Tag Archives: George AFB

The Lost Rocks

I was recently reminded by Janis (again) of an incident that happened over 45 years ago. I had received  PCS (Permanent Change of Station) orders from George AFB, CA to King Salmon, AK. King Salmon AFS was a remote, unaccompanied tour (no dependents) for one year, which happened to be my final eleven months in the Air Force.

I made Staff Sergeant (paygrade E5) the first of November. We were leaving on the first of December for leave before I had to report to Elmendorf AFB, AK by the end of the year. I did get to spend Christmas at home that year.

We had driven to California two and a half years before in a red ’68 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu with all our belongings packed in that car and on top. We looked like a modern version of depression era dust-bowl poor Oakies on the way to California. While packing the Chevelle back in New Orleans, we discovered that boxes take up a lot of valuable space, so we packed much of our stuff without boxes, utilizing every nook and cranny in that car. For months after arriving at George, every time I opened the trunk I would discover some nicknack we had missed unpacking that had vibrated out of some nook or cranny in the trunk.

In those two and a half years at George AFB, we accumulated a lot of stuff, more stuff than you can imagine—way more stuff than what would fit in the Chevy Vega we owned then, which was smaller than the Chevelle. We had also “accumulated” a child (Heath) who would be taking up the back seat of that tiny Vega.

Heath would get car sick every time he got in a car back then, so we fed him Dramamine the whole trip. Yes, we drugged him. He didn’t puke, but he slept the whole way home.

Fortunately, the fact that I made E5 a month before we moved qualified me for the Air Force to pay for moving my household goods (HHG). The movers arrived and packed all the stuff we had in our apartment, and I was still under the 6,000 pounds limit for an E5. The mover asked us if we wanted him to pack the various rocks out on our patio that Janis had collected in our trips out in the desert and the nearby San Bernardino mountains. I’m not talking little rocks here. These were big rocks—watermelon size rocks.

Janis said, “Yes.”

I said, “Hell no!”

That was a decision I have come to regret and am still regretting to this day because she is constantly reminding that I made her leave her rocks in California. I suspect she will note that on my headstone. “He left my rocks in California!”

The picture is of that red Chevelle and Janis with Heath (in the oven). I prefer to forget the Vega.

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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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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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