By Bob Bostick, with Charley Taylor
The Navy, for a long time, had in its inventory a small number of curious, odd-looking aircraft called the TC-4C Academe. It was really a Grumman Gulfstream 1 with an A-6 nose mounted on the front. It was ungainly, ugly, and a heck of a good idea for training A-6 Bombardier Navigators.
The Gulfstream 1 was an executive turboprop, the Cadillac of its era, the time between refurbished B-25 airframes and the birth of the Lear Jet. The G-1 was powered by two Rolls Royce Dart turboprop engines featuring Dowty Rotol airscrews. You and I know airscrews by the more familiar name “propellers,” but that’s another story. The passenger compartment featured a complete A-6 cockpit with a fully operational BN system. The idea was to make the TC-4C (the Tic 4) a flying classroom. With the crew up front doing the actual flying, an instructor in the back could spend hours instructing A-6 newbies how to radar navigate and conduct attacks in the A-6 without all the inherent risks associated with trying to accomplish the same goals in the actual A-6. The Tic 4 was a work horse in the two Navy and one Marine A-6 Replacement Air Group (RAG) squadrons.
I spent my first operational squadron years in the early 70′s flying the Tic 4 as a stash pilot in VA-128, the West coast RAG for the A-6. Disappointed at first to be sent from jet training in the TA-4J to the Tic 4, I soon learned it was a blessing to be there. I learned all I could absorb about the A-6 and was exposed to flying in a “normal” cockpit set up with an Aircraft Commander and me, the trusty right seater of the day. Later in my career I moved up to the AC spot and then stepped into the RAG as a student A-6 driver. I know things progressed the way they did for a reason. By the time the A-6 opportunity came up I was far more seasoned than the freshman with wings that I had been three years earlier.
A typical Tic 4 flight was to go from Whidbey Island NAS to overhead Spokane in eastern Washington, where we would drill holes in the sky back and forth while the student BN’s in the back would bomb the simulated heck out of selected downtown Spokane buildings on the RBS range.
One day in the early 70′s I had a memorable flight in the Tic 4 that brought together an international cast, the U. S. Navy, and the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command. Remembering the event still brings a smile.
We were in the Tic 4 on the way to Spokane to work the RBS range. “We” were the Aircraft Commander (Navy Lieutenant Mike), and myself in the right seat as the Ensign semi-new-guy copilot. In the back, the cast of characters was a little bit different from the norm. Instead of an all-Navy cast we had an exchange Flight Lieutenant from the Royal Air Force (RAF) who was doing a tour of duty with the RAG as the instructor, and the student was a German Luftwaffe Leutnant who was in the U. S. learning about radar bombing systems as part of the development of the Tornado, which was just about to go into production. Our RAF instructor was a Buccaneer veteran, so the training mix in the back was a good one. We also had one of the RAG maintenance chiefs for the Tic 4 with us. This turned out to be a good thing; we normally didn’t take a maintenance chief with us, but it just happened that he was along.
Somewhere between the Cascades and Spokane an odd smell began to seep into the cockpit. Not a smoke smell, not a fire kind of smell, more like an inflatable kiddie pool in the sun kind of smell. Mike and I couldn’t figure it out; we were poised to do something, just not sure what.
Then the hydraulic system quantity started to drop. Aha! So that’s what hydraulic fluid smells like! We looked up the procedures and it didn’t take much time to get to the Land-As-Soon-As-Possible part. That had to do with things eventually not working correctly–you know, things like landing gear, flaps, brakes…I forget exactly what was on the list but you get the idea.
The idea of turning around and going back over the Cascades was not going to be a smart one. We told our ATC controller about the “land ASAP” thing and he suggested Fairchild AFB, which just happened to be between us and Spokane. Straight ahead, with one really long runway.
We declared an emergency, did all the things we were supposed to do as far as checklists, and after checking in with Fairchild approach and tower we made an uneventful landing.
Uneventful, although I did find it interesting that Fairchild tower wasn’t too keen on letting us land. They asked several times for our PPR number (something to do with Prior Permission Required… this was a SAC base, you know). Landing permission was granted only after use of the big E word again (Emergency).
The Follow Me truck escorted us right up in front of base ops. It wasn’t until shutdown that we noticed that we had a welcoming committee of sorts on the ramp.
Several trucks full of guys with M16s, or M14s, or M somethings. Whatever it was, they were a serious looking crew, and they surrounded our airplane.
Mike and I made some remarks to each other about how touchy folks at SAC bases are, you know… they get a little antsy with all the B-52′s sitting around with nukes in ‘em. Must be a normal thing.
As it turned out, it wasn’t a normal thing. The chief let down the air stairs and Mike and I got off the airplane and were met by what we thought was the base ops officer.
Nope. My memory is a little ragged on this. I do remember we were looking at a full Colonel, and he wasn’t looking happy to see us.
First thing he wanted to know was “Who are you? What kind of a Navy plane is this? Where are your orders?” Questions that didn’t seem to fit the “Sorry you guys had an emergency, what can we do for you” we expected.
Well, sir, this is a Navy TC-4C, and no sir, we don’t have any orders. We are on a local training flight.
Not the right answer. I wonder if the SAC dudes used to fly around with orders all the time. Our lack of orders brought a frown to the Colonel’s face.
While we were talking with the not so friendly Colonel his gaze went over my shoulder and I saw his expression change from unhappiness to momentary complete befuddlement.
Mike and I turned and looked as our RAF Flight Lieutenant descended the air stairs, followed by our Luftwaffe Leutnant, both wearing their respective nation’s flight suits and covers.
I could make this story a little more colorful and paint the Colonel’s reaction as something like Jackie Gleason doing “Ahameda ahameda ahameda!” The Colonel did a really good double take, I know that.
At this point things went a bit more downhill for the Navy.
The Colonel (was he the Wing Commander?) became less hospitable and told us that our airplane was going to be impounded and placed in a hanger and we were to be his guests and confined to quarters for the next three days.
What the heck? He can’t do that!
Oh yes he thought he could, and that was his intention. He explained to us that we had made an unannounced landing in a strange plane on a SAC base filled from one end to the other with B-52′s on the day before….are you ready for this? A scheduled ORI.
Those of you reading this tale who have an Air Force heritage know full well why our Colonel was paranoid. An ORI is an Operational Readiness Inspection, in which an inspection team from the big HQ swoops down on your command and all the t’s better be crossed and all the i’s dotted properly because the team will be looking at everything to do with the STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, the planes, the crews, the base, the security…
Curtis Lemay, the father of SAC, was rumored to have landed unmarked aircraft at SAC bases, disembark a full crew of inspectors, and raise hell if he wasn’t met with a force suitable for greeting a planeload of nasty commies bent on destroying the entire base. Any lapse usually meant the end of a career for whomever was in charge.
So the Colonel saw us and our weird airplane show up unannounced. He called out the troops and the loaded guns.
Then two Navy officers dismounted.
Followed by the RAF. Then the Luftwaffe.
There was simply no way he was going to explain our presence suitably. No way he could think of. No way at all. Or maybe he was being set up.
I didn’t make things any better when I let my Ensign brain take control of my mouth after being told we were going to be “guests” for a few days. I asked the Colonel (with respect, mind you) if the Air Force and the Navy weren’t still working for the same government.
Years of later experience have taught me that my question and the timing of it were not exactly appropriate. I know my AC, calm guy on the outside that he was, cringed on the inside. The Colonel chose not to answer my question. Actually, I think he ignored me…
So, there we were on the SAC ramp. Kind of a Mexican standoff, military style. We were not willing to be guests and the Colonel was sure we were guests, and he had those folks with the M things all around to back him up. I wondered what our skipper was going to say about this. Heck, what would the skipper’s boss say? Can an admiral yell at a colonel? Is that OK?
Meanwhile, our trusty Chief had climbed up on the starboard wing and opened the access panel that had a trail of fluid streaming from it across the wing surface. He quickly diagnosed the source of our hydraulic leak and hopped down. He came over to our group and pulled Mike aside for a quick conversation. A moment or two later Mike returned and told the Colonel that the Chief had identified our problem as a split hydraulic line. The Chief could fix the line in about 45 minutes or so if he had the proper tools, some hydraulic line, and Skydrol to replenish the system.
“45 minutes?” the Colonel asked.
“45 minutes,” replied Mike.
The Colonel stared at Mike. The Colonel went through some mental gyrations. He had been offered a life ring while drowning in the ocean of inspectors to come. He grabbed for the ring.
He turned and began to issue orders.
Between 5 and 10 minutes later your United States Air Force delivered to our Navy Chief enough tools, hydraulic lines, and Skydrol to service most small airlines for a year.
God Bless Navy Chiefs. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again and again. Our Chief went after the problem and in less time than promised he had disconnected, replaced, reconnected, and pressure checked the errant hydraulic line. And topped off the reservoir with fresh Skydrol.
He buttoned up the engine, grinned at us and told us we were good to go.
Navy Chiefs: you gotta love ‘em.
Mike and I went into base ops and refiled. We all got back in the Tic 4 (all of us, the U. S. Navy, the RAF, and the Luftwaffe), started up, watched the circle of bad guys with the M things dissolve, and we taxied for takeoff.
The Colonel watched us go from the steps of the ops building.
I swear the man almost waved. He almost smiled.
Or maybe not.