Whenever I think of weather, I think of the days and nights I paid close attention to it during my tenure as a USAF pilot. The short piece below is a result of reflecting on those times. Now that I confine myself to my most reliable day-night-all-weather vehicle, I no longer get tense. I always have the option of stopping my car on the side of the road in the dark of night when it is raining so hard I can no longer see the road ahead.
Avaino Air Base Italy November 1992
After a morning of persistent fog, the weather lifted enough for Captain Mark “Skip” Chandler to launch on another reconnaissance mission to support humanitarian operations over Bosnia-Herzegovina. The foggy weather wasn’t forecast to return until long after Skip completed his ten hour mission.
During the first half of the mission, there was a lingering possibility of diverting home to England where Skip would have been able to see his family. He’d burned below the fuel state for that option hours ago. Now it was time to prepare for the return trip over the Adriatic and back to his base in Northern Italy.
Skip keyed the mike of the aircraft’s UHF. The encrypted KY58 chirped the familiar preamble before he could transmit. “Dragon Ops, this is Argon One Seven.”
“Argon One Seven, Dragon Ops Go,” came the reply from a familiar voice. It was Captain Danny Clark, a fellow pilot and mobile control for Skip’s mission.
“Estimate five minutes from Bingo fuel, requesting weather and winds.”
“Standby Argon.” A few moments later Danny came back up. “Argon One Seven, did that bingo fuel state you reported include the required alternate for weather?”
“Affirmative,” Skip’s voice had the distinct tone of a pilot who’d had a long day and seen enough muzzle flashes from artillery and mortar rounds fired from the surrounding hills of Sarajevo. Bearing witness to the destruction of the city created a special brand of fatigue for Skip.
Darn my five minutes are up and I’m just getting started! In case readers want the remainder that goes beyond the Flash of Five they can continue reading below:
“Copy. Here’s the deal Argon, weather looks good for your return, so you can drop the alternate. That should give you another twenty minutes fuel without cutting it too close. We’ve got a C-130 taking mortar fire on one of the runways near Mostar. Our customers asked if you could stay on station a bit longer.”
“Argon One Seven copies. I’ll call you back in a few. Give me heads up as soon as that Herk is outta there.”
Fifteen minutes later Skip heard an incoming call from Dragon Operations. The Herky bird was safely airborne but it was looking like an unexpected fog was again beginning to form in the valley at the foot of Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Hearing the report, Skip immediately turned and went feet wet over the Adriatic and headed for Aviano. The descent took an another twenty minutes as he crossed over the Italian coast above Venice at forty thousand feet.
“Aviano Approach, Argon One Seven Request,” Skip transmitted in the clear no longer needing the encrypted UHF.
“This is Avaino approach go ahead Argon.”
“Requesting present position direct for a ten mile visual straight in Runway Zero Five.” Skip’s voice made it sound like he’d done this hundreds of times.
“Roger Argon, Aviano is now reporting fourteen hundred overcast two miles visibility. Say intentions.”
“Approach Argon One Seven request direct IAF TACAN/ILS Runway Zero Five.” Since Avaino had no approach control radar, Skip knew he had no alternative than to fly the entire procedure that included arcing through a hundred degrees at 15 DME before intercepting the ILS. It also meant he was going to burn fuel much faster at the lower altitudes eliminating any hope of an alternative besides ejecting from his plane over the Adriatic if he didn’t break out of the weather at decision height. “This is gonna be close,” he said to himself.
On six mile final approaching glide-slope intercept for the ILS, Skip keyed the mike again. “Argon Mobile, are you up?”
“Argon Mobile is up. Say position and fuel state,” said Danny.
“Six out on the ILS approaching glide path. What’s it look like Danny and give it too me straight OK?” demanded Skip looking up from his instruments just long enough to confirm the visibility was like being inside of a ping pong ball.
“Viz is down maybe to a mile. Ceiling looks obscured. I don’t see your landing light. Is your gear down?”
“Roger Argon is four out on the ILS gear down.”
Avaino Tower came back. “Argon One Seven, you are cleared to land Runway Zero Five, wind calm.”
“Copy cleared to land. Argon Mobile, I can see the ground out the side, but forward visibility is still zero.” Skip’s voice sounded like it had gone up an octave.
“I’ve got your landing light. Recommend you stay on the gages till decision height,” Danny said over the air. His tone was intended to instill some confidence in Skip. U-2 pilots usually had no problem accepting advice from their fellow pilots acting in capacity of mobile control officers. They were all well aware of how fatigue at the ten hour point in a mission can result in a fireball leaving behind widows and orphans.
Skip breathed a sigh of relief. Relief from the tension he didn’t know he was holding inside for about the last four miles. On reaching decision height, he looked out and saw the lead-in lighting and runway threshold. His buddy Danny was in the mobile control vehicle, it’s red beacon lights rotating ready to accompany the plane down the runway on landing roll out.
Once Skip had the aircraft under firm control on landing roll out, he began to apply brakes and slowed the aircraft to a walk. As the wingtips lost lift, they drooped. Coupled with the low fuel state, gravity prevented fuel from reaching the engine’s sump tank so the aircraft’s J-75 engine flamed out. Skip was sweating bullets, but he and his aircraft were safe on the ground and able to fly again another day.