Git ‘er Done!

There we were, Desert Shield, gearing up for Desert Storm. Several States’ National Guards had deployed Air Refueling Tankers to England. We ferried and refueled a lot of go-to-war assets into the Mid-East from there. One day, as an eight-tanker flight, we ferried a large package to the Sandbox. We flew across France, down Italy, and out into the Mediterranean where we met Tankers from the Sandbox. They’d take the package the rest of the way. As the relief Tankers checked air-refueling capability with each jet-in-tow and released us one-by-one, six of us landed at a Navy Base on the Island of Sicily. Our Diplomatic Clearances for the flight back through France wouldn’t activate for several hours. They’re required for U.S. Military Flights over other countries. One Tanker had an active Dip and enough fuel remaining, so they flew back to England non-stop. Our lead Tanker had an active Dip Clearance also, but they had to fly almost to Egypt before they got released. Back at Sicily, we did the math and figured the lead crew would run out of crew duty day. They’d have to stay the night at the Navy Base and their Dip Clearance would be wasted. So we decided to abscond with it and get out of town.

Stealing their Diplomatic Clearance meant we also had to steal their Call Sign, even though they were still flying around with it. But Egypt was a long way away and this was a Navy Base and if the Air Force actually came up with the motto, “Flexibility is the Key to Air Power”, no one does that better than the Navy. We know this because we’ve refueled the Navy many times and although we do brief how we’ll meet up in the sky and how much fuel they’ll get, they come in like moths to a light bulb and take whatever fuel they want and we always wonder why we even brief in the first place. So we filed a flight plan for a six-ship tanker formation with lead’s Call Sign and Dip Clearance. Looked like we were gonna get away with it.

Lead: “Navy, Shield 61 Flight of six request clearance to ‘Base X’ England.”

Navy: “Shield 61 Flight of six cleared Base X England via… yadda yadda yah.”

Lead: “Navy, Shield 61 Flight of six request taxi.”

Navy: “Shield 61 Flight cleared to taxi.”

Shield 61: “Navy, Shield 61 at Final Approach Fix, request clearance to land.”

Navy: “Shield 61 Flight, say again?”

Shield 61: “Navy, Shield 61, on final approach, request clearance to land.”

Navy: “OK, I have two Shield 61’s. Shield 61 Flight of six, you’re Shield 61A Flight of six. Shield 61 on final, you’re Shield 61B; single ship, right?”

Shield 61B: “Affirmative.”

Navy: “Shield 61B is cleared to land.”

We’re busted now but see how flexible the Navy is? She didn’t care how many Shield 61’s there were. She had 24 more letters to go.

Shield 61B on discrete freq: “Richard, what the hell are ya doin’?”

Richard: “Well, you gotta refuel and you’re gonna run out of duty day and we’re all ready to go, so we kinda stole your Call Sign and Dip Clearance.”

Shield 61B said something nasty about how it’s not nice to steal from your friends but it did make sense to get six jets back to England today rather than all seven tomorrow. 61B lands and Navy clears 61A Flight of six for takeoff. We need a 3,000 foot block of altitude for our 6-ship (one jet every 500 feet) and Italy grants it. Tutto a posto (everything’s cool). Coming up on France now; Italy’s about to hand us over.

Italy: “Shield 61 Flight, France is unable 3,000 foot block altitude.”

Shield 61 lead hesitates – flustered as to what to do.

Shield 61: “Italy, ask France for the 3,000 foot block again.” (A shallow demand but deep with desperation)

Italy: “Shield 61 Flight, France says unable 3,000 foot block. Contact France now on inflight frequency.” (Translation: “What’d ya mean, ask ‘em again? You ask ‘em!)

Shield 61: France, Shield 61 Flight of six request 3,000 foot block altitude.”

France: Shield 61 Flight, negative 3,000 foot block. Cleared to Base X England at Flight Level XXX”

Shield 61 on interplane freq. “OK guys, echelon right at Flight Level XXX”. The five big jets carefully echelon off Lead’s right wing and level off at altitude.

We were the #6 jet and this formation became one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It was dusk and we were flying among several cloud layers. They were tinted in cool, end-of-the-day blues and greys and as #6, we watched the contrails of those 20 engines on the five grey aircraft in front of us stretch back for miles – stark white conduits against the darkening skies. Lots of comments from commercial jets, “Wow, the skies are busy tonight!” We may have been the largest flight of heavy aircraft over France since WW II.

We kept the peace with the French controllers and they handed us off to the Brits. They handled our arrival with professionalism that rivaled the resolute statement of those contrails in the skies over France. The Brits brought the first two jets straight in with separation by airspeed. They flew the rest of us farther north, then a right 180 degree turn putting us on a high, extended downwind. Then they turned each of us right 180 degrees to final, one-by-one as we tromboned for spacing.

Fun flight. Mission accomplished. A bit of bootlegging but safe and ready to fly again on the morrow.

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