A True Story
As an Air Force Navigator/Bombardier during the 70’s I was stationed all over the world. In 1975, I was returning from a tour in Thailand through the Pacific as the navigator on a KC135 air refueling aircraft. It was really a Boeing 707 converted to carry fuel. With a boom in the back of the aircraft, we could refuel other aircraft while still in the air. While in Thailand, we flew missions to refuel fighters and bombers while in lands between Thailand and Viet Nam. After our tour of duty was over, we were anxious to get back home to our base in California.
Our return leg through the Pacific meant that we would return to the US via Guam for rest and refueling. One of the exciting things about going to Guam was that we could go to the BX (base exchange) and purchase stereo equipment at discount prices. And the BX at Guam had the very best inventory of any base in the world. Plus we did not have to pay any duty on that equipment because customs waived us through, for the most part, without seeking duty payments. Every airman who could, would load up on stereo gear to take back to the states. We were no exception.
One advantage we had over most airmen was that the KC135 had basically an empty fuselage. All the fuel we carried was in the wings and belly tanks, leaving the entire fuselage wide open. We could have easily fitted several cars in that aircraft if we were allowed to do so. There were no prohibitions on stereo gear or other imported goods. So, as soon as we arrived in Guam we made a bee-line to the BX. We began purchasing the best stereo gear you could find and it was all there to be found.
After making our purchases we were shocked to hear sirens. They were warning sirens set to alert the residents of a typhoon bearing down on the island. Having grown up in Indiana, my exposure to typhoons was, as you might imagine, quite limited. It turned out it was a category 4 and that year it was named Super Typhoon June and one of the strongest on record with three eyes according to data available on line.
We were directed to report to Base Operations immediately. Until we heard the siren, all was beautiful and quiet on that tropical island. This weather feature was a surprise to all of us. At Ops, we were told to “hunker down” on the second floor of one of the concrete barracks on the island. We were told to wait out the storm. Our crew was the last to arrive. As a result, they directed all the aircraft to leave the island (B-52’s and KC135’s) and to keep one crew (ours) and one aircraft back. We were a back up crew to ferry parts to the aircraft which had been evacuated to Kadena Air Base, Japan during the storm.
Kadena, was a very small island at the far southern tip of Japan, somewhat removed from the mainland of Japan. It was a very small target. I tell you this because, we were instructed to fly there. Normally, that would not be a big deal but first we were given a radio, rations and told to stay in the barracks until instructed to come out AFTER TYPHOON JUNE PASSED OVER US. The barracks had shutters and we used tape to seal the gap between the door and the jamb. And we listened as the wind howled and grew in intensity. Typhoon June passed close to the island and they clocked winds in excess of 180 miles an hour. We were cramped in the room assigned with stereo gear boxed in oversize packing for transport. We had so much gear, there was barely enough room for us.
It was scary and uncomfortable at the same time. They told us not to go outside under any circumstances until told to leave. One of the biggest dangers was getting hit in the head with debris, especially coconuts. I am not kidding. I can still smell the air as I write this and feel the buffeting of the wind, even in a concrete bunker.
When the radio reports said that winds had subsided to 90 mph, we ventured outside. You could lean forward into the wind, and not fall over. Finally, we were cleared to leave. They loaded a bus with all our gear and took us to Base Ops. There, we were given the flight plan and ordered to fly west to Kadena. The problem was that we had to fly right through Typhoon June to get there. It was critical that we transport spare parts to the aircraft on the ground at Kadena so that they could fly out of harms way. Military aircraft of that vintage always needed parts to get off the ground as systems failed so it was absolutely necessary that we complete the mission.
In normal times, stateside, I would be “violated” and be reprimanded or loose my ability to continue flying if I came within 20 miles of an active thunderstorm. So we were very careful never to even get within 50miles due to turbulence, hail, lightning and other weather features. The aircraft were not designed to experience those types of “g” forces.
This mission was not normal. We were instructed to get to Kadena by all means possible. That meant flying THROUGH Typhoon June. It was so expansive with tops of the clouds exceeding 80,000 feet. That was well above our aircraft’s ceiling capability. For instrumentation, since we were over the Pacific, we would be out of the normal aids for navigation that we used stateside. Instead, we had Loran, High Frequency Radio Waves and Celestial Navigation, using a sextant. Of those three aids, two were highly unreliable and inaccurate. Our best hope was to use the sextant and navigate using the sun and planets or stars at night. Navigators also use what is called “dead reckoning” which uses predicted “winds aloft” which are provided before the flight and subject to significant changes over time. Our flight, if I recall correctly, was scheduled to be about 5 hours long.
As we progressed to the west, we could see the dense, dark, solid bank of clouds which circled around the eye of the Typhoon. As darkness descended upon us and as we entered the front, I kept a close eye on my radar screen. I did this to find the least intense returns so that I could “thread the needle” and try to avoid the most intense turbulence so that we didn’t exceed the limits of the aircraft.
I was fortunate to have very competent pilot and co-pilot (Bill Herlihy was the crew commander and an excellent pilot). He maintained control as we were experiencing seemingly endless updrafts and downdrafts, intense rain and lightning. I really wondered if we were going to make it alive. Due to changing radar returns, we had to alter course about every three minutes. As a navigator, all I could do under the circumstances was to “air plot” our position each time we altered course. That means that I would simply record the airspeed, time, and true heading of the aircraft and mark that point on my chart. The pilots kept asking about the conditions ahead on the radar. I assured them that I was taking them through the best path to avoid the “hardest” returns. When time allowed, I would be able to plot a vector representing the estimated wind effect on my air position giving me my best guess of our true position.
Eventually, we broke through and I took several readings using my sextant and correcting my chart for where I believed we were located. Knowing our position was critical. Failing to know where we were might create an international incident. Anytime you fly into an air defense zone (ADIZ), which is airspace of the soverign country which you are approaching, they have radar and watch for approaching aircraft. Sometimes, radio contact is not possible at that range and you need to hit the ADIZ within time and distance perameters that don’t give you much room to be off course or outside of your estimated time of arrival when penetrating that ADIZ. We filed a flight plan. The time and location of our point of penetration was anticipated as long as we hit the mark. Failing to do so meant that aircraft would be launched to intercept our aircraft or shoot us down.
Since we had made so many alterations over such a long time, it was critical that I correct those errors and be on-time and in place as planned. If aircraft had to be launched to intercept us, the pilots and myself would have violated the controlled airspace rules and that would be the end of our careers in the Air Force.
As it turned out, we were right on time and crossed the ADIZ as planned. We sighed a breath of relief as we met the mark and celebrated with a hot meal and some drinks after that flight. We celebrated being alive and not being violated. That was one of the best meals I ever had – the problem was that we were no sooner on the base and completed that meal, that we heard sirens for – you guessed it – Typhoon June. We took cover again as the Typhoon made landfall not as intense as at Guam. But, my crew and I are probably the only individuals with the distinction of having experienced the same Typhoon twice, both coming and going.
Normally, my goal is to have a connection with my life experience and practicing law. I am just glad to be alive and have the opportunity to practice law as I do today. When you experience proximity to death, it changes you and makes it possible to better appreciate the life you have and what is really important in your life.