Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tanker Pilot

"I found out that it's a whole lot easier to be brave while strapped in the cockpit of a plane 5 miles high, where you've got some control, than to be stripped of your clothes in a room alone and tortured while nobody else knows you're alive. That's when it's tough to be brave."
      Col Leo Thorsness
      Fear Can Be Your Best Friend

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

This is going to be a long, rambled mess. Sometimes life is like that. It's a story of several people that I admire greatly.

It started when I got an email today from a friend today linking me to this story from Sacramento.

Years later tanker pilot who 'saved' fighter pilot in Vietnam gets introduction.

Please click that link and read the story. The reporter seems to think he has resurrected an old musty story - it wasn't. When I first became a tanker pilot in 1979 this story was told often - it was part of the tanker driver's lore. Most especially the part where the fighter guys wanted to give Mr. Hague the Silver Star and SAC wanted to punish him. The compromise was the old SAC joke: "In SAC, the reward for good performance is no punishment."

Tanker pilots don't get many opportunities for heroism - the job is to fly in big circles and pass gas. It's an important job in a modern Air Force but you are a second stringer - you are support.

The few occasions where tanker drivers are called upon to go above and beyond the call of duty are stories of legend. In 1979, we young guys sitting in the Tanker alert shack on Okinawa, Japan's Kadena Air Base told them frequently. 

Several years later, one of the guys telling those stories got his chance to add to the lore. The Air Force Academy gives the Jabara Award every year to an academy grad who does something remarkable in aviation.

In 1988, Major Marc Feldman (USAFA '76) won the Jabara award for a heroic save where he took the initiative to rescue several fighters.  He took off in a KC-10 with low weather from a base in the Canary Islands, made an emergency refueling and 'dragged' them up to Portugal.  If he had waited for permission, the fighter guys would have gone for a swim.

One of the first things I do when I start one of these posts is to go to my quote collection.  I searched on 'bravery' for this one and the first quote I found was Col Thorsness' from above.  He won the Medal of Honor.  This is his MoH citation.  A tanker has a support role in that story too.  Sometime after that day, Col Thorsness was shot down and spent years in the 'Hanoi Hilton'. His full story is here.  He also has just published a book.

As I said at the beginning, this is a rambling, untidy post about men who showed gallantry in the face of the enemy and adversity.  In conclusion, I found another quote that connected with me:

"There are no brave men and cowardly men in the world, my son. There
are only brave men. To be born, to live, to die - that takes courage enough
in itself, and more than enough. We are all brave men and we are all
afraid, and what the world calls a brave man, he, too, is brave and afraid
like all the rest of us. Only he is brave for five minutes longer."

     Alistair Maclean
     The Guns of Navarone

On that note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jim Jones

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

This is not a travelog. My father-in-law, James David Jones passed away on Mar 6. He was fine, wonderful man and a great father.

His obituary is here. Please take a moment to read it - it was the featured obit today in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

I don't think it does justice to his life and his accomplishments - I can not do justice to his life. He was born a normal kid and at the age of 5 lost his hearing, his sister and his mother to viral spinal meningitis. This happened at the beginning of the Great Depression.

His loving father enrolled him in the Indiana School for the Deaf where he did well and was chosen to attend the premier deaf college in the US - Gallaudet University in Washington DC. He graduated with a degree in Chemistry.

He met Eldora there.

He spent 20 years in research at the University of Minnesota Hospital and then dedicated the rest of his life to teaching and mentoring the next generation of deaf. He had an impact locally in the Twin Cities, statewide in Minnesota and nationally - a well known man in a community that we 'hearing' know little about.

Just last summer the family celebrated he and Eldora's 60th anniversary - the picture above is from that celebration. There is a wonderful biography that his children commissioned that tells the story of two lives intertwined and lived well.

Five children and 14 grandchildren. Manifold friends.

Requiescat in pax.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Brown Snake

    "I have never been able to see life as anything but a vast complicated
joke, and it's better to laugh than cry."

         Robert A. Heinlein
         I Will Fear No Evil

Esteemed Readers,

We spent the next morning just moping around the hotel. Our bus time to go back to work was at 3pm. We went back out to Andersen AFB and began pre-flighting the airplane to fly up to Eilson AFB. As we were sitting there waiting for the last freight to be loaded a hangar door next to us opened. The Air Force began rolling out a Global Hawk drone.

I'd never seen one before. I casually mentioned that I hoped we'd get to see it take off. The guys with me told me in a disgusted tone that the drone was at least two hours away from being ready to start and taxi.  It takes that long to get it ready and 'talking' to the remote controllers. These drones already have a huge role in the Air Force and I'm glad we have them. But I don't think they will ever replace the need for having a pilot. History will probably laugh at me.

I did not take any pictures of the drone as I was unsure of security issues and did not wish to learn them the hard way.

At this juncture, esteemed reader, we come to a discussion of the Brown Snake Infestation.

Please click this link to get up to speed on Brown Snakes and Guam.

The Air Force has Brown Snake dogs.   Really.    Dogs who have been trained to sniff out the mildly-venomous snake. Evidently, the snakes have been known to crawl into freight and even crawl out across the ramp and climb the landing gear. Can you say "Brown Snakes on a plane?"

Please recall that we were flying up to Eilson AFB, Alaska where the ambient temperature at landing was -33F. There was little danger of us being the vector by which the Brown Snake was introduced to the frozen Central Alaskan Tundra. A Malthusian snake population explosion will never be one of Alaska's problems.

Bureaucracies do not think that way. We were getting inspected and that is that. You have to report "Brown Snake Inspection complete" to Andersen Tower along with the time the inspection was completed. So we did.

In the last post, I promised to tell some personal stories.  This is a no-kidding true story.  I swear it.

Run the 'Wayback Machine' back to 1979. Newly promoted 1st Lieutenant Whisler is the copilot on a KC-135A that is returning from Guam to Okinawa.  We've got all the inspections complete, engines started and are nearing the runway to take off.

Out of nowhere, a security police (SP) truck appears, sirens blaring, lights flashing.  It stops directly in front of us and the two SPs jump out.  One has an M-16 rifle and stands in front of our airplane, weapon at port arms.  Obviously he desires that we stop the jet - so we do.  The other SP runs under the jet, dragging a pair of tire chocks.  He reappears without the chocks so we assume that we have been immobilized.  This second SP retrieves his M-16 and positions himself in front also at port arms.  

We don't know why this is happening.  Tower Controllers have many stock radio call phrases that they fall back on to exude professionalism when some unforeseen event occurs.  Apparently, there is no stock phrase to explain why armed SPs are standing threateningly in front of your jet to prevent you from taxiing.  When we asked them why, Andersen Tower said "Stand By".  This was not very helpful as being threatened with deadly force pretty much results in activity that looks a lot like 'standing by'.
Next we hear: "Exxon 27, we aren't sure what's going on down there.  Contact the command post for information."  Inter-cockpit communications ensue describing the helpfulness of this radio call - I'm shamed to admit much of it vulgar.  In those days, the navigator was responsible for communicating with the Command Post.  So, he calls them and explains the situation.  This results in another 'Standby'.  

After about a 5 minute wait, we hear, "Exxon 27, the SPs say that you did not clear the Customs and Brown Snake Inspection."  We turn to glare at the Boom Operator, who being the junior enlisted on a KC-135 flight crew, got stuck with maintaining the paperwork and ensuring such inspections are complete.  Ours was a very good, experienced Boom Operator.  He had anticipated this very reason for our situation and met our glares by confidently holding up the duly signed and stamped paperwork documenting the completion of the inspections that the SPs claim were ignored.

The Nav explains this documentation to the Command Post.  Command Post says "Standby".  We standby.  5 minutes later, we hear:  "Exxon 27, SPs say the inspection was not complete and the dog is on the way out to your aircraft.  Open hatch to allow entry."  

At this point, esteemed reader, I need to provide you with some background aviation knowledge germane to our story.  First, KC-135s have two means of crew entry.  First, there is a large cargo door on the left side of the fuselage in front of the wings.  This door requires a staircase or a freight loader for entry.  This is the normal way that a sniffing dog and handler would enter the jet.  Once the engines are running this door is not ever used as the engines will suck in humans and other debris.  This is bad for the both the debris and the humans - not to mention the engines.

This leaves the crew hatch located just behind the Aircraft Commander's seat on the left side.  You must open the hatch on the bottom of the jet and the grate in the floor of the flight deck and stick a long ladder down the hatch.  Then the ladder is locked into place so that one can safely climb up and down it.  A 'Bag Drag' evolution to load the jet usually required one guy to go all the way up into the Flight Deck, another half way up the ladder and then one guy on ground to pass bags and so forth up the ladder.  

The next salient fact is that the KC-135A - we called them A-Frames - did not have the new quieter turbofan jet engines of the KC-135R.  It had the older GE J-57 Turbojet engines.  These engines running at idle made an extremely loud, dog whistle whine that was painful for humans.  We 'A-Framers' all wore hearing protection any time the airplane was running.  The noise was much worse directly in front of the running engines as the compressors emitted the whistle in a cone out the front of the jet. 

Keep those two salient facts in mind as we turn back to our saga.  

Soon, a new SP truck appears in front of our parked jet.  It has a chain link cage in the back.  In the front left corner of the cage is a forlorn huddled lump of doggy haired protoplasm, her paws held protectively over her once cute German Shepherd ears.  One can only imagine the aural pain that she is in. 

Military Dog Trainers and Handlers achieve a rapport with their animal charges that we mere dog owners can only be jealous of.  They love their dogs and the dogs love them.  When our hero opens the cage to take the dog out, the dog balks.  Actually, the dog goes ballistic and the Handler is bitten manifold times about the face, neck and arms.  Clearly, the dog does not want to go near our screaming jet.  Gentle Reader, it shames me to admit that I joined the laughter on the flight deck.  Finally, the handler drags the dog out of the cage and down on the ramp and begins dragging her over to the hatch.  I say drag because I will go to my grave with the mental image of a large German Shepherd, feet splayed out in front, collar pulled up around her ears producing three folds of skin, being forcibly dragged across the concrete - growling, whining and leaving a trail of scared doggy urine.

The handler arrives at our hatch and the extended ladder.  We can barely hear him scream, "I'll hand the dog up to you" to our Boom Operator over the jet noise.  The Boom Operator just shakes his head "no".  His mama didn't raise no dog-bitten fool.

So the handler loads the dog into his arms into a dog carry that allows him to climb the ladder.  This places his head and the dog's head in close proximity and the dog begins biting him again.  (Yes, I laughed again.)

Once they are inside the jet, the handler runs the dog through the aircraft.  It is obvious that this dog would not smell a Brown Snake or other contraband if you rubbed it on her nose.  The dog is in pain. The handler is not happy, but he's got orders to run the dog over the plane.

Once the farce is complete and the handler begins to complete the paperwork documenting this new inspection, our Boom Operator shows the Handler the old paperwork.  As you might surmise, this results in an angry exchange of insults between the bleeding handler and the smug Boom Operator.  The handler takes the dog back into the carry / biting position and descends the ladder.  More bites ensue.

The next thing we see is the dog exploding out from under the jet, dragging the handler towards the truck, the cage and blessed silence.  The dog does not bite his beloved handler as he is loaded back into the truck.  The dog truck leaves.

The original chock SP goes under the jet and removes the chocks.  We receive a respectful military salute and are cleared for takeoff to climb into the long, delirious burning blue.

I remain confident that we did not introduce the Brown Snake into the Okinawan ecosystem.

Next post, I will discuss the return flight to Eilson AFB and the frozen tundra.

On that note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff

ps,  A friend just emailed me two brown snake stories.  Click Here and Here with some trepidation.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Narita, Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

As you probably know, Japan just had a huge earthquake and tsunami.  The epicenter was just off-coast of Narita International where I layover often. 

I was not there.  It was my huge luck to be at home.  I just got an email from official sources saying that all our crews are safe in the hotel which has power but limited phone and email. 

The news sources say that all US military are safe - my son George and his wife Brook left many friends there when they came back to the states last September.

My heart and prayers go out to the local citizens who weren't so lucky.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Offutt AFB

'War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest thing; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war is worse -- a man who has nothing for which he has to fight, nothing which he cares for more than his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself" ~ John Stuart Mills

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

Recall that the main reason for this blog is to share with you things I see as I travel. Sometimes, I share things I've never seen but I usually try for an aviation theme.

I got an email from my eldest cousin today. He grew up in Nebraska and has a deep and unabashed love for that state and his country. Like me, his first career was in the Air Force. Offutt AFB lies just outside of Omaha, Neb very near the Missouri River and therefore it's nestled right in amongst some of the best farming land in the world.

Farmers are usually patriotic fellows whose land lies fallow during the cold Nebraska winter. The farmers who live off the end of the runway at Offutt have evidently been using their fields to make billboards supporting the aircrews flying in and out of Offutt for some years now.

Here is the email:

As the fight song says, "There is NO place like Nebraska!"


This is on Hwy 75 south. A farmer does it with his tractor; not sure if he uses a plow or a disc. He uses GPS to get the letters readable. He has done this every fall for several years now.

Here's the view from the flight pattern into OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE (Bellevue, NE just south of Omaha). This is what our servicemen see when landing at Offutt AFB. Hat tip to the Bellevue farmer who made it happen!

Of course this intrigued me and I went to the internet to see if I could learn more. The GeoEye website evidently posts interesting satellite imagery. I stole this image from their site. Click this link to learn more about it. According to GeoEye, this message was plowed just this year in 2010.

Next, I went to google maps to see if the satellite maps there could add more to the story. The Google maps images of Offutt were made back in 2004. I found this:

View Larger Map

So, 6 years ago a different field was used for a different message.

To conclude I give you Mark Twain:

"...the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it." ~ Mark Twain
On that happy note,

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Iditarod 2011

"We can't all be heroes, someone has to sit on the curb and clap as
they go by." ~ Will Rogers

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

Frankly, I'm bummed. I'm gonna miss the Iditarod Ceremonial Start by one day. The start is two days from now on Saturday morning. It's a good time. I'll miss it because I have to "operate a revenue flight" down to Memphis tomorrow night.

You may or may not remember that I posted a gadabout two years ago about the Iditarod. Click this to see that post. I think it is one of my better posts here.

The Anchorage newspaper - The Alaska Daily News has a web site dedicated to the Iditarod.

It's a very nice web site and I recommend you spend some time looking at it.

On that happy note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


"Among the most foolish, yet pervasive, ideas in America today is
that, if we are careful with our money and our votes and our diet, we can
live without risk. It's a fallacy that infects our financial lives, our
politics and our personal habits." ~ Louis Rukeyser

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

I offer this without comment:

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Discovery's Last Flight

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

I did not take this video nor do I know who did. It's just cool. Looking at the geometry of the video, the airliner was cruising above FL300 and pointed north. Probably somewhere northeast of Orlando. Enjoy.

I found this video here and here.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff