FLYING LOW, FLYING FAST
I flew a number of aircraft during my 24-year career in U.S. Air Force and the Utah Air National Guard. Specifically, that number is four. Two were training aircraft, the T-37 and the AT-38B. Third was the F-111 “Aardvark” and #4 was the KC-135 Stratotanker. I was not a military pilot. But I played one on TV. That’s what confuses people, “Oh, you’re that guy who played the military pilot on TV!” No, not really. I was a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) on the F-111 and a Navigator on the KC-135. A WSO is a mix of co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier. WSO work was quite a rewarding challenge (just to stay alive), and I really enjoyed my time in the Tanker, too. But still, there are only two kinds of navs: The ones who would rather be pilots and the liars.
I don’t know what it’s like to ride a rocket car at 600 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats. But I do know what it’s like flying that fast less than 100 feet above them in the F-111. It’s a smoother ride, I’ll bet.
Fixed in my mind is a particular attack we practiced. The target was tucked up against the south base of a small mountain range that ran east to west. We’d fly in low toward the range from the north, then turn west to fly up the valley on the north side of the mountain. We were “officially” at 200 feet altitude and the range topped out 3,000 feet above us. So we were hidden from the target as we raced along at 600 mph in the shadow of the mountain.
At the final turnpoint at the speed of heat, we’d climb and turn hard left into the mountain, hoping to clear the ridgetop. Trees just whizzed on by. Over the ridge at 200 feet and 85 degrees of left bank. We’d drop the nose, go wings level and push down the south face of the mountain at up to 3 negative g’s (negative g’s really suck). But if you’d done it all right, there was the target, right on the nose. Seconds later we’d swoop over it, simulate a high-drag bomb release and pull up to jet out into the desert at 200–500 feet for other targets. We called it Route 66, and what a kick we got there!
I always worried there’d be horseback riders on that ridge when we thundered over. We’d a’spooked those ponies s’bad they’d still be runnin’….
Someone wrote the F-111 version of the poem “High Flight”, by John Gillespie Magee.
I’ve taken a few small liberties with it:
Oh! I’ve slipped through swirling clouds of dust
a few feet from the dirt.
I’ve flown the Aardvark low enough
to make my bottom hurt.
I’ve skimmed the barren deserts,
hills and valleys, mountains too,
and frolicked in among the trees
where flying squirrels flew.
I’ve chased the frightened cows along,
disturbed the ram and ewe,
and done a hundred other things
that you’d not care to do.
I’ve smacked the tiny sparrow, bluebird, robin, all the rest.
And sucked into the engines
Whatever dared to leave their nests!
I’ve streaked through total darkness,
with the pilot next to me,
at night, down low, and terrorized
of things I could not see.
I’ve rolled my eyes to heaven as I sweated through the flight.
It’s on again and I must touch
The Master Caution Light.
An Anecdote that goes around the Tanker Community:
A KC-135 Tanker crew was dragging a flight of F-15s across the pond (the Atlantic). There was a lot of banter between air-refuelings. The Eagle Drivers taunted the Tanker Toads with their fighter maneuvers. Lots of “Let’s see you do that!” After a while, the Tanker commander said, “Yeah? Watch this.” He checked off headset, got out of his seat, and returned several minutes later. The Eagles asked what he did. He said, “Stretched my legs a bit, relieved myself, and got a fresh cup of coffee. Five minutes to next refueling. How’re you feeling?”