Category Archives: War Stories

Memorial Day 2017

This one is kind of special. The reason why is that twenty-one-year-old young man in the photo, the one in the white shirt holding up his right hand. That is Blake Casteix, my grandson. That was Tuesday when he was in the process of swearing to “defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, foreign and domestic”. He is now at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, for Air Force basic training. That will be followed by tech school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he will be trained in cyber security. Sounds like a career field he can use when he gets out, assuming he doesn’t make a career of the Air Force.

His dad was also in the Air Force, where he learned a trade, one he is using today, as a civilian, to make a good living with his own business. Everyone thinks you must go to college to be successful and make the big bucks. Ain’t so. There are many career fields in the military where a young man or woman can learn a trade and make a good living at it afterward—or even use it as a springboard to attend college on the GI Bill. Sadly, not many young people are willing to do that. Instead, they whine about not having any opportunities. I am calling Bravo Sierra on that. If you want it, there are ways to get it, but you might have to work for it instead of having it handed to you.

I was also in the Air Force but after I graduated from college. I had my college handed to me by my parents. It took the Air Force to gave me maturity I did not get in college. There I learned to do my job in a way that reflected on the fact that someone’s life might depend on how well I did it. For that reason, I believe in universal military service. Unfortunately, that would open the military up to having a lot of people that will never “get it” and never appreciate what it can give them. And maybe it is better if it isn’t that way.

This Memorial Day I salute Blake Casteix and all those who have written that check out to the United States of America for payment “up to and including my life”.

The complete Oath of Enlistment –

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

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Why I Hate Flying.

I HATE flying and refuse to get on a plane unless I have no other viable choice to get from point A to point B. In most cases, I will drive before I will fly. No, I am not afraid of flying. I have many hours in many different types of aircraft. In civilian life, I have flown in many of the big commercial planes, both prop and jet, enough that I earned sufficient points to upgrade to first class on the return trip home from my business trips. I even had a couple of helicopter rides and a flight in a single engine Cessna that was dropping skydivers back in the sixties.

In the Air Force, I flew more civilian flights for training schools or TDY deployments, plus trips in Huey helicopters, six-seat U-6 Beavers, C-130s, one of which was ski-equipped landing in an unimproved runway, and even a seaplane landing on a lake once. I almost had a ride in the back seat of an F-4 Phantom II as an “atta-boy” award. That would have been fun.

Even been involved in one minor “crash”, which I wrote about here.

So it isn’t like I have not been exposed to flying. I used to enjoy flying, even the nine hours I spent in the cargo hold of a C-130 coming back from Alaska. (I was on leave and grabbed a “space-available” flight out of Anchorage with some Ohio Air National Guard types returning from summer camp.) In spite of the canvas jump-seats and loud interior of the C-130, I actually consider that to have been more comfortable than having my knees crammed into my chest on a modern commercial flight. And the “boxed-nasty” they gave us for lunch on that C-130 flight was better than what you get in today’s commercial flights.

I hate flying because the experience has become a miserable affair for me. Some of that is because of those lovely folks who brought us 9/11 and the government agency that sprang from that (TSA) with all their silly efforts to make us think we are safe. I mean, really—patting-down a five year-old girl or a 90 year-old grandmother is going to protect me? Or my favorite, the Muslim garbed TSA agent patting down a nun. Give me a break!

To go almost anywhere by air today, you will at some point be routed through a “hub.” That involves a layover of an hour or more—better make it “more” to cover for flight delays and weather. I once missed a connection (last flight of the day to NOLA) because of weather and spent the night in the Atlanta airport to catch the first flight out in the morning. Lovely experience. At least they don’t close the terminal at night. On that C-130 flight from Alaska, it landed in Toledo, Ohio late at night. The airport was joint-use with the Air National Guard on one side and the civilian part on the other. By the time I got there, the last flight for NOLA was long gone, and they were locking up the terminal for the night. I begged, and they agreed to lock me inside rather than go search for a hotel. It was actually a better experience that the one I had nearly 30 years later in Atlanta, because I was much younger then, and there was no CNN blaring its propaganda all night long in the Toledo terminal.

I used to do a lot of business travel, and to go to Kentucky on business, I had to arrive at the airport at least two hours before my flight, fly to Atlanta (or Cincinnati), lay-over, fly into Louisville, rent a car and drive to Frankfort. I can actually drive from NOLA to Frankfort in about the same time all that takes and with easier pee stops, infinitely better food, and in considerably more comfort. And when the meetings are over, I don’t have a mad dash in five o’clock Louisville traffic to catch my flight. Less anxiety.

Airlines have squeezed the customer out of every last dime, charging or proposing to charge for what was formerly included in your ticket cost. Meals? Forget it. Either buy something in the airport or make do with a small bag of pretzels.

Seat comfort? Forget that. They have added rows both ways. You get to share that armrest with your neighbor (better hope it is a skinny woman), and when the guy in front reclines his seat, it will be right into your kneecaps. Reclining yours moves you to an awkward contorted position from which sleeping is possible only for those who have been without sleep for at least the last three days. Now I hear one airline is offering (and I use that word very loosely) a special lower rate with even less legroom, and the seat doesn’t even recline. Oh, and no carryon. You must check even your computer. Not gonna happen for me.

Overbooking – I understand they want to fill the seats of no-shows—milk every penny out of that flight— but aren’t those seats already paid for by the no-show (or his insurance policy)? Isn’t that double-dipping?

Standing with hand-straps like on the subway is next. Not for moi. Flying has become a form of self-abuse that I refuse to submit myself to unless I have no other choice. That takes a trip to Europe off the table for me.

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WOXOF

I sometimes visit a FaceBook page for USAF Weather. Someone there posted a question about the most unusual weather you ever encountered. I jumped in with an account of an incident that happened to me while serving as an Air Force weather observer at King Salmon AFS, Alaska (AKN). King Salmon was a small Air Force radar site on the base of the Alaskan peninsula southwest of Anchorage. It is closed now. AKN also had a paved runway and alert aircraft armed and ready to scramble to protect all you folks down in the “lower 48” as they would say up there

King Salmon MapI usually worked mid-shifts. That is from midnight to 0800. I liked mids because they were usually quiet. Unlike my previous assignment at George AFB, California, which was in the middle of the Mojave Desert and void of any weather most of the time, AKN was a busy little weather station. We got lots of snow, rain, wind, and fog depending on the time of the year.

On this mid-shift, it was a cold and a relatively weatherless winter night with clear skies and unlimited visibility. From my reclining desk chair with my feet propped up on the equipment console and with only minor swiveling, I could easily see about 250 degrees of the horizon, and nothing was happening. The neighborhood bear had already made his rounds of the village garbage cans and had passed the ROS (Representative Observation Site – the weather station) moving on to fresher cans on the south end of the runway. On this quiet night, I had been writing a letter home with occasional glances at the horizon I could see.

About fifteen minutes before the hour I stood to walk out onto the catwalk surrounding our second floor perch we called the ROS to take my required hourly observation, and low and behold what do I see on the moonlit horizon that had been hidden from my casual view by the weather console, but FOG! Lots of fog! A solid wall of fog moving toward the station.

Station visibility is calculated by the visual sighting of certain landmarks at a known distance from the station and was suppose to represent over half of the horizon circle. Well, one half of the horizon circle was rapidly disappearing as that fog bank rolled silently and relentlessly toward me.

I was scheduled to take an “hourly” observation, encode that, and transmit it on the hour. If certain conditions regarding weather, winds, visibility, or cloud cover were met that were clearly spelled out in standard operating procedures (SOPs), I was required to take an abbreviated “special obs” (special observation) and transmit that. And some of those “certain conditions” were being met as I stood dumbfounded looking at that fog bank. I promptly took a special and transmitted it and then immediately went back to completing my hourly and transmitted that.

The fog rolled relentlessly on and was enveloping the station. Visibility was rapidly dropping, requiring another special, and that was followed by another almost immediately. In about 15 minutes, AKN went from clear and unlimited visibility to a condition, in weather reporting parlance, called “WOXOF.” Translated: zero feet visibility and zero feet ceiling in fog. AKN, as an airport, was effectively shut down.

With my weather observations and reports reflecting current conditions, I stood there surrounded by gray nothingness and tried to calm my rapidly beating heart. That’s when the phone rang, and that would be the duty forecaster back at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, and he wanted to know what the hell was going on?

“Fog bank rolled in and socked-in the station.”

“You should have warned me it was happening. You blew my forecast!” he fairly screamed.

I didn’t say it but was thinking, I didn’t create this soup. Maybe it was you who blew the forecast?

That was life for weathermen in the wilds of Alaska in the winter, but there is another story I want to tell. It also happened on a mid-shift and during another period of WOXOF.

Several airmen from the King Salmon AFS decided to walk to Naknek, which is a little fishing village few miles up the road. The night was very foggy, and along comes a local in his car hauling down the gravel road and hits one of the walking airmen. And he was hurt badly, bad enough his injuries were potentially fatal and beyond the equipment and skills of the “docs” at AKN who were really Air Force trained medics. Evacuation back to the hospital at Elmendorf AFB was called for, and that meant by air, as there was no other way. A crew was pulled together, and the four turboprops of a C-130 were fired up at Elmendorf.

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They arrived at AKN with WOXOF conditions at the station. Normally, that would have meant no landing would be attempted for safety reasons, but this was an emergency. A man was badly hurt and might not live without the care he could get only back at Elmendorf.

The air traffic controllers at AKN attempted to guide the pilot down for a landing using the GCA radar (Ground Controlled Approach). They watched the GCA screen, told the pilot what to do, and he listened and did as they said, because he could see exactly zero. He was making a blind approach in the dark at an airport with the ceiling and visibility both at zero and trusting the training and judgment of a three-striper staring at a blip on a radar screen. The pilot was instructed by the controller to tell him as soon as he saw the approach lights, and these are VERY bright strobe lights. He didn’t see them even though the GCA indicated he was right over them.

“Execute missed approach and try again,” he was told.

The pilot powered up the four engines of the big cargo plane and climbed back up to go around for another attempt. The controller clearly heard him as he flew passed halfway down the runway where the GCA radar was located.

The pilot brought the C-130 around for another GCA approach and was talked down by the controller watching that blip that represented that plane on the radar screen. Again he was told to tell the controller when he had the approach lights or the runway in view.

Following the verbal instructions from the controller telling him if he was on or missing the glide path, the pilot skillfully settled that C-130 down closer to the ground as he approached the end of the runway. The controller knew where the plane was relative to the end of the runway, but the pilot did not. “You should have a visual on the end of the runway. You are right over it!”

“Negative.”

“Execute missed approach!”

That was followed by silence for a moment or two. “Too late. I’m on the ground,” said the pilot as the controller heard the plane with its prop’s blade pitch reversed and four engines screaming to stop the C-130’s roll down the runway.

“You had a visual on the runway?”

“Negative. Never saw it until the wheels touched. You did a great job!”

Trusting in the GCA controller’s training and judgment, that crew risked their lives to get that wounded airman back to Elmendorf that night. The pilot told air traffic control at AKN, “One way or another, I was putting that plane down on the runway.”

 

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Memorial Day 2016

To all the veterans out there, I offer my sincere thanks for your service.

I was born in 1944, during World War II. In the postwar years, every kid I knew had a family member who served in the military during WWII, most only their fathers, but a few mothers also served in the military. So fresh on everyone’s memory, WWII was a subject of great interest to us kids, especially the boys and no doubt many of the girls, as well. Some of the veterans we knew would (could) not talk about their experiences, but others did, and perhaps had a need to speak of what they went through. Some of the stories were of harrowing experiences, and some were funny.

My father was a doctor who served with the 5th Army in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and he loved to tell of his experiences, including his period he was the battalion surgeon with Darby’s Rangers, filling in for Darby’s wounded surgeon, or the time he was sent over to help the Germans get their hospitals better organized. Some of his stories were poignantly funny, like the time his father ordered a sleeping bag from Sears to be shipped to him overseas, and they accidentally shipped  a little red wagon instead. Sears made good on the sleeping bag and did a PR release on the story in the newspapers back home. The pic below is of him in his “sleeping bag.” The caption on the back reads, “A little cramped, a little hard, but an excellent sleeping bag. July 1943.”

Red Wagon

One of the most interesting stories was one told by my wife’s father, Bobby Cristina, of when he was shot down over Sicily. Bobby was a pilot and flew C-47s, which were the most advanced airliners of the prewar period, the Douglas DC3. Many airlines turned their DC3s over to Uncle Sam, and they became C-47 Skytrains, the workhorses of the war. They were such a great design and so easy to service, many are still in use in countries with limited repair resources.

C-37

It was on the night of the third day of the invasion of Sicily. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s British 8th Army was making headway up the east coast of Sicily but faced a daunting obstacle, the Simeto River. One bridge crossed it, the Primosole Bridge. Monty needed to capture that bridge intact to use to cross the Simeto, or his advance would be stalled until another could be built by engineers. British paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Brigade of the 1st Airborne Division were to be dropped around the bridge to capture it and hold it until Monty and the rest of the 8th Army arrived. One hundred and five American C-47 aircraft of the 60th, 62nd, and 64th Troop Carrier Groups, plus twelve British aircraft towing gliders were to carry the British paras to the objective in what was called Operation Fustian.

It did not go well.

The aircraft were routed right over the invasion fleet just offshore and were mistaken for Germans and fired upon by the Allies. This very situation had been encountered only a few days earlier on the first day of the invasion with similar disastrous results, something Bobby stood up in the briefing and pointed out. But he was told that would not happen again. But it did. Four aircraft were shot down, and nine were so badly damaged they had to return to North Africa.

Surviving aircraft formations had become disorganized, and the remaining force straggled over the coast for the drop zone (DZ). Lieutenant Cristina’s C-47 was one of them. He told me, “Lane, as we crossed the coast (in the dark), the tracers were coming up all around us. It looked like someone had stoked a fire sending embers up the chimney.” Tracer bullets have burning phosphorus in the base for the gunners to  see where the rounds are going. They are usually every fifth round, so for every one you see, there are at least four more you do not see. What the Allies were unaware of is that very day the Germans had brought in their 1st Parachute Division for the purpose of defending that bridge. Thirty-seven planes were shot down, and ten were so badly shot up with dead and wounded crews and paratroopers onboard they had to abort and return to Africa.

Nearly half of the assaulting force was lost—shot down or forced to abort because of damage!

Bobby’s plane was hit many times. Their radio operator was dead, and several paras were wounded as they approached the DZ, which was only a little ways inland. Bobby managed to find it and get his paratroopers out. All the while they were facing concentrated antiaircraft fire from the Germans. The op plan called for them to make a one-eighty degree turn after dropping the paratroopers and egress the same way they went in. Neither Bobby nor his copilot thought that was a very good idea under the circumstances and decided to keep going west and then head south for their base in North Africa.

While the aircraft was badly damaged, it was still airworthy—until it was hit in the nose by antiaircraft fire, which started a fire onboard. With that, they had to abandon the aircraft and bail out. They had dropped the paras at a low altitude and had slipped even lower when they were hit in the nose. Bobby ordered his copilot out while he managed the wounded C-47 with the cockpit filled with smoke and flames. He gave the copilot what he thought was enough time to get out, and since he figured he was very close to the ground, he pulled the nose of the aircraft up to gain some altitude before he jumped. He climbed out of his seat and put on his parachute, only to discover it didn’t fit. His copilot, a much shorter man, had grabbed the wrong parachute. Bobby squeezed his long and lanky frame into the very tight harness and headed for the rear door to bail out.

By then the plane had rolled over on its side and was headed for the deck as Bobby ran along the windows on the left side of the plane to the side door. There he found his crew chief with a head wound and out cold. Bobby pushed him out the side door, which then faced the ground, and pulled his rip cord as he did. Bobby dropped through the door right after him, and knowing he was very close to the ground, he pulled his own rip cord, risking getting his chute fouled on the tail of the plane.

He fell into the night, and his chute streamed overhead. After what seemed like an agonizingly long time, it finally blossomed and filled with air—violently stopping his free fall—just as his feet touched the ground. One second longer, and he would have splattered.

With his plane crashed and burning a few hundred yards away and Germans all around, he crawled on his belly in the dark and found a hay stack to hide in. After it got quiet, he crawled out and found his crew chief also crawling around on his belly. He had survived the jump and was conscious again. They hid in a bomb crater all day without water or food. By night their tongues were swollen, and they crawled on their bellies to a farm house where they sought aid for the crew chief’s head wound and Bobby’s burns. The Italian family offered to hide them from the Germans, but they refused, knowing if the Germans found them hiding the Americans, they would kill the whole family.

So they crawled west to get away from all the activity on the coast with plans to head south and the British lines when it was safer. They finally decided they were far enough inland to walk, and they did—right into an Italian patrol of fourteen men led by one officer. The two groups saw each other at the same time and froze. The Italian officer called out, “Germani?” Bobby replied, “(Expletive deleted) no! Americans!”

The much relieved Italians promptly surrendered to the much relieved Americans.

With prisoners in tow, they headed south and eventually reached British lines, turned in their prisoners and caught a ship back to North Africa. Bobby’s family back home had already been notified he was MIA (missing in action), but the Red Cross sent them a telegram telling them he was “safe somewhere in North Africa.”

Later after Sicily was secured, Bobby returned to the crash site. The pic below is of him standing on the wreckage of his C-47. The copilot who jumped with the wrong chute died. His chute didn’t open. Whether it malfunctioned, or he was too close to the ground and he failed to pull the rip cord in time, is unknown.

C47 Wreckage

Some of the British paratroopers landed as much as twelve miles from the DZ, but two companies managed to land close to the bridge and did take it—and held it for Montgomery.

Bobby was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds and the Silver Star for his heroic actions that night when he attempted to save the life of his copilot and did save the life of his crew chief—plus taking fourteen Italian prisoners. And by the way, he was unarmed. He had left his pistol back in the barracks in North Africa.

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What I Did in the War – Observed Weather.

That is what I did in the Air Force for four years. Don’t laugh. Lots of your tax dollars went into training me and my fellow weather observers. And it isn’t as easy as it sounds. We didn’t just stand around all day gazing heavenward through our AF issue sunglasses. Yes, they actually did issue us sunglasses. How cool was that?

Just what did we do you ask? We observed weather and recorded it on a form WBAN10 (pronounced “way-ban ten”), encoded it, and sent it out over teletype every hour, sometimes more often if changing conditions met the criteria for a “Special Observation.” The data included cloud cover layers, height and amount, surface visibility, weather (if any), altimeter setting, temp, dew point, winds, barometric pressure, and lots of supporting comments when necessary. This information was sent out all over the world for anyone to use.

Lane PIBALWhat else did we do? Depends. Some of us, like moi, got to go temporary duty (TDY) to a place like Cuddyback AGGR (Air to Ground Gunnery Range) in the middle of the Mojave Desert. At Cuddy we supplied surface observations (obs taken at the ground level) and winds-aloft obs (wind speed and direction at 1,000 foot intervals above the station). The latter involved launching a 1,000 gram helium-filled weather balloon called a PIBAL (pilot balloon) and tracking it with an instrument called a theodolite, recording azimuth and elevation angles at one minute intervals, plotting those and deriving wind speed and direction at various altitudes above the station. The AF found this helpful for calculating bomb trajectories, and Cuddy was a bombing range. (I guess the AF just “winged it” when they had to drop real bombs on the enemy and no AF weather observer happened to be hanging around the target area taking PIBAL obs?) The U.S. Army also found it useful for calculating artillery trajectories. Winds aloft can seriously affect where a 155mm shell lands 20 miles away, which could be meaningful to friendly troops on the ground near the target.

Very generally speaking, most weather observers had two main operational environments. The first being in Base Weather, usually housed with Base Operations. This is where the pilots came for weather briefings and filing flight plans. The place was (in my day 1968-72) cluttered with all manner of weather maps and bits of teletype paper torn into strips according to their source and content and posted on clip boards for the duty forecaster to use. That was the olden days; they use computers now. The observer mainly supported the forecaster and his job of creating forecasts for the station and briefing pilots.

The second duty station was the representative observation site (ROS). They were usually located out along the main runway to collect data closest to where it would be used. The observer worked alone out there and took observations and transmitted them as described earlier.

Lane Alaska_1Weather observing was actually a great job, but it had its negatives. Aside from doing two week TDYs at places like Cuddyback, the AF had a need to collect weather observations from some very remotely located places, like the wildernesses of Alaska. These weather stations were located at AF radar stations in the middle of nowhere again. The observer would find himself with usually less than 100 other lost souls at a station in the Alaskan wilderness hundreds of miles from anything remotely resembling civilization (meaning no McDonalds) and the only way in and out was by AF planes, which had to be ski equipped in the winter. I was at one of those, King Salmon AFS, but it was larger (about 200 lost souls) and had a paved runway. That was because it was the home of armed interceptor aircraft standing by to scramble against any Russkies who might get frisky and violate US air space, which they did fairly often to test our defenses and response times.

Another drawback was the U.S. Army had a need for weather data to conduct field operations, especially those involving helicopters and artillery, but they maintained no weather services. Guess who supplied that? Yep, the Air Force. An observer could find himself assigned to an Army unit and in the field with said unit being shot at. Thankfully, I managed to avoid that aspect of the job. The book Seeing the Elephant by Dave Hornell does a good job of describing what that was like in Vietnam. It is also a humorous read.

Back in the day, during your four-year commitment, most observers would spend at least one of those years at a remote assignment like Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Korea, or SEA (Southeast Asia – Vietnam or Thailand). Mine was Alaska, which was not bad if you like to hunt and fish like I did.

I just missed a trip to SEA, Thailand to be specific. During my last year at George AFB in California I was assigned to a Bare Base Mobility Team, which was an early version of a rapid deployment force. The team was designed for “bare base operations,” which assumed there were airfields all over the world, either active or not, that could support air combat operations on short notice. We were supposed to have our duffle bags packed and ready to deploy. Upon notice, we would report, draw field issue, including weapons if necessary, and be on a C-130 for somewhere to marry up with our MMQ-2 mobile weather van upon arrival. Security, air traffic control and weather observers were the first to arrive at the new base, which was expected to be conducting air combat operations within 24 hours of our arrival. While I was on a plane headed for eleven months of fishing and hunting in King Salmon, our team was activated and sent to Thailand for a year. Whew!

Another nice thing about duty at King Salmon was it was a joint-use airfield. The civilians were on one side, and the AF was on the other. FAA supplied administrative people, the Weather Bureau supplied the forecasters, and the Air Force supplied air traffic controllers and weather observers. Since I worked with Weather Bureau civilian forecasters for the whole eleven months I was there, I never put on a uniform except to get paid and travel on leave.

All in all, my Air Force service experience was not bad, especially considering the Vietnam War was going on. The work was interesting and frequently challenging, plus I got to meet a lot of great people and visit places I never would have otherwise.

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Three Strikes and You Are Out!

Time for another war story…

While stationed at George AFB in Victorville, CA as a 25251 Weather Observer, I was often sent on two-week TDYs (Temporary Duty) to Cuddyback Air to Ground Gunnery Range about 60 miles north of George. Cuddy was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It was a dry lake in a shallow valley hemmed in by low mountains.

As a weather observer, it was my job to supply winds-aloft observations for the pilots to use in judging their bomb trajectories and strafing runs. To calculate winds aloft we launched a 1,000 gram balloon and tracked it with a theodolite, taking elevation and azimuth readings every 60 seconds. All this was explained here if interested.

To get to Cuddy you had three choices: drive your own POV (privately owned vehicle), which would leave Janis without a car for a week at a time, or arrange for Motor Pool to drive you up Sunday night, the most common method, or take the air taxi shuttle Monday morning. The shuttle flight usually left too late for the observers to use it. We had to take our first winds aloft and surface obs (observations) at least four hours before the first mission arrived over the range. The RO (range officer) used the air shuttle and arrived only an hour or so before the first mission.

DAYTON, Ohio -- De Havilland U-6A Beaver at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

DAYTON, Ohio — De Havilland U-6A Beaver at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

When I first arrived at George, they were using a single-engine, de Havilland U-6 Beaver, which is built in Canada and commonly used by bush pilots in both Canada and Alaska. The U-6 was a six-seater (five passengers plus the pilot). For some reason I can’t recall, I was taking the U-6 up on this particular trip to Cuddy.

We take off and in only a few minutes (60 miles, remember) we are letting down onto Cuddy’s paved runway. All seemed to be going smoothly, “seemed” being the operative word here.

I had watched many U-6 landings while up at Cuddy, so I knew what to expect. The parking apron, which is right in front of Cuddy’s tower, is about half way down the runway. The U-6 is a STOL aircraft (Short Take Off and Landing), so it normally uses barely half the runway and pulls right into the parking apron.

But this landing…

We touch down and the parking apron is coming up fast. I am thinking, How is he going to slow this thing down soon enough to be able to pull into the apron?

Short answer: he wasn’t going to make it, but not for want of trying.

The pilot hit the breaks and starts his turn, and we zip right through the parking apron and spin off into the desert, like a 360 degree spin off into the desert!

The Beaver comes to a stop, and the pilot kind of looks sheepishly back at me and the other passenger in the back. “That’s what you call a ground loop.”

Swell! Just get me off this plane!

I should have learned my lesson. I didn’t.

h1fAbout a year later, they replaced the U-6 with a UH-1 Huey helicopter, and even though the Huey would not be my first helicopter ride, I had to try that puppy. So, I sign up for another Monday morning milk run to Cuddy in the Huey.

The RO and I are all loaded in the Huey waiting on the pilot to board and light up the turbine engine. I got suspicious this lark of a trip might not be such a good idea, because I am watching the pilot and the crew chief have an animated conversation involving lots of arm waving and finger pointing, mostly in the direction of the Huey I am sitting in.

Eventually, we took off and made the trip without incident, like crashing or something. Later that day while having lunch in the chow hall, I heard some of the Cuddy regulars talking about how they had grounded the Huey because of engine issues when it got back to George.

Three strikes and you are out? I used motor pool for all my trips to Cuddy after that.

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Whose idea was this, anyway?

Lane Alaska_1It was Halloween 1972, and in the vernacular of the times, I was “short with 31 days and a wake-up” before discharge from the Air Force on 2 December. My roommate and fellow weather observer Phil (last name redacted) had a bit longer to go but not much more. With our four years of service so close to finished, we are in a festive mood.

We were stationed at King Salmon AFS, Alaska, a remote Air Force station along the Naknek River in the Alaskan wilderness. The town of King Salmon, with a population of less than 200 souls, mostly FAA and weather bureau types, with a few locals, plus maybe another 150 Air Force personnel, decided to throw a Halloween costume party. You can’t pop into Walmart or the Dollar General on the way home and scoop up a quick and cheap costume, because there is nothing in King Salmon even remotely resembling such a place. Ya gotta get creative. I didn’t bother, but Phil took it as a challenge.

King Salmon MapOne of the Weather Bureau forecasters we worked with (USAF supplied the weather observers) was married to a German lady he met while stationed in Germany when in the AF. (Wish I could remember their names.) She and Phil cooked up a costume for him to wear.

Phil was going to the party in drag. He was pretending to be the visiting sister of the lady from Germany, and “she” (Phil) was named “Elsa.” Elsa didn’t speak English, and no one in King Salmon spoke German, so Phil only had to say things like ja and nein while fluttering his fake eyelashes.

I had worked a day shift at the weather station, so I arrived late at the home of Elsa’s “sister” to meet them to go to the party in downtown King Salmon, which consisted of a general store and a bar. Phil/Elsa was already costumed and made-up, and “she” was getting into character, fluttering those fake eyelashes and pursing those red lips seductive-like.

King SalmonAnd let me tell you, Elsa was one pug-ugly woman!

Laughs over, we made our way “downtown” for the party. The hall was decorated with orange and black crape-paper, and a scratchy phonograph turned up very loud supplied the dance music.

And everyone was smitten by the “exotic” Elsa. Considering that Phil worked part-time in the general store, and everyone in King Salmon knew him well, surprisingly, only a few figured out the pug-ugly Elsa was really Phil. Some of those in on it asked Elsa to dance to further perpetuate the hoax.

King Salmon Sat2Don’t-ya-know, someone falls in love with Elsa! I mean head-over-heels in love with pug-ugly Elsa. The poor misguided sucker was a local native-American. Phil was about six feet tall, and Tonto is barely five feet tall and getting along in age. Other than the fact that Tonto was obviously drunk, I am thinking he fell in love with Elsa, because when he danced with her, his head fit nicely between her breasts, which must have been rather lumpy since they were made of toilet paper stuffed in a bra.

While dancing, Tonto would look up from between those “mounds of joy” and ask Elsa questions or comment on how cute she was, and Elsa would flutter her eyelashes and mutter ja or nein, whichever seemed appropriate at the time.

This was all rather hilarious for those of us in on the gag, but it began to get serious.

At first we thought this was just a passing infatuation on the part of Tonto, but he kept asking Elsa to dance. To complicate things, Tonto had friends at the party, and they were all probably armed with knives and maybe even an ulu or two. (Google it.)

Alaskan_Air_CommandWe decided this had the potential to get real ugly very fast. Phil was getting nervous and concluding this was a bad idea. Meanwhile, I suddenly get a mental picture of the fists and ulus coming out, followed by an Air Force Times headline that read, “U.S. Air Force Declares War on Eskimos!”

Time to decamp! Someone distracted Tonto, and Elsa slipped out a back door. Then we had to deal with the lovesick Tonto pining for his lost Elsa, and that was a pitiful sight. The poor man really was in love—or maybe just in lust for the “lovely” Elsa—with the lumpy boobs—right at face level.

I wonder if he ever found out Elsa was a guy?

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PIBALS, Helium, and Boys

Lane PIBALBeing in the Air Force as a weather observer, we had access to some really large weather balloons, mostly red where I was, and the helium needed to inflate them.

We blew these things up with a specific amount of helium so they would rise at a known rate of assent and tracked them with a device called a theodolite. At night we attached a small flashlight size bulb with a water-activated battery and tracked that tiny light up to 10,000 feet. We usually cheated and use two lights to make tracking easier. Kinda hard to see that tiny light against the bright stars we had in the clear skies of the Mojave Desert where we were taking these PIBAL (Pilot Balloon) obs.

We took azimuth and elevation readings at one-minute intervals and recorded those to plot them and arrive at pretty accurate wind speed and directions at 1,000 foot intervals. We did this at Cuddyback AGGR (Air to Ground Gunnery Range) north of George AFB in the Mojave Desert of southern California. The F-4 fighter crews used our winds aloft obs to adjust their approach and aim on the targets.

Big balloons and helium in the hands of young men who sometimes had too much time on their hands was a combination ripe for mischief.

One of my favorite ploys was to breathe the helium and call Janis, usually around 0100 when she was sound asleep, and talk like I was Donald Duck. The helium affected your vocal chords and changed your voice to sound just like the Walt Disney character. I thought this was hilarious. Janis never seemed to find much humor in it—can’t understand why.

Another observer calculated he could inflate three 1,000 gram balloons and jump off the roof of the barracks at Cuddy and float like Mary Poppins with her parasol. I think he miscalculated. I figured the three balloons had the lifting capacity of maybe half a pound.

Mary Poppins crashed.

One time the range officer was really ticked his pilots were missing the targets, and he blamed my PIBAL obs. He called me to the tower and reamed me out, told me I had five minutes to get him fresh winds, implied correct winds. That presented a problem. It would take me at least two minutes to get down from the tower and to our balloon shed, and that would be running. Then you have to fill the balloons at a certain rate, which was quite slow, and I have no idea why. We ignored that rule anyway. Tracking the balloon would take at least another eight minutes, and plotting the winds would take another five or so. That was well over my allotted five minutes. I had a choice: lie and make something up, or do it right? I took the high ground. I figured if he wanted my stripes because I did it right, I would be OK with my DETCO (Detachment Commander). I gave him fresh winds that indicated little change from the previous obs and never heard about it again.

On a side note, right after Cuddyback AGGR got their new electronic target scoring system that detected hits by the passage of the 20mm round within a set detection area, they had an issue with a fighter squadron commander back at George AFB. The CO was sorely disappointed with his pilots strafing scores and questioned the new equipment. He called and chewed out the Cuddyback crew then announced he was coming right up in his F-4 and would do strafing runs on the target to prove how screwed up the new system was.

The clever boys at Cuddyback, thus warned, cranked up the gain on the electronic scoring system. They had it high enough, if the 20mm round hit the dirt anywhere in southern California, it would score as a hit. The CO shot real well that day and called and apologized to the Cuddy crew when he got back to George. He then proceeded to ream out his pilots for their lousy shooting.

The Air Force could be a lot of fun!

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The Ostrich Takes Flight

Lane USAFThe Ostrich, who will remain nameless, and I were in basic training together at Lackland AFB way back in December 1968 through January 1969, and sixteen weeks of weather observing school at Chanute AFB following basic.

Ostrich was given that moniker by our TI (Training Instructor – a non-commissioned officer wearing a Smokey-the-Bear hat and has god-like status if you are a new airman going through Air Force basic training). Ostrich was tall and gangly and marched with his head kind of crained out away from his body. I guess the TI thought he looked like an ostrich.

For those unfamiliar with the institution, basic training involved getting up real early with a lot of whistle blowing, yelling and name calling, mostly on the part of the TIs, and of course, a lot of running, jumping, push-ups, and sweating, mostly on the part of the trainees. The objective was to turn raw civilians averse to authority (remember, the late ‘60s were the Age of Aquarius) into obedient, well-trained Airmen. Sometimes they got the desired results, sometimes not so much.

Ostrich was a rather strange fellow. Every military unit, especially basic training units, has at least one klutz. That was Ostrich for us. He was actually very smart, because he did get through weather observing school, a career field reserved for men and women who scored high on their AFQT (Air Force Qualification Test).

He may have been smart, but he struggled with the fundamental concept of the difference between his right foot and his left foot. The TIs had a saying for folks like that, which is not repeatable on this blog. Let’s just say it involved monkeys and footballs and leave the rest to your imagination. (Don’t dwell on it. It never made much sense to me, either.)

When marching, Ostrich was almost always out of step with the rest of the formation. The TI called the cadence, “Lef’, rait, lef’, rait!” But Ostrich be going rait, lef’, rait, lef’! This was a problem for me, because I marched in first squad directly behind Ostrich. My rait would be stepping on his rait heel, and my lef’ be stepping on his lef’ heel. We were supposed to have this all down by the first week of basic, but four weeks in, and Ostrich was still frequently out of step.

To get back in step, they taught us to simply skip a step, like skipping down the street, second nature for most of us. One day we were marching to a training class, and the flight be going lef’, rait, lef’, rait, but Ostrich be going rait, lef’, rait, lef’ again, and I be stepping on his heels, and Ostrich be skipping to get in step and still ends up out of step. The formation is looking all sharp and military except for the second guy in first squad (Ostrich) who is bobbing and skipping along like a seven-year old girl on the way to a birthday party.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the TI coming up from behind the formation and homing right in on Ostrich, and he wasn’t looking very happy! I’m thinking someone is gonna die!

Ostrich never saw it coming. The TI snuck up behind him and got about an inch from his left ear, and yelled loud enough to wake the dead, “OSTRICH! GET IN STEP!”

The Ostrich went airborne!

He launched straight up about three feet in the air with his feet pumping like he was peddling a bicycle in low gear going up a steep incline. I’m talking blurry feet! WAY blurry feet! He must have skipped about a dozen steps while airborne, but he did come down in step with the formation. I don’t recall him ever being out of step again.

I have one picture of Ostrich but can’t find it. He was holding a mop in front of his face, anyway. Camera shy. So, you got a pic of me instead.

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