent mission. Moving to Okinawa Japan in August 1990, he flew missions throughout the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. His first combat missions were in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As a Duty Officer in the Tanker Airlift Control Center, he planned and ran five hundred airlift and air refueling missions a month.
Haze Grey and Underway
0900 Saturday, 15 December 1990
King Faisal Naval Base
Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
“Spend a lot of time talking to customers face to face. You’d be amazed how many companies don’t listen to their customers.”
American Businessman and Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot
“You can talk about teamwork on a baseball team, but I’ll tell you, it takes teamwork when you have 2,900 men stationed on the U.S.S. Alabama in the South Pacific.”
Major League Baseball pitcher and Navy Chief Petty Officer Bob Feller
Jeddah’s leadership needed volunteers to work the air campaign plan. Lt Col Bruce from Warner Robins led the Mission Planning Cell or MPC. Lt Col Wright, callsign D-Right, worked for Lt Col Bruce and needed help on A Model tanker plans. I jumped at the chance. Working in the MPC and getting to fly is the best of both worlds and a great chance to learn. Lt Col Bruce put my name on the list to check out “The Bag,” a wide black leather briefcase containing all of Jeddah’s first air tasking order missions in the first three days of the war. Only thirteen names are on The Bag’s cleared list. Lt Col Bruce took me into a room and read me into Operations Plan 1002, the war in Iraq. He explained in great detail events in the air campaign’s first three days. I read over each day’s ATO package summaries. Jeddah tankers fly over 130 missions the first day.
One of the 1709th’s biggest customers is Carrier Group Two in the Red Sea, commanded by Admiral Riley Mixon. Admiral Mixon’s flagship is USS John F. Kennedy or “Big John” to those aboard. Kennedy’s Battlegroup contained several other ships such as AEGIS Cruisers and Destroyers to defend the Battlegroup and tankers too. Carrier Airwing Three is on Big John, USS Saratoga and Carrier Airwing Seventeen rounding out Admiral Mixon’s Airwing strike force. Each week Jeddah MPC folks flew out to USS John F Kennedy working with Airwing Three strike planners on the first three day’s strike packages. D-Right came down the hall after one of our flights and asked if I wanted to go out to the carrier. Of course I wanted to, another great opportunity to learn. SAC’s tanker community knew very little about how the Carrier Airwings operated. Saturday morning 15 December D-Right and I donned Mickey Mouse ears and float coats for the ride out. A Loadmaster or just “Load” briefed us on safety issues before walking us to a waiting Grumman C-2 COD, wings folded, engines running at King Faisal Naval Air Station on the Red Sea coast.
Stepping on the open rear ramp, D-Right and I walked to our seats for a long flight to Kennedy, haze gray and underway in the northern Red Sea. I sat in a window seat on the left side, right behind all the cargo on the COD’s rear deck. D-Right sat in the aisle across from me. RAWHIDE 45 taxied out to the runway ramp down until just before takeoff. After a short takeoff roll, the Hijaz Mountains passed out the window. The Red Sea is a bright turquoise blue from 18,000 feet. An hour into the flight our Load came over the intercom telling us what to do during the arrested landing; sit tight, feet and knees together, cross your arms and hold shoulder straps with your head down, chin on your chest. And then the Load gave this ominous warning, if we go down in the water, remember bubbles always float up. If we go down in the water, remember bubbles always float up. Follow the bubbles to a hatch and let the float coat take to the surface. Take steady breaths from the oxygen bottle. Remember to release air from your lungs as you rise. How long does it take rising to the surface from Red Sea’s 6000 foot trench?
Looking over at D-Right as the C-2 started descending toward Kennedy’s traffic pattern, I asked what’s about to happen.
“D-Right, what’s an arrested landing and cat shot like?”
“Like nothing you’ve ever experience in your life, not even at Disneyland!”
Leveling off and accelerating eight hundred feet above the water, the Loadmaster said get in position over the intercom. Wings rolled left to a 3g break into the carrier traffic pattern, the deck filled with planes passed beneath us out D-Right’s window. Slowing down I heard the gear come down, and then flap extension tubes activate. After completing another wide left turn, the Loadmaster screamed from his seat,
“GET READY! GET READY! GET READY!”
Big John’s wake appeared under my window, then the gray deck and fantail. I can only describe the arrested landing as SCREECH – BANG – HALT. Tires screeched hitting the deck as wheel struts bottomed out and the airplane came to a halt in the time it took you to read this.
The COD’s wings folded covering my window as we taxied out of the arresting cable wires. The cargo ramp opened, and the bow’s covered with A-6 Intruder and A-7 Corsair attack planes. A KA-6D tanker followed behind us. As the COD turned butt end toward the Conning Tower Island, a big white 67 appeared behind us. Pushing back into the parking spot, several people with different colored shirts waited to transfer cargo, passengers, and baggage. D-Right leaned over and asked,
“Well… how’d you like that?”
“That was outstanding!”
With a big smile, “Wait till the cat shot!”
Carrier launch operations are the most destructive sounds a human ear can experience, 140 decibels and in some cases higher. Ten decibels higher and eardrums rupture without protection. King Faisal’s Air Transportation Office told us to use foamy earplugs under Mickey Mouse cranial head protectors and now I knew why. Carrier decks are incredibly loud. Smells of burning jet fuel and greasy oil filled my nose. It smelled like being in a car repair shop with AC/DC turned all the way up. D-Right and I stood next to the COD’s folded wings as a kneeling F-14 Tomcat’s launch bar dropped over catapult number four’s shuttle on the waist. A young kid waved at several people and ran out from under the nose as the launch bar contacted a big catapult shuttle. An A-7E attack plane taxied by blocking our view momentarily. The VF-14 Tophatter Tomcat callsign CAMELOT 110 went into afterburner straining against the holdback bar. A Green Shirt gave the thumbs up signal, the Yellow Shirted shooter tapped the deck and pointed forward. CAMELOT 110 blasted off the end of the deck and out of view.
The Jet Blast Deflector – “JBD” to all on the carrier – came down, and a KA-6D wings unfold while taxiing over the catapult track. Another A-7E, CLANSMEN 307, taxied by wings folded with a single AGM-88 HARM missile hanging from a pylon. Men in yellow, green, red, brown and white long sleeve shirts ran all over the deck. Two young sailors in purple shirts walked around the E-2 Hawkeye next to us and went downstairs. The Air Boss shouted over the loudspeaker at a sailor not paying attention. Everyone stood behind a red and yellow striped line as the Sunday Puncher KA-6D went under tension and spooled up his engines to max power. A few seconds later he disappeared out of view behind the COD. It was chaos under controlled conditions.
Escorts tapped us on the shoulder and led us toward the Island. Stepping off the flight deck to a small stairway, the Red Sea passed eight stories below us under catwalks made from heavy wire mesh welded to the framework. Walking into the carrier’s ATO office D-Right shook hands with Dagwood, and Carrier Airwing Three Lead Strike Planner and our host. Dagwood lead us through several passageways to the Carrier Intelligence Center or CVIC. About the size of your living and dining room combined, CVIC would be our work space for the next few hours. CVIC holds most of the strike planning data and intelligence support systems, making it the natural place for large, multi-squadron planning meetings. All CAG Three Squadron Commanders gathered in CVIC with us.
An Intel analyst briefed us on Iraq’s air defenses from a report published by the Office of Naval Intelligence Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research or SPEAR Division in Suitland, Maryland. I had never seen detailed analysis on Saddam’s air defense network like this report contained. The Black Hole had just published new strike package priorities to the first three days air tasking order and all the Navy refueling requirements changed. After going over the new air wing taskings, it was our turn to ask some questions. One question D-Right had for the Commanders was what does the 1709th need to improve in our support. No one likes our Iron Maiden, the nickname for the KC-135 refueling Drogue. It’s hard and weighs over two hundred fifty pounds. Several new Airwing Lieutenants had never refueled behind a KC-135 or KC-10 until operating in the Red Sea. All of the comments were small things Jeddah’s tanker aircrews needed to fine tune, small things easily adjusted in our procedures with Navy receivers. We spent the next two hours going over all of the strike missions in detail, changing tanker requirements where needed, an incredible learning experience with our customers.
After our meetings D-Right and I had some time off. Dagwood introduced me to my escort, a Tomcat RIO named Dave Parsons, callsign Hey Joe. Both of us had a passion for photography. Hey Joe took his camera on every flight with a great view from his Tomcat’s backseat office. He showed me several of his recent pictures the carrier Photoshop had blown up for him. He asked if I was hungry. You bet I am. He told me I have not experienced carrier life until consuming a slider, a roller, and some auto dawg. I thought what kind of Air Force initiation is this and was it specific to KC-135 pilots, payback for the Iron Maiden. We headed down to the Dirty Shirt Mess, an area all can eat at while working in their dirty duds. I stuck to him like white on rice because I would never find they way back to my stateroom. Dirty Shirt Mess is at the front of the carrier. Following Hey Joe’s lead, I grabbed a tray off the stack. He pointed to a cook flipping thirty-burger patties on a grill.
“Those are sliders, hamburgers.”
Pointing down the line, “Those are roller,” pointing at sixty hot dogs turning on a hot dog roller.
Pointing to the Ice Cream machine, “That’s Auto Dawg… ice cream.”
“Why do you call it Auto Dawg?”
He laughed and said, “Because it looks like a dog with diarrhea as it comes out!”
Dirty Shirt Mess salad bar had more items on it than my cafeteria onshore at Jeddah. I asked Hey Joe how they got all the lettuce. He told me it comes aboard while they are underway replenishing or UNREP’ing from a stores ship which comes alongside. What that was I did not know and didn’t want to look stupid. Both of us sat down at VF-32 Swordsmen table. Hey Joe introduced me to his squadron mates telling them I’m a KC-135 pilot at Jeddah. One bowed to me saying,
“WE LOVE TANKER GUYS!”
I asked all of them tell me what we are doing wrong at Jeddah, how can we improve our service to you guys. Each one mentioned their distaste for the KC-135 Iron Maiden over the soft nerf-like Drogues the KC-10 has. SAC was not going to fix that before the war. Lock the Boom when we refuel off the Drogue. There is no “lock” on the Boom. Sundance said let us plug into it, don’t help us. Most asked KC-135 mission planning question; how much gas do you hold, what is a KC-135 fuel burn rate, do you burn the same gas you are offloading. The discussion lasted an hour.
Finishing dinner, I asked Hey Joe to take me to some of the best places for taking pictures. I had twenty rolls of film in my helmet bag I wanted to shoot before leaving. Walking toward the center of the ship we climbed several sets of stairs. Stepping through a large hatch onto an Island balcony, the deck spread out below me three stories down. We are standing on Vulture’s Row. Hey Joe told me this is the best and safest place to take pictures if you have never been aboard. A lot of people come to Vulture’s Row to watch and photograph flight ops. Vulture’s Row was the ideal spot for me. I could see the entire flight deck fore and aft from Vultures Row. I shot five rolls of film over the next ten minutes. There is one other place to get great pictures from. Stopping by the Swordsmen Ready Room, Hey Joe handed me a cranial and float coat. We followed VF-32’s Landing Signal Officer out to the deck just a short walk from their Ready Room. Two Tomcats came over the carrier at five hundred knots into the pattern break. We stood abeam the deck’s landing area. Each Tomcat landed thirty feet right in front of me. An A-6E Intruder followed by two A-7s came down the right side and into the overhead break pattern. I stood there mesmerized by what went on in front of me. After all the aircraft landed everyone cleared off the platform and went back to their Ready Rooms.
D-Right and I met with Strike Plans to tie off a few more items the next morning. Dagwood walked us to the ATO Office for our departure back to Jeddah. Donning Mickey Mouse ears and a float coat, the Load gave us another safety brief. The COD is backed into the same spot, waiting for us to board. First thing I noticed are all seats are facing aft. D-Right shook Dagwood’s hand and we stepped into the COD and sat down.
“Wait till you experience this,” D-Right said laughing.
Whatever is about to happen to me, I’m going to remember the rest of my life.
RAWHIDE 46 rear cargo ramp closed shut taxiing to the bow catapults. Several people standing on the deck moved by my window. The Load announced we were taxiing into the cat so get ready, this will happen fast. Within minutes the engines opened full up as the Load screamed,
“GET READY! GET READY! GET READY!” and he put his head down in his chest.
I looked out the window to watch this. Cat shots are a loud BANG followed by a big backward jerk. After the bang I came out of the seat about a half inch… remember the seats face the tail! Stripping on the deck is a blur. Three seconds later another BANG and RAWHIDE 46 was airborne. Zero to one hundred sixty knots in three hundred seven feet.
I looked over at D-Right screaming as loud as I could,
“I GOTTA DO THAT AGAIN!”
He just laughed at me, big smile on his face. During the long ride home, we discussed what I had learned and asked him a lot of questions.
SAC tanker community knows very little about how the Navy air wings operate. Jeddah’s big wing of tankers are about to refuel some of the largest carrier strike package in combat history and very few in SAC’s tanker plans community understood how the Navy does business. We didn’t even speak their language. Hey Joe explained the Airwing’s daily flying operations and how they created a daily flying schedule. The carrier had a confidential communications card with their preset radio frequencies on it. The carrier, called “Mother,” had a TACAN atop the mainmast tankers could navigate off of. Mother’s TACAN channel change periodically so having their Comm Card is important. VF-32 has their own squadron common radio frequency to talk to each other. I understood deck cycle time, going from launching aircraft to recovering aircraft and how it affected refueling operations. Most importantly, Hey Joe explained how the Tomcats and AEGIS Cruiser defends the tankers during refueling.
Understanding the Airwing’s fuel requirements and what it means being “on the ladder” was critical to Jeddah’s operations. If you are below a predetermined amount of gas during flight, you are “on the ladder.” Hornets are notorious for being on the fuel ladder. USS Saratoga had two squadrons of Hornet strike fighters Jeddah’s tankers will drag to the Iraqi border. Our job was to keep the Hornets OFF the ladder! The senior AEGIS Cruiser Captain is responsible for Battlegroup air defense, not a commander on the carrier. All air defense assets belong to the senior AEGIS Cruiser Commander to defend the battlegroup. The senior Airwing Commander controls all strike responsibilities to include the AEGIS Cruiser’s Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles, TLAMs. This Composite Warfare Commander concept is entirely foreign to Air Force operators.
One new idea we are trying with the Navy is the hose multiplier concept. The KA-6Ds launched and joined Air Force tankers early in PRUNE and RAISIN tracks, the long air refueling roads Guard KC-135E Models drag the strike packages toward Baghdad. Hose multiplier works like this; each KA-6D fills up off the KC-135s before the strike packages arrived at PRUNE or RAISIN refueling control points. Once full, KA-6Ds moved to our wings trailing the Buddy Store Drogues as another contact point strike fighters can plug into for fuel. Hose multiplier KA-6Ds gave KC-135s the ability to refuel two airplanes simultaneously off each tanker, saving massive amounts of time. It was impossible for all twenty-six to thirty-four strike fighters to get their required fuel before reaching the Iraqi border if we don’t use hose multipliers. When a KA-6 said they are on their way to my Iron Maiden, I always gave them as much gas as they wanted. The gas then spread to all the Navy fighters and jammers. KA-6s overflew the recovery cycle in case someone had trouble getting aboard or had an emergency. I do not know who came up with this idea, but it saved our collective refueling plan butts when used in combat.
On Wednesday 19 December my crew was scheduled to refuel the Red Sea air wings. I wrote Hey Joe’s squadron common frequency on my line up card, hoping he may be airborne during the sortie. Kevin’s Mom and Dad sent our crew a Christmas package containing four Santa hats and lots of chocolate. Feeling the Christmas spirit, all of us took our new Santa hats on the flight. We were in a giving mood. Kevin, Rick and I put the Santa hats on and then our headsets, Kenny’s hat over his headset. The wind was blowing hard out of the north at about thirty knots while taxiing out to the center runway. Taxiing out to the end of the runway, Kenny and I opened our windows at the same time. A thirty mile an hour blast of wind went through the cockpit
Kenny’s Santa hat went out the window in a red flash.
“Just tell me it did not go down the engines!” I looked at the engine instruments to see any hiccups.
Kenny leaned out the open window and saw it blow into the airfield fence.
“It’s on the fence off the taxiway.”
What do I tell the Supervisor of Flying? ”Hey SOF, can you go pick our SANTA HAT out of the airfield fence just off the taxiway to the center runway?” We discussed what we should tell the Ramp SOF as a crew. Kevin said I wouldn’t tell him anything. It’s in the fence and won’t hurt anybody. Good plan. We closed the windows and took off.
A controller in the AEGIS Cruiser called RED CROWN cleared us into the Battlegroups airspace. RED CROWN passed us off to Strike Control, a radar controller inside Kennedy’s Carrier Information Center, their version of our COYOTE Ops command post. Kenny dialed in Swordsmen Common in Comm Two of our brand new Rockwell Collins ARC-210 radio. I keyed the mic and said,
“Hey Joe check!”
“Hey Joe here…”
“Sluggo’s flying the tanker!”
“Be there ten minutes!”
He called back minutes later saying he’s locked us up on radar.
“Where are you Hey Joe?”
“On your nose for three miles.”
I started looking for him out in front of us. I didn’t see him…
“Hey Joe, where are you again?”
Peering up through the eyebrow windows, two Tomcats roll inverted on their backs and pull hard as they can toward the Boom.
“Boom, Pilot, here they come!”
“Looking for them…”
Hey Joe in Gypsy 200, the Airwing Commander’s brightly painted billboard jet, and his wingman in Gypsy 201, the Squadron Commander’s billboard jet, leveled off behind the Drogue.
“How much can you give us, Sluggo?”
“How much do you want?”
“Can you give us each 10K?”
“If I can get some good pictures of you off the wing afterward, I’ll top you both off.”
Gypsy 200 and 201 own the bar. After getting his gas Gypsy 201 moved down to the Drogue. Hey Joe parked out my window, camera up to his face. He’s pointing at us, laughing. Hey Joe’s pilot Dawg moved high and close to my window. Both point down at me.
They see the Santa Hat.
Gypsy 201 joined on Hey Joe’s left side after getting his 10,000 pounds. Both Tomcats just sat there motionless in perfect fingertip formation. Hey Joe snapped several pictures and stuffed his camera down beside him. Then I heard Dawg’s voice on the radio,
“Gypsies… Burners… NOW!”
Engine exhaust nozzle opened wide. Long tongues of orange flame grew longer and longer as each stage of afterburner ignited. Gypsy flight lurched forward and upward gaining speed. Hey Joe called Strike passing 32,000 feet. He left us at 21,000.
My crew in EXXON 55 stayed airborne for two more hours refueling whoever came up. Strike Control took us up to one of the MiG CAP stations near the Gulf of Aqabah. A-6Es, A-7Es, EA-6Bs and F-18s off the Saratoga plugged into us. At one point we could see Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The wind was blowing hard for landing back at Jeddah but straight down the runway. After stopping by Tanker Ops to drop off all our gear, we hopped a bus for the compound. Our kitchen table was piled high with packages of candy and Christmas chocolate. Laying on one of the kitchen chairs… is Kenny’s Santa hat. Four KC-135 Life Support airmen shared our apartment. Driving across the ramp Life Support saw a red object in the airfield fence. Stopping to pick it out of the fence, they realized it’s a Santa Hat. They see Kenny’s name inside. Arriving back at our apartment, they laid it on the chair so we would see it walking in from our flight.
D-Right meets me in the hall after Hey Joe mission… “Come with me Captain…” Big ATO changes came from Black Hole… 3/4s of our first three days ATO missions changed… I came in at 1500 Wednesday to fly and go home Thursday morning at 0600 after working ATO changes all night.)
Missions increased in intensity through Christmas. Massive C-5 and C-141 transport planes took gas on a track just north of Jeddah over the Red Sea, delivering additional forces to the Gulf Region. Galaxys and Starlifters took 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of fuel, dropped below us turning left at Wejh and joined an airway across Saudi Arabia to Gassim. Special Envoy James Baker met with Saddam’s closest advisor Tariq Aziz in Geneva on 9 January hopefully to find a possible diplomatic solution to the conflict. After seven hours of discussions, the meeting broke up. James Baker told Minister Aziz the coalition had a numerical and technical advantage over Iraqi forces. Aziz did not seem too impressed, until Baker told him if Saddam uses weapons of mass destruction the US would use all weapons in its arsenal. Azziz knew Secretary Baker meant nukes. Meetings ended without a solution.
11 January D-Right found me in the hall. “Come with me Captain.”
Walking into our secret vault, he spun the safe’s dial. Handing me a piece of paper from a folder marked TOP SECRET on an orange cover sheet, D-Right said one word to me, read. Only the top quarter of the page is written on. It said,
TO: All Units
SUBJECT: Operation Desert Storm
MSG: Implement Wolfpack. D-Day is 17 January 1991, H-Hour is 0000Z or 0300 local Baghdad time. Good luck and good hunting. Horner
Wolfpack, the code name for the first three air campaign ATO days, commences at 3am Thursday morning Baghdad time, 17 January 1991. Three days later the 1709th’s Deputy Commander for Operations, Colonel Buster Dell, selected our crew for one of the most important missions of opening night, refueling the first F-4G Wild Weasel package into Baghdad. Lack of Wild Weasel support is a NO-GO item, only the Stealth Fighters and cruise missiles are allowed into Iraq without Wild Weasel support. Kevin talked with John Boy, the Wild Weasel Package Commander twice on a secure phone. Three nights prior to opening, large groups of fighters and tankers raced north on PRUNE, RAISIN, LIME PRE and OLIVE PRE toward Iraq, turning around short of the border. Horner conditioned Saddam’s radar operators to see big formations coming toward them and turn around; they’re not coming tonight but excuse me while I go change my laundry.
A message at the compound late Wednesday afternoon 16 January said my crew’s report time was 2200, the time to Implement Wolfpack. B-52s left the States earlier today for cruise missile launch boxes in the Red Sea, and then on to secondary targets destroying Iraqi airfields. Black Jets drop their bombs on Air Operations Centers controlling Saddam’s defenses at 0300. A telephone exchange building nicknamed “The AT&T Building” in downtown Baghdad is the next Black Jet target, cutting off communications throughout Iraq. When John Boy’s Weasels appeared out from under my jet, I turned TUNA 64 Flight south for Jeddah. None of said a word seeing the next wave of aircraft pass on our left at 840 miles an hour of closure. On this moonless night, hundreds of red rotating beacons go by quickly out Kenny’s window heading north. After landing, one of Vonnie’s Crew Chiefs placed a cardboard stencil of Aladin’s Lamp above the entry door. A red Jennie Lamp spray painted on the side of Rolling Thunder symbolized my crew is not part of the expected ten percent losses, we are alive after our first combat mission. About an hour after arriving back to our apartment, Rick said I had a phone call. It’s was my Dad. I wanted to tell him everything but can’t for security reasons. I emphasized to him we were real busy and real tired during our thirty minutes phone call.
Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit is available to order here.
Photo credit: LCDR Dave Parsons / U.S. Navy and Mark Hasara / U.S. Air Force