Tag Archives: King Salmon AFS

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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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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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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