Happy Birthday…Part Two
All of the events of this three part post occurred on 6 April, 2003.
Recently, my wife and I were having a conversation about my blog and the things I have been saying. She asked if anything I was saying was classified. Or if anything I was planning on talking about would be information the government/military might not appreciate being out in the world. I told her I didn’t think I was saying anything inappropriate but that I would always check just to be sure. I am including two links to an Iraqi Air Force Base that I found. One is to the website Global security and the other is to Wikipedia for additional reading. Here are the links to the sites that give more background on H1.
We were alerted late in the afternoon on 6 April. Our mission was to haul 60 Special Ops personnel from our home base of Tabuk, Saudi Arabia to an Iraqi Air Field known simply as H1. At that time, I had never heard of the field, but I was unconcerned. Located about an hour north of Tabuk, the evening was shaping up to be a nice surprise birthday present to me. We would be the lead airplane in a four ship package heading to H1 that night. Each aircraft would fly in five minute spacing and would land via Night Vision Goggle (NVG) procedures.
When Captain Bill Grimes stopped by my bunk a couple hours earlier, one of the points he wanted to pass on was that he was briefed that the field had standard NVG lighting. This was not the truth, he discovered that it was a non-standard lighting configuration. Standard lighting would be a pair of covert NVG compatible lights 1000 feet from the end of the runway and another pair of lights 500 feet farther down. These lights would form a box pattern that we would use as the landing zone. A separate light would sit at the end of the runway to identify the end. It is called a box and unfortunately I could not find a good picture. I will keep looking.
The field was actually set up with the box and one with additional lights marking the mid-point of the 10,000 foot long runway. When Billy landed he said the visibility was extremely poor and he floated out of the 500 foot landing zone. If he had been landing on a 3000 foot dirt runway, he would have focused on landing within the touchdown zone. But landing on a runway that is over 1.75 miles long, landing a little long isn’t a huge deal. Billy kept his cool and landed. Rolling down the runway, he saw the non-standard lights and he thought that they signaled the end of the runway.
Not knowing why they marked the end of the runway there, he used maximum braking and stopped short of the lights. All was well, but during the unloading of the troopers, there was mass confusion about if his airplane had hot brakes. Hot brakes can be very dangerous on an airplane, if they get too hot they can heat up the tire until it explodes. Smart people designed the tired with fuse plugs. These plugs are made to melt if the brakes get too hot. This will deflate the tires and prevent the tire from exploding. In the heat of the moment, it was an event that demanded Billy’s full attention. In the end, he did not have hot brakes and all was well.
Armed with Billy’s information I relayed it to the Intel briefer and the tactics officer. Neither guy had heard of this new information even though Billy had submitted a written report during his debrief. Just another example of how the information flows in the most advanced military in the world. We went straight to the airplane, and to our surprise they were actually people there and they were boarding the plane. We were the late but like the old saying goes, the Captain is never late. Immediately we went to work readying the flight deck for NVGs.
In the Air Force, there are three model of the C-130. One of the models is a modern, high tech marvel of the aviation world. Known as the “J” model it is an advanced version of the C-130 that looks like other C-130 but internally is actually a new and different airplane than the ones I flew. The next model is known as “H-3”. It is almost exactly the same as the version I flew except it has a modern avionics package with cool, high tech, multifunction displays. Both of these versions are NVG compatible by pressing a single button.
My unit flew the “H-2” version of the C-130. Our airplanes were built in the late 1980s. Like a dependable pick-up truck, they were extremely versatile but we discovered they had a single, major limitation. They were not designed to work with NVGs. We used chem-sticks and duct tape to set up the instrument panel before we could fly on NVGs. The bright lights would over-ride the NVGs and prevent us from seeing outside the window unless we turned off all the interior lights. But when we did that, we couldn’t see the instruments to fly the airplane. When we first started taping the cockpit, it took almost an hour to get everything darkened. After a couple of months, we had it down to a science and could completely darken it in ten minutes.
We first started training on NVGs in the spring and summer of 2002. Our introduction to the NVGs was using them to fly low level and airdrop cargo. In January 2003, we made a big push to get Airland qualified. Meaning, that we would wear them for take-off and landings. Bill and I were a part of the initial cadre of five Instructors to get trained on using the NVGs during landing. During the next two months, we flew Monday through Friday nights working with the Squadron’s pilot force to teach everyone how to use the NVGs for landing. During the ramp-up, I would estimate that I saw over 200 NVG landings. Maybe that is a low estimate. The fallacy of what we were qualified to do was not what we were about to do would soon be appearent to all.
It was Scott’s turn to fly in the left seat. It was good fortune because I felt most comfortable flying and landing from the right seat. In training, we never flew without almost perfect conditions. We were required to have some moon light, good visibility and we learned that the lights from the city near any airport provided a lot of additional light for the NVGs to function properly. We were going to a runway that was in the middle of the dessert, with improper lighting, no moon but it did have a predicted six mile visibility. Bill had told me that the visibility was about a mile with blowing sand. His weather report was better than the weather guy who had no idea that the field was in the middle of another night of a haboob. We would soon find out that the visibility was not measured in miles, but in feet.
Next time, we will play a game of how many lives does Rob have left.
Until then, keep on rocking!