A KC-10 Extender aircrew of the 68th Air Refueling Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, N. C., has earned special recognition in the annals of Air Force airmanship.
In daring fashion, the ten-man aircrew saved another KC-10 and three Marine Corps A-4 attack aircraft on a transatlantic mission that taxed the flying skills and tested the courage of all concerned.
For its risky work in averting tragedy, the aircrew of Gold 11—the KC-10’s radio call sign for the mission—won the 1986 Mackay Trophy, awarded annually by the Air Force and the National Aeronautic Association for the most meritorious flight of the year.
The men of Gold 11 join a long line of illustrious Air Force flyers who have won the trophy since its inception in 1915.
Sixteen Harrowing Hours
Gold 11’s transoceanic ordeal took place on March 5, 1986. It began as a five-hour “routine fighter-drag mission,” recalled Capt. Marc D. Felman, the aircraft commander, that became—over more than sixteen harrowing hours—anything but.
Captain Felman’s crew belonged to a tanker unit temporarily operating out of Pease AFB, N. H., while Seymour Johnson was undergoing runway repairs. Two of the unit’s KC-10s—Gold 11 and Gold 21—were tasked to refuel nine Marine A-4s on a flight from Cherry Point MCAS, N. C., to Bodö, Norway, with a stopover at Lajes Field, Azores.
Having been briefed on teaming up with the KC-10s, the Marine pilots, as one put it, “felt we were in good hands—all we had to do was join up, shut up, and hang on.”
It turned out that they were in better hands than they may have realized.
Excellent weather was in prospect for Lajes when the KC- 10s and A-4s took off. “Absolutely no hazards were foreseen,” Captain Felman said. “I remember the weather briefer asking us if we had brought our golf clubs.”
The aircrews were in for a nasty surprise, however. After they had crossed the “no return” line en route to Lajes, the weather there quickly and unexpectedly began to deteriorate. By the time Gold 11 and its A-4s arrived in advance of Gold 21 and its A-4s, fog and rain had cut airfield visibility to near zero-zero.
Gold 11 held south of the field while its A-4s prepared to try to land. Gold 21 and its six A-4s were still forty-five minutes from Lajes and the weather was worsening all the time.
One of Gold 11’s A-4s landed safely during a freakish break in the weather, but was almost hit by a follow-me truck while taxiing in resurgent fog. The other two A-4 pilots could not find the runway and had to climb out and rejoin Gold 11.
The three aircraft then headed for Rota NAS, Spain, in the expectation that a Spain-based, strip-alert KC-10 would come out to meet them and replenish their fuel, which was running low.
Running Out of Options
This was not to be. Lajes radioed Gold 11 that the KC-10 would not be coming from Spain and instructed Gold 11 to take its A4s to the Portuguese island of Santa Maria more than 150 nautical miles southeast of the Azores.
“I remember the lump in my throat,” Captain Felman said. “Fuel was becoming critical not only for what we could offload to the A4s but what we could use for ourselves.”
The fuel problem was compounded by others. “Not only were weather conditions at the [Santa Maria] island marginal, we were not familiar with the airfield,” said Capt. Tom Ferguson, who, as Gold 11’s copilot, was on his first fighter-drag mission.
“I thought we might be running out of options,” Captain Ferguson recalled.
What Gold 11 had to deal with as it neared Santa Maria were airport voice-radio equipment and navigation equipment that were not compatible with equipment aboard the A-4s.
This, said Captain Felman, meant that “the only available approach was a nonprecision approach using a nondirectional beacon on the ground.” He described the situation as “not optimum even on a clear day.”
Gold 11 flew a procedure turn to line up on the runway in accordance with the radio frequency of Santa Maria’s civilian instrument landing system, which was no help at all to the A-4s.
The idea, Captain Felman explained, was for the A-4s to fly on Gold 11’s wing “while we flew a low approach” and then, having spotted the runway, to land.
It was tough going. “On the approach, we encountered thick clouds, fog, and heavy rain that almost completely obscured the KC-10 from sight of the A4s,” the KC-10 commander said.
It took three tries for Gold 11 and the three A-4s to make their landings. “The runway was the greatest sight I had ever seen,” Captain Felman said.
Worst to Come
Gold 11’s work had only just begun. The worst was yet to come.
Gold 21 and its six A4s had also been weathered out of landing at Lajes and were now heading for Santa Maria. They had received some help. Lajes officials had ordered a Marine KC-130 tanker into the air in an emergency launch to free Gold 21 of the need to refuel three of the Marine jets. The KC-130 stayed with the flight to Santa Maria.
Once over the island, the KC-130’s three A4s attempted to land in formation on its wing. The Marine tanker took them in on a low approach in the soup and then climbed out, its own fuel load now marginal, to head back to Lajes.
“The weather was so bad that the tower couldn’t see the [landing] aircraft,” Captain Felman recalled.
Two of the A-4s landed on the money. The third was not so lucky. It hit one of the VASI (Visual Approach Slope Indicator) lights, and its right main gear sheared off, scattering debris on the approach end of the runway.
The A-4 pilot stayed with his battered aircraft until it came to rest on its right drop tank. He walked away uninjured.
“We [the Gold 11 aircrew on the ground] called the fire trucks because the control tower could not see the incident [in the weather],” Captain Felman said.
Meanwhile, Gold 21 and its three A-4s were still airborne over Santa Maria and pushing their luck. Completely shrouded in zero-zero conditions and cluttered by debris, the runway was closed to landings. The orbiting aircraft had no place to go.
Gold 21 radioed Gold 11 on the ground that its fuel situation was “potentially disastrous.”
“We saw the situation clearly,” Captain Felman said. “If we didn’t launch quickly, there would be three A-4s and a KC-10 in the water. Using sign language between our crew chiefs and the Portuguese ground crews, we safely loaded 100,000 pounds of fuel in less than thirty minutes.”
Time was running out. As the Gold 21 crew and the A-4 pilots aloft began preparations for ditching at sea, the Gold 11 crew “stopped refueling, pulled up the ladders, left our two crew chiefs in base ops, and didn’t pay for the gas,” Captain Felman said.
The commander had needed the two crew chiefs to remain on the ground to backpedal ahead of the aircraft and give him steering signals by hand as he taxied the KC-I0 through the murk into rollout position on the runway. Once the aircraft was poised for rollout, he could not take the time—given the urgent situation of Gold 21 and the A-4s overhead—to drop his ladders and take his crew chiefs back onboard.
Gold 11 taxied out for takeoff from a runway that was now considerably foreshortened. The debris scattered on the strip from the crash-landed A-4 had seen to that.
On the move, the Gold 11 aircrew radioed rendezvous arrangements to Gold 21 and computed takeoff performance requirements on the basis of runway length from where the wreckage left off.
“We were working on a fine line, but I knew the distance was right, and the aircraft does have some pretty big engines,” said TSgt. Gene Bouler, the Gold 11 crew’s instructor flight engineer.
“We thought we could succeed,” said Captain Ferguson. In any case, he said, “we knew there was only one chance to save our fellow airmen, and we had to take it.”
The takeoff was hardly normal. “We didn’t align our inertial navigation system, nor did we get a takeoff clearance,” Captain Felman said.
A Royal Greeting
It was hold-your-breath time down that runway, but the KC-10 went airborne just fine, broke out of the clouds at 4,000 feet, and—within seven minutes of takeoff—began refueling Gold 21 and the three A-4s.
The Marine jets had fewer than ten minutes’ worth of fuel aboard when Gold 11 arrived.
Gold 11 pumped gas into the A-4s in a decidedly freehand manner. MSgt. Patrick S. Kennedy, Gold 11’s boom operator, described it this way:
“With pilots on bingo fuel, you can’t wait to be in the best position. I had to go get them and stay with them while climbing and descending.”
Finally, all the aircrews could breathe easy. On their way to Spain, another KC-10 from there met them and gave them more than enough fuel to make it to Rota NAS.
Gold 11 got a royal greeting. “At Rota, it was the first time another crew volunteered to take our bags off the plane,” Captain Felman said.
He had been qualified as an aircraft commander for only three months and, as such, had flown only ten missions prior to the one of extraordinary adventure across the Atlantic. For the ten Gold 11 airmen, that mission also marked their first flight together as an aircrew.
“The crew did their duty in the face of impossible odds,” Captain Felman said. “I have nothing but the greatest respect for all.”
With a bow to the aircrew’s training and teamwork, the commander added: “We stuck to what we knew, and we had positive attitudes and confidence in each other.”
Captain Felman called the Mackay Trophy award “a great honor.” At this writing, he and his aircrew are still at Seymour Johnson AFB and are still conducting fighter drags across the pond.
Maj. Michael B. Perini, USAF, a recent graduate of the Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Va., is now Deputy Director of Public Affairs at Hq. PACAF Hickam AFB, Hawaii. During 1982-83, he was an Education With Industry trainee with AIR FORCE Magazine and has been a regular contributor since then. He joined the Air Force in 1972, commissioned through AFROTC, and has served in a variety of public affairs assignments, including Deputy Chief of the Operational Forces Branch in the Secretary of the Air Force’s Office of Public Affairs in the Pentagon.