Special Mission Pisa

by L. D. Alford

Flying C-130s in European rotations before the shooting wars started in the Middle East (South East Asia) was some of the best flying and most fun an aviator could have with his clothes on. This was especially true for the special missions and special operations crews we kept peppered across the routes. I always tried to get the Turkey Trot (mission to Turkey for one to two weeks) followed by the Suda Bay (Crete) trip then a Med Run (Mediterranean Run). By the time I returned to England, the rotation was almost completely over, and I could handle the usual “cattle car” mission runs into northern Europe. Usually, if there was any time left in the rotation, I would get assigned a “special” crew and aircraft and head back to the Med.

A “special” crew is one that is trained and qualified in All Weather Aerial Delivery (AWAD) with enough load masters to drop any type of load anywhere, and a “special” aircraft is one outfitted with the proper radar and equipped with the necessary stuff to be able to make a drop. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we didn’t get an opportunity to make any “real” (not including practice) drops when I was on rotation. That’s likely a good thing, a “real” drop would have meant we were going into a shooting war—or a clandestine operation. I can’t tell you about any clandestine operations.

AWAD is the ability to drop cargo and paratroopers when you can’t see the ground due to weather and/or darkness. The advantage of this is that when you can’t see the ground, the enemy can’t see you either. The C-130s that have this capability incorporate a high power Ku and W band radar that allows the navigator to place the aircraft exactly over a spot on the ground. You can drop in zero-zero conditions (no visibility, no ceiling). AWAD also gives the C-130 special landing capability. Using the radar, the aircraft can be flown and landed in literally zero-zero conditions at night. These operations are called SOLL I and SOLL II. SOLL stands for Special Operations Low Level, and the I and II indicate the amount of training and the level of weather and night allowed for the operations. An AWAD and a SOLL aircraft looks just like a normal C-130. The problem with normal SOF (Special Operations Forces) is they are hard to hide. Their aircraft always give them away. AWAD and SOLL forces don’t look any different than a normal C-130, and this allows covert operations with no one the wiser.

The thing about a “special” crew is that it is big. On this particular long term Med Run, the crew included me, a “special mission” pilot, a copilot, a very experienced “special mission” navigator, a Master Sergeant flight engineer, a Master Sergeant second load master, a very experienced “special operations” loadmaster, and a Military Aerial Port (MAP) load master. That makes a crew of seven. We were one of the “special” crews in the Med who could be called at any moment to do practically any mission that was required from clandestine to carrying a diplomat—and we did.

The Med runs were great from the standpoint of meeting people, staying in very different surroundings, and eating fantastic foreign food. Since most of the Med Run was in Crete and Italy, the food was incredible. Usually a Med Run took you to Aviano, Brindisi, Pisa, and Suda Bay. You made the run over and over and spent the night variously in Suda, Pisa, or Aviano. It all depended on scheduling, cargo, and missions. The crews didn’t like to billet in Brindisi, but I have. The facilities there are poor, and, at the time, they didn’t have any real contracts worked out with the locals. You had to travel a long way from the airport to get billeting and food.

Suda Bay was excellent. It catered to the hip European vacationers and I’m not sure the tourists wore underwear anywhere or any clothing on the beach. The military was billeted in the third rate hotels, but they were still better than some places.

Nobody liked to stay overnight in Pisa. Pisa was a trouble spot. The Navy ran it and you had to change into civilian clothing before heading off the military base there. There is also a hellashious approach into Pisa that ran right between tall office buildings—kind of scary in the weather and dark.

Aviano was the best place to stop. The Air Force base was excellent, and the Italian people around it were pleasant and happy for your business. The food was also fantastic. I spent a lot of time in Aviano as an OV-10 pilot. In the C-130 the visits were just shorter, but still very nice.

On this particular Med Run, we flew into Suda Bay a couple of times. The second was the most interesting because the government changed the contract for the usual hotel. They put us up in a place much further from our regular haunt and closer to the beach. Because it was so close to the beach, the place was full of tourists. By the time we arrived, they only had two rooms left. The officers had to share a room and the enlisted had to share a room. Italian hotels only have double beds and cots. Luckily they were European beds with mattresses split down the middle, unfortunately, the room was so small, the cot and the bed had to be right next to one another. That means sleeping was like the three stooges, pilot, copilot, and navigator in almost the same bed. The navigator and I slept in the double—the privileges of rank. Unfortunately, the copilot was on my side. I had to punch him a couple of times during the night—I don’t think his cot was very comfortable.

The meals each night were great, but Suda is an interesting place. In the evening, you walked with your crew along the main drag, and the owners bribed you inside their restaurants with offers of free food and drink. The usual proposition was for Ouzo and appetizers. I normally held out for a Greek salad and a large glass of Ouzo or a liter of wine. My crew liked beer, but beer wasn’t the usual fair in Italy or Crete. That comes to another point. During every night of rotation, my crew tried to get me drunk. I think it was one of those aircrew things. I don’t get drunk very easily and their wealth usually was lower than my capacity. They would normally start with a liter of wine followed by B-52 shots. A B-52 shot is Kahlua, amaretto, and Bailey’s Irish cream layered in a large shot glass. The top layer is set on fire. They liked to buy me B-52s because I would drink them while the top was still on fire—none of them would dare do that. Still the balance was good—I’d buy them cheap beer; they’d buy me cheap wine and a great time was had by all. I think I came out ahead most evenings.

Part of the drawback about Suda is flying back out. The Army mans the facility and they don’t really have a sense of urgency when it comes to scheduled military aviation. The Air Force, on the other hand, has a 0.2 to 0.3 rule. Over two tenths of an hour early or three tenths of an hour late and the crew (and pilot) would get a red mark on the big board. That means you have to explain to the colonel who explains to the general why you are early or late. Roughly the 0.2 to 0.3 rule means 10 minutes early to 15 minutes late (it really is 12 minutes early to 18 minutes late, but generals have their own rules).

To get out of Suda Bay, you have to back out of Suda Bay. I really mean back out. The ground crews direct you into your parking spot to unload, and you can’t turn around. In a C-130, this means you literally back the aircraft up. Backing a 155,000 pound aircraft isn’t like putting your car in reverse. You have to open the back end (ramp and door) and the loadmaster stands on the ramp. He directs you so you don’t hit anything.

You also want to make sure you don’t stand the aircraft on its tail. This is very easy to do because you back a C-130 with the props in reverse. If you hit the brakes while backing, you will put the aircraft on its tail. This is really bad. You don’t want to do this. The trick is to move the thrust leavers to forward thrust to stop the aircraft. In an emergency, you can put on the brakes and put on forward thrust, but that’s only for emergencies and it’s really tricky.

That trip, we were carrying PAX (passengers) and cargo out of Suda Bay. Two of the passengers were pretty female Army soldiers who infatuated the loadmasters (all three, even our dowdy old Master Sergeant loadmaster). Though the main loadmaster stood in the ramp and controlled the backing operation, as we backed, our Master Sergeant loadmaster called out on the interphone, “Stop, stop, stop.”

I thought we were going to hit something, so I stopped. I threw the props into forward pitch and slammed on the brakes (better to be on the tail than to hit something). The aircraft swayed precariously for a moment. I tweaked in a little more forward thrust. The aircraft thankfully settled on its nose wheel. The crew let out a collective sigh of relief. Confusion reigned for a moment while the main loadmaster picked himself up off the ramp and directed a few choice words toward the master sergeant.

I called on the interphone, “You okay, load. Why did we need to stop?” I thought I would hear that we were going to hit something or that we had some problem.

The main load called, “I didn’t see any problems, pilot.”

I asked, “Okay, Rudy (the Master Sergeant), why did you call a stop?”

He ran up the crew stairs, “Pilot, those two Army girls didn’t get their passports back from the Italian authorities.”

Everyone let out a collective groan.

“Rudy, you almost made us stand a C-130 on its tail for that?”

He kind of sheepishly grinned. We sent him with the backup loadmaster to work out the details. They returned after about thirty minutes with the passports. We continued to the takeoff. I wasn’t sure if I should smack Rudy myself. I wasn’t sure it would do any good. He was a grandfather and a great guy, but ready for retirement.

This was also the day of the great fly off. My copilot flew his climbouts at slower than the recommended speed and closer to max angle speed. I kept telling him to fly at the recommended because we would get to altitude faster. He didn’t believe me, so we had a climb off. I had flown the climbout the day before from Suda Bay at the recommended climbout speed, and we had a time to climb from that. He flew it this time. We had drinks and dinner riding on the results.

Of course, the climbout took him almost 10 minutes longer to get to altitude. I had a clear win. The crew was happy, the copilot owed us drinks and me dinner. When we got to altitude, Rudy, the Master Sergeant loadmaster came up with another request. Our toilet was busted and all we had on board was the urinal. An aircraft urinal is a small triangular shaped opening with a spring-loaded cover. You open the cover, do your business, and go back to flying the aircraft. We were delayed on the ground so long, the two Army women needed to use the bathroom, and we didn’t have any. I couldn’t imagine how they might use our facilities, but I made a command decision, let them do whatever they want to—they did. They solved their problem, and provided at least a week’s worth of conjecture to my crew.

We completed our day’s mission and headed to Aviano for the night. Dinner was great especially since I didn’t have to pay for it. I had a liter of wine and cannelloni.

The next day, we were tagged with a “special.” It really wasn’t that special. An F-111 lost an engine and landed at an Italian base with a runway barely long enough for it. We had to go to England, get an F-111 engine, and bring it back. We did. We arrived at the Italian base just in time for lunch. Lunch at an Italian base is great. Very cheap and good wine, but we couldn’t drink the wine—we were on duty (Italians have looser standards about that). We had an intentional hold over until the F-111 crew chief determined the engine would work and his crew didn’t need anything else. During the time, we made friends with our Italian hosts, and I traded all my patches for theirs. During this rotation, we wore an impressive rotation patch. It was a one of a kind. We also all wore our rotation tee-shirts with a copy of the patch on it, but we didn’t trade our shirts—not then.

At the Italian base HQ, I received the most interesting weather briefing of my career. The Italian weather guesser, a major, told us quite astutely, “The sun she is a shining.” That was the weather brief for the flight from the Italian base to Pisa. The navigator was immediately on the HF in the aircraft with the copilot to fill out his weather card. I need to say, my copilot was an excellent copilot. He was a very good pilot, but just in need of a little training and experience. I liked him and he flew well. He was also the greatest crewman on an HF radio I ever met. He could get a signal anywhere. From Germany, we listened to a conversation of a phone call in Los Angeles for about 15 minutes one day because we were bored. That’s how good he was. He could get a signal from MAC (Military Airlift Command) HQ in 10 minutes from anywhere. One time, on the ramp in Germany, he made a triple transfer through three command posts to get back to England so we could arrange a fix to a bad starter on an engine. He was that good. The weather call from Italy was nothing to him.

We made it to Pisa and the sun was not shining—it was dark and raining. The hellashious approach was doubly hellashious. We had to change to civilian clothes and the Navy dropped us off at our hotel. There was no food to be had anywhere. It really sucked. So we did what a crew does best and went looking for grub. Pisa is an odd town—it’s hard to get around. We finally made our way to the harbor area and ate dinner in a fancy joint. The food was great, but expensive. I had to give loans to some of my enlisted guys. That was painful for them and me, but it’s one of the aircraft commander’s jobs.

The next day, we were kind of dismayed to find that we would return to Pisa after our cargo runs. I tried to get them to reposition us in Aviano again, but no such luck. Instead of the cargo runs though, we received another “special.” They tagged our crew to carry the body of a soldier out of Turkey along with the recalled ambassador from Lebanon. This required us to fly to Turkey and to Rhein-Main in Frankfurt, Germany. We were unfortunately fragged (military term meaning scheduled by the military scheduling authority) to return to Pisa.

We arrived in Turkey with no help from the Greeks. The Greeks and the Turks didn’t talk to each other at the time due to the Cypress issue. When you make the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) transition between Greece and Turkey, there is no handoff. You fly for a while not talking to anyone and hope no one decides to shoot. We had an extended delay, but nobody shot. In Turkey, we picked up the honor guard and coffin and the diplomat. The diplomat was an odd person. When we had nearly arrived at Rhein-Main, the ex-ambassador used our limited bathroom facilities (broken toilet, remember).

After landing and after we had seen the diplomat and the soldier’s remains off the aircraft, the main loadmaster came to me, “Pilot, we have a small issue.”

“Yeah, what’s the problem, load?”

“The ambassador took a dump.”

“I thought our toilet was busted.”

“It is.”

I waited for the punch line. I gave him a strange look.

The loadmaster spoke very clearly, “He used the urinal. We need a big cleanup.”

The services guys were not very happy. They didn’t have to clean up a toilet; they had to clean up a misused urinal. That just goes to show, some political appointees are not necessarily bright spots in the brain trust.

After the aircraft was cleaned up (toilet still not fixed), we flew back to Pisa and got stuck for the night in the same hotel. So this time, to save money, we looked for a restaurant in another direction. Unfortunately, the direction we chose, took us further and further into the city proper and we didn’t see any place that vaguely looked like you could eat there. The people on the streets, and there were a lot of them, looked a little seedy and suspicious—like a bad Mafia movie. I didn’t worry about them. I had seven military aviators with me. More than half were enlisted and appeared like they could rip your head off just for fun. They were a tough looking group—“special” types.

We finally came in sight of a building where pizzas were coming out of a window on the ground floor. I was the official spokesman and leader, so I went in the front door. The rest of the crew followed me. The front room was like a cross between a kitchen and a parlor. Uncooked pizzas came out of a lower kitchen and went into a couple of wood fired ovens on our level. When they came out of the ovens, they passed through a window on the ground level. The smells were incredible. My troops were getting restive. We wanted a piece of this food action.

I had my trusty Italian phrasebook and explained to the main man who looked like the epitome of an Italian papa that we sought dinner. He took a look at us and then around his parlor. I thought I understood his meaning, said “excuse me,” and we began to leave. He stopped me and smiled. He entered the lower kitchen and returned with his son. They spoke in rapid Italian for a moment, then the son told me, “Just wait.”

Every Italian in the place went up stairs and a few minutes later, they brought down a large table. Soon every chair in the house followed. The papa sat me at the head, and then asked us what kind of pizza’s we wanted—there weren’t any menus. My crew ordered wine for me. It arrived in a liter coke bottle and tasted like it came right off the vine that day. It was deep red, sweet, and fresh—delicious. I ordered the special pizza of the day. I can’t remember what it had on it, but it was wonderful. My pizza was twice the size of everyone else’s and theirs were the size of a normal American large. We paid less than a quarter of the cost of our previous meal. My crew was happy, our Italian hosts were happy, all in all, it was a great end to a great Med Run.

We didn’t get to do much of anything “special,” but it was still a pretty special mission in Pisa.

The author is a retired Air Force test pilot. His other aviation, technical, and fiction writing can be referenced at www.ldalford.com.

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