Presto, one instant fighter squadron now in place
by Richard S. Hefner, Col, USAF (retired)
After I finished air refueling school at Altus Air Force Base, I returned to Travis AFB as a fully qualified AR pilot. My world opened up. I was back in the left seat and had all the qualifications MAC normally required of its pilots.
One of my first testy air refueling missions was the delivery of 6 F-5 fighters to an air force in an Asian country (sorry, some of this might remain classified). Ordinarily, this would not be a tough run; however, doing it in one leg and under the cover of darkness would require more from myself and the crew. Guess we were trying to surprise and impress someone with our ability to have a small fighter squadron up and running in an allied foreign country within a 24-hour period.
I must admit, I was curious to see how the load planners were packaging 6 F-5s so they could all fit inside the C-5. We took off mid-morning from Travis and headed to the stateside base where the 6 partially crated fighters were waiting. Since takeoff was slated to be at sunset the next day, we were given a 24-hour crew rest. Pretty nice after a short flight of only a few hours.
The next day we showed up for the mission, completed the flight planning and did one last check with our command post before heading out to the plane. During that last command post check, I learned a congressman was going to accompany us to this Asian country. Normally having a distinguished visitor (DV) on a mission of this nature was an added burden … too many questions … so, this was not welcomed news.
We headed out to the aircraft, its belly now fully loaded with 6 fighters. Wow, it was really impressive! Those fighters were wedged into the C-5 with unbelievable precision. Partially dismantled and inserted at various angles, these fighters totally filled up the cargo bay. It was then that I realized there was no room for the special comfort pallet which was often available for DV travelers. This meant that our DV would have to rough it like the typical crew dog and probably spend most of his time during the flight in the cockpit. Again, not welcomed news.
As the sun set and the sky darkened, I lined up on the runway and pushed the throttles forward. Slowly the heavily loaded C-5 accelerated down the runway. Easing the yoke back as we approached the end of the runway, the plane lifted into the air and we began our long flight across the Pacific. Flying nonstop to this Asian country was going to take slightly over 20 hours and required two aerial refuelings. Our first set of tankers would be over Alaska and the second set would be over southern Japan … obviously, both at night. Indeed, it was going to be a long, long day.
During our first refueling, we were met by 3 tankers. Thankfully, the air was clear and the chop (clear air turbulence) was at a minimum. Our DV had never seen an aerial refueling and was very interested as to how this was going to take place. We put him in the jump seat, which is between and slightly behind the pilots, so he could get a bird’s eye view. As we completed the rendezvous, a formation of 3 tankers rolled out a few miles in front of us. With their position lights flashing, it was a pretty awesome sight and our DV was both excited and nervous.
As I closed on the first tanker, I assumed my normal refueling posture. I reclined the pilot’s seat as far back as possible, then moved the seat forward as much as possible. While this posture was somewhat unorthodox, I had always believed this gave me the best possible view of the tanker and was relaxing at the same time. However, if one wasn’t looking closely, it might appear I was sleeping. Far, far from the truth. Air refueling requires the mind to be 100% engaged and on the task.
With good air and a stable refueling platform, any experienced pilot can make air refueling look easy…but, it’s not. That night I had both parameters working for me and I was able to smoothly hit all three tankers without any disconnects or scary movements, load up my tanks, and press on to my Asian destination. In fact, it went so smoothly, the congressman jokingly accused me of taking a 40-minute nap as the C-5 guzzled the gas from the 3 tankers.
As we approached the Japanese mainland, we learned our second set of tankers were in the air and enroute to the refueling track. By this time, the congressman had decided to get some sleep in one of the crew bunks so he would be fresh for our arrival. This refueling was going to be tougher. The air was a bit choppy, thereby making it tougher to feel the effect of the my control inputs. Also, in the distance were flashes of lightning, which could break my concentration and can cause disorientation. As I closed on the tankers, I could feel the lack of sleep and impact of a long day catching up with me. I switched the oxygen flow lever to my mask to “100%” to increase my general alertness. This refueling was a fight, but I managed to hang on despite the weather and my tiredness … and I did not wake up our sleeping congressman!
As the sun started to rise behind us, I throttled back and let the C-5 fall out of the reddening sky towards our destination. From the ground perspective, it must have been one spectacular sight on this perfectly still, cloudless morning as I flew the C-5 towards the runway on long straight-in approach.
After taxiing to our parking spot, I notice a parade of vehicles heading our way. Looking his finest, our congressman told us it was his time to go to work. He thanked us of the ride, told us how impressed he was of our professionalism, and asked me one more time about my posture during the first air refueling. As it turned out, the Asian country’s Secretary of Defense and several of their Air Force generals were on hand to welcome us.
As the aircraft commander, I was offered the opportunity to meet the entourage and attend the ceremony as the fighters were downloaded. Unshaven and wearing a now smelly flight suit, I knew my only answer was “yes” and “thank you” for opportunity. However, I knew this would cut severely into my 24 hours of crew rest and my desires to explore the city. But, after all, yesterday, no fighters: today, a squadron of fighters!
With my flying and political duties finally complete, I headed to crew rest. I now felt the entire weight of a takeoff as the sun went down, a 20-plus hour mission, 2 air refuelings, and a welcoming ceremony upon arrival. Maybe a short nap of 3 or 4 hours would give me the rest I needed. I could then hit the city for a few hours, come back to the room for another 3-4 hours of sleep, and still be ready for the flight home! I vaguely remember my head hitting the pillow. However, I distinctly remember waking up at alert time the next morning. I had slept for over 15 straight hours. So much for highly anticipated crew rest in an exotic Asian city…but presto, one instant fighter squadron now in place!