Unexpected Solo


February 28, 1971

Our honeymoon had been short, way too short. We should have stayed in Tahiti at least another week, but we were only able to get two weeks of leave for Samantha.

It was tough going back to work. I had asked to be assigned a few 2-day or 3-day trips in theater, but I was needed back in Vietnam for another 3-month deployment to Scatback at the end of the month. This constant TDY was really starting to grate on me.

I started my TDY assignment at Yokota, carrying a 4-star General from Yokota Air Base, outside Tokyo, to Kadena Air Base, in Okinawa. Then we would reposition to Clark Air Base, Philippines, to begin our Southeast Asia sequence.

I was paired up with Lieutenant Colonel Byers. When I saw his name on the schedule, I suspected I might have been getting a no-notice check ride. In a roundabout way, I was.

During our mission briefing, Lieutenant Colonel Byers told me he wanted me to meet the General at planeside and provide the inflight briefing. And, he wanted me to fly the aircraft from the right seat. I didn’t really understand his reasons, but, as Tennyson said in the poem, “ours not to reason why”.

I performed the preflight inspection and made sure that the baggage was stowed properly and the four-star placard was positioned in the left side cockpit window. The General’s aide had arranged for baggage delivery ahead of time. Then, just before departure time, I stood at Parade Rest by the aircraft steps, on the left side of the aircraft. At exactly departure time, a staff car with a four-star flag on the antenna pulled up to planeside. I snapped to attention and gave my best Academy salute as the General approached the aircraft. He returned my salute and climbed the entry steps.

Lieutenant Colonel Byers was watching, and he started the right engine precisely as the General set foot on the steps. The General’s aide followed, along with a Major, and I entered the airplane behind them and closed and locked the aircraft door as the left engine started.

As soon as I got strapped into my seat, Byers said, “Your airplane,” and called for taxi clearance. We were pulling out of our parking spot less than 45 seconds after the General’s staff car pulled up. Having a Code on board meant we got expeditious handling, and we were cleared for takeoff before we even reached the runway Hold Line.

I have to admit, my takeoff and climb-out were flawless. I had a General to impress, not to mention a Lieutenant Colonel who was probably evaluating me. After we reached cruise altitude, Flight Level 350, I made sure the plane was fully trimmed, then asked Lieutenant Colonel Byers if he wanted me to go back and brief the General.

“Good idea,” he said, “but I’m telling you right now, I’m not going to touch the controls, so I hope you have it trimmed properly.”

“In that case, sir, I need to give it a click of nose-down trim, since the CG will move a bit when I go aft.”

He smiled. He knew I was right. The T-39 Sabreliner was so touchy in trim that the Center of Gravity would noticeably change when a pilot – or passenger – walked the short length of the interior. And the T-39 had no autopilot.

“You have the airplane,” I said.

“Roger, I have the airplane.”

It was time for me to brief the General and, in the vernacular of the T-39 pilot group, to play “ball-bearing stewardess”, providing drinks and snacks to the passengers.

“Good morning, General. I’m Captain Hancock. Our flight papers specify a 1035 local arrival at Kadena. Do you have any amendments or changes to our arrival time?”

It was critically important that we arrive exactly on time. When a General was scheduled to arrive at a base, there was usually a large reception party waiting on the ramp. Typically, it would be the Wing Commander, the Base Commander, plus any other Colonels and other high-ranking officers that were deemed appropriate. At Kadena, the Wing Commander was a one-star General. If we were late, there would be hell to pay for keeping the arrival party waiting. And if we were early and arrived before the reception party was in place, it would really be bad.

The General looked inquisitively at his aide, who shuffled through a file folder. The aide found what he was looking for.

“Ten thirty-five is still good, General,” he said.

“Let’s keep 1035, Captain.”

“Yes, sir. General, would you care for any coffee or juice, or anything to eat? We have donuts and sandwiches.” I paused for effect. “And we also have Orange Crush.”

When he heard Orange Crush, the General’s face lit up. I had learned from the VIP Briefing Sheet that the General was a diehard fan of the Denver Broncos, nicknamed the “Orange Crush”. As a result, he absolutely loved Orange Crush soda. I had read the Briefing Sheet the previous night, and had gone to the BX and bought a large bottle of Orange Crush. The General was impressed.

I served Orange Crush to the General, and coffee and juice to the aide and the Major. No one wanted anything to eat. Apparently, they had attended some form of working breakfast. That meant Lieutenant Colonel Byers and I would have something to eat after the General deplaned at Kadena. Good deal.

I returned to my seat and resumed control of the aircraft. Our route of flight took us down the center of Japan, then south following the Ryukyu chain of islands to Okinawa. We were flying along airways, designated by VOR navigation stations that had Distance Measuring Equipment. I performed a DME groundspeed check from the Kagoshima VOR and compared it to our flight plan. We were making good time. Too good. We would be at least 13 minutes early at Kadena if we kept this speed. I took out my E6-B flight computer, which was really just a fancy circular slide rule with special aviation scales. I performed a quick calculation, and looked over at Lieutenant Colonel Byers.

“Sir, we need to slow to .74 Mach to arrive on schedule.”

“Okay, Captain, you’re flying. Make it happen.”

I adjusted the throttles to reduce the fuel flow by 200 pounds per hour, and after a few minutes the jet stabilized at .74. I saw a hint of a smile on Lieutenant Colonel Byers’s face.

I performed groundspeed checks all the way down to Kadena. As we got closer, just prior to descent, I tuned the HF radio to WWV to get a time hack, and adjusted and set the aircraft clock. As we got close to the descent point, Lieutenant Colonel Byers started coughing.

“I’m having a hard time talking,” he said, in a raspy voice. “You handle the radios also.”

“Okay, no problem, sir.”

If I was able to listen and talk on three radios while controlling an airstrike, I could sure as hell fly and talk on just one radio at the same time.

Naha Center transferred me to Kadena Approach Control, and I advised them we had a Code on board and needed to touch down at 1032 local. That would give me 3 minutes to taxi to Base Ops, the parking location for high-ranking passengers.

It was a crystal clear morning as we descended over Okinawa. I marveled at the beautiful turquoise ocean and white sand beaches. The beaches were outstanding, and, I had to admit, the ocean was even more beautiful than the Gulf, near my home in Pensacola. I checked the time, and it looked like we might have been about a minute ahead of schedule. I decided to configure early, and lowered approach flaps.

“Kadena Air Base 12 o’clock, seven miles. Report airport in sight,” instructed the Approach Controller.

“Airport in sight,” I responded. I glanced over at Lieutenant Colonel Byers. He hadn’t done a thing the whole flight.

“Are you okay, boss?” I asked.

He nodded.

“Contact Tower,” instructed Approach.

“Roger.” Pause. “Good day.” I always tried to give a short pause and say “Good day” the way Paul Harvey did.

“Kadena Tower, Scatback 403, gear down, final.”

“Scatback 403, wind 040 at 7, cleared to land, runway 5 Right.”

I looked at the aircraft clock. It was 1031 local.

I put down final flaps, and touched down at exactly 1032. I made the high-speed turnoff, and taxied toward the parking spot. With about 100 yards to go, we were still about a minute early, so I slowed down a bit.

As we turned to park, I shut down the left engine, and coasted to a stop with the red carpet lined up abeam the aircraft door. I set the parking brake, shut down the right engine and checked the clock. It was 1034 and 50 seconds. I hopped out of my seat and opened the door for the general.

He stepped out onto the tarmac at 1035.

To the second.