24 April 2007

Reflections: The Resurrection of BuNo 160992 (Part 3)

Part I

Part II

And 015? Well, a small crew was already making steady progress at assessing her state that evening. When he left Saturday, he was surprised to see the MODEX already painted on her nose, squadron seal and Battle ‘E’, Safety ‘S’ and AEW Excellence awards applied and the beginnings of the sunburst on the tail. A long worktable was setup along one side with piles of documentation on one end and parts at the other. An intermittent stream of personnel were entering and leaving, accompanied by muffled shouts and the occasional, well, actually frequent curse. The resurrection of 160992 was well and truly underway.

“017, 126. Angels 37 heading 175. Flight of 2, speed 430 knots”

One month in to the deployment to Keflavik and things were busy. Second alert launch of the day for what has turned out to be a flight of Bear D’s headed for Cuba through the Iceland-UK slot.

“016, 92 miles”

When the lead element of the Bluetails arrived things were pretty quiet – it was almost a week before an alert launched. Time was put to good use though in turnover with the off going E-2B Reserve squadrons and getting to know the Air Force fighters they’d be working with over the next few months. The 57th FIS (Fighter Interceptor Squadron) aka the “Black Knights” flew F-4Es and had been stationed in Iceland since October 1954. Working together stated off as a wary dance between the two squadrons – the fighters because the new E-2 squadron was an unknown entity who would have significant impact on their success and, if it came down to it, their survival over the hostile waters of the wintertime North Atlantic. The E-2 squadron, well, because they were fighters and from the junior Service with all its associated baggage. As time and FAM flights and practice intercepts passed, the wariness was quickly replaced as both discovered certain universal constants and enjoyed the shared spirit of confronting the elements and a common foe on one of the frontlines of the Cold War.

Said hospitality was extended even to the point that members of each squadron were welcomed with equal enthusiasm in the other’s BOQ bar.

“Bluetail, Lead has Judy”

“Roger, Texaco airborne and proceeding to station”

You could almost hear the sigh of relief over the radio. Even with tanks, the F-4s were not like the F-14’s the Bluetails had in CVW-7. Fuel, while always a point of concern, was doubly so for the thirstier Phantom. Just the previous week the Bluetails had saved an RAF Phantom’s bacon by getting him hooked into a KC-135 in an extremis situation when the RAF tanker’s package went bad. Word was the reward was inbound on the AEW Shackletons that were conducting their monthly visit next week…

The CICO watched as his nugget ACO monitored the remaining part of the intercept and visual ID. As he did so, his thoughts turned back to Norfolk where he was headed week after next. Seems like the skeleton crew left behind to work 160992 (AG 015) was making faster progress than expected and would need a check crew to fly her and bring her back up to Keflavik. As QAO he was tagged to be the PMCF NFO and the Safety Officer as one of the pilots. The other was a stash O-5 over at Wing Twelve who was waiting to join his next squadron as XO.

The journey had not been an easy one – many a phone call and message was exchanged between the forward deployed squadron and the Wing over parts and needed assistance. Continuing a trend established in the late 70’s, spares and money for operations were meager and cannibalization was the rule of the day. In 015’s case, it meant that there would be no crypto boxes or PDS until her arrival in Iceland, at which time they would be swapped in from the plane the squadron was turning over to the FRS. Well, PDS and crypto wasn’t need for the flight up anyway…

The reminder of the flight up sent needles of ice through his back and neck. Growing up in Nebraska he had seen bitterly cold Midwestern winters – but nothing matched the lethal iciness of Greenland in mid-winter. The flight up had been relatively uneventful, if somewhat anxiety laden at times. RON at Goose Bay and a refueling stop at Sondrestrøm culminated in a field arrested landing at Keflavik because of crosswinds. The only other time he had taken a field arrestment was coming back from a PMCF with an engine out and leaking combined hydraulic system. Little did they know that field traps would become a regular feature of flight ops in Kef.

Goose Bay was grey, overcast, windswept and bitterly cold - ice and snow as far as the eye could see. The RON was anything but restful as futile attempts to keep warm in the transient BOQ led to sleeping in flight gear, curled up in a ball. But Sondrestrøm – Sondrestrøm was the sort of place that forever set the memory bit. Situated at the head of a fjord, it was not unlike the Bluie Two-West of Gann’s Fate is the Hunter, although modern navaids removed some of the risk faced by WW2 bombers using ancient DF gear. The runway sloped gently uphill, and in the dazzle of the featureless white snow, proved a challenging sight for a visual approach. The surrounding mountains could also extract a price from the less than aware aviator in fog or snow. Serving almost as a talisman to the challenges inherent to flying into this Arctic outpost (it was situated above the Arctic Circle) was a C-118, displaced slightly to the right of the centerline and looking like it was correcting … except it was embedded in the ground having landed short of the runway threshold. Still intact and gleaming polished aluminum after all these years, it looked like it happened only yesterday.

The subzero cold encountered when they exited the aircraft was a vicious one, immediately penetrating the layers of protective clothing they wore. Smart advice from the XO was to bring all flight gear into the ops shack, otherwise it would get cold-soaked and be impossible to wear (consider the prospect of wearing an ice bucket on your head for the next hour+…). A quick (relatively speaking) turn around, to include servicing the props, and they were off, over the Greenland ice pack and 5 hours later inbound to Iceland.


“Garden-spot of the North Atlantic, where behind every tree…ha,” he thought, “some bachelor’s paradise this.” And it wasn’t just the single guys grousing. Coming hard on the heels of having spent 347 days underway the previous year, the married folks were also pretty tee’d off with having to deploy again so soon. It didn’t help that the other Navy squadron up here, a VP outfit, seemed to have a regular rotation of their wives passing through. One JO almost decked a VP department head when he bragged about having completed enough time on “deployment” to garner a Sea Service ribbon. A couple of his JO buds grabbed him and spirited him out of the club before things got rough. He himself was in rolling hack (along with the Personnel Officer) for their extra-curricular activity the other night. Coming back from the club, with freshly fallen snow around the two of them, they decided the CO who had been something of a grouch of late, needed to cool off and much to the horror of the MO who was with them, pitched a couple of snowballs through the CO’s BOQ window. Oh, no glass was broken. Rather, like the final scene in Star Wars both snowballs sailed unmolested through the narrow opening, knocking over a jug of water on him as he lay in the rack.

All would’ve been perfect though if the Pers O had just executed an EMCON recovery. Instead, yukking it up in his characteristic laugh, he’d beat feet back to his room – and the two had individual visits the next day – the Pers O from the XO and him, the MO. While a good prank was appreciated, the fact was something had to be done, and punishment duly applied. Banned from the O-club bar for the next month (and the BOQ bars too). Smiling to himself, he allowed as how the time he was in hack allowed time for planning a little revenge on their VP buds (who continued getting under their and the fighter guys’ skins). Working in the dark of night he and a couple of other Bluetail and 57th folks “borrowed” a number of stop signs and other traffic signs from around the base, hiding them for a day until it became clear there was a major stir on base, at which point they mysteriously reappeared. In the back of the VP alert truck…

Back on deck he was met by the XO on the way to Maintenance Control. “Wilbur” he said “’Bout time to get you out of town” he said. “We received word that 015 is ready for the PMCFs and you and the Safety Officer are going back tomorrow to Norfolk.”

“Got it XO – anything else”

“Yeah, it’d be a good idea not to go around the VP guy’s place tonight – they’re all upset about something” he said with a grin that widened to a smile…

To be continued…

P.S. Taken on the return leg back to Norfolk, post deployment (Apr 81) - 015 is behind 014.