In the darkness, I could just make out the silhouette of the massive tanker. Out the other side of my cockpit, wing pilots’ glowing green formation lights glared at me through the darkness, like a predator’s beady eyes. We were flying east over the Mediterranean Sea in the final hours of our 12-hour flight from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, to Azraq, Jordan. At the far end of the Mediterranean, a speck of sunlight spilled across the night blanket, saturating the darkness as it moved toward us, arousing the brilliant colors of the Med. The spectacular sunrise ended the most demanding segment of our flight and marked just a couple hours flight-time remaining.
I knew from early in the planning that the flight would be one of the most memorable events of my life. In the days leading up to the trip, we packed and re-packed our cockpits, spending hours to test different layouts. We stuffed provisions in logical locations to fly single-pilot, with no autopilot, for half a day, in a space just larger than an executive office chair, sans the cushions. We brought “go” pills, approved by the U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and the FAA to help sustain us through the night; reams of paper charts, airport guides, approach plates, a couple of boxed lunches, flashlights, and survival gear.
We departed Langley at midday East Coast time to ensure a daylight landing in Jordan. We rendezvoused with air-to-air refueling tankers 100 miles east, over the Atlantic, sipped some gas to test our refueling systems, and settled in for the long trek. Behind us, several more groups of tankers and fighters funneled through the departure fix on the same route, taking their place in a conga line of more than 30 U.S. Air Force jets that stretched more than 100 miles.
We raced east toward the darkness racing west toward us. Darkness swallowed us, then later, weather wrapped us, and a mundane flight grew intense. We tightened our four-ship formations and, when the weather thickened, obscuring visibility with the tanker, the mission commander called for IMC refueling operations and a delicate moon-walk commenced.
As flights finished refueling, they moved to the right side of the tanker. Flight leads directed wing pilots’ radars in standby to reduce interference, called for close formation, then moved high on the tanker’s right wing. They slid to a mile or so in trail of the tanker and stabilized there, maintaining spacing with a radar lock. Nothing happened quickly, every move deliberate, methodical, predictable.
Once the retreating flight was established high, right, and receding, the next flight to refuel would slide forward in close finger-tip formation, staying low of the tanker. Closing blind below a McDonnell Douglas DC–10 in thick weather, you first begin to hear the rumble of its engines, then you feel a slight shudder, turbulence from exhaust, and the edge of the DC–10’s wake. Still blind on the tanker, wing pilots tucked in close, you walk the throttles in teeny increments, creeping forward until the brightly lit behemoth emerges from the muck, like an alien space ship beamed in front of you, filling your wind screen. It’s hard not to gasp. The edginess gives way to relief and then preoccupation with the business at hand, refueling checklists and tasks.
We orchestrated the shuffle a couple times during the night and eventually moved through the weather into clear night skies that gave way to the glorious sunrise over the Med. We cruised south, over the Sinai Peninsula, across the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, around Israel and into Jordan. We landed at Azraq, tired, proud, thankful.
Thankful for hard-nosed instructors and demanding training. We layered skills honed from hours and hours of “routine” training events to complete a complex and demanding mission, much of it in a state a physician might formally label “fatigue.” Night, instrument, formation, night formation, IMC radar trail, air-to-air refueling, night air-to-air refueling, IMC air-to-air refueling, inter-flight coordination.
At the time of each training event, we had no knowledge that we would one day use these skills under such pressure, but we trained with a mantra: “Train like you fight.”
That paradigm wasn’t just about the physical environment, it was as much about the mental approach to training. It proved invaluable, probably lifesaving. Simulate as best you can the “real-world” environment in training. Search for instructors with exacting standards. One day, you may need those skills in more demanding conditions than you can simulate.