Hello Egypt … Hello beaches
By, Richard S. Hefner, Colonel, USAF (ret)
C-141, B-52, C-5 Pilot
With the Vietnam conflict over, the Strategic Air Command’s mission narrowed back to deterrence. As a result, a number of Buff pilots (myself included) were removed from the cockpit. In early 1976, I turned in my helmet and parachute for a handgun and a M-16. I was now a flight commander for a SAC Security Police unit. In my mind, one of SAC’s best pilots was now “grounded” … supervising a flight of airmen (mostly teenagers carrying loaded weapons) and checking security lines and fences around the weapons storage area and the alert compound.
Fortunately, after about a year of security police flight duty, I was moved up to Operations Officer and was now in charge of 4 flights. The good news … I had an office and was not out pounding the ramp every day. As I sat in my office one day, wondering if I was ever going to get back into flying, I picked up an Air Force Times. THERE IT WAS! Our Military Personnel Center (MPC) was looking for pilots to fly the C-5.
Prospective C-5 pilots needed 1000 flying hours … I had 1200! They had to be aircraft commander qualified … I was! Aerial refueling qualified was highly desirable … I was! It looked like a perfect fit, until SAC said “no”. However, somehow MPC won the argument and I ended up with orders back in the Military Airlift Command at Travis AFB, California as a brand new C-5 co-pilot. Victory … back in the cockpit!
While in pilot training I had always seen myself flying fighters and doing whiffer-dills through the skies. Now here I was … flying the free world’s largest airplane and limited to 30 degrees of bank! The C-5 itself was a beast of a plane. Unlike the C-141, the C-5 was under-powered and when loaded down, it moved about as fast as chilled molasses. Like the B-52D, you had to stay ahead of this plane or you could easily get behind the power curve, which always meant trouble.
Staying ahead of the power curve made the Galaxy fun to fly, but unfortunately, it was a difficult weapon system to maintain. Too often crews found themselves sitting on the ramp waiting for parts to be flown in. And, if an engine change was ever needed, the only plane capable of carrying a C-5 engine was another C-5 … get the picture! As a result of this difficulty, the C-5 picked up the nickname “FRED” (F—ing Ridiculous Economic Disaster). To this day, I considered this an unfair label for the Galaxy, but there are many who would disagree with me.
The C-5 was designed to carry out-sized cargo (stuff that will not fit in other airplanes.) The front and back doors of the cargo bay could open, the plane could lowered itself towards the ground (kneeling), and ramps could extend so rolling stock (trucks, buses, tanks, etc.) could drive on and off either the front or the back. With this unique capability, the C-5 was often given unusual missions.
One of my first missions was a classified run to Egypt. The Russians had been tossed out and we were invited in. As a result of the Russians leaving, there was an abandoned air base north of Cairo that had no power. Our mission was to deliver 2 massive generators, each capable of supplying a small city with electricity, to the lifeless base. We were also told not to expect any normal “niceties” … like navigation aids, weather information, and food. Any ground support was going to be minimal. We were to get in, download the generators, and get out. The priority of the mission was as close to a “war-time” effort as I had seen in the C-5.
As we made our way across the states and the Atlantic, we picked up some vibrations coming from one of the huge compressor fans on one of the engines. Vibrating fans on a C-5 engine can only get worse with time and normally ended up as an engine change. If left unattended, the engine would eventually fail during flight. Our vibes were not out of limits, but they were a concern, so we pressed on, carefully monitoring the engine.
As we crossed the Mediterranean and headed across the desert to Cairo, the vibes increased into the “out of limits” range. Not good. We now had to either shut down the engine or find a thrust setting that would allow continued operation. After a few throttle adjustments, we found a setting that allowed us to keep the engine running…at least for a while.
Having seen nothing but ocean and desert for hours, Cairo was a welcomed and exciting site … pyramids and the sphinx!! Awesome. However, sight seeing was secondary to the mission, so we flew over the city and picked up a heading towards the abandoned base. Without any navigation aids, we were basically on a visual search. Everyone was looking out the windows for the air base. Runways are normally pretty easy to see, and in the desert, this was no exception. Bingo, there it was!
Now what? No one was in the tower for landing clearance. No altimeter settings, no wind direction or velocity, and no nav aids for landing this beast. As we circled the field, looking for clues as to the wind’s direction, we saw several skeletons of Russian jets that looked like they had crashed and been abandoned (not a pleasant sight for any pilot). We also saw 2 small vehicles with people in them … our ground support.
We made a low pass (making sure there were no animals on the runway) then set up for a visual approach. As we jockeyed the throttles, the engine vibrations again became more noticeable. However, we landed safely and taxied off the runway. As we shutdown the engines, our welcoming party came driving up in their jeeps.
The off-load was lengthy, so we took a tour of the area. The vacated tower facilities were of WW I vintage. Lights were hung by a single electric line with no shade and a single on-off switch at the bulb. Dust and sand were all over the place. There were no signs that even remotely suggested the Russians had lived here comfortably. Those generators were going to supply electric life to the base, but comfort was a long way off!
When the off-load was complete, we climbed back on our C-5 … yes, that complex marvel that had air conditioning and comfortable sleeping bunks. We decided which runway to use for takeoff by wetting our fingers and holding them in the air to get the direction of the wind! Again, no tower, no air traffic control, no weather people … just crank the engines and go fly!
Unfortunately, our sick engine was still a problem. By the book, the C-5 needs 4 engines for takeoff. However, we had downloaded our cargo, so our takeoff weight was lighter than usual. We started all four engines then nursed our sick engine into a power setting that kept the vibrations outside the danger limits. There, four engines operating for takeoff … operating conditions met! We did reduce the power on the other side of the plane so our thrust was symmetrical. On the other 2 engines … full power! If we needed extra power, we were ready to bring the engines operating at reduced power to a higher power setting immediately. However, without any cargo, the Galaxy accelerated quickly and the takeoff was uneventful.
Unfortunately shortly after takeoff, those engine vibes rapidly moved into the danger area and the potential of an engine failure was staring us in the face. We shut the engine down and now flying on 3 engines, started looking for a friendly place to land and get needed repairs. The nearest base that could accommodate a C-5 and had US personnel there was in Sicily, Italy … US Naval Air Station Sigonella.
Imagine the C-5 on a Navy base where they stack planes together in small quarters, like on a aircraft carrier. We dwarfed everything in sight. And having parts or people to fix our engine … not a chance … we needed a C-5 engine and C-5 maintenance folks. Just getting the engine to us was going to take at least 3 days. Switching out engines took another day.
So, there we were, stuck in Sicily for four days. Hello beaches!
Flying the Galaxy was tough duty … we saw the pyramids, the sphinx, and had a 4-day paid summer vacation in Sicily. Life was good!
Hello Egypt … Hello beaches
By, Richard S. Hefner, Colonel, USAF (ret) C-141, B-52, C-5 Pilot, Aviation Writer, http://20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com