I'd managed to survive another blazing hot day at Nellis Air Force Base, outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. By 1600 hrs (4 PM to you civilians) I'd already put in a full day, flying air-to-ground and air-to-air combat training missions with my students over the sprawling desert weapons range since 0600.
I'm Major Buzz Donaldson, commander of one of the three Squadrons assigned to the 474th TAC Combat Fighter Training Wing, which is an advanced fighter/bomber pilot training wing. Each squadron is assigned eight F-100 D Super Saber single-seat jet fighter-bombers, plus two F-100 Fs, which are basically modified versions of the 'D' model, but with two inline cockpits. In addition to my own training duties, I also supervise four other instructor pilots. Our primary duty is to teach our assigned students the techniques and skills necessary to achieve mastery of their weapons systems, while at the same time maximizing the chances for their survival in combat situations. Being a squadron commander in this wing doesn't mean just flying a desk. I have an Adjacent, a young 1st Lt who takes care to most of the paperwork, while I try to spend most of my time in hands-on combat training which, here in the desert, is hot, dry and sometimes stressful work.
I was exhausted by the time I landed from the final sortie of the day and entered the locker room. I was looking forward to changing out of my sweat-stained flight suit, taking a long hot shower, and then retiring to the Officers Club for a cool drink and a quiet meal. That was when my wing commander, Lt. Col. Peterson, caught up with me and quickly ruined the rest of my day.
"Ah, there you are, Major Donaldson!" he exclaimed with a smile, "I have a request to make of you. We're scheduled to deliver one of our 'F' models to the Wright-Patterson maintenance depot in Dayton, Ohio, and it must be there by 0800 tomorrow. Captain Adams was originally scheduled to deliver it, but unfortunately he's been diagnosed as having an inner-ear infection and the Flight Surgeon's grounded him for a week. I'd appreciate it if you'd fly the 'F' back there tonight, then pick up the 'D' they just finished rehabbing and bring it back here tomorrow."
Now you have to understand that, in the military, when a Colonel tells a Major he has a request, it's not really a request at all, it's merely a polite way of issuing a direct order. I gave him a weary nod and asked, "Do I have time to shower and change into a clean flight suit, then maybe get a bite to eat before I leave, sir?"
"Certainly Major, do whatever you need to do... as long as you're airborne in ninety minutes. The flight plan's already been filed and the bird's been serviced. Of course, I had to schedule you for a layover in Omaha, Nebraska tonight for your mandatory crew rest. You've already logged nearly nine hours today... but plan to leave Offit by 0600 tomorrow in order to get the bird to Dayton on time. I'll see you back here tomorrow evening then... and thanks for helping us out. It won't be forgotten," he said with a smile as he strode away.
'Who's he kidding?' I thought grumpily. 'He'll have forgotten all about it before sunset!' Christ, it had already been a long day and it was now promising to be an even longer night! Ah well, such is life in the military and it sure beat the hell out of my previous assignment... a Forward Air Controller, directing close combat air support for the ARVN troops (that's the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam), as well as our own Army and Marine Corps grunts, in South Viet Nam.
I showered, changed into a clean flight suit, scooped up my shaving kit and my 'go' bag containing a clean set of clothing, grabbed a quick sandwich and a soft drink at the snack bar, then reported to Operations for my flight briefing. After a short weather briefing and an even shorter review of the planned flight route, I proceeded to the equipment room where I donned my G-suit over my flight suit, then retrieved my still sweaty flight helmet and my 'chute. I was about to catch a crew bus out to the aircraft when the Ops. Officer pulled me aside.
"Buzz, a Major James Garret is looking for a hop to Wright-Pat. Some kind of family emergency or something, I guess. Since you've got an empty back seat, would you be willing to take a passenger along?" he asked.
"Well, I suppose so, as long as he's willing to RON at Offit and isn't prone to airsickness," I quipped. (RON being military-speak for 'Remain Over Night')
Before he could reply, a confident feminine voice behind him interrupted. "A layover at Offit is no problem at all, Major, but let's set the record straight. I'm not a he, I'm a she, and I'm definitely not prone to airsickness unless I'm really hung-over, which I assure you I'm not. As an added bonus, I've logged over a hundred and fifty combat hours in F-100's and can spell you on the stick if you're half as tired as you look... Oh, and by the way, the name is Jamie, not James."
Surprised, I whipped around to find a tall, slim, extremely attractive female officer in her early thirties, a silver-piped blue USAF garrison cap, displaying a Major's bronze oak leaf, cocked jauntily forward on her head, partially covering her short, dark-auburn hair. She was wearing a green, custom tailored, Nomex flight suit with a matching G suit, her feet encased in highly shined black jump boots. Her flight helmet was cradled in the crook of her left arm, a parachute pack dangled from her right shoulder.
Even without the military trappings, I'd have suspected she was a veteran combat pilot. Her penetrating emerald green eyes gave her away; the thin lines radiating from their corners bespoke many hours spent scanning bright distant horizons for possible targets and threats. Her cocky, go-to-hell posture only emphasized the impression. The leather name tag on her flight suit displayed silver Command Pilot wings with the name 'Major J. Garret, USAF' centered beneath them. Due to its position on the suit, checking her nametag drew my attention to her chest. Under the snug-fitting custom tailored flight suit, her breasts were prominent enough that they should have gained my immediate attention. I also noticed that the suit fit the rest of her trim, athletic body like a glove; she obviously had all the standard-issue equipment, arraigned in an extremely attractive package.
"Well now, seeing that you're willing to pull your own weight, welcome aboard, Major. Always glad to help a fellow pilot in need," I grinned at her. I gave the Ops Officer a wink and asked him to adjust the crew manifest to reflect that Major Garret would be flying as the back seater on this flight, then escorted her out to the waiting crew bus.
The crew chief was waiting at the aircraft with the 'start cart' already hooked up. After a quick but through walk-around-inspection (what was jokingly call a 'kick the tire and light the fire' check) I clambered wearily up the crew ladder and settled into the front cockpit as Major Garret scrambled up into the rear. I noticed, with a wry grin, that the crew chief had solicitously followed her up the ladder and helped her strap in, assistance I was sure she didn't actually require. When he returned to the tarmac, he looked up at me with a wink and a big smile. I couldn't blame him, I only wished I'd allowed her to climb the ladder ahead of me so that I might have had the opportunity to 'assist' her myself.
Grabbing the maintenance log off the top of the instrument panel, I quickly scanned the entries, assuring myself that all safety-of -flight write-ups had been corrected and signed off, then strapped myself in, donned my helmet, plugged in its communication cord and oxygen hose, then nodded to the waiting crew chief. He raised his right arm and rotated his hand, indicating I was cleared for engine start. Nodding at him, I quickly ran through the pre-start checklist, then hit the ignition switch. The diesel electric 'start cart' belched black smoke as the unit rammed compressed air through the engine, spooling up the compressor turbine, and the powerful J-57 engine lit off. I eased the throttle back to idle and quickly scanned the instrument panel. Soon all the engine instruments settled into the green as they should as the artificial horizon and gyrocompass settled down. As I was doing this, the crew chief disconnected the start cart, removed the ladder hanging from the canopy rail and returned to the side of the aircraft.
Switching the radio over to Ground Control frequency and thumbing the mike switch, I called the tower, gave them my tail number and requested taxi and take off instructions. After a thumbs-up signal from me, the crew chief ducked out of sight under the belly and reappeared shortly, off to the left side in front of the wing, wheel chocks hanging by their connecting ropes over his left shoulder, and waved us foreword with a two handed 'come along' ground control signal. I snapped him a smart salute, which he stiffened to attention and sharply returned before moving further off to the side. After warning my 'co-pilot' over the intercom to 'clear the canopy rails' and receiving her confirmation, I hit the switch closing and locking the large heavy Plexiglas canopy. Advancing the throttle, we trundled slowly down the taxiway to the runway threshold. The tower announced that I was cleared to the active for immediate takeoff and wished me a good flight.
I grinned wryly at that remark as I pulled out onto the runway without slowing. Swinging the nose around to line up with the centerline, I advanced the throttle, and once the bird started its takeoff roll, pushed the throttle outboard into afterburner, dumping raw fuel into the rear engine section which lit off with a loud boom. The heavy, fuel-laden fighter accelerated rapidly down the runway, a thirty foot, white-hot flame belching from its tailpipe, the acceleration pressing us back hard into our seats.
The rapidly cooling evening air of the desert quickly compressed under the now rapidly moving wings and tried to lift us into the air but I held the nose firmly on the ground with steady forward stick pressure. As the airspeed passed through 280 knots, I pulled the stick back sharply. Once the main landing gear struts thumped loudly, indicating they had reached full extension and that the plane's weight had lifted off the wheels, I slapped the gear handle up. The wheels thumped solidly into their wells as the bird leapt into the air, nose-high at a sixty-five degree angle, and climbed like a rocket. I glanced at the clock on the instrument panel. Exactly eighty-seven minutes had elapsed since my conversation with Colonel Peterson. 'Not a record, but still a damn good average, ' I chuckled to myself.
"What's so funny, Major?" she asked over the intercom.
"Nothing, just a private joke between me and the Wing Commander," I replied. "Check your oxygen flow, Major. We'll be taking the high road tonight to save fuel."
"Already have and it's working just fine," she responded crisply, if somewhat sarcastically, I thought. "And if you're so damned worried about fuel, why did you dick around with that hot-dog takeoff? God, this 'burner climb-out is wasting enough fuel for an extra hundred miles at cruse altitude."
"I know, but I do have a certain reputation to maintain. Also, if the Wing Commander was watching, he'll get the message that I'm still more than just a little pissed off about being conned into making this flight. Besides, we can always call for a tanker if we run low," I chuckled.
I leveled off at 40,000 feet, eased the throttle back to its cruise setting, set the course for the first leg of the flight, then engaged the autopilot. Leaning back, I relaxed and let "Iron George" take over for awhile.
My eyes automatically scanned the instruments and the surrounding airspace but my mind was now operating on autopilot also. I was remembering a beautiful young lady I'd met at the club last night, with whom I'd made a date for this evening; a date I now wouldn't be keeping. I sincerely hoped she was the forgiving type.
I was soon jarred out of my reverie by Jamie's voice on the intercom. "You already know my first name, Major. What's yours?"
"Buzz," I replied.
"No, I'm pretty sure that's just a nickname. The nametag on your flight suit says 'I. Donaldson'. What does the 'I' stand for?" she came back at me.
After a long pause, I grudgingly admitted, "Ignatius... but I never use it. Everyone calls me Buzz."
"Ignatius?" she laughed. "What the hell kind of name is that? Your folks must have been really pissed off at you!"
"No, I was named after a rich uncle on my mother's side, but I guess my folks were more than a little disappointed when he died without mentioning them in his will," I chuckled. "As long as we're getting acquainted, what about you? Are you single, engaged, married, or divorced?"
"None of the above. I'm a widow."
That threw me off stride a little. I wasn't exactly sure how to respond to information like that. Finally I broke the awkward silence by saying, "How did that happen? An illness or an accident, I suppose."
"No, the short version is that we were both fighter pilots, stationed in Southeast Asia. I was flying F-100D's on 'Fast Mover' close-combat-support missions out of Da Nang; he was flying Wild Weasel SAM suppression missions over the north in F-105's out of Korat, Thailand. About two years ago he was on a mission somewhere up near Hanoi, when he took a SAM hit directly under the cockpit."
"Damn, I'm sorry to hear that, but how do you know he's dead? He could have punched out and been taken prisoner," I rationalized.
"Not a chance," she replied flatly. "I talked to his wingman, who witnessed the whole incident. He said Billy never had a chance. There was just a huge fireball and shock waves of the explosion nearly knocked his own aircraft out of the sky. He told me that, after he regained control, he'd eyeballed the wreckage all the way down... no ejection, no 'chute, no beeper. His wingman's eye witness account was all the Incident Review Board needed to list him as KIA and pay off his insurance."
"Damn Jamie, I'm sorry that happened, but that's just one of the hazards of our profession, it goes with the territory," I observed. No point in coddling her, she wouldn't have welcomed it and I'm not very good at that sort of thing anyway. As a combat fighter pilot herself, she knew the inherent dangers of our profession as well as I did.
She remained silent for several minutes. The sun, which had been setting at Nellis about the time we'd lifted off, was still shining at this altitude but was now sinking rapidly toward the horizon behind us as we raced eastward toward the gathering darkness. Finally, her disembodied voice on the intercom asked, "So tell me, how did Ignatius become Buzz?"
"Well, that's an even longer story, but I guess 'time' is the one thing we have plenty of at the moment," I chuckled. "Anyway, it was back when I was a green young Lieutenant, fresh out of flight school and assigned to a fighter/interceptor squadron at Westover. I was called 'Iggie' at the time, which I thought was a pretty wimpy name for the hot shot fighter jock I thought I was."
"As you know, Westover's a big B-52 SAC bomber base in western Massachusetts, but my outfit was just a small Air Defense detachment, stuck way out in the boondocks near the end of the main runway... so that we wouldn't contaminate the SAC troops, I suppose. Anyway, they sure didn't want us there... and we damn well didn't want to be there, either."
"We were flying old F-86D Sabers then, and although they seemed like hot-shit aircraft to me at the time, they were really pretty much just tired old dogs. Squadron morale was pretty low until they replaced our doddering old Squadron Commander, a World War II C-47 transport pilot, with Major Jim Wilson, an F-86 jet ace from the Korean War. His motto, which he prominently displayed on a large plaque in his office was, 'The mission of the Air Force is to fly and fight... everything else is just chicken-shit."
"About that same time, we were informed that our old Sabers were being retired to the Air National Guard and that we'd be transitioning into Lockheed's new F-104A Starfighters. Five of us pilots including Major Wilson, along with some maintenance-types, were sent TDY out to the Lockheed plant in Burbank, California for transition training into the new birds."
"After a few days of training, five of the 104's were transferred over to us. Major Wilson decided that he'd fly the first bird back to Westover and selected me to fly as his wing man. The flight went smoothly and, after two aerial refuelings, we found ourselves entering the landing pattern at Westover. That's when things started to get just a little crazy."
I heard Jamie chuckle softly over the intercom. I noticed she had a very throaty, seductive laugh.
"What are you laughing about?" I asked. "I haven't even gotten to the funny part yet!"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to laugh, but I think I may have heard my husband, Billy, tell this story about a hundred times. Every time he got a few drinks under his belt, he'd always come up with this yarn," she chuckled. "He was also stationed at Westover and must have transitioned into the 104's at the same time you did."
I thought furiously. Billy Garret? It wasn't a name I remembered. I sifted through my memories and finally it dawned on me. "Duke Garret? You were married to the Duke?" I asked incredulously.
"Well, he was always 'Billy' to me, but now that you mention it, he always did use 'Duke' as his radio call sign", she replied softly.
'Shit', I thought. 'The Duke's dead?' And I'd been sort of planning to put the moves on Jamie once we were safely ensconced in the transient BOQ at Offit, but how the hell could I possibly seduce a dead buddy's widow? That somehow didn't seem quite right to me.
"I'm sorry, Jamie. I just didn't draw the connection. Well, as long as you've already heard the story, there's no point in continuing."
"No, no," she exclaimed. "I want to hear your version of what happened that day. It's somehow comforting to unexpectedly find one of Billy's buddies from the old days."
After a short silence, I replied, "O.K. Well, as we entered the landing pattern at Westover, Major Wilson told me to switch over to our squadron frequency. Then he said, "Let's give those SAC pukes a little show. We're going in low and hot. You tuck in tight on my wing and stick there. We're going to do a high-speed, low-altitude fly-by, but when I say 'Break" I want you to hug the stick to your belly and hit 'burner'. Got it Lieutenant?"
"Yes Sir," I replied and slid in closer until my left wingtip was nearly overlapping his right, and only a foot or so behind it.
"OK. That's fine right there. Now, stay with me. I'm going to jack up our speed a little," he said. We increased our airspeed until I was indicating just under Mach 1 and getting more than a little nervous. As we crossed the boundary fence, clearing it by what seemed to be mere inches, and approached the near end of the runway, he let his bird sink even lower. I followed suit, expecting any second to hear the scraping of concrete on the belly of my craft. We were so low by now I don't think I could have lowered my landing gear if I'd wanted to. I noticed that he was pulling ahead slightly, so I nudged my throttle up a little to maintain position. I could now see the shimmer of shock waves building up on my canopy and realized we were extremely close to the sound barrier. By then, we were nearly halfway down the runway, and as we flashed by the tower, I heard Major Wilson bark, "Break!"
"I yanked back hard on my stick and slapped the throttle into afterburner. Our needle-nosed little hot rods immediately went vertical and punched through the sound barrier, only a few hundred feet above the runway."
I heard Jamie snort a stifled laugh into her oxygen mask, but I ignored it.
"Well, we looped way up and over, bleeding off airspeed, until we were once again lined up with the runway. As we crossed the barrier fence again, more sedately this time, the tower operator contacted us, telling us in a shaky voice not taxi back to our squadron area. Instead, we were ordered to park our birds directly in front of Base Ops, shut them down and report to the Operations Officer... Immediately!
Well, needless to say, I was pretty nervous at that point, but Wilson, cool as a cucumber, merely replied, "Roger that."
I followed his lead and we flared out, touching down on the first hundred feet or so of runway and took the first available turnoff to the taxiway, We jettisoned our drag 'chutes, then followed the taxiway back to Base Ops. After shutting down our engines and securing the aircraft, I nervously followed him into the building and immediately came face-to-face with the angriest Bird Colonel I'd ever seen. His face was beet-red and his eyes sort of bugged out as he stuttered incoherently for a second before finally managing to say, "Do you two idiots have any idea who is on his annual base-inspection tour today?"
Since it sounded like a rhetorical question, neither of us responded, which made him even angrier. Now completely incapable of coherent speech, he merely pointed toward his closed office door and waggled his finger, indicating we should enter his inner sanctum. I expected him to follow us inside, but instead he just reached in and pulled the door shut behind us, remaining outside. The window's vertical blinds were closed and it was sort of dark in the office. At first I thought it was empty, then my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I noticed the dark silhouette of a man seated behind the desk.
"Switch on the lights, if you would, Jim," the shadow said in a gruff, gravelly voice. That was when Major Wilson chuckled and replied, "Sure thing, Sir", and in the brightness of the overhead light, I found myself face-to-face with General Curtis E. LeMay, the Lord God of SAC!"
I heard Jamie's sharp gasp at the mention of General LeMay.
"Well, of course we both snapped to attention and saluted. The General pushed his chair back, stood up and returned our salute, saying "At ease, gentlemen. Sit down Jimmy, we need to talk... you too, son."
"The General then chuckled and proceeded to tell us that we really shouldn't have pulled that little stunt over his field but admitted that it was one hell of a show while it lasted. The general continued, saying that he expected us to pay the replacement cost of the glass in the control tower, most of which had been shattered by the shock waves of our sonic booms. Of course, we both readily agreed... although I had no idea where I'd come up with the money. Then he nodded, lit his cigar and said, "You realize, of course, that I'm supposed to be giving you a royal ass-chewing for that little stunt, so please look suitably chastised when we leave. By the way, you'll both be my guests for lunch at the Club. That'll be a cheap price to pay for one of the most aggressive display of flying I've seen in years. And you, lad," he said to me, "Don't let this hotdog lead you astray again, but if he tells you anything... anything at all, involving fighter tactics and how to stay alive in combat situations, you listen damn close. He's the best we've got."
With that, he rose and headed for the door, shouting for his staff car, the Colonel and I dogging his heels and attempting to look as contrite as possible."
"How did you ever manage to pay your half of the new tower glass? That must have cost a fortune and you were making just about minimum wage as a new Lieutenant," Jamie laughed.
"Major Wilson paid the whole thing out of the Squadron Recreation fund, said it was the best entertainment those troops had had in years," I replied.
By this time, Jamie was laughing so hard I wasn't sure she even heard the last part of it. Once she'd composed herself slightly, she managed to say, "Lord, I've heard that story so many times, but never in such detail, and I never heard about General LeMay's involvement at all. Did he actually buy your lunch?"
"Hell, no... he had the bill put on the Ops Officer's tab!" I laughed, which set her off again. "But anyway, the point of the story is that after we buzzed the field that day, the other pilots started calling me Buzz, which was fine with me. I figured it was much more macho sounding than 'Iggie'."
As the sound of her laughter subsided in my headset, I suddenly realized that the day's activities were finally catching up with me. It had been long, hard and hot day, and the deep, steady rumble of the cruising jet engine was making me drowsy. Sunset had passed and it was now fully dark. After a final scan of the dimly glowing instruments, I said, "We're still about a couple hours out of Offit, Jamie. How about spelling me on the stick for awhile?"
"I've got it, Buzz. You relax and take a nap," she replied, twitching the stick to let me know she was assuming control. "I'll wake you before we land."
The next thing I remembered was the sound Jamie's voice in my helmet, saying "We're twenty minutes out, Buzz."
I roused and scanned the instruments, everything was still in the green, and the TACAN needle was showing us on course to the Omaha beacon, its DME window indicating sixty miles.
"You want to shoot this landing?" I asked her.
"Why don't you take this one, Buzz. My forward visibility is pretty much limited to the back of your seat and I'm really too tired to try an instrument approach tonight, unless I really have to," she replied.
"Ok, I've got it," I replied, twitching the stick to signal I'd reassumed control.
A few minutes later I called Offit Approach Control, identifying my aircraft and requesting landing instructions. On the downwind leg, I set the wing flaps to 50% while still maintaining 85% power. Dropping the gear, I turned onto final approach and picked up the glide path signal. I maintained 160 knots until we flashed over the first runway marker, about twenty feet up, then lifted the nose slightly and retarded the throttle. The bird settled as the speed bled off, and once the main gear kissed the runway, I eased the front gently down onto the nose wheel, then popped the drag 'chute and stood hard on the brakes.
We slowed rapidly and turned off onto a taxiway where we found a yellow pick-up truck with a large lighted "Follow Me" sign in its bed. Jettisoning the drag 'chute, I slowly followed the truck to the transient parking area. We were met by a grizzled old Tech Sergeant, who directed us to a parking spot, then chocked the wheels as I shut down the engine. Placing a crew ladder on the cockpit rail, he clambered up and inquired about any maintenance we might require.
"No problems at all, Sergeant, everything is working just fine, but we'll be departing for Wright-Pat at 0600 and we'll need it serviced by then. Also, we'll need transportation to the BOQ, if you can arrange it."