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Here’s the scene: me and my aircraft commander Widetrack (see picture below) find ourselves roped into a “mission spare” status for a buttcrack of dawn mission of tankers and BUFFs (Big Ugly Fat F*ckers) launching out of Andersen AFB, Guam. What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything. Live it yourself:
The next day, upon release from alert after crew changeover, we were immediately assigned to crew rest for an early morning refueling mission. Crew rest, of course, called for us to drink as much as possible right up to the eight hour cutoff for alcohol, while the ongoing alert crew planned our mission.
“Don’t worry,” Widetrack promised me, “I finagled us the number five tanker position. We’re just the spare.”
That meant we’d start up and taxi out with the four primary tankers, but we’d only launch if one of them had a no-go mechanical problem at the last minute. The two BUFFs (B-52: Big Ugly Fat Fuckers) would launch first, then after the primary tankers launched, we’d taxi back in, shut down, then go back to sleep off our hangovers.
So on our “crew rest” we replayed the beer-filled maintenance van on the beach deal, and Casey, the then-off duty alert controller, met me on Terragi Beach for a private, beer-lubricated day of beach fun and other interpersonal activities.
It was well after midnight by the time we’d paid our proper respects to General Shaky, returned the van, and hit the sack. The room spun, my skin felt tight and scorched from the sun—Casey’d gotten herself fried—and the air conditioner gurgled and clanked every time I fell asleep, waking me. But, I told myself, no worries: we were just the spare. I’d be back in the sack by eight o’clock.
I dragged myself through the buttcrack-of-dawn showtime, crew briefing and preflight, then slouched in my cockpit seat. Widetrack slumped in his and no one, including Stinkfinger and Flintstone said a word—it was too damn early and we were all still suspended in the nauseating grey netherworld between half-drunk and well-hungover.
Flintstone hadn’t even bothered getting a jug of coffee, the fat, lazy bastard. All he’d managed was a couple gallons of room temperature tap water since we were just the spare. He’d figured he’d just end up dumping out the coffee anyway, which I kind of craved as a result.
After engine start, we lumbered out behind the two B-52s and the other four tankers. I was only vaguely aware of where they were all headed, having ignored most of the briefing. Something about the BUFFs doing a low level bombing route, then popping up for max fuel offload then blah-blah-blah. My head pounded, my mouth felt like sandpaper, so I just didn’t care.
That is, until mission frequency crackled to life and the command post ordered, “Launch the spare.”
What the hell?
“Confirm,” the command post snapped. “Trade 19, launch.”
That was us. Shit.
“He didn’t get water,” Stinkfinger grumbled, pointing at the tanker on the runway.
I squinted at the squatty tanker, engines bellowing, but no telltale black cloud from the water injection. Fuck, he’s got a boost pump failure.
“Try it again,” Widetrack barked on the mission frequency, a bold and prohibited move on his part, but I hoped that might prod the other crew to cycle the boost pumps a few more times.
“Trade 19 now mission primary,” Stinkfinger groaned over the mission frequency.
As if in a bad dream, I acknowledged the tower’s take-off clearance among the muttered curses in the cockpit from my three fellow crewmembers.
We ran through the final takeoff checklist items while I silently prayed that our water injection system would fail so we could abort as well. But no dice; the water injection system kicked in, then Widetrack released the brakes and we began to inch forward.
We rolled most of the long runway, into a glowing pink sunrise, then wobbled into the air and past the cliff at the far end, over the Pacific.
“Gear up,” Widetrack said. I reached for the gear handle and raised it.
“It’s not coming up,” I said.
“Well, cycle the handle,” Widetrack said.
I put the gear handle down, waited a heartbeat, then raised it again. Still nothing.
“Fuck me,” Widetrack muttered, lowering the nose slightly to preserve airspeed with the huge landing gear trucks dragging in the slipstream.
Fuck all of us, I decided. With the gear down we’d never make the formation, much less the mission.
“One-ten, water,” Stinkfinger whined.
“Tell the Command Post we’re an air abort,” Widetrack said.
Stinkfinger relayed our status to the Command Post while I coordinated a cruise clearance with Departure Control. No one else spoke, because we all knew we were still screwed: with our mission fuel load, we’d be too heavy to land for hours.
I began to calculate the fuel burn, then the max landing weight. Sonofabitch.
“Three goddam hours at ten thousand,” I relayed the bad news to Widetrack. Flintstone cursed roundly, Stinkfinger whined.
“Request a cruise clearance at five thousand,” Widetrack ordered. “Nothing to hit out here anyway.”
That would help. Maybe only two hours. Flintstone and Stinkfinger unstrapped and went back into the cargo compartment to forage in a survival kit for something to eat while Widetrack and I scoured the manuals for a technical solution to our landing gear failure to retract. There was none.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Widetrack said as I eyed the fuel dump valve switch. “And so does the Command Post.”
I sighed. He was right: they knew exactly how much fuel we’d launched with and even as we spoke, some asshole with a calculator in the command center was figuring out just how long we’d have to fly in order to burn off fuel to be below the max landing weight.
Sure, in an actual emergency, no one would question fuel dumping. But our only emergency was an ever-worsening hangover, although I began to get the impression that only three of us were actually suffering. Stinkfinger had avoided the beach beer binge both days and actually seemed to be enjoying everyone else’s discomfort. Just one more reason for me to despise his whiny ass.
Sawdust bars, or what the Air Force called “survival concentrate,” which was densely packed, dried cornflake cubes the size of a soap bar, was all the survival kit offered. I gnawed silently, washing the sawdust down with tepid tap water, and made a promise to myself that I’d cram some sort of survival food into my flight bag going forward.
I’d usually grab a can of Coke before leaving Base Ops for the jet, and I had a special place just aft of the crew entry door wear the insulation could be peeled back and I’d stow the can next to the external skin where at altitude it would chill just shy of freezing within an hour of takeoff. But I hadn’t bothered, being the spare. How I wished for that cold drink as we cruised over the Marianas Islands and the impossibly blue South Pacific at five thousand feet and three hundred knots.
After landing I spent the rest of the morning sleeping, then hung out at the Officer’s Club pool the rest of the day. Though tropically hot and sticky, regular dips in the pool counteracted the heat and on and off catnapping restored my strength from the early showtime.
“Have you heard anything about the plane,” I asked Widetrack who snoozed on the beach chair next to mine.
“Nope,” he said. “And who cares anyway?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it made sense: the tankers were old and creaky and in the tropical climate, cranky from the heat, humidity, and corrosive salt air. I had heard that one of the BUFFs had also been unable to raise the landing gear so the entire mission was a bust. Copyright 2020 Chris Manno All Rights Reserved.
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