I am very tempted to opine about all the missteps made by those that we entrust to keep us safe in the world. Just to think that those at the highest levels of the Government and Intelligence community failed to take the threat posed by ISIL seriously. Or the fact that the security at the White House was shown to be massively inadequate, or the minor issue of a government contractor being able to smuggle a couple gallons of gasoline into the heart of the computer network of one of the busiest Air Traffic Control Center in the world for the express purpose of shutting down Chicago Center. Tonight I read that someone came down with a touch of Ebola in Dallas. According to the health care community, unless you come in direct contact with contaminated fluids, there is little to no chance you can contract the disease. All of these “little mistakes” are extremely disturbing but I will be a good citizen and continue to trust the elected leaders to keep me safe. I have my full confidence that super Senator Lindsey Graham is standing on that wall tonight watching all of our backs. Since we are all safe, I think we need some more story time.
For those who are new to the story time series, the intended audience for these stories are my kids. This series exists so that in ten years or so, my kids will have a good idea of who Dad was before they were born. I do write about real people who are currently serving in the military. I make a concerted effort to protect the identity of those folks and of those who have since retired. All of these stories are from my personal point of view and are based on my personal memories. I try to accurately tell these stories. It is not my intention to make myself the hero because that isn’t the truth. I was just a guy doing a job. I made my share of mistakes and when appropriate, I will share those with you as well. Before I began the story time series, almost eighteen months ago, this particular deployment came to mind as a reason not to tell my stories. This was a tough rotation, not because I was a knucklehead, but because a couple of my guys really struggled during this two month rotation. Please understand that everyone who wears the uniform in a time of war has earned the highest respect and honor, including Carlos and Bobby.
When we last left off, it was early 2004 and my wife had a confirmed case of severe pregnancy. Fortunately the doctors assured us that she would recover sometime over the summer. Of course they never told me that after the pregnancy that there would be a little monster that I was responsible for. I was already the father of two pound puppies. I successfully completed an obedience training course and had even managed to teach the dogs to go outside to potty. I wondered how much harder a kid would be.
In the winter/spring of 2004, the optics of the Iraq War looked fairly good. We were a year into the occupation, Saddam had been captured and the hope of the elected leaders was that the resistance from the insurgents would soon slack off. Please don’t read anything into the fact that these are the same non-elected leaders that failed to take the current threat of ISIL seriously. Anyway as the draw down began, our tasking went from down to three airplanes and six crews per 60 day rotation. It was a welcome relief to everyone because we collectively felt that the end was in sight. I was scheduled to be de-activated following the next rotation from February to April. Once again we were scheduled to live at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait.
We left out of Charleston as a five man crew. This rotation I had Carlos P. as my co-pilot, Bobby I. as my Navigator, Rich L. as the Flight Engineer and Mark C. as the Load Master. Both Carlos and Bobby are fantastic guys, I really think highly of them and would have no problem asking for advice from them about a life issue. But during this time period, they were not ready for primetime in Iraq. Normally, I wouldn’t even bring this up but to be fair in this documentation of this period of life, the next several stories cannot be accurately told without mentioning their short comings. Watching these guys struggle day in and day out helped me understand why I needed to get out of the military a few years later. Carlos’ issues were directly due to the fact that he didn’t spend enough time in the books and learning the airplane. Carlos is a fantastic pilot and I would let my family ride in the back of his airline. But there is a different mentality when flying in combat and Carlos just didn’t have the experience in the C-130 to fly the way I wanted him to fly. Likewise, Bobby was a great Navigator in the late 80’s and early 90’s. At one time he could look through a sextant port, find three stars and plot his position anywhere on the Earth. But as the years passed on Bobby was focused on his career and raising his family. During the mid to late 90’s as technology advanced at a rapid rate, he didn’t keep up. He rose on rank until he was the Squadron Commander. This took him further away from flying duties and when he deployed on this rotation, he was really struggling to keep up. He was a nervous wreck because he didn’t understand how the systems actually worked while the irregular schedule wreaked havoc on his body. It was a tough time for him.
Rich L. was known by his nickname of “Fluffy.” For years, I called him “Fluff” and never thought anything about it. I still don’t know why he was tagged with that name but when we were flying together in August 2003, I learned that he didn’t care for the moniker. From that day forward, I called him Rich or Richie. Mark C. is a big old boy from back in the holler. He is a fairly quiet guy with a sweet personality. Of all the men in the Squadron, Mark is one of the most peaceful men I have ever known. He usually doesn’t say much, but when he speaks I learned from experience that his words carry real significance. Mark and Richie were best friends and on Drill weekend, they were thick as thieves. As much as I was concerned about having Carlos and Bobby doing the flying/navigating, I was excited to have the solid support from Richie and Mark. When we got to Salem and got our room assignments, I was assigned to live with Carlos and Bobby in a room. I begged Richie and Mark to let me stay in their room. They had every right to tell me no, but thankfully they said I could sleep in the top bunk. They put up with my obnoxious snoring on a nightly basis and I am eternally grateful for their kindness.
On the morning we were scheduled to depart. We were the first flight of three airplanes so that we could stop at New Castle Airport in Delaware to pick up some additional people from the Delaware guard. We were about two hours ahead of the next two airplanes and the plan was to meet up in the Azores Islands where we would spend the night. I really wanted to get to the Azores ahead of the other crews so we could check into the dorms and get a head start on the midnight dinner at the bowling alley before the other crews showed up. We departed on time and went to Delaware as planned. We picked up the guys, took on some extra gas, and raided the snack machine. It seemed like forever to get some extra gas and clearance to depart. Finally, we started up and taxied out to hold short of the runway when Bobby said that he couldn’t get the navigation system to align. The SCNS (self-contained navigation system) is a complex system of internal laser ringed gyros that is updated by GPS using both satellite and land based navigation aids to determine its position to within a couple of feet. The first alignment is done before the engine start and it takes eight minutes to align. The enhanced alignment is done after the airplane is moved and turned in a different direction taking an additional four minutes.
The first thing a Navigator does when they get onto the airplane is to start the aligning process. Out of his normal routine and habit patterns, Bobby shut down the SCNS and then forgot to re-start the alignment sequence when we walked back to the airplane on the ramp in Delaware. When we started the airplane and taxied out, the airplane had no idea where it was and had no ability to find a little island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When Bobby figured out what was wrong, I suggested that he do an air alignment. Unfortunately, he forgot to bring his manuals that detailed the process to complete the air alignment. The military always has a back-up plan and part of the required publications for the co-pilot is the Navigation manual known as the Dash 4. Carlos pulled out two outdated books from his publication briefcase but neither of them were the Dash 4. Because I was an Instructor in the airplane, I was required to carry a set of Co-Pilot manuals. My kit was strapped down in the back and I knew that I could access them if they were needed.
Bobby’s suggestion was to return to the ramp and start over. After the airplane was completely shut down, then he would re-start the SCNS. After eight minutes we could re-start the engines and begin the process again. His idea was the safest but I had too much pride to confess to the world that we were a bunch of knuckleheads. I always carried a small handheld GPS in my flight bag with extra batteries. I had already pulled it out and had it resting on the dash. I called it my “Nav in a box.” Before I announced my plan, I called out on the radio frequency to the other two airplanes. Both airplanes were within radio range which meant they were close enough. I asked my little buddy Scott L. to turn on the air to air TACAN which is a radio signal that is transmitted thru the airplane’s radio. The signal allows anyone to tune into the same frequency to get a range and bearing to the station which in this case is the airplane. I knew that with the air to air TACAN, the “Nav in a Box”, and my books in the back we had a real good chance to find the little island in the middle of the ocean.
I should have asked the crew if they wanted to go, but I just announced that we were going. I told Carlos to call the tower and get permission to take off. Eight hours later, the “Nav in the Box” got us close enough to pick up the navigation aids on the Azores Islands and soon afterwards we were in “radar contact.” Crisis averted and the adventure began.
Until next time, keep on rockin.