“I called the middle tanker, below me: ‘What number are you, in the middle?’ He responded, ‘I’m tanker #2.’ I said, ‘No, you are now tanker #1 and we are on the way down. Also, just to warn you, if we don’t get this gas right now, we are going swimming,'” 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.
It seemed, at times, the better a mission began, the worse it eventually became. This 6,000-mile mission segment from Hickam to U-Tapao AB, Thailand would be a prime example. In the middle of this 14-hour mission, we became deathly entangled with developing Typhoon Diane, a storm we had not been told about, that had camped out over our only alternate air base on Guam. From a bright exotic beginning in tropical Hawaii, we progressively flew into the clutches of one of nature’s most horrific events. Worse, as we arrived in the depths of the storm, with a full load of marines and their equipment, we were out of gas with nowhere to land except in the roiling ocean beneath the storm.
Our takeoff roll seemed to last forever on the outside reef runway at Honolulu International Airport. We had a full load of 73 marines from Kaneohe Naval Air Station in the upstairs troop compartment, and a full cargo bay of their equipment down below, all bound for Jubail, Saudi Arabia, about twenty miles below the Kuwaiti border [Operation Desert Shield was underway].
Everything about this mission would be on the limits: our gross weight, our takeoff roll, our fuel weight, our climb rate, our fuel burn rate, everything. Since the entire route went east to west on the same tropical latitude, it would be hot the entire way. This meant we could not climb high enough for maximum fuel efficiency and would be burning gas at a high rate at lower altitudes between 25,000 and 29,000 feet. Farther north, in cooler temperatures, we could gain maximum gas mileage between 31,000 and 35,000 feet, but not here in the tropics. We had fueled to our maximum takeoff weight, 769,000 pounds, or about three-quarters of a million pounds, which included 250,000 pounds of fuel. Even at that, we would have to maximize our gas mileage by climbing to a higher altitude as our fuel burned off, our weight declined, and our engines could carry us there.
Eight hours west over the island of Guam we were scheduled to meet three KC-135 air refueling tankers to replenish our fuel load for the further six-hour flight to Thailand. This represented a challenge. Our training flights required us to get ten minutes on the boom, five with tanker autopilot on, five with tanker autopilot off (Autopilot off is about three times as demanding as autopilot on, because the tanker is no longer as stable a platform.) This Guam refueling, however, would take almost an hour of boom time, far beyond our normal practice requirement. We felt pretty well prepared for this. My copilot, Maj. Pete Gray, however, was on his first flight after air refueling qualification.
Mission planning at Hickam Base Operations the morning of the departure, we paid our required visit to the weather forecaster. He did not know the conditions around Guam, eight hours and almost 4,000 miles of ocean away, as intimately as he did the Hawaiian weather. He had to depend on Guam for their forecast and it called for “isolated thunderstorms,” almost a standard tropical condition. There were almost never zero thunderstorms, so “isolated” did not ring alarm bells. Several hours after our takeoff, however, the Guam forecaster issued the typhoon development warning for Guam and the surrounding area, and to stop the C-5 aircraft flow of one every two hours. We didn’t know this until three hours out of Guam, by which time it was too late to do anything about it.
The early part of the flight was splendidly uneventful, with bright sunshine and a million square miles of deep blue ocean surrounding us. Just after the sun set, the first “isolated” thunderstorms appeared.
The first realization we had trouble came during an HF radio call to the tankers on the ground at Andersen AFB, Guam, about three hours before our air refueling rendezvous. I found the lead aircraft commander (tanker lead) and told him we were on time for the refueling. In a somewhat strained voice he told me he didn’t know if they were going to get airborne or not. I looked at Pete as if I had misheard the transmission. Why would that be, I asked? The tanker pilot fairly pleaded that there were so many thunderstorms around the field he didn’t know if he could take off. The import of this hit me immediate. I told him: “If you can’t take off how am I supposed to land? Because if you can’t meet me for air refueling, I must land almost immediately on Guam since I’ll be out of fuel. I’m barely going to make it as it is.” The tanker pilot assured me they would do everything in their power to get to us. They did.
Twenty-four years later I met the tanker lead pilot who said they ran from the crew bus to their plane in ankle-deep water in a driving monsoon rainstorm.
An hour out of Guam, and well after dark, we encountered what the tanker pilots had complained of. It began as heavy static on our radios, a sign of static electricity in the air that increases in the vicinity of thunderstorms. Soon the storms were evident as well. Our weather radar screen painted progressive lines of intense thunderstorms ahead, the spiraling pinwheel arms of the tropical storm. Had I been anywhere else in the world, I’d have turned around, but I could not turn around. There was nothing to turn around to but empty ocean. As we tried to pick our way around the lines of storms we hit moderate turbulence that shook the plane and made it shudder randomly, occasionally buffeting us off our altitude.
Then, the ghostly apparitions began—St. Elmo’s fire. This glowing, clinging, static electric aura usually starts on the windshield wipers, cocooning them in a white, green, or blue halo effect.
Meanwhile, the three tankers floundered in the depths of the storm and suffered mightily for it. On the common interplane radio frequency, we heard their tense, shouted radio calls as they attempted to evade the dozens of individual thunderstorm cells in the darkness and still remain in a loose three-ship formation.
They were flying down at the refueling altitude, 17,000 feet, which was near the freezing level, which meant they had all the worst effects of the thunderstorms, from lightning to turbulence. We had finally gotten up to 33,000 and remained mostly above the storms that seemed to top out at 28,000. Even above the storms, however, we were taking a beating. Regulations forbid flying within twenty miles of a thunderstorm, yet all of us were thrashing around well within ten miles of numerous storms. We had to. I don’t know if the tanker squadron commanders gave their pilots a waiver to do so, or if they just looked the other way, but wartime demands dictated we do this. The troops I carried had to reinforce our forces in Saudi Arabia as fast as possible, so all the stops came out to get them there.
Tanker lead decided the scheduled air refueling track near Guam would be impossible to use, so he directed us 200 miles north of Guam, where we hoped the air would be clearer and the storms less intense. This proved a fateful decision. While the storms were slightly less severe, it meant we had to get the gas from the tankers; if we could not, we would not have enough gas to return to Guam to land. I realized this later; I did not realize it then. Going north meant the air refueling might be a do-or-ditch event.
Finally, the tanker cell approached us from the west and we relaxed somewhat. As the tankers closed to within 50 miles, however, we discovered a squall line of thunderstorms across the path between the tankers and us. Tanker lead invited me to descend to 17,000 feet to meet them. I told him, incredulously, there was no way I was descending into that line of storms, and that I’d meet him on the other side. We picked a low notch in the cloud tops and flew through.
The tankers apparently miscalculated and made their 180 degree turn to our westerly heading near or within the squall line. Tense voices on the interplane frequency became shouts and near screams as the three aircraft lost sight of each other and were buffeted heavily by the storms. Somewhere in the mayhem they performed a cell formation breakup procedure, because when we all emerged on the west side of the storms, the tankers were arrayed below us with ten miles lateral separation between them, the center tanker 16,000 feet directly below us.
For what seemed like the fourth time in five minutes, the flight engineer reminded me of how little fuel we had. We were below 30,000 pounds, which sounds adequate, but is not. We always try to land with a minimum of 20,000 pounds since the gauges become unreliable below 16,000 pounds and engine flameout can occur. Most troubling, we were still about 20,000 pounds’ worth of fuel away from Guam. This would, indeed, be a you-bet-your-ass refueling.
I called the middle tanker, below me: “What number are you, in the middle?”
He responded, “I’m tanker #2.”
I said, “No, you are now tanker #1 and we are on the way down. Also, just to warn you, if we don’t get this gas right now, we are going swimming.”
We swooped down through the ink-black sky to prepare for the refueling contact. As we approached the pre-contact position 50 feet behind the tanker, the last two bits of misfortune arrived. My engineer said, in a voice a half-octave higher than normal, that we were down to 25,000 pounds of gas. Then the tanker dropped the final bit of bad news on me. The boomer said, “Ah, I hate to tell you this, MAC, but we don’t have our autopilot tonight. The other guys do, but we don’t, sorry.”
I will fess up now that all this gave me a perverse glee. There are many things I cannot do well, but there is one I could, and that was air refueling. I had learned the essential secret as a B-52 pilot on active duty and had used this secret to often shame my fellow pilots behind the tanker. I was among the two or three most proficient air refueling pilots in the wing and I showed off and hot-dogged on training flights, demanding to get my turn during weather, or when the tanker was maneuvering and the refueling more difficult.
The secret is peripheral vision. It isn’t what you are looking at, directly; it is what your eyes and brain encompass over the full field of vision. If you are trying to match another car’s speed on a dual-lane highway, it is difficult if you concentrate on only one specific part of the car, such as the bumper. If the bumper is all you see, no matter how well you see it, you will not be able to perfectly match the other car’s speed. To precisely lock-in the matching speed, you must use peripheral vision to encompass the entire car. Your eyes might be aimed at the bumper, but you must expand your awareness to take in the full parameters of the car. When you do this, you will not actually see the car begin to move forward or backward in relation to you, you will feel it. Most important, you will not only sense movement, you will sense it precisely and immediately. It is this ability that makes precise air refueling possible. If you depend upon the director lights on the belly of the tanker to direct you, you will be flailing throughout the refueling because you will never be able to see tanker movement precisely or immediately.
Still, even in my confidence, there could be trouble. Occasionally, the tanker or receiver air refueling system suffers a mechanical failure. For some failures, there is no remedy and there will be no air refueling. If this happened now, we were going swimming, no matter how big an air refueling hot-shot I thought I was.
Also, in my confidence, I decide to let Pete try the first contact. It would be an immense confidence booster if he could hang on the boom for a while under these conditions. I told him to give it a go, but if he fell off, I got to take over for as long as I could hold on.
This perplexed the crew. Why was the aircraft commander asking his copilot to get the gas; couldn’t he do it? They all realized the dire trouble we’d be in if we didn’t get the gas. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was doing, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn’t know that when I did that, the troop loadmasters had broken out their ditching checklists.
The rear end of the tanker hovered before us in the utter blackness like some sort of alien space ship, more glowing chimera than airplane. In some ways it appeared to be a large manta ray with two radiant eyes that were the under-wing illumination lights of the tanker. Night refueling is more difficult than daylight because less of the tanker is visible and, therefore, fewer clues are provided about its relative movement. More unfortunate, the tanker made constant quick turns to avoid the storms and this aggravated our job trying to stay with him.
Pete called “Stabilized pre-contact,” and the tanker cleared us to the contact (air refueling) position. Pete got into contact, but I saw he was still closing instead of stabilizing. He, apparently, didn’t see it and coasted gently through the inner limit, resulting in a disconnect from the tanker. The engineer later related he was sucking his seat cushion up his ass at this point.
As Pete backed away from the tanker, I told him it was my turn. Finally, I could put to use twenty years of practice. After all those scrimmages, it was now game time. The tanker shuddered and bounced in the turbulence in front of us. I aimed my eyes at the tanker’s director lights, but took the entire aircraft into my field of view and called “Stabilized, pre-contact.” I don’t think I fell off during the next twenty minutes, but I can’t really remember. I just remember the flight engineer announcing “We’re taking fuel!” as if he were announcing childbirth. After twenty minutes we had drained the first tanker and now had enough fuel to orbit Guam until the storms opened up, or even to make the Philippines if we had to. However, I was shot, both mentally and physically. I was already tired just from the flight, and the air refueling finished me. Pete did the next two tankers solo as I sat there as a lifeless puddle, Mr. Air Refueling defaulting most of the action to the total rookie. I don’t remember Pete getting any disconnects on the last two tankers.
By the time we had finished with the third tanker we were more than halfway to the Philippines from Guam. The thunderstorms, still numerous, were no longer part of an organized storm system as they had been around Guam. However, we would soon have to choose between dodging storms, or flying, unannounced and uninvited, into Vietnamese airspace, where the storms abated. I told Pete I didn’t care what he did, and I didn’t want to know. I was going to the bunk room to sleep and he could do anything he wanted. I never asked which choice he made, and I still don’t know, but we arrived in Thailand uneventfully.
Photo credit: Brett Snow and Master Sgt. Dave Nolan U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army
Artwork courtesy of AircraftProfilePrints.com