by L. D. Alford

Not many missions in aircraft receive priority handling – especially during peacetime. I had the opportunity to fly many peacetime missions that were governed by priority ratings. In the US Military this priority designation is called a force/activity designator (FAD) code. The code designations can be very difficult to understand, but in the simplest terms the lower the number the greater the priority. Therefore a FAD code I is the highest priority, and a FAD code V is the lowest priority. Even if you have a FAD code I, there are designations within the FAD from 1 to 15. So you can have a FAD I/05 or FAD I/07. This means the lowest number gets the first priority.

AF C-21A (Lear 35)

When I flew the C-21 (Lear 35) out of Offutt AFB our primary mission was the transport of nuclear launch codes and parameters to different locations in the country. Nuclear codes are a FAD I/01. There ain’t much higher priority than that. The president of the US while traveling with the nuclear “football,” the nuclear launch codes, has a FAD code I/01. I’m not sure what his code is when he isn’t (I don’t think he was ever far from the football). Technology has made the nuclear “football” and the need to transport the codes physically, obsolete.

Well, we were flying codes into March AFB, and we were supposed to pick up some codes on the way out. We parked on the ramp and waited for the code courier to arrive. The code couriers are just what you think. They are always armed to the teeth. They also have their own guards. The codes are in a briefcase attached to their wrists by a handcuff. You would have to cut off their arms to get the codes. I suspect the briefcases have their own special protection, but I don’t know. They don’t tell you these things.

So there we were on the ramp at March AFB, right at the end of the painted red carpet, ready with our fuel load, waiting for our very, very, very high priority cargo—we were a FAD I/01. The major in charge of base ops came to me and said, “Captain, you need to start up that aircraft and move it down the ramp.”

I told him, “Sorry Major, I’m carrying a FAD I/01 and I only have enough fuel for the flight and my alternate. I can’t risk my mission by starting the aircraft. If you tow it, that’s okay. I just can’t accept any delays.”

The nuclear “football”

The Major went to see if he could tow the C-21. He came back after a little, “We don’t have a tow bar for a C-21.”

“Then, I can’t move.”

“Look, Captain, I have the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Caspar Weinberger coming into March AFB, and the base commander wants to put his plane on the red carpet. You’re in the way.”

“No can do. The Secretary of Defense doesn’t have as high a priority as I do.”

The Major wasn’t very happy about that. He went into base ops and began making phone calls.

The next thing I know, a full colonel wearing class As (full military dress) walked up to the aircraft, “Hi, Captain. What’s the problem?”

“There’s no problem, sir. I don’t have enough reserve fuel to start and taxi my aircraft. I’m carrying codes today and if I move the aircraft, I won’t have enough fuel to make it to my destination and have enough for my alternate. That’s how tight the flight and the weather are.”

The Colonel didn’t get mad. He just went back into base ops to talk to the Major. After a few minutes they returned to my plane. He had a big smile on his face, “Okay, Captain, this is what we’ll do. I’ll call the fuel truck. They’ll follow you down the ramp. When you shut down, they’ll fill you right there. What do you think? Will that work?”

“Yes, sir. That’ll work.”

Caspar Weinberger, a great guy, and Ronald Reagan.

So that’s what we did. The fuel truck followed us down the ramp. After we shut down, they topped us off. I got to shake Mr. Weinberger’s hand. The base commander was happy, the Major was happy, and we made a great and safe flight to our delivery destination with the codes on board.

You could receive a low FAD (high priority) for something other than a typical military mission. A medical alert mission also had a high priority code. I don’t remember the actual priority we received, but one day I was alerted out of Offutt AFB to fly to Naval Air Station (NAS) Glenview in Chicago. The mission was to pick up an organ for transplant and transport it to Andrews AFB in Washington D.C. Organ and transplant candidates are high priority because of the need to move then quickly to ensure a successful transplant. That’s why they sent a Lear Jet (C-21) to pick up the organs and the recipients.

The flight was great and we arrived at NAS Glenview with time to spare. When the organ hadn’t arrived within allotted time on the mission FRAG (schedule), I made a call through the AUTOVON (Automatic Voice Network) to the Military Airlift Command (MAC) Command Post.

The AUTOVON system was the military phone system designed to survive a nuclear attack. Depending on your authority and need, you could demand priority, immediate, flash, or flash override precedence over the AUTOVON system. Basically, during peacetime, the highest precedence available was priority.

Ramp at NAS Glenview

When my AUTOVON call didn’t go through, I rang the operator and requested a priority AUTOVON connection. The operator told me she would make the connection and call me back. After a while, I didn’t receive a call, so I called her again. She put me off and wouldn’t make the priority call. I demanded a priority AUTOVON to contact the MAC Command Post to find out about the transplant organ. The operator told me she couldn’t give me priority because the line was in use. I told her that I was on a priority mission and nothing other than a nuclear strike or another flying mission of equal priority could take precedence over my call. That commenced an argument about priorities and my mission. She would not give me precedence. Finally, I badgered her enough that she told me the NAS Commander was on the AUTOVON on a routine call, and she would not disturb him. Okay, there it was. If we had gone to nuclear war at that moment, the NAS Commander would have been on the phone discussing some topic either pertinent or not, but the President of the United States would have been prevented, by this operator, from disturbing it. The entire purpose of the AUTOVON system had been preempted by an operator for a base commander.

Luckily, the organ arrived in its special cooler box only a few minutes later and we were able to takeoff without any other delays. That operator’s attitude still irritates me today. I don’t know how the patient faired from the transplant, but the delay of a phone call might have made the difference between success and failure, life and death.

Another priority given during peacetime is for flight test. Your flight test priority is granted by congress in the funding legislation and rolls down through the test plan. When I flight tested the MC-130H, Combat Talon II aircraft we had a FAD I/05 priority. This was the highest priority of any non-classified program at Edwards AFB. The priority of the classified programs was not generally known—the existence of the programs was also unknown.

The MC-130H was a specially modified C-130H with modern (at the time) displays, a very advance terrain following radar, and the most powerful electronic countermeasures suite in the world. It had some other stuff too, but previous list is just the basics. It was a great aircraft and like I said, this special operations flight test program had the highest priority on the books.

We were in a quick reaction program that was already late by many years (I won’t say how many). One day, we ended up in a faceoff with the B-1B program. They also had a FAD I priority. On that particular day, we needed to takeoff to get out and accomplish some mountain flight test. The B-1 was clogging the pattern.


Everyone was trying to get off that morning before the winds and the mountain turbulence became a problem. When we arrived at the end of the runway, we invoked our FAD I to move ahead of the test pilot school and the other program aircraft. We passed a fight of F-16s, a couple of flights of T-38s, an F-15, and a T-39. When we were at the front of the line, the tower told us we had a delay until the B-1 had finished their test. That’s when we invoked our FAD code.

We received an angry call from the B-1 operations officer. He had the wing operations officer with him, “What do you think you are doing. We have a FAD I/07 priority.”

I fired back, “But our priority is FAD I/05.”

A long silence ensued over the radio. Then we heard a squeak, “Okay.”

The wing operations officer ordered the tower to send the B-1 to hold south of the pattern so we could takeoff.

Sometimes priority really works.

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

– The End –

Figure  5-11.-Issue  priority  designators. 3. FAD  III. May be assigned by the commands d. authorized to assign FAD II, and by any other command that is designated a major claimant for budget  purposes.  FAD  III  is  assigned  to a.  All  other  U.S.  combat-ready  and  direct e. support  forces  outside  CONUS. b.  CONUS  forces  (including  reserve  forces) maintained  in  a  state  of  readiness  for deployment to combat. (The Chief of Naval f. Reserve  will  verify  the  status  of  reserve force squadrons prior to assignment of FAD III  to  ensure  that  such  assignment  is compatible  with  contigency  plans.) c.   Component   programs   and   projects   of comparable importance with elements in item a. and b. Specified  combat-ready  and  direct  combat support forces of foreign countries that are of   comparable   importance   with   force specified in items a. and b. CONUS   industrial   and   intermediate maintenance/repair  activities  that  provide direct  logistic  support  for  forces  being maintained  in  a  state  of  readiness  for deployment to combat. New  construction/modernization  ships within 60 days of builder’s trials. FAD II can be   assigned   only   in   specific   cases   if approved by the Chief of Naval Operations when it is anticipated that the ship will come under  the  operational  command  of  the SIXTH  or  SEVENTH  Fleets  or  equivalent operational assignments within 90 days of its commissioning. 5-20