Another Real Good Deal


by Roger Crewse September 1971

Coolstone had been chosen! It was another one of those real good deals. A T-bird target mission. It was for the middle of the night, medium to low altitude, out over the Atlantic, in what looked like very marginal weather. Coolstone had been chosen often for these real good deals – deals which always seemed to gravitate toward Blue Three and below. Filling his back seat had been a problem for a while. So many pilots suddenly went on sick call the Flight Surgeon came down to the squadron to see what was happening. He ran into Coolstone right off – in the squadron lunch room.

“What’s going on down here?” asked the Doc. “I’ve had more people on sick call these last two days than all of last month. They’re all pilots and they’re all from the squadron.”

“Must be a virus,” answered the Rock “Everyone I’ve asked to fly with me in the T-bird has developed it shortly afterwards.”

“Hey,” said the Doc, “I could use some of that T-bird time; if you need a back seat filled, I’m your man.”

“Great,” said the Rock, “that solves a problem for us. It’s a target mission; we stage out of Westover, recover at Andrews, then come back here.”

“I’ve been meaning to go on one of those,” said the Doc, obviously not understanding the problem. “When do we leave?”

“Wheels up at 1000 hours tomorrow, Doc. Briefing at eight thirty. Can you make it OK?”

“Sure,” said the Doc, “if this darn virus outbreak slows down some.”

Now the Doc was not only the Flight Surgeon, he was also an experienced private pilot. He flew regularly with the squadron in the B model and the T-33. He generally kept himself well abreast of the flying operation. Coolstone, therefore, was not a bit reluctant to have him on board, and besides he wouldn’t have to split the front seat time.

The next morning at about eight, the Doc showed. He found the Rock who was flight planning the mission. “I got away earlier than I thought I would,” said the Doc. “You know that virus that I was talking about yesterday that only affected the aircrews? Well, it must have been 24-hour bug of some type. Nobody was on sick call this morning. How about that?”

“Strange,” said the Rock, “I noticed a lot more people around this morning, myself.”

They arrived at Westover a little before noon as did the rest of the six target airplanes from other ADC units which were participating. The air crews gathered around the flight planning table in Ops and planned their individual target routes. They checked forecast weather which was still a bit marginal, but mission take off time was still almost eleven hours away.

As they finished their preliminary planning, Coolstone found the Doc and said, “Let’s have lunch.” This was readily agreed to by the Doc. It wasn’t quite that simple, however because the dining facilities were closed for cleanup. The Doc was then introduced to the standard target pilot’s lunch-potato chips, beer nuts, and cokes-after which the two of them departed for the Q for their mandatory eight hours of restless sleep.

At 2200 hours the Rock awoke. “Come on, Doc, get your rompers on and let’s get something to eat.”

The Doc grumbled unintelligibly about beer nuts ruining his digestive system, but he finally got moving. They went down to the Q office to call for transportation. While waiting, Coolstone asked the clerk on duty where the best place would be to get a meal. After shuffling through his bulletins and staring off into space a bit, the clerk allowed that the last dining room closed for cleaning at 2100 hours.

“No sweat,” said the Rock, “we’ll get a candy bar down at Ops.”

The Doc paled visibly.

At Base Operations, suited up now, Coolstone called target control for final go no-go on the target mission. The target control officer told him that there was a weak cold front stretched from Canada down the eastern seaboard causing low ceilings in the northeast, but the weather at the target area and at the recovery bases was good. The word was Go.

Coolstone then strolled over to the base forecaster for just a bit of preplanning on the trip back to Loring from Andrews.

“What do you think Loring will have about four or five this morning?” he asked.

“Well,” the forecaster said, “it’s a weak front, it’s not moving, and there are no buildups of any magnitude. Loring is VFR now, and probably will stay that way until around sunrise. Their forecast calls for a possible 400 scattered, 700 overcast, with 3 miles, between 0500 to 0900.”

“Sounds like about normal,” said the Rock. “No sweat.”

He walked over to the candy machine, got a Snickers and a coke. The Doc tried to ignore the whole operation, burped gently, and mumbled, “Beer nuts.”

They launched for the mission at 0030 as scheduled, and it was completely routine and as planned. While they were recovering into Andrews, Coolstone remarked to the surgeon, who had held the stick a lot, “You know, Doc, you do good work. You should have been a fighter pilot, instead of a doc. You have a good feel for an airplane.”

“That’s the only good feeling I’ve got,” said Doc. “My stomach is in terrible shape. I need to eat a regular meal.”

“No sweat,” said the Rock, “Andrews has a great snack bar. They’ll have anything you want.”

At 0250, the by now slightly bedraggled crew entered Andrews Operations.

“We’ll be going out as soon as we eat,” Coolstone told the Ops clerk.

“Sorry, sir,” said the clerk, “the snack bar is closed between 0230 and 0430 daily for cleanup. We do have some candy and coke machines, though, if you’re interested.”

The Doc groaned. The Cold Rock said, “Look, Doc, I still feel real good. We’re well within crew rest limits and if the weather at Loring is still OK, let’s make a quick turn and go home. We can always get something to eat at the squadron dining room when we get back.”

Reluctantly the Doc agreed, and they both headed for the candy machine.

The route of flight home was as familiar to Coolstone as the road to the alert barn. It was simply: radar vectors to J-55; J-55 to the handoff point for Loring approach control; then down the chute to the runway. With the preliminary planning out of the way, the crew moved over to the weather desk and Coolstone pushed the night buzzer. When the forecaster appeared, obviously awakened from a sound sleep, the Rock said, “Get me your best VFR to Loring,” making a little joke which was totally ignored by the forecaster.

“Let’s see,” said the WAG, “at 29,000 you will have a 30 knot crosswind, no buildups enroute, and the Loring weather will be about 5,000 broken with 11 mile visibility. VFR conditions will prevail in the entire Loring area. No alternate required.” And he set about filling in all the blocks.

Back out to the aircraft, the intrepid crew went. The Doc strapped in while Coolstone preflighted. Then the Rock climbed in, started it, and while taxiing out, called for his clearance. It was given to him just as he had filed: Loring, flight plan route.

With the wheels in the well at 0400, the Rock and Doc settled down for the routine conclusion for another one of “those real good deals.” When Departure Control handed them off to the Center, the routine was broken slightly.

“Coolstone One from the Center. We have a change in your flight plan. Are you ready to copy?”

“Roger, Center, go,” said the Rock, expecting nothing more than an altitude change.

“Roger, Coolstone One, you are cleared to Loring direct J-121, J-581, direct, direct. Read back, please.”

The Rock’s voice went up slightly.

“Aah, would you, aah, give that again? You say direct to J-121 Instead of J-55?”

“Roger, Coolstone, direct J-121, J-581, direct, direct. Have you got that?”

Coolstone scribbled on his kneepad which he really couldn’t see, repeated the clearance, and dived for the High Altitude Chart. He was still climbing in weather, flying with his knees. He also noted that the DME had not locked in. He wasn’t sure where he was going, how he was going to get there, or how far he was from it.

“Hold the airplane a minute, will you, Doc? I’ve got to sort out this new route.”

“Rog,” said the Flight Surgeon, “but my instruments are nothing fancy.”

“Neither are mine,” said Coolstone, “when I’m flying with my knees. Just keep the wings level.”

The noise level in the interphone increased noticeably with the associated increased breathing rate of both parties. While Coolstone picked out the new route from the jungle of routes in the east coast area, Doc was valiantly herding the bird in a climb through the weather. A rather rhythmic oscillation in pitch, bank, and yaw was noticeable, and it corresponded exactly with Doc’s crosscheck as he corrected each instrument as he went. But the Doc was content, the airplane was flying within acceptable limits as far as he could see. He burped, not so gently this time. That last coke had almost done him in.

The Rock finished his new flight planning, and much relieved, told the Doc, “That new route is OK. We’ll still have 180 gallons at the initial approach fix, and our only requirement is 100 gallons on the initial for a VFR approach. We’re still fat, fat, fat. I’ve got it,” said Coolstone. “Thanks a lot.”

“You are entirely welcome,” said the Doc, with sweat now dripping slightly into his eyes.

The DME was definitely out, Coolstone saw, but who needed it. They leveled at 29,000 and settled down to a routine flight, once again.

“Boy,” said the Doc, “can I ever use something in my stomach beside cokes and candy bars!”

“I’m with you, Doc. I think I’ll have bacon, eggs, and a lot of milk when we get to the squadron,” said Coolstone. “These target missions are hard on the stomach.”

“Rog,” said the Doc, “and you know, I think I’m beginning to understand that 24-hour virus, too.”

They were cleared enroute to descend to 18,000 and as they neared Loring, the Center turned them over to Approach Control for recovery.

“Hello, Loring Approach Control, this is Coolstone One. Forty miles south descending to 18,000.”

“Roger, Coolstone One, from Loring Approach Control. Continue your descent to 2,500 feet and be advised that a B-52 has just made a missed approach to Runway Zero One. He reported visibility is less than one quarter of a mile on the approach.”

“What’s that again?” said Coolstone. “What happened to that 5,000 foot broken?”

“Be advised,” said Approach Control, “the weather has deteriorated rapidly and the field is now 300 obscured, one and one quarter mile visibility, with one quarter mile on the active approach.”

“Kee-rist,” said the Rock to the Doc, “let’s see what we can use for an alternate.”

As he looked through his charts he saw that Chatham would be OK. They’d get there with about forty gallons or so, but if the weather was anything approaching VFR, that would be enough.

“Loring Approach Control, this is Coolstone One. Would you get me the Chatham weather, please, and I’ll continue this approach.”

Loring Radar continued to maneuver Coolstone for the precision final, and while doing so, he called the Rock and told him the Chatham weather was 600 foot overcast. The Rock ran this information through his now weakened computer and said to the Doc, “Forty gallons and six hundred feet! Never happen!”

“Approach Control from Coolstone One. How is Presque Isle? And I’ll continue this approach.”

Presque Isle was a small private field some twenty miles away, was 7,400 feet of uncontrolled runway, and had a VORTAC. The Rock leveled at 2,500 feet, was seven out, and ready for a precision final.

“Keep your eyes open, Doc. If you see the runway, holler. It’s going to be close. The minimums are a hundred and a quarter, and the weather is a hundred and a quarter, but if we don’t make it, we’ll try Presque Isle, providing the weather’s OK.”

“Sounds just great,” said the Doc, weakly.

“Coolstone One from Radar. Turn zero nine zero, climb to 3,000 feet — precision radar is unable to pick you up.”

The Rock drug his feet something terrible. “Look, Radar,” he said hastily, “how about letting me continue on the ILS and see if the precision radar can pick us up as we get in closer?”

“What a revolting development!” said the Doc.

“Negative, negative,” said Radar “the field is below ILS minimums.”

“OK,” said the Rock, “I’m turning zero nine zero, but make it a short pattern, Radar, and I’m at minimum fuel.”

He really wasn’t there yet, but that was the only thing he could think of at the time. He damn well would be at minimum fuel when he got to the field, though, that was for sure. As they came around to final again, the controller announced that they had him on precision radar this time. The Rock took a deep breath, and settled down to run as good a GCA as he ever had in his life.

At minimums, they were calling him on centerline and glide slope, and he had the ILS localizer centered. He looked out – absolutely nothing ahead.

“I see something,” said the Doc. “Right below us.”

Sure enough, Coolstone could see those great big flashing strobe light, “Got it made now,” he mumbled to the Doc with little conviction for where the end of the runway should have been, there was nothing.

He eased down a bit. He could see no overrun, no threshold lights, no runway lights, no nothing.

“It’s down to your socks,” he exclaimed to the Doc; then added just a bit of power. He was fresh out of strobe lights, still nothing. For a second he got a glimpse of the runway centerline. He lifted the brakes, called Radar, and said, “We’ll try a circling approach, maybe that mile and a quarter is on the other end.”

He banked right, checked the airspeed, and looked back out to where the runway should have been. It had disappeared.

“Approach Control, we’re making a missed approach. We have emergency fuel and we’re headed for Presque Isle. Have you got that weather yet?”

He dug out the Low Altitude Approach Chart that he had been carrying around in his pocket for two years. It was creased and greased-stained, but he had checked it for currency a couple of weeks before and it had still been good then.

“Tombstone … er … Coolstone One,” said Approach Control, “Center advises us that runway one nine is under construction. You will be required to circle to runway two eight. Two eight has no approach lights, no overrun, is 5,900 feet long, and has no barriers.”

“Roger, Approach Control, Tombstone One . . . er . . . Coolstone One, understand. It will have to do.”

The Rock was on the VOR radial, headed in, and radar was supplying range almost every mile. At about ten out, Coolstone started letting down. Fifty gallons on the liquidometer.

“Tombstone One from Approach Control. The Presque Isle weather is reported as eight hundred overcast with two miles.”

“That’s Coolstone One, not Tombstone, and I’ll make the VOR into runway one nine. My DME is out so keep me advised of range.”

“If we ever break out,” said the Doc, “I think I can find the field. I fly light planes out of here all the time.”

The Rock let down lower and lower. Minimums came and went. Finally, they broke out of a ragged ceiling at about 400 feet above the ground.

“See that lake ten degrees to port,” said the Doc excitedly, “that lake is right at the end of runway one nine.”

Quickly the Rock turned towards the lake. Sure enough, as he neared the lake, the runway appeared. But it was one nine – two eight was not in sight. When he was about half way down one nine, he could finally see two eight. He could also see thirty-five gallons on the liquidometer. He got on a short downwind, very close in. Then, just as the field was about to go out of sight, he cranked around on a very, very short final, and touched down right on the end of the runway. He could see the runway was wet, but braking action was reasonable. At the last taxiway, he was slowed down enough to get off the runway, but the turn was very erratic. The Doc noted that the rudder action in his cockpit was extremely quick and oscillatory in nature.

“Fighter pilot’s weather syndrome,” he briefly opined.

The aircraft was parked and shut off with slightly over ten gallons remaining.

“That was pretty close, wasn’t it?” said the Doc. “That’s not much fuel, even in a Mooney.”

“Close, close, close,” said the Rock, and just sat a spell.

The base taxi from Loring finally arrived (with more fuel than the T-bird had) and on the way back to the squadron, the target crew began to relax from rigid to tense.

“Boy,” said the Doc, “these target missions are rough. I’m ready for that breakfast and about twenty-four hours of sleep.”

“Rog,” said the Rock, “bacon and eggs and lots of milk still sounds about right.”

They pulled into the fighter area, got out of the car, and headed for the squadron kitchen. Yep, you guessed it. It was closed for cleanup.

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