My Rookie Years
By Col. Dick Hefner, USAF (retired)
Former pilot (C-141, B-52 D/G, C-5 A/B)
There I was … young, brash, and a new set of wings on my chest. I had survived my only scary incident during pilot training (see previous article) and for my long-term effort I had received an assignment to McGuire AFB, NJ to fly the C-141 Starlifter, the Military Airlift Command’s 4-engine workhorse. I could not wait to finally be in the real Air Force.
I completed my dollar ride, which was a “freebie” without much responsibility. I was just an extra co-pilot being given a chance to see the “system” before I was expected to perform all normal co-pilot duties. However, I had no such luxury for my second mission. I, the brand new 1st Lieutenant with about zero experience, was paired with a Lieutenant Colonel, a man of high rank and loads of experience, for my first real airlift mission. Admittedly, I was intimidated by flying with someone of that high rank, but I was also concerned about flying with someone of that high age! After all, flying is for the young guys, right!?
I first met Lt. Col Frank Draper at the squadron for the mission brief…and I was right, he was very “seasoned”. He had sparkling and penetrating blue eyes, very weathered and leathery skin, glasses, and graying in his hair. Frank briefed the mission, which was a European run from McGuire AFB, NJ to Dover AFB, DE to Lajes Air Base in the Azores, then into Europe and back. Frank didn’t have much to say as we began our mission planning and I noticed he tended to communicate in two-word phrases. He looked at me and stated, “swap legs” with a slight question mark at the end. “Yes, sir” I answered.
Frank piloted the plane from McGuire to Dover. After landing we headed to the flight planning room to prepare for the 2nd leg to Lajes Air Base. “Your turn”, he stated.
OK, my turn … no sweat. Flight planning went well but I was concerned because storms were forecasted to blow through the arrival area at about our arrival time. Since Lajes AB was on an island, there were no viable alternates to divert to should the weather be below our landing minimums. Therefore, we had to put on some extra fuel in case we needed to “hold” above the field until the weather passed and we could safely fly the approach. We added the extra gas and took off on time.
As we arrived in the Lajes area, we learned the potentially bad weather had become a reality. On our first check with the weather folks at Lajes, we were informed that the visibility was OK but the winds exceeded our crosswind limits of 35 knots. So, to the holding pattern we went to wait for the front to pass and the winds to die down. Frank, playing co-pilot, called “approach control” and let them know we needed a crosswind component of 35 knots or less before we could legally shoot the approach. Amazingly and within minutes, we got a call from approach stating that the winds had died down to that magic 35-knot crosswind component. “Let’s go” said the crafty veteran with a wink from his left blue eye.
I had never flown a plane at its limits and my confidence level was slipping. Swallowing a little pride, I looked at Frank (probably with pleading eyes) and suggested that he might want to take this landing. “Your leg”, he replied as he started running the “approach checklist”.
“Yes, Sir” I replied as I pulled the throttles back and nosed the Starlifter down towards the air patch. It wasn’t long until we began to encounter some pretty heavy buffeting. To keep the plane tracking on centerline with the runway, I was having to use full right aileron deflection into the wind. The yoke was turned as far to the right as it could turn and the slightest release of that maximum turn immediately resulted in us being blown left of centerline. My arm was beginning to hurt and I was breaking out in a full body sweat. I was sure Frank was ready to come to the rescue with another two-word phrase … like “my airplane”, so I sneaked a look in his direction. I couldn’t believe it. There he sat, crossed arms, like he was taking a nap, not even following me on the controls! When he saw me look his way, he did offered another two words of advice …“don’t flare.”
I had never had to fight so hard to keep a plane where it needed to be. I battled the gusty winds all the way down to the runway, but I still needed to get the nose straight with the runway for landing. As I dropped down closer to the runway, I started straightening the nose with top rudder. It took full rudder travel … all the way to the floor. Full aileron, full rudder, no flair!
The touchdown was anything but smooth. In fact, I was concerned some of my fillings may have jarred loose. Frank, using his now-familiar two-word phraseology, said “Nice landing!”
I’ll never forget Frank and that first landing at an airplane’s limits. I’m sure there were many young pilots out there who became better pilots because they had the opportunity to fly with an experienced, savvy pilot who trusted them better than they trusted themselves.
We completed that European mission without any further weather or flying issues. And, I finally started getting more than two words from the old veteran. However, I never again had the opportunity to fly with Frank and I don’t know if he is still around … but if he is, I’ve got two words for him and others like him … “thank you!”
By Col. Dick Hefner, USAF (retired) aviation writer, 20thCenturyAviationMagazine.com
Questions and comments can be left below for Col. Hefner.