When I heard there would be a mission to recover six jets that had diverted into Bangor, Maine on their way back to Aviano, I volunteered as soon as possible. I had yet to do a trans-oceanic flight, or as we like to call it, a pond crossing. Plus I figured if the timing worked out well, I’d be able to see my family at least for a little bit. I didn’t know exactly when we’d go or how quickly we’d return, but I knew I wanted to be part of that trip. Fortunately for me, about 48 hours after I volunteered I was booking a one-way airline ticket from Venice to Bangor.
Our trip to the United States started pretty earlier. Myself and five other pilots met at the squadron at 3am, and luckily one of the other guys from the squadron had volunteered to drive us to the airport. We had to quickly pack all our life support gear, which is slightly complicated because we normally fly with a survival radio, signal flares, and exceptionally expensive helmet/display unit, and in this case we would also need night vision goggles along with the rest of the normal equipment. I elected to hand carry my helmet, and otherwise check the rest of the equipment. The ride to the airport was uneventful, and in short order we were on our way back to the United States. I had been home a total of about 12 days in the past 15 months, so I was pretty excited for anything America had to offer.
Unfortunately we were required to stay overnight in Detroit because they didn’t have a flight crew. We all wanted to make it to Bangor that night rather than show up a day late and pressed for time in order to get sufficient rest for our journey, and joked about offering to fly the airliner ourselves to Maine. Needless to say we didn’t offer our services and stayed overnight in Detroit. The next morning the airline did in fact have pilots, and we were off to Maine. When we arrived in the early afternoon, the first priority was to sleep. While it seemed like an odd hour to go to bed if you reside in New England, 4pm was perfect for us considering it was crucial for us to physiologically stay on Italian time. While I woke up a few times throughout the night, I’d say I slept well overall. The next morning I woke up, and my dad and brother confirmed with me they’d be coming up for lunch. This was great news.
Before I could split for lunch, we had a briefing with a representative from the AOS squadron, who are responsible for all major long distance movements such as this one. He provided us with thick packets that contained our route of flight as well as all necessary information for all possible diverts, including approach plates, airfield diagrams, etc. He briefed us on the go/no-go criteria for the mission, as well as when that decision would be made and how it would be communicated to us. Once his briefing was complete, the flight lead split up the responsibilities. I would be responsible for tracking our nearest divert, as well as announcing it to all six aircraft every time it changed. It was time for lunch and my family was still an hour out. I went with the other guys to a restaurant nearby. Surprisingly they were short on lobster and only had three remaining, so not everyone who was new to Maine had the chance to eat lobster. On our way to Maine, one of the pilots bought a can of fois gras in Paris and convinced us all to try it. I was not a fan.
Fortunately my dad and brother showed up just in time to save me from having to eat more, so we left. It was really good to catch up on life and just hang out together. Right as I was about to have to go back to the hotel to sleep, I got a call saying the movement back to Italy had been moved a day later due to the weather. Even better, now my brother and I could have a beer as well. Eventually I had to go back to the hotel and rest. Time flies when you are forcing yourself to sleep, and eventually it was time to launch.
I got my jet started, and all systems seemed to be working as advertised. The tanker (aerial refueling aircraft) we would be flying with notified us that his autopilot was broken and needed fixing. Fortunately they got it repaired and we blasted. I’ll be honest, the first two hours were not the most pleasant. We were in the weather and in the dark, and trying to take gas from the tanker. Those boys were doing a great job, but the weather was rather bumpy and it was no easy task. Fortunately, everyone took the required gas and soon enough the sun came up. Once the day started to break, we started moving out of the weather and into clear skies. Smooth sailing ahead. We continued to cycle onto the boom (the probe used for aerial refueling) although between refueling points we were cleared out to a mile line abreast formation which is much more enjoyable than close formation. One of the guys had brought movie trivia, so on our aux frequency we played a few games of movie trivia. I was good at the Godfather questions, although struggled with a lot of the other movies we were being asked about.
This flying was a great experience for me. While sitting in a fighter cockpit for 9 hours is not the most comfortable, it taught me a lot about cross-country in a formation. I used the available avionics as well as a map to keep track of the nearest divert field, and got much better at paying attention to small changes in fuel flow in order to set the proper airspeed. Other than that, I learned that being possibly the first Americans in the world to watch the sun rise on the United States (I assume sailors couldn’t see it as well from under the cloud deck) was glorious.
As we got closer to our destination, I got a good look at the Spanish and French coastline of the Mediterranean. I decided both places needed a visit. Unfortunately clouds obscured Africa, although I did catch a momentary glance at somewhere in Morocco.
Once we were close enough to Aviano to reach it on our own internal fuel, we cleared the tanker off and they split south for Sicily.
I checked the weather at home plate, and it would be good enough to fly up initial. I let flight lead know, and he decided to take us up 4-ship initial. We had a few more overcast decks to penetrate on our way to pattern altitude, which we did in radar trail. Eventually we made it down to pattern altitude, rejoined, and came up initial as a 4-ship. I imagine it looked good from below.
After landing, I was pretty excited to be able to stretch my legs and walk around, although at the same time I realized the gravity of what had just happened. I had never signed up to be a long-haul heavy pilot, but I had just taken a jet that normally has an endurance of about 1.5 hours and flown it 9 hours across the Atlantic ocean at night, in the weather and the clear, and had fun the whole time. I love flying.
-Fly Safe, MWetherbeeUSAF