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Here's a war story for a Thursday afternoon.

It's about an aerial SNAFU* I was involved in one day while leading a four-ship of F-15s in Alaska. An F-16 squadron from the Lower 48 was visiting Elmendorf Air Force Base, flying dissimilar air combat training missions with our squadron. It was a beautiful but cold winter day when we launched: light rains in the Anchorage area, good ceiling and visibility, forecast to get even better, no alternate landing field required.

Just about the time my wingmen and I were hitting bingo (enough fuel remaining to return to base and land safely), the temperature at Elmendorf suddenly dropped below freezing. Since the ground was already frozen, the water on the runways instantly turned into ice and the braking action went to zero. One F-16 pilot couldn't stop on landing, so he lowered his hook and took the cable on the east/west runway. Two minutes later a second F-16 took the cable on the north/south runway. There were sixteen jets still airborne, eight F-15s and eight F-16s, all of us now at or near bingo.

For some reason (I seem to recall it was mainly political) we were not allowed to land at Anchorage International Airport, even though the runways there were equipped with cables. Since two KC-135 tankers were airborne in the local area, the Elmendorf supervisor of flying radioed the flight leads of the F-15 and F-16 four-ships, directing us to rendezvous with the tankers, offload a couple of thousand pounds each, and fly to the nearest alternate, King Salmon Air Force Station, over 300 nautical miles to the west.

Fighters don't carry a lot of fuel, and what they carry they burn at a great rate. Although we had enough to return to Elmendorf, take our turns in the pattern, and land, we didn't have enough to wait for the cable crews to get the F-16s clear of the runways and reset the cables, a procedure that can take twenty to thirty minutes. That's how tight we were on gas.

The SOF's order to refuel and fly to King Salmon made sense, given the restrictions on landing at Anchorage International. And it would have been a cakewalk if there were only four of us, but sixteen? I was leading the first four-ship to reach the tankers, which were flying in a lead/trail formation about five miles apart. We rejoined on the trailing tanker and I cleared my number four, who was lowest on fuel, to the boom. By then we could hear the second Eagle four-ship checking in and starting a rejoin on the lead tanker.

As four approached the boom, the F-16s checked in on our frequency, and they didn't sound like they had a whole lot of gas to play with. This racheted up the pressure and number four got nervous, ham-handing the stick ... it took him an agonizingly long time to settle down and connect with the boom. By then one of the Viper four-ships was lined up one mile behind us and the flight lead was asking me if I could drop my guys back and let them refuel first. A similar conversation was going on between the Eagle and Viper flight leads on the lead tanker.

Fortunately we were above the weather and in visual contact with each other, sixteen fighters and two tankers, and we were headed west toward King Salmon as we refueled. I asked number four to come off the boom after taking on just a few hundred pounds. I'd already checked two and three's fuel, and knew we had just enough to wait while the Vipers refueled ... as long as they got on and off the boom smartly.  Fortunately for us the Viper pilots were crusty old Air National Guard types with tens of thousands of hours between them, each one an airline pilot in his other life.

The F-16s refueled in a heartbeat and we were back on the boom, then on to King Salmon. The two flights on the lead tanker refueled and followed us to King, where we all landed. The tanker crews, bless their hearts, had enough fuel to orbit Elmendorf for hours (even after refueling sixteen fighters) so they were able to wait out the cable crews and eventually land there.

The rest of us gassed up at King, and an hour or two later took off again for Elmendorf. By the time we landed and debriefed the officers' club was closed. Too bad ... we all could have used a drink.

It occurred to me, as I was getting ready to climb in bed at home, that the moment the two F-16s closed the runways at Elmendorf we should have headed for Anchorage International, politics or no. We were in a tight situation. Even though the SOF had directed us to refuel and fly to King Salmon, and even though doing so was technically safe, I was stupid to accept his decision. One screwup and we'd have lost one or two jets to fuel starvation ... no, let me rephrase that: as a flight lead and the senior Elmendorf pilot airborne that day, I would have lost one or two jets. It would have been my fault, not the SOF's. And all this time Anchorage International, with two long cable-equipped runways, was five miles south of Elmendorf AFB ... right where it always was (and most likely still is).

I didn't get much sleep that night.

* SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

Originally posted to pwoodford on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 11:56 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight and Kossack Air Force.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Great story (5+ / 0-)

    Thanks!

    Tell me what to write. tellmewhattowrite.com 'To know what is right and to do it are two different things.' - Chushingura, a tale of The Forty-Seven Ronin

    by rbird on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 12:25:23 PM PST

  •  T & R , friend! (8+ / 0-)

    THAT is what you DON'T get 'command money' for - Some Other B..... Error !

    Great job, glad you all made it.

  •  Great story PW (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rbird, KenBee, Texknight

    Proves that Military Intelligence is an oxymoron in more than just G2.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 02:18:35 PM PST

  •  What a scary story.... (7+ / 0-)

    this stuff is done so often people think it's no big deal.
    It is a BIG effing deal....

    years ago, a friend of mine who was an F-4 driver talked about being more afraid one night while dealing with a difficult refueling off the coast of Alaska while leading a 4-ship in poor wx conditions than he'd ever been while flying over North Vietnam....

    "Poopy suit" or not, someone forced to eject into the North Pacific in winter is probably not going to survive....

    "Ronald Reagan is DEAD! His policies live on but we're doing something about THAT!"

    by leftykook on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 02:49:59 PM PST

  •  Great story (5+ / 0-)

    Great moral--it's always easier when over--and frightening.

    Thanks.

  •  My personal SNAFU story. (7+ / 0-)

    I was in, I think, 7th grade. Must've been about 1974. Having won the county spelling bee, I was competing in the regional for the right to go to the state bee...where I'd finished second the previous year on a bonehead mistake, and knew all the rest of the words that took down the remaining contestants. So I thought I had a decent chance to win state.

    Several rounds in, the moderator asked me to spell "snafu." I'd never heard of it. Entirely new word to me. Total blank.

    Spelling bee rules said, at least in 1974, that before attempting to spell a word, a contestant could ask the moderator for (a) a definition, or (b) to hear the word used in a sentence, or both. So I asked for a definition.

    Of course, the moderator immediately realized the definition--"An acronym meaning 'situation normal, all fouled up'" (she wouldn't have said "fucked up")--would've been a giveaway. So instead of giving me the definition, she used it in a sentence.

    I thought of saying, "You used it in a sentence. I'm entitled to a definition." But the moderator was this kind older woman who'd been nice to me in the past, so I didn't push it. I guessed "s-n-a-f-f-u," was out of the bee, and there went my chance to go on to the state and perhaps to Washington.

    It was a great life lesson: speak up for yourself. Use the rules; that's what they're there for.

    Learning that was probably more valuable than going to the state or national spelling bee. And perhaps why, today, I'm a lawyer.

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 03:33:04 PM PST

  •  Quite a story (7+ / 0-)

    It also illustrates the problem with chain of command, and sitting in the hot seat. If the person who is officially expected to come up with the correct answer doesn't, the consequences are felt by others in the chain. (And sometimes, the 'correct' answer depends on factors over which you have no control.)

    Glad this time it all turned out well.

    If you'd had to do it again, after going through this once, would you have gone to Anchorage International instead? Did you discuss that idea with the other members of your flight afterwards? Sounds like a learning experience on steroids...

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 04:14:27 PM PST

    •  Good question. (10+ / 0-)

      In an emergency, you land at the nearest suitable field, period. That overrides any local policies or prohibitions. The thing was none of us perceived the situation as an emergency, and indeed it was not. My #4 was the first one on the tanker; had he been unable to refuel there was still time to send him to Anchorage and I would have without hesitation. But the rest of us would have gone on to King Salmon as directed. It was only later that night, looking back on all the things that could have gone wrong, that I started thinking about smart it would have been to send at least one four-ship to Anchorage despite local policies, even with no emergency declared. I did share my concerns with the squadron commander, and he agreed with me.

      •  I used to read Flying Magazine years ago (7+ / 0-)

        Two regular features, Aftermath, and I Learned About Flying From That used to make for grim if instructive reading. Quite often there would be no single thing that was a clear danger by itself, or there would be alternatives that were not chosen for some reason - but the combination of things could end up proving fatal (or near fatal in ILAFFT).

        One of the main points I took away from that was that it was important to keep situational awareness, and not get fixated on a course of action to the point that you'd ignore alternative  choices while there was still time to make use of them - and that includes setting priorities correctly. Ten points say, for not busting a policy that keeps Anchorage from being a way out, potentially minus a gazillion points for losing aircraft and crews obeying that policy...

        "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

        by xaxnar on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 06:05:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Yep, declare an emergency, land. (0+ / 0-)

        Politics be damned.

        The KC-135 can hold 202,000 pounds of fuel, though I've never seen more than 190,000 loaded up.   Still, we could stay up quite a while.  I did give too much away once, though.  We were refueling a Cobra Ball RC-135 out over Kamchatka, things were taking longer than they thought, and they asked for a wee bit more gas (another 40 grand or so...). It seemed okay on our first calculation, but by the time we headed back to Eielson, we knew it was going to be pretty tight.  Climbed up to 43,000, and pulled it back to long range cruise, about 1800 pounds per hour, per engine (this was old straight-jet A model days).  Practically glided into the field from about 130 miles out.  The nose wheel strut was very very bouncy, taxiiing in to parking...an empty jet with the boom hanging on the back is pretty tail heavy.

        When banjos are outlawed, only outlaws will have banjos.

        by Bisbonian on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 07:34:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Landing at Elmendorf (0+ / 0-)

        Anchorage never struck me as being that busy. Seems like it would have been a good choice.

        I was once on an Alaska Airlines flight that didn't seem to have a problem landing at Elmendorf instead of Anchorage due to weather (I think the Cat III runway lights raised the local temperature 10 degrees.) Anyway, the Anchorage passengers eventually got on a bus, and the rest of us waited a long time for refueling, since they wouldn't let the plane taxi to the ramp. The Alaska pilot said, "It happens all the time in the winter." Seems like turnabout would have been fair play in your case.

        "Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything even remotely true." -- H. Simpson

        by midnight lurker on Fri Jan 18, 2013 at 09:50:04 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I probably should have tried harder to stress (9+ / 0-)

    ... that what the SOF directed us to do was not in any way dangerous ... so long as nothing untoward happened. After all, we send fighters across oceans all the time. No way they have enough fuel to get where they're going, but when they're accompanied by air refueling tankers, they have all the fuel in the world. It's just that all that fuel is in another aircraft and you have to be able to count on transferring it.

    What hit me the night after that adventure was this: what if my number four never got over his nervousness and ran himself out of gas before he could settle down on the boom? Once we were halfway between Elmendorf and King Salmon, there would have been no place to send him that he could reach. And with 18 aircraft (2 tankers and 16 receivers), how likely was it that one or more aircraft might experience a mechanical problem with a refueling system? Probably not very, but hey, things do go wrong, and Murphy's never far away when you're flying.

    p.s. When you fly across an ocean with tankers, everybody cycles on and off the boom before you're too far away from land. That way, if one of your wingmen has a problem with a refueling system, you can send him or her back with plenty of fuel remaining. In a situation like the one we were in, once committed we were all in.

  •  Good Thing (10+ / 0-)

    those tankers were around :)

    We weren't glamorous but everybody wanted our gas.

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 05:19:23 PM PST

  •  Great story...just another day on the job (8+ / 0-)

    Just to give you some perspective on the difference between how things are ashore and afloat...

    ...we didn't have enough to wait for the cable crews to get the F-16s clear of the runways and reset the cables, a procedure that can take twenty to thirty minutes.
    The interval on a carrier between planes landing is about 42 seconds (yes, it really is!) which means that the aircraft that landed has to clear the gear and "foul line" and the gear is reset all within that 42 second timeframe.  

    Ah, life at sea!

    A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. -Carl Sagan

    by jo fish on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 06:00:22 PM PST

  •  No King Salmon base any more (4+ / 0-)

    These days King Salmon is a civilian airport (as is Galena, the other former forward base, where base housing has been converted to a regional boarding school).

    If that weather SNAFU happened today, ANC would be the only choice.

    "Everybody wants to go to Heaven but nobody wants to die" --- Albert King

    by HarpboyAK on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 08:50:48 PM PST

    •  When I started flying in Alaska in 1982, (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bisbonian

      King Salmon was the major hub for all the GCI controllers who manned the remote stations all around Alaska. Within a year the remotes were automated and the GCI controller manning was reduced, but still pretty substantial at King. Now I suppose they're almost all gone. I sat air defense alert at both King Salmon and Galena. The only live scrambles I ever got were out of Galena, against Bear bombers. Also, in those days, Shemya was hugely manned, and I spent two weeks there once ... will have to write about that experience some day soon.

  •  Great story, tightly written. (0+ / 0-)

    You have a thoroughly enjoyable writing style, thanks for sharing this anecdote! Not many can deliver real dramatic tension in so few words.

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