March 05, 2004

Air Force Blue (part 7)

This story is about an odd little incident that happened to me one day on duty. I'm going to relate it exactly as it happened, but there are a few not-quite-right details that I'll mention at the end.

I wasn't wearing a parka that day, which means that it was sometime in August in Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was also working Six-Charlie. Some cops loved working Six-Charlie, some hated it. I was an in-betweener, as it was a nice change occasionally, but it could also be a royal pain.

In those days Grand Forks had five B-52's on alert at all times. Fully fueled and loaded with nukes, crews close at hand on standby, they could take off with five minutes notice (click the pic for a real appreciation of the size of the B-52). As you can imagine, there were cops all over the place in that area, guarding and protecting things.

"The Pad" was where the spare aircraft were kept. Most of the time, the pad was patrolled by one cop in a pickup truck (Six-Charlie), while the majority of security was provided by the maintenance crews and flight personnel that swarmed the area. A lot of times, it was a sleepy backwater.

I was just cruising slowly around the area when I got the call on the radio. An unidentified aircraft was on approach, and not answering radio calls. I turned on the lights and stomped the accelerator and raced to the end of the runway.

We had standard procedures for this. It wasn't common, but occasionally some poor flight student doing a solo would mistake our runway for the one at Grand Forks International, ten miles east of us. The runways were oriented the same way, and an inexperienced or nervous pilot might not notice details like the airbase, especially from the direction this one was coming. That's if they could see the base at all, for the day was far from clear. The clouds were low and thick, it was rainforest muggy, and it felt like a good thunderstorm could happen at any moment.

I positioned myself at the edge of the end of the runway and watched the clouds. As soon as the tower gave the word I'd drive alongside the runway, and when the plane landed I'd lead it to a holding area where the pilot would be detained. Most of the time, we felt sorry for them, because they'd be all kinds of embarrassed for their mistake.

The tower called go, and I started rolling down the edge of the runway, picking up speed. I was expecting a little Piper Cub or something similar. Instead, this huge and wicked looking jet materialized out of the bottom of the cloud deck, startling the bejeebers out of me. I frantically looked for markings, trying to figure out what it was as it roared by.

As the jet passed me and touched down, I called the tower and let them know that it was a Canadian RF-101 Voodoo. I could tell it was the reconnasance version from the long boxy nose that housed the cameras. In those days I was an aircraft geek, since I worked around them every day.

As the Voodoo slowed down to below 90mph, I managed to pull up alongside and signalled to the crew (twin seater) to follow me. They acknowleged and I concentrated on not wrecking the rattletrap I was driving as we continued to slow down.

They followed my truck to the holding point, and as they shut down the aircraft I got out and, weapon at the ready, waited for them to climb out. The pilot started talking to me from the cockpit but I couldn't understand a word because it was in french. I gestured that they should come down, and finally they climbed out of the aircraft. More hand signals, and they put their hands up in the air. Every time they tried to drop their arms I raised my rifle and their arms went back up. They both wore smiles and chattered at me in french, I assumed they were cursing me out.

Within a minute or two backup arrived. Fifteen more cops, armed to the teeth, and one of them spoke french. My part done, I went back to my interupted patrolling.

That's basically it. I found out later that their base had been closed by bad weather, and they didn't have enough fuel to go anywhere else, so they flew to Grand Forks unannounced. I always thought english was the international flight language, so at least one of those two should have been able to speak at least a little. I also never heard why they wouldn't communicate with the tower on the emergency frequencies, instead of coming in dumb and silent.

Thinking back on it, they could've been surrendering Montreal to me.

Also, it's mildly interesting (to me, anyway) that the Voodoo was retired from active USAF duty in 1971. This story took place in probably 1979 or 1980.

Posted by Ted at March 5, 2004 07:02 AM | TrackBack

Reminds me of the least technically accurate, but most viscerally accurate description of a B-52 I can recall.

Shortly after the third or so Star Trek movie came out, I was on a train chatting with one of the conductors as we watched a B-52 land. The guy looks out at this thing settling down to earth, and said something to the effect "It's like watching a goddamn Bird of Prey"

And how.

Posted by: Bravo Romeo Delta at March 7, 2004 08:14 PM

It was NOT an RF-101, only the USAF, ANG, and the Chinese flew the RF-101 and they were all retired by this time. It was certainly a CF-101 of the Canadian Armed Forces and part of the NORAD defense forces of North America. Canada kept the Voodoo flying longer than the US. Canada is a bilingual country and take great pride in French speakers, speaking French. They do of course also speak English but may choose to be quite obstinate about it. It would have been the smart thing to have made an emergency radio call to the tower, but in an emergency not required. I am sure the aircrew were highly amused by the incident "south of the border."

Cheers, Bob Archibald, LtCol, USAF (ret)

Posted by: Bob Archibald at January 4, 2005 02:36 AM
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