by Mitch “Taco” Bell
The Marine KC-130 was flying over the chilly North Atlantic at 25,000 feet, taking my crew to Keflavik, Iceland. There was a layer of clouds about 10,000 feet below us hiding the cold water and howling winds. This was a milk run from Mildenhall, England, to drop supplies off to the Marines there in Kef. It was my first trip in the plane as a T3P (third copilot). The aircraft commander (AC) was in the back taking a nap while I sat in his seat on the left side of the cockpit. My buddy from flight school, Bruce Lee, sat next to me while a crusty old Gunny sat in the flight engineer’s chair in the middle.
Gunny was having a conversation with the Navigator, a young Sergeant, about the virtues of Hustler magazine versus Playboy. Gunny “The Don” Garcia, because he carried himself like the father figure in “The Godfather,” was on the verge of retirement after 20 years on active duty in the Marines. He also was a proud contributor to Hustler and had been published numerous times. This, of course, would come out when he handed you a well-worn copy to peruse and you started to read the goofy letters sent in.
His letter started with the typical, “I couldn’t believe this would ever happen to me,” as he went on to describe a wild night in the Philippines with 10 hard-bodied prostitutes. If you asked him if this was true, he’d say, “Of course, Lieutenant, I never have to make up stuff like that, chicks dig me.” I’m sure that it was probably the reason for his first of many divorces, too!
Bruce Lee Jr. was Korean, but everyone called him “Wang” because of some funky middle name that was too long to pronounce, and he looked like the Chinese exchange student in the movie, “Sixteen Candles.” Wang was reading a book on the Civil War, which he studied constantly. I had the Gunny’s Hustler, and the chatter over the headset was a combination of one conversation with every other person’s input on the subject.
The AC came up and tapped me on the shoulder, and motioned for me to move out of his seat. His name was Captain Burns, but we called him “Pyro” after he ran around the Charleston O’Club, drunk as hell, butt-naked with a rolled-up newspaper stuck in the crack of his rear, on fire, and a green tee shirt over his head with two eyes cut out. He made quite the impression on the Air Farce gang there that night…
“Pyro” leaned over to me yelling over the roar of the Allison Turbo props out on the wing: “How are we doing?”
I yelled back, “Great Sir, only three hundred miles to go and plenty of gas with this tailwind!”
He nodded and proceeded to strap into the seat. I moved back to the rear of the cockpit to inspect what food I had left in my airfarce box lunch. A half-eaten piece of fried chicken and some carrot sticks. HHMMMMM.
A cry for help
It was two bites later, over the chatter on the radio, that I heard the cry for help.
“Marine Tanker, Marine Tanker, Spade 16 on guard, how copy?????”
I looked around at the others, how could they miss that call? It came again; only “Wang” put his book down and his left hand up in the “stop” motion. All conversation ceased in the cockpit.
“Pyro” looked over at “Wang” and asked, “What’s the matter?”
Wang, with a puzzled look on his face replied, “Sir, I think I heard a mayday, someone calling for us, not sure!”
We all leaned forward on our seats pressing the headsets closer to our ears.
“Marine Tanker, Spade 16 on guard, how copy?”
Wang jumped on the toggle to radio them back, “Spade 16, you have Otis 10 go ahead.”
Pyro looked at Wang with a hand gesture as if saying, Relax, I’ve got this one. “Spade 16, come up my freq 344.0.”
A few seconds later, the other voice replied in a muffled voice, “Spade 16, Roger that.” It didn’t take long before the Darth Vader voice, muffled and deep, came back on line. “Hey Guys, (heavy breathing in the O2 mask) are we glad to run into you guys!! Our INS (navigation system) died and we’re low on gas. Can you guys give us some gas and point us back to Iceland???”
Pyro responded with a fast “Standby.” He turned to his right and said to the Gunny, “Don, Don, work it out with the Nav and figure out how much go juice we can part with to this guy. Also, Nav, I want to be overhead Iceland with five thousand pounds of gas.” He then looked at Wang, “I want you to get ready for the tanking, and you’ll run it for me O.K.?”
Wang nodded his head and pulled out the proper checklist for Air to Air tanking with a Jet.
I was excited to think that on my very first hop in the KC-130, I would be privy to a real life no-shit emergency.
Wang radioed to the jet, “Spade 16, say squawk, altitude, and type Jet.”
The other pilot replied in a deep voice, “We’re squawking 2525 and currently at angels 350, F-14 Tomcat.”
“Roger that,” replied Wang.
The Nav and Gunny were huddled together for a few minutes and then broke up. “Sir, we have the gas to give the guy, but we have a problem. The right hose is inop and the left basket is also written up as being bad. We didn’t expect to tank anyone, so that’s why we took this plane.”
Pyro thought about this for a minute, and then made the command decision. “Gunny, go ahead and prep the left hose, it’s the only chance this guy has.” Turning to Wang in the right seat, he said, “I want you to guide him to the left Stabilized position with the heading that the Nav gives you.”
The Nav handed Wang a note that said, “Sir, tell him to steer a 310 course, that should line him up.”
Wang passed on the instructions to our guest while Pyro briefed the guys in the back on what to do. The left hose came out; caught in the air stream as the twenty-seven inch diameter basket extended the hose out some eighty feet. The KC 130 pulled to the left as the parasitic drag from the hose slowed the plane down a bit.
A call from the back of the plane, “Sir, I see the F-14, he’s in a high Port-Stabilized position.” Pyro nodded his head at Wang, and then looked out the left cockpit window.
Wang toggled the radio switch, “Spade 16, you are cleared down to the Stabilized position, report nose cold and weapons safe.”
The jet was instructed to turn off his radar and ensure his missiles weren’t armed. He reported “ready” and was cleared into the basket.
It seemed fine for a second, then the Mech in the back yelled out, “Sir!!! He has a bad seal and the gas is coming out of the basket!”
Just then the heavy breathing came back over our headsets “I got a bad plug, going back in again.”
The Gunny jumped up over the left side of the AC’s chair looking out the window and exclaimed, “Captain, I don’t like this one bit, I think he should back out and let me reset the hose.”
Pyro was just about to answer him when all hell broke loose! The kid in the back cried out, “Sir, the seal broke again and gas is shooting all over the front of the Jet!!”
This is a serious thing, 300 gallons per minute of JP-5 pumping onto your jet is not good.
Wang shouted on the radio: “Spade 16, breakaway, BREAKAWAY!!!” But it was too late. The Jet fuel went straight down his jet intakes and into the engine causing a massive fireball out of the back of the jet and covering the entire thing in flames. The Gunny had shut the fuel off before the fireball reached the end of the hose.
The F-14 exploded right after we heard the words “Fire, Eject!!!!!”
Both “Don Don” and “Pyro” tore their glasses off as they looked out the left side of the plane. Wang was straining in his seat harness straps, trying desperately to see the falling Jet, but unable from the right seat.
The stunned silence in the cockpit was interrupted by a comment from the back. “Holy Shit!” That sort of summed it up for the crew.
Pyro was the first to shake it off. “Nav, mark this position, Loads (loadmaster/HF radio operator) you try to raise Kef’s search and rescue. Did anyone see chutes??”
The Corporal in the back on the left side said “Sir, I saw two ejections right before it went down through the clouds.”
“Those poor bastards,” the Gunny said. “That’s some cold water down there and even with Poppie suits (cold water survival suits) they may have about fifteen minutes to live. The SAR guys would never make it out here fast enough.”
Being fresh out of the AirForce C-130 school in Little Rock, Arkansas, I remembered that the Herc carried a seven-man raft somewhere in the back. “Sir,” I start. “How about tossing out the raft to those guys? It may give them some shelter till the SAR boys arrive.”
This idea was pondered for a minute till the young Mech in the back came on the ICS (intercom), “Gents, with all the extra stuff we were bringing along, we had to leave that raft behind since we have the thirty-man rafts in the upper wings.” Well, that great idea was shot down.
Pyro asked, “Any luck getting ahold of Kef Ops?”
The Loadmaster shook his head, “No,” and continued transmitting in the blind. Our plane continued to circle the last known spot where the F-14 disappeared in the clouds.
As each idea was shot down, the tensions were running high. Short of burning all our gas due to flying lower into a raging storm and with the distinct possibility that we might crash too, our options were running out. It was a feeling of complete helplessness and frustration.
The sound of their distress beacon started blaring over the radio on the emergency frequency. We knew that it was activated either automatically or manually, but since we hadn’t heard from them, we figured it was the first. A silence fell over the crew as the realization hit that we weren’t able to help these guys without our plane running out of gas and our joining the same fate as Spade 16.
After all options were exhausted, and we had loitered over the area for an hour with no luck contacting the crew, Pyro reluctantly ordered a heading back to Keflavic. The giant plane turned around to the North East.
“We’re in a pickle here”
With the ICS ominously quiet, Pyro came on and, looking straight ahead, he said, “Gents, we’re in a pickle here.” He sighed and quietly continued, “We gave those guys gas on a bad hose. We knew it was bad and something like this could have happened. They will put the officers before a board of inquiry (they call it the long green table) to find out what we did wrong, and then they will take our wings from us for negligence, not to mention the loss of two Naval Aviators and a thirty-million-dollar jet.”
Someone in the back piped in, “Sir, that’s not our fault, they would have crashed with or without us anyway.”
Wang added, “Sir, I think we tried our best. Surely they should understand that.”
Pyro looked over at Wang. “For me, I’ve had a pretty good career, but I don’t want to fly a desk! How about you and Taco? You guys have what – 200 hours total? Your flying careers in the Marine Corps are over, and you’ll never touch the stick of a plane after this.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this, and the direction it was taking.
The Gunny clicked in, “Sir, What are you suggesting?”
Pyro was silent for a minute, and then he turned around to look at all of us. “I say we forget the whole thing!! They were going to die anyway, so why complicate matters by being involved. I say the crew takes a vote on it, and only if we have a complete consensus among the crew to put this little episode out of our minds will it work. Nobody can ever bring this up again or ever mention it to anyone.”
Wang was desperately searching the faces of the men on the flight deck to gauge their reactions as Pyro called out the name of each crew member, from the lowest man to the highest.
After he called out each person’s name, there followed a weak, “I’m in.”
The Gunny, the most senior enlisted man said, “I’m not looking forward to reading about it in the papers and knowing that the families will never know what happened to their sons/husbands if they were married. I hate to say it, but I’m in.”
Wang looked back at me, and I dropped my eyes. “Taco” he called. The three of us were the last ones.
I clicked my ICS ‘press to talk’ button. “I’m in.”
Now it was down to Wang. Pyro looked at him and asked, “Wang?”
Wang crossed his arms and didn’t say anything. A minute passed and then he deliberately motioned with his right hand pointing towards Keflavic, “I’m in.” It was very obvious that he was unhappy about his decision, and the weight of what he just agreed to was pressing him deep into thought.
Pyro let the silence continue for a few more minutes, and then finished with, “O.K. then. It’s agreed upon by the crew, we will never mention Spade 16 again.”
The silence was horrible as each person was consumed by his own thoughts. Finally, Pyro ordered Wang out of the seat and put me in it. As Wang slammed his seat back, and unbuckled his straps, Pyro reached over to touch his arm. “Wang, before you get out of the seat, there’s something we have to tell you…”
Wang looked at him with daggers in his eyes.
“Wang, there was no F-14. That was just a little drill we do for all new guys in the Squadron!!!”
The crew erupts over the ICS with laughter, especially when the pilot from Spade 16 came on again in his deep raspy voice, “Hey Lt, do you have any extra gas?” This was the Sergeant in the rear with an O2 mask on, talking over the ICS.
The Crew deserved an Oscar for their performance over the last hour. I only knew something was amiss when I saw the Gunny let the left hose out, felt the plane yaw to the left, and looked out the galley window and didn’t see a hose going out. I had tapped the Gunny and pointed to the wing with a “What-gives” look. He had put his finger to his lips, and winked.
Poor Wang weakly laughed and then said, “Well, I’m glad it was a joke because I was going to turn you all into the base C.O. when we landed.”
All of a sudden all the laughter died away and Pyro keyed in “So…you AREN’T a team player, huh?” This caused Wang to start back peddling some more until Pyro just laughed and said, “Gotcha again, Wang!!!”
Another round of laughter erupted over the ICS. Pyro piped in “Yeah, you should have seen Lt. Smith last month when we did it to him. He’s such a self-righteous prick that we didn’t tell him we were kidding till we landed. He didn’t believe us and ran straight to the duty shack to report an F-14 down in the Atlantic and gave them the coordinates.”
The Gunny, laughing hard, said, “Yeah, I remember that and the look on his face when the commander on duty informed Smith that there were no F-14’s based in Kef, and no carriers around.”
“Yep, just another case of the phantom F-14 begging for gas,” Pyro continued. “Okay, you’re in the club now, Taco and Wang. You can’t discuss this with anyone or it will ruin our little fun in the future. Beers on me at the MarBar tonight!”
We both agreed not to let the cat out of the bag for the new guys behind us coming into the Squadron.
Sounds like a cruel joke and it is, but in reality, it was a great training tool because we ran through every scenario that was possible. Funny thing is, later, on another flight, we got a real call to intercept a civilian light twin that was being ferried to Europe from Maine. All the things that we talked about, what we could do to save them, came to fruition. The plane came close to ditching in the rough North Seas, and we were ready to throw him the seven-man raft, etc.
Well, I guess you can say that Marines are a tough lot on each other, but like what you just read, you can’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes it isn’t what you think…
Mitch “Taco” Bell is a retired Marine KC-130 pilot flying for a major airline on the B-737. You can watch his Tall Tales with Taco Bell on Facebook and YouTube. His past stories can be found on The Sandgram.