Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Tales from Yuma

Johnny Yuma, was a rebel,
he roamed through the west,
He got fightin’ mad, that rebel lad…..”

I know you are asking, "What in the world, now?" Esteemed readers, sitting in the bar with my First Officer last night I discovered that “in a previous life” he was a marine fighter pilot flying Harriers out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, (MCAS Yuma), Arizona. This immediately reminded me of a story I hadn’t thought about in decades. This story is not a personal one - a friend of your humble correspondent is the hero of this saga.

My second assignment in the Air Force was to be a T-37 Instructor Pilot at Williams AFB, Arizona. The T-37 is gone now from the AF inventory and in all honesty it is not missed. It was slow, underpowered and miserably hot under that bubble canopy with a totally inadequate air conditioner.

"Willie" as Williams AFB was called is also gone from the Air Force although it is still a public airport. Willie - unlike the T-37- is greatly missed as it was a really nice place to be assigned. I personally enjoyed it immensely - I made some great friends, some of whom are still amongst my esteemed readers. Much more importantly, it was the assignment where I met my trophy wife and lifelong mate. (Smooch, Babe)

Towards the end of a T-37 student pilot’s training syllabus, they begin to be expected to operate away from the local airpatch and move into navigation training. MCAS Yuma was a very popular place to take the students as it was far enough away to get good nav training while still close enough that your fuel reserve allowed for multiple instrument approach training once you got there.

Our intrepid aviators successfully navigated through the Byzantine “Special Use Airspace” that freckles southern Arizona containing various gunnery and bombing ranges.

These ranges exist in support of the fighter training missions out of Davis-Monthan AFB, Luke AFB and MCAS Yuma. I bring this up as it will be important in just a moment. As an aside, many of the flying scenes in the movie “Top Gun” are from these working areas.

Having used up their fuel, our heroes land at MCAS Yuma and taxi-in through the fearsome summer heat of the southern Arizona desert environment. The plan is to rehydrate, debrief the just completed sortie, update the weather forecast, re-plan the return leg and blast off for home. Alas, Gentle Reader, this was not to be.

As they progressed to the ‘updating the weather’ portion of this process, they discovered that an immense system of convective thunderstorm activity had effectively blocked the routes that wind their way through the ranges to return to Williams AFB. These storms would not dissipate until well after dark – and more importantly, well after our heroes ‘timed out’ on their ‘crew duty day’ constraints. Our heroes were going to spend the evening in Yuma, Arizona. So, they called back home, informed the ‘Supervisor of Flying’ (SOF) of the problem, were ordered to get a room at the Visiting Officers Quarters (VOQ) and enter crew rest in order to be ready to return to Williams at first light in the morning.

Going “Out and Stuck” rather than “Out and Back” was a not infrequent occurrence flying the T-37 and the instructor pilot – being an experienced and cagey sort – had brought along with him an overnight kit. Space constraints in the cockpit of a T-37 are restrictive and all he had was a ‘Dopp Kit’ and a change of undergarments. The student pilot possessed nothing more than uniform on his back.

After getting rooms and stopping by the local Base Exchange to get the ‘stud’ a toothbrush and toothpaste, our intrepid team proceeded to the local Officer’s Club and made their way to bar stools where they began debriefing the training sortie over an adult beverage. This most gentlemanly activity was soon to be interrupted, and Gentle Reader, I hope I don’t shock you with what was about to befall our heroes.

Marine Fighter Pilots - steeped as they are in the combative traditions of their Branch of Arms - often welcome discord and conflict in situations where others would seek peaceful interaction. The pilots assigned at Yuma - also flush from a demanding day of training - entered “their club” only to discover “Air Force wimps” seated at “their bar”. These Marine warriors became seemingly incensed. The first our heroes knew of their predicament was when they heard a shouted “Air Force Guys!”

Several of the larger of the Marines moved quickly to immobilize our heroes by firmly grasping their limbs. The Marine’s leader made the observation that “It sure is hot here in Yuma!” and utilizing their "Tools, Bladed, Survival, 1 Each", the Marines raggedly sawed off the sleeves and legs of our hero’s “Coverall, Flight, Nomex, Fireproof, 1 each” flying uniforms.

The leader then pronounced three things: First, that our heroes should be much more comfortable and cool now. Next, they observed that our heroes seemed to be less than appreciative of the thoughtful modifications that had been made to their flight suits and possibly even desirous of fisticuffs. Finally, the villains pointed out that our heroes were about to be let loose and at that point the Marines would either stand our heroes up for another adult beverage or do them the honor of combat.

Our heroes, being wise individuals, carefully considered the fact they were outnumbered, and probably outclassed in hand to hand combat skills. They recalled that even Marine Aviators start out as infantry officers. Combining these facts, they decided that drinking free beer even though embarrassingly bare-limbed was the better of the two options facing them. A large time was had by all and our heroes retired for the evening somewhat under the weather.

Come the crowing cock, our heroes realized that their orders to return to base by first light were somewhat compromised by their lack of a regulation flying uniform. A call was made back to the SOF, who somehow managed to avoid snickering as he ran the problem up the ‘chain of command’ to the Squadron Commander. Phone calls burned their way through the aether between the two bases, brass negotiated with brass and soon our heroes heard a knock on their VOQ room doors by the local Marine Supply Sergeant who also managed a professional demeanor as he measured our heroes. Soon, he returned with Marine issued Flying Coveralls in approximately the correct sizes.

But wait! There’s more!

Our heroes proceeded to the flight line, planned the return trip, cranked up their venerable T-37 and proceeded out to the runway to take off. Esteemed Reader, more information is now required before this story can proceed. MCAS Yuma , like most Naval fighter bases, was equipped with an arresting gear system. These consisted of a sturdy metal cable strung between two take up drums – one on either side of the runway – with a complex hydraulic system to keep exactly the correct tension on the cable. In order to hold the cable up off the runway and improving the probability that the aircraft hook would catch the cable, there were strung at even intervals along the cable, large hard rubber disks of approximately 6 inches diameter.

Gentle Reader, at first blush, it may seem silly and redundant for a perfectly capable runway to have an arresting gear situated upon it. Experience has shown Naval Aviation that it is much better to train Naval Aviators to make arrested landings on shore rather than at sea. When their first landing is made "on the boat", Naval Aviators have successfully made dozens of land-based traps and shown the required level of proficiency.

T-37 Flight Manual guidance was very firm about operating over these cables. The T-37 was not equipped with a hook – but these cables could still grab the aircraft itself, as the aircraft is squatty and slung low to the ground. Landings or takeoffs made in front of the cable could cause the tires to bounce the cable up. There was then a high probability that the cable would either slap into the main gear doors, main gear mounts or lower portions of the tail, depending on which wheel bounced the cable. Damage would ensue and if the cable caught the airplane just right, severe damage would ensue. All of these results are indicative of poor pilot technique and 'headwork' - woe betides the aviator who causes them to happen. Our leadership frequently emphasized the importance of taking off and landing past the cables and our heroes strove mightily to comply. (It is best to not think about the poor schmuck who caused this 'corporate knowledge' to come to exist.)

The gods of aviation were laughing as our heroes slowly taxied over the cable prior to beginning their takeoff roll. Somehow, they managed to precisely run the nose gear right over one of the rubber disks holding up the cable. The disk collapsed in a fashion that very firmly chocked the nose gear of the aircraft and our heroes came to a sudden stop. Realizing what had happened, the instructor pilot assumed control of the aircraft and slowly applied increasing power while maintaining a hair trigger to slap the throttles to idle once the jet bounced over the cable.

Esteemed Reader, the T-37 is an underpowered pig at the best of times – and the Arizona heat is not the best of times. Our heroes went to full military power and the jet did not move a fraction. They are stuck. Further since the T-37 does not have a reverse they cannot get unstuck. MCAS Yuma only has one active runway, many airplanes are airborne and getting low on fuel and our heroes have just closed down the runway. It’s an emergency situation. Comical, yes, but still an emergency.

Radio traffic ensues betwixt our heroes and the Air Traffic Control Tower. The Tower quickly contacts the Fire and Rescue Department, being the facility most quickly available to come to their aid. The well practiced Firefighters don their emergency gear, mount their emergency vehicles and race toward our heroes, bubble gum machines flashing and sirens wailing. Stout firemen garbed in emergency yellow protective garments jump out of the vehicle and position themselves on either side of the aircraft and grasp the leading edges of the wings. With seeming ease, they push our heroes back so that they can taxi around the offending disk. Once the Fire Crews are clear, our heroes receive a take-off clearance and blast off into the long, delirious, burning blue.

Upon return to the home drome, our heroes are given no choice but to relate this tale in all its embarrassing facets, much as they might wish it to remain cloaked in mystery. Being concerned friends and colleagues – and secretly ecstatic that this episode had not occurred to any of us - we decided that our heroes new nicknames should be ‘Sleeves’ and ‘Chocks’.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff