COOLSTONE LIGHTS A STOGIE
When you were stationed at McChord in the winter, any TDY south was good news. Therefore, when the 89s were grounded – bad wings, bad engines, or both (Coolstone wasn’t sure) the squadron at McChord with its 94s picked up the alert commitment at Hamilton. A real sweet deal. The crews were cycled two weeks down, then two weeks back at McChord. The bad news was that with the exception of the flight down and back it was all alert-24 hours on and 24 hours off-not that a few of the crews didn’t make it in to the San Francisco area on their 24 off. In fact, considerable cultural exchanges took place during the 24 hours off from alert. More cultural exchanges than sleep, usually.
Coolstone had been down to Hamilton from McChord twice before since the 89s had been grounded. He and his fearless RO (Two) were now on their third tour. During each 24-hour alert tour, at least three or four scrambles were made by all four crews. The reason for this high level activity was that the ADIZ was narrow and the tolerances even narrower. Unless you were 5 minutes within your ETA and within 20 miles of your track, you were declared unknown. This immediately required a scramble. The contract cargo bird pilots coming in from FEAF just weren’t too impressed by the ADIZ requirements. Thus the many scrambles.
In January, as it now was, almost every night the vis went down in fog. That “cat” kept creeping in and paused a lot longer than the man said, usually all night. Once on top though at about 1000 or 2000 feet it was almost always clear. Intercepts at night were a lot more sporting than the daylight ones. The interceptee didn’t know he was being had, and the interceptor was blacked out and had to belly up real close to get aircraft type and numbers. Flying formation with a DC-4 tail at 8000 feet or so, indicating about 150, was a fairly demanding chore. In the day, not much to it, just get the type and press on. At night, another story!
About half-way through Coolstone’s first tour it became clear that they could not support two-ship scrambles. It just flat ran them out of aircraft and crews before the night was over. So the CO decided that they’d use single-ship scrambles and that four scrambles per crew was max during any 24-hour period. After that you had to be replaced. This happened fairly often, even with just one aircraft per scrambles. Needless to say, the crew that was called up got all emotional about it, particularly if the weather was rotten.
Hamilton really didn’t have a bona fide IFR letdown or recovery. When IFR conditions did exist, other than just fog, it was necessary for the crews to divert. They sometimes landed at Fairfield Susson or at the Navy base. That also meant another crew had to be called out.
What was really frustrating though was that with the exception of the ADC system, apparently nobody really cared about the ADIZ violations. The aircraft type and numbers were carefully logged and passed to the civilian agencies for action, but as far as anyone knew nothing was ever done about it. Hence no decrease in the 10 to 12 scrambles each night on contract aircraft coming back from Korea. Some of these aircraft carried only freight, but others carried passengers – service men and their dependents.
Tempers were slowly rising to a critical level on the part of the ADC crews.
So it was on this January 1952 night on alert at beautiful Hamilton Air Force Base, California. Coolstone One and Two already had three scrambles behind them and it wasn’t even midnight yet. Two of the three remaining crews were airborne on their second scrambles and the other crew on the ground with the Rock also had three behind them. Coolstone’s call sign was Red 1 and he was ready to go. The vis had started to drop in the inevitable fog, as reflected by the telautograph and as observed by just flat looking out the window. The weather training at good old McFog came into good use here when it came to eyeballing the weather. The 25th Division pilots were very careful about observing the weather because the division commander had made his policy extremely clear about mandatory scrambles. “When the bell rings,” he had said after calling all of the crews together, “that’s me scrambling you and I don’t care what the weather is. The least I’ll accept is running off the runway on takeoff if you can’t see. The word is go and remember that. I’ll promise you that those who don’t go will wish they had. Is my policy clear?”
“Abundantly” was the aircrews’ silent response. Coolstone and his fearless RO Two figured if they could see one light and were lined up they could make it by getting on the gauges at rotation, with Two watching the radar real carefully, trying to keep the corner markers in sight. While he didn’t tell Two, Coolstone figured that if you could just get lined up, light or not, the odds were good that you could make it. Anyhow, somebody thought you could and had obviously sold the boss on the idea, probably a blockhouse ops officer.
One positive thing that Coolstone had noticed about the Hamilton alert tour was that he was in better shape than when he first went down there. They had enough scrambles that the sprint out of the ops building, across the ramp, then on to the first line of aircraft, was starting to redevelop muscles which hadn’t been used for a long, long time. There was no way to make a 5-minute scramble without running as hard as you could from the minute the bell rang until you got to the aircraft. An added incentive was that if you didn’t make the 5 minutes the paper work was horrendous. Several people had gotten lost while making the run in the fog – not an acceptable excuse to the boss at all.
The Rock went over to the pilot of the remaining crew on the ground and said, “okay, we’re all set up and when I go you probably should call out another crew, we’re getting torn up tonight. We’ve intercepted two contract C-54s and a Navy P-2V so far.”
“Yeah,” said the Rock’s fearless RO, “that P-2V was right on the deck. Man, we had to throttle right back, descend with a hard as possible port.” Then he added, “but One had to take three cracks at it before he got it.”
“Never mind,” said the Rock, “if you had gotten the lock on before 300 yards I might have been able to do something with it. All I got was a lot of conversation and a blank scope. He never gave me the dot until we were running right up this guy’s tail.”
“What’s the matter, didn’t you have the gain turned up?” he asked Two.
“Lousy set,” said Two, “and I think that black paint doesn’t return too well anyhow.”
“Oh, the cross I have to bear,” Two thought to himself. “These converted day fighter pilots, they take it as a personal insult that there is somebody else in their airplane, and then if they’re not pulling 7.3 Gs every flight, all the time, chasing one another, there seems to be some type of an emotional reaction that somehow ends up primarily on the backseater.”
As they walked away from the other crew Coolstone One whispered hoarsely to Two, “never mind discussin’ what we do when we’re flying together.” “I won’t say a word about you locking on to that cloud and running me in there with the throttle right back and slow as possible, and all that jazz if you won’t mention some of those very, very minor difficulties that I’ve experienced. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Two. But they’d had this conversation several times and neither one of them had been able to keep the agreement to the letter. But then, they had worked out pretty well together. Two recalled, that One never did say anything to anybody about the night he had run them in on that flock of ducks, ducks that apparently were banded; in fact, One might not even have known it. Two knew it but hadn’t bothered to mention it. They settled down with well worn magazines and a cup of ersatz coffee and waited for the inevitable.
Sure enough, the bell rang, the loudspeaker clicked on and said, “Red 1, scramble!” Coolstone One and Two were launched. They raced to the airplane and as usual, Two won. But Coolstone was reducing the spread. He still remembered the time when Two raced to the wrong airplane. Coolstone never bothered to tell him as he saw Two go up the ladder and try to strap in. The Rock, however, went straight to the right airplane and began the engine start, to the startled surprise of Two. Coolstone never looked around as he got the engines started, checked in, and released the brakes – just as Two scrambled aboard. The Rock thought sure that lesson would slow Two down when they were racing on a scramble, but didn’t seem to.
They cranked up, checked in, and were given initial vectors. They taxied to the north end of the runway, very carefully since the vis was really down, lined up, were cleared, engaged burner and felt their way through the fog until becoming airborne.
Coolstone One cleaned up the aircraft and checked in with Sundance.
“Sundance from Coolstone One, squawking normal, climbing through four angels.”
“Roger, Coolstone, this is Sundance – understand. Continue climb to 15 angels, turn port 240, your bogie is at 10 angels, approximately 75 miles heading 085, speed 200 knots.” And he added “apparently into the San Francisco area.”
“Roger,” mumbled Coolstone and then he mumbled to Two, “looks like another contract carrier missing his ETA. I think those guys just fly east until they hit the coast and narrow it down after that. The crime is they never even know that they’ve been intercepted.”
“How’s the set look?” He asked Two.
“We’re picking up a boat or two on the water. I think we’ve got a good one here,” Two answered.
“I hope so,” said One, “I want to get this guy, and I want to turn him in and I sure want him to know that he’s been intercepted.”
Sundance kept them advised of the bogie’s progress. They were placed several miles to the right of the target’s track and finally at about 6 miles, Two picked up the target and began the conversion to a stern attack. As they steadied out on the reciprocal heading, parallelling the bogie’s track, Two was able to lock on and gave One the dot. They stabilized their speed, then worked in very carefully, indicating about 160 with flaps and boards out, descending gently as they closed. One had the bogie’s lights in sight, checked again to be sure that his were off, and moved on in.
Coolstone One could always tell when the range was getting critical because Two’s commentary picked up pace considerably. Two was from Magnolia, Arkansas and he normally had drawl that dripped cornbread, but when they were within 2000 feet of anything at night or in the weather, his commentary picked up a staccato characteristic worthy of a New Yorker.
Coolstone One was able, as they moved to within a couple hundred feet to make out the horizontal stabilizer and he positioned the aircraft just slightly ahead on the transport’s right side. They identified it as a C-54/DC-4 type with large red letters painted on the fuselage. This indicated it was a contract airline of doubtful pedigree and even more doubtful ancestry. As they were stabilized they could see people through the windows. It was a passenger flight.
Coolstone told Sundance the type aircraft and the name of the airline.
Sundance told them to break it off and gave them vectors for Hamilton.
Coolstone started a gentle starboard turn, added throttle, increased his airspeed, descending slightly, and then he said to Two “what a shame, this guy doesn’t even know we were here. I think I’ll come back around and fly by them, just so they’ll know they’ve been intercepted.” Coolstone did a loose 360, climbing as he did, until he was 5000 to 7000 feet above the bogie. He still had him in sight and he started a descent in full mil from about 5 miles in the stern. By the time he got to the transport he was slightly underneath it, slightly to the right, and pushing the mach. At this point he plugged in the burner, pulled up sharply, and climbed steeply. He was sure that transport crew had seen him. He finally disengaged the burner at about 20,000 feet and headed for home.
“At least this time,” Two told him, they’ll know they’ve been intercepted.”
Sundance vectored Coolstone One and Two back to Hamilton where GCA picked them up. Even though weather was calling it 100 obscured, with a quarter of a mile visibility in fog, the Rock gave it a try. He knew the fog was only a few hundred feet thick and he also knew full well that if he didn’t land at Hamilton, the rest of his night was going to be spent someplace other than where he wanted it to be spent and probably most of his day off too. They made the GCA to the north and as they came on down the approach, Coolstone could see through the fog vertically, which gave him confidence. At least he could stay lined up with the runway until the last 300 or 400 feet.
He was on speed, on glide path, and on centerline when he finally entered the fog at about 200 feet. Just a short time later he picked up the fuzzy green threshold lights and landed. As they were rolling out, Coolstone chuckled slightly and said “by golly, that’s one of them that knows he’s been intercepted and he’ll think again before he misses his ETA that far.”
“That’s right,” said Two, “we all ought to do that every time so that they know they’re being had out there. Maybe the word will get around and they’ll think a little more about getting to the ADIZ on time.”
When they got back to the Ops ready room, Two filled out the intercept information card and asked One if he wanted to include the fact that they’d made a pass on the bogie. One said no, he didn’t think so. They probably should leave that part out.
The pilot of another alert crew, overhearing the discussion, said “what did you do, make a pass on him?” Coolstone One said “sure, I made a pass on him. I wanted him to know he’d been intercepted. I’m sick of these guys coming in here in the middle of the night not paying attention to anything and then we scramble our fannies off. I got up behind him, picked up a good head of steam, came down underneath, engaged the burner, pulled up in front, and held the climb until I was about 20,000 and came on home. There is no doubt in his mind that he was intercepted. He’ll think about that a little bit the next time he’s coming back to San Francisco.”
“That’s a darn good idea,” said the other pilot. “When we get scrambled we’ll do the same thing.”
“Did you call out a relief crew?” asked the Rock. “No, I didn’t,” said the other pilot, “I decided since the scrambles drop off quite a bit after 1 or 2 o’clock, we’ll probably get by okay. Why don’t you and Two sack on out?” Both One and Two agreed with that assessment and spent the rest of the night trying to sleep in the lounge chairs that were placed strategically in the ready room.
The next morning after they were relieved, all of the outgoing alert crews decided to go up to the club and have breakfast before they hit the pad seriously. The club was on the top of the hill as was the “O”, so they had to make the climb anyhow. As they were going into the club, one of the crews spotted the headlines in a San Francisco paper that was showing through the grill of a vending machine.
He said, “look at that.” The group moved over to the vending machine and read the large headlines “Cigar-Shaped Objects Terrorize Transport Crews and Passengers.”
Coolstone’s hair began to rise on the back of his neck. He had a sneaking, horrible suspicion that he knew exactly what one of those cigar-shaped objects was. He looked at the other pilot. “Did you get a scramble after we sacked out?” “Rog,” said the pilot.
Coolstone One bought the paper and then read the front page story, which said in essence. “Two transports returning from overseas were harassed by cigar-shaped objects, belching green fire. The pilot of one of the airliners stated that the object passed his aircraft going at least 2000 miles per hour, then climbed vertically until it went completely out of sight. The airline pilot stated he had never observed an airborne object moving that fast, climbing that fast, or climbing that high in his life. The pilots of both of the air carriers agreed in their description of the object. They also stated that there was a tremendous disturbance in the air which caused them to almost lose control of their large transports. Several passengers in each aircraft confirmed that the unidentified object passed the airliner on the right side at a tremendous speed. Some of them reported seeing portholes with grotesque faces lit by a strange red glow, and one of the passengers insisted that the beasts inside had domed heads – no hair at all – which could not have belonged to any being on this earth.
Coolstone One, and Two, and Three, and Four no longer cared for breakfast. The other two crews did not understand what the problem was, and the four of them went on in to eat. The remaining four stood silently, staring at the newspaper.
Two, Coolstone’s fearless RO, finally said to the quiet group, “I guess they didn’t know they were intercepted after all.” Then added “I don’t believe any of us had ever better say a word about this as long as we live.” A lot of head nodding met this sage advice.
Thereafter, whenever Coolstone read about an unidentified flying object – cigar-shaped – spewing green fire, he had a sneaking hunch that another bogie pilot didn’t realize he had been interercepted.