Mosel Wines and Departure.
The airplane's rudder during the flight control checks has gone full right and stuck. The parts are not on the base so Goose and I have a Day Off!!!
Goose still has his German driver’s license so we rent a car. He recommends we go down to the Mosel and check out his old squadron’s winery. I ask him about that, and evidently it’s an ongoing tradition among fighter squadrons in Germany to have a winery that makes wine exclusively for your squadron, probably not exclusively, but certainly to the exclusion of any other fighter squadron. Maybe this was the Red Baron’s secret. Anyhow, we drive down to the Mosel River into this village and up to a non-descript house.
|Traben Trarbach- except for the Blue Sky, this is pretty much how I remember it.|
Knock on the door and the homeowner answers, immediately recognizing Goose. We’re invited in and led down stairs into the “winery”, AKA the basement. Unlike most modern tourist wineries, there are no amenities just functionality and wine. The owner grabs a bottle and shows it to me. Its label has a picture of one of the Hahn fighter squadron’s patch on it. He opens it and pours us a glass. I’m expecting something ok not great, mass produced for the squadron to swill at its functions. Instead, I’m bombarded with the typical Riesling flavors, apples, pears with a touch of mineral. In short, it’s excellent. We compliment him, he shrugs and reaches behind the bar, bringing out a bottle of Spätlese. Again, excellent. We taste some Auslese, then a Beerenauslese. He shows us a bottle of Trockenbeerenauslese but based on price and scarcity, doesn't open it. Doesn't matter, I've died and gone to heaven. We make it back to our car with our purchases and retire for the evening.
Time passes with more days like this, we check in with maintenance daily and occasionally fire the jet up, but alas the gremlins are winning.....
Running low on funds 17 days into a 4 day TDY, we fire up the jet for the umpteenth time and voila, all systems are still good to go from the test flight the day before and we make our Departure. Climbing up through the low ceilings, we bust out on top and see the sun for the first time in a long time. Heading out over the English Channel, we rendezvous with our tanker and set out for home. A quick hit, to make sure we can take fuel, all systems look good and we turn west. Refuellings 2, 3 and 4 go off without a hitch and now we’re about 500 miles south of Iceland and approaching refueling #5 which will be the last one on this tanker. Once he tops us off and we rendezvous with the tanker out of Loring, he’ll depart and land at Keflavik. We've been in some scud for the last hour or so, not too bad, visibility in the clouds is good enough to fly formation without too much trouble. The tanker has been having trouble with its radar, so Goose and the tanker nav are talking to each other and Goose is directing us through the heavier weather spots. The problem with that is once we start to refuel, Goose has to turn the radar to standby lest we interfere with the reproductive life of the boom operator. It’s time for #5, so I open the refueling door and move into the contact position. The Boomer sticks me and then pulls out. Sticks me again and pulls out. Tells me to move back to the pre-contact position. I see the boom retract then come back down and he clears me in again. Sticks me then calls and says he can’t get a lock. Do I mind if we do a pressure refueling?
A little about refueling in the F-4. The refueling door sits right behind the back seater’s head and fuel is loaded into the fuselage tanks then transferred to the wing and external tanks. This shifts the Center of Gravity of the aircraft as fuel is loaded. That shift requires constant adjusting of the aircraft trim, or the aircraft will tend to pitch up, which is a bad thing when you’re directly below another aircraft. So small controlled stick movements is the order of the day. Having your forearm supported on your thigh makes these small movements much easier.
|The view from an F-4 is NOT this good. The Director Lights are the two dark lines at the front of the long yellow line. This is the Pre-Contact position. The contact position will be much further forward and higher up|
However, the contact position for me put the canopy bow directly over the director lights which help the pilot maintain fore and aft position. Not being able to see them and, indeed much of the tanker at all, makes this procedure difficult. So, I could either run my seat down and fly with my arm unsupported about shoulder level looking up at the director lights or I could run the seat up, support my arm on my leg albeit reaching way down while looking over the canopy bow at the lights. I found that as long as I didn't have to make any switch changes in the cockpit, having the seat up was my preference. Normal refueling involves flying into a small area about 20’ x 20’ x 20’, having the boomer stick the boom in the receptacle and lock it into place. The pilot then flies formation using the director lights and input from the back seater to maintain fore and aft. He’s also using visual references on the tanker to maintain formation up and down and left and right. The boomer also gives radio input if needed. It is considered bad form to need radio input. The boom locks make keeping the boom in the receptacle relatively easy wherever the jet is in the prescribed space.
Pressure refueling involved the same area, but since the boom isn't locked into place, both the pilot and the boom operator have to keep pressure on the boom to hold it into place. Essentially, both the pilot and the boomer are flying formation so close as to be actually touching, so SMOOTH is the word of the day for both. The boomer tries to push the jet back and the jet tries to push the boom back. Falling off the boom requires quick action on the boomers part to get the boom out of the way and not hit the receiving aircraft. There have been incidents of booms punching holes in the fuselage and even the rear canopy. Pressure refueling is not an emergency procedure, but it adds just a tweak more challenge to the operation.
|The refueling door. The white markings are scratches caused by the boom as it slides into the receptacle and normal|
Now, back to whether I minded a pressure refueling. If I don’t want to do it, we're landing at Keflavik with the tanker and who knows how long we have to wait for another tanker. I am less than a week from my wedding. Calls to my Fiancé have been getting chillier and chillier. Right now, I’ve got enough pressure to refuel the entire F-4 fleet. Heck, yes, we’re going to pressure refuel.
#5 is a big refuel as our next divert base is Gander Newfoundland, about a 2 hour distance, so we need full fuel. I've got to refuel the wings, the external wing tanks and the belly tank with about 9000 lbs of fuel. This will take several minutes in the contact position. Goose has had the radar in standby for a while now as we try to sort out the problem, and we have been in the weather for quite a while. The tanker crew is flying blind regarding the weather. We start taking fuel. I’m working pretty hard when we bang into some fairly heavy weather. We start bouncing around and I fall off the boom. The tanker is trying to steer for the lightest areas. I get back into the contact position and resume refueling. The boomer and I are trying to stay hooked together. Goose is trying to keep the big picture in view monitoring instruments and the boom.
|The inset is a blow up of the rear canopy. The Backseater is bent backward and twisted so he can view the boom directly over his head|
We are decidedly not having fun! In the middle of this, my equilibrium fails me and as I’m looking up at the tanker it appears to do a slow roll and now I believe I am looking down at him and we are refueling upside down. There’s no difference in the maneuvering required to maintain position, it’s just disconcerting and requires trust that the tanker pilot has not taken leave of his senses and is attempting a split S. I start to mention this to Goose who snarls “Shut up, we’re straight and level, but I've been tumbling for 5 minutes”. He has been alternating watching the instruments (looking forward), then rotating his head to the left and leaning back to watch the boom and help with positioning. This combination has got the fluid in his ears moving in all three planes of motion. He feels like the jet is tumbling through the air. Having experienced this before, but fortunately in a training device on the ground, I know what he’s going through, and am content to only have to contend with a delusion of inverted flight. This fun interlude continues for forever and then we bust out of the back side of the front into clear skies, the boomer calls we’re full, just as the Loring bird starts his conversion turn.
All is right in the world.
Stay tuned for Bureaucratic Stupidity, Spies and a Wedding.
*What’s the difference between a fairy tale and a war story? A fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time” and a war story starts with “So there I was”.