An Air Force Mission and My “Need to Know”

The instructions were as terse as they were vague; fly to the Base X and wait for further instructions. Whisky Tango Foxtrot, I thought. There has got to be more information, I insisted to my director of operations in his office. He shook his head. Fly a C-130 aircraft 5,000 miles and wait? Affirmative. I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t holding back information.

These sorts of shadowy missions are seen in military movies but rarely (read: never) happen in the real-world. There’s a difference between keeping people in the dark who have no “need to know” about a mission, and those crew members who are going to fly the mission. There’s an old adage that says the U.S. military can’t take a dump without a plan. It’s true. The Air Force has a plan for everything. We have plans and more plans. For the most part, these plans are done by very smart people. At other times, however, plans are done by people with no dog in the fight and that can make for a dangerous, ill-advised mission. Someone—somewhere–always knows the plan; but at this point, this “someone” remained elusive.

Despite no further information, we flew 5,000 miles, landed in the late afternoon and parked the aircraft on the tarmac. After securing the C-130, the five of us crew members headed into the operations facility. Once inside, and still missing follow-on details, we called our home unit to make some inquiries. All we could do was give them our motel’s name & number.

Finally, an hour later we received a cryptic phone call from someone with enough information on our crew for us to confirm the caller’s authenticity. We were told to load our C-130 with 30,000 pounds of fuel in the morning and to file a flight plan; a route that had a starting and ending point, but with enough loiter time in between those locations to get over halfway through a Ken Follett novel. It was explained that a white van would drop off our “customers” at 0900 hours sharp. End of conversation.

The next morning we loaded the aircraft with fuel and waited. At 0845 hours, we completed our aircraft preflight duties but stopped at the Before Starting Engines checklist. While the loadmaster was outside the C-130 at the ten o’clock position and looked for the white van, I did the same, from the cockpit. “Sir, should we start engines?” Not yet, I responded. Time seemed to slow down. I strained to look outside the left window and towards the back of the aircraft, almost smacking heads with the flight engineer standing behind me and doing the same thing. The copilot and navigator traded glances out the right-side windows.

Still, no one was in sight as 0900 hours arrived. The crew was getting agitated and so was I. Mother****ers, I thought. This is bull****, I whispered into my boom microphone to no one in particular. “Sir, do you think we should start engines?” the loadmaster asked again. Yes. Just because my customers were late, didn’t mean my crew was going to be caught flat-footed or blamed for a missed time on target (TOT).

Subsequently, we started all four engines in an attempt to save a minimum of ten minutes once, and if, the customers arrived–but meanwhile burning valuable gas and taxpayer money. After staring at my notes from the previous night’s phone conversation I began to wonder if we got something wrong. Did I error? Was the mission cancelled? Had we somehow not been notified (it happens). I continued to scrutinize all my notes and trip paperwork.

“Sir, a white van is approaching” the loadmaster called out on his headset. Sweet Jesus. A plain, white 9-passenger van with no side windows pulled up just off the C-130’s left wingtip. The van doors opened slowly and 6 people jumped out like it was the drop-off lane at an elementary school. I instructed my loadmaster to make sure the van did not depart without a copy of our flight orders and passenger list. As the six passengers made their way into the C-130 and the loadmaster got their names recorded on the passenger manifest.

After boarding, one of the six customers came up to the cockpit and shook my hand. Following a quick introduction to the crew, he gave us our instructions and answers to our questions. We had finally found the man with the “plan”.


Note to readers: Some names have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of certain people or groups.

© 2014 – 2015, Patrick. All rights reserved.

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