by L. D. Alford
Master Sergeant Brown entered the flight planning room shaking his head, “Captain Mac.”
“What’s up Eng?” said Mac as he looked up from the Foreign Clearance Guide.
“We’ve got a bad fire circuit on the Ground Turbine Compressor.”
“Great, how long will that take to fix?”
“Can they swap us out for another C-130?”
Lieutenant Dean looked up from his planning, “Mac we’ve got to get into Pamarola, Honduras before nightfall.”
“Yeah, I know. The Hondurans will intercept anyone in country after sundown.”
“Look, Eng, you take care of the problem. See if you can get us out of here quick, otherwise we’ll be stuck in Guatemala, and you know what that means.”
“Yes sir, I know what that means,” he shook his head again, “An armored car to the embassy and a padded room until the embassy can get us another country clearance through SouthCOM.”
“Yeah,” said Dean, “The last time we spent three days cooped up with guards on the door and bullets whizzing around outside.”
Still shaking his head, Master Sergeant Brown left to return to the flight line.
“Look, Dean, tell our Nav, Captain Drake to plan for a new takeoff time. I’ll talk to SouthCOM and try to get a nighttime country clearance into Honduras. Without any delays, we still have a chance to slip into Pamerola before nightfall, but I don’t want to take any chances.”
“I’m with you Mac. A Herc is just a little too big to hide even from the Hondurans.”
Lieutenant Dean went to talk to Captain Drake and returned to his planning. Meanwhile Captain Mac talked to SouthCOM and came back exuberant, “I got us a clearance clear though midnight,” he announced to the Nav and his copilot Lieutenant Dean.
“Alright,” exclaimed Lieutenant Dean, “Did you reserve dinner and a hooch at Pamarola too. First beer is on me.”
Captain Drake smiled, “By that time, the bar at Pamarola will be closed.” He turned back to his charts.
“Pilot, crew check-in,” said Dean over the C-130’s intercom.
“Alright, Before Starting Engines Check.”
Everything went fine until Master Sergeant Brown checked the fire warning circuit on the Ground Turbine Compressor. “Pilot…” he started, “Okay, it’s just a little slow. There it is. I’m starting the GTC now.”
“Clear,” said the loadmaster.
Without any other problems, they got the big turboprop aircraft started and headed for the runway. Herc 21 carried a full load of mail and provisions for the American Embassy in Guatemala.
The flight to Guatemala went pretty normally, they didn’t have any problems until they crossed into Honduras and called Carrottop on the UHF radio.
“Carrottop, Carrottop, this is Herc 21” said Dean at check in.
“Carrottop here. The weather is clear for your flight through Honduras to Guatemala, but you’re kind of late. I show your return flight to Pamerola after sunset.”
“Roger, Carrottop. We have a country clearance for a night flight out of Guatemala to Pamerola.”
“We don’t have that clearance here.”
“Well Carrottop can you check it out. We don’t want any problems.”
“Roger. I’ll get back to you Herc 21. Check in with me again at the border.”
“What gives, Co?” said Captain Mac.
“Carrottop doesn’t have our night country clearance.”
“SouthCOM assured me they passed it to the Hondurans. I hope they were right.”
At the boarder Lieutenant Dean called Carrottop, “Carrottop, Carrotop, this is Herc 21.”
“Carrottop, Herc 21 go ahead.”
“Herc 21 is crossing into Guatemala now. Do you have some weather for our return and our country clearance?”
“We have a country clearance, but it looks like you’ll be in Honduran airspace after dark.”
“Our clearance is for dark.”
“Right. I have it here. Weather for your return: expect some thunderstorm activity around Pamerola. The ceiling should be 500 with 1 mile visibility.”
“Pilot,” said Lieutenant Dean, “Did you get all that? I’m losing contact with Carrottop.”
“Got it,” said Mac, “I saw the buildup he was talking about. Hey Nav, did you catch that on your radar?”
“Every bit, Pilot. We might have a rough time landing at Pamerola tonight.”
“Eng, when we get to Guatemala, top us off with as much as they’ll give us, and Co, check our alternates over the HF.”
“Roger,” said the Co and Eng together.
The approach and landing in Guatemala went normally, but when they got on the ground, the unloading crews were late. They finally unloaded the embassy cargo and refueled the plane. Everything was ready to go.
“Starting Engine Checklist,” said Mac after checking in the crew.
“Pilot, the GTC fire circuit won’t check,” said Master Sergeant Brown.
“Damn. Try it again.”
“I already did. It’s out again.”
“We don’t have clearance to stay here over night.”
“Pilot, there’s no way we can get this fixed here.”
“Okay, let’s think this through. Can we get a start cart? We really don’t need the GTC.”
“I’ll go for that,” said Master Sergeant Brown.
“Tell the ground crews to get us a paloust.”
They waited for a while until the Guatemalan ground crew could bring up a start cart.
“Pilot, Nav. It’s getting dark.”
With the small Guatemalan paloust straining at full power, they just turned over number three without an over heat.
Master Sergeant Brown let out a great sigh of relief and shook his head again, “This is getting too close, pilot. I may have to take up smoking again.”
“Pilot, Nav. Another problem I didn’t think of before. The insurgents here like to take potshots at planes taking off after dark.”
“Thanks, Nav. I forgot about that.”
“Load, Pilot, you hear that? Keep an eye out.”
With all four turning, Herc 21 taxied out to the end of the runway.
“Okay, crew,” briefed Mac, “We’ll do a min-run takeoff and climb out at best angle until we clear the field boundary. Eng, work up the numbers for us.”
Mac revved the engines to full power and Master Sergeant Brown set the power.
“That’s all she’ll do, Pilot.”
“Co, you have the yoke. Ready, ready, break release now.” Mac let the breaks out and the light C-130 surged forward. “I’m off the nosewheel. On the controls.”
“Your airplane, pilot.”
“Darn it, pilot,” said Master Sergeant Brown, “Small arms flashes ahead.”
“Rotate,” called Dean.
Mac yanked the big plane off the ground and set it in a 25 degree climb, “Gear up.”
“Hold the flaps.”
“Pilot, Load, we’re taking fire.”
“Best angle climb speed.”
Mac turned the plane to the east, “Okay, we’re high enough now. Milk up the flaps, Co. 40, 30, 20, 10, up.”
“Load, Pilot, any damage?”
“Yeah. I’ve got two sweet holes in the cargo door, and two AK-47 slugs rolling around back here.”
“Any systems damage?”
“None that I can see.”
“Pilot, Eng, hydraulic pressure and engines are good all around.”
“Load, Pilot, can you plug the holes?”
“Already have. You can pressurize anytime. Wet toilet paper and duct tape works wonders, and I’m glad they didn’t have anything bigger.”
“You and me both,” said Mac, “How far to the boarder, Nav?”
“Give us a heads up. Co, get Carrottop on as soon as you can. Now we have two things to fix at Pamarola and I bet they don’t have the parts for either.”
“I hope the air-conditioned hooch is available,” said Dean.
“Pilot, Nav, I show us at the boarder.”
“Carrottop, Carrottop, Herc 21. Carrttop, Carrttop, Herc 21. Pilot, Co, they aren’t answering.”
“Pilot, Nav, I have Pamarola on the radar. Carrottop was right. There is a thunderstorm right over the field—big one too.”
“Co, Pilot, go on over to Pamerola’s approach frequency. See if you can get a forecast.”
“Pilot, Nav,” Captain Drake’s voice was suddenly strained, “I think we have another problem. I’m painting another aircraft well north of us, and, other than us, I can imagine only one other kind of aircraft over Honduras at night.”
“No small. It’s turning south toward us. I’m about to lose the paint.”
“Aircraft squawking 6745, this is Carrottop on guard.”
“Co go to guard on UHF 2.”
“Set. Carrottop, Herc 21 on guard, go ahead.”
The controller’s voice was almost a scream, “You have two Honduran F-5’s intercepting you. They are armed and cleared to fire.”
“Damn,” said Mac under his breath. Over the intercom he said, “Co, keep the channel open. Tell them we want position updates on the fighters. They can’t be armed with more than infrared sidewinders.”
Dean’s voice cracked, “Roger.”
“Load, Pilot, keep a scan out the back on the pilot side.”
“Already there pilot.”
“Nav, Pamerola has a TACAN descent. What’s the terrain like?”
“Pilot, I don’t need to tell you its got mountains all around and a thunderstorm right in the middle.”
“Keep your eyes on the weather and the terrain. I might want to get lower fast.”
“You got it, pilot.”
“Herc 21, Carrottop, the interceptors are right on your tail about 50 miles and they are closing fast.”
“Co, tell Carrottop to tell the Hondurans to call off their intercept.”
Dean passed the message.
“Herc 21, Carrottop, we’re trying. Landlines are open, but they aren’t answering.”
“Pilot, Nav the thunderstorm is moving across the field, but it isn’t clear yet.”
“Herc 21, Carrottop, interceptors at 40 miles.”
Mac could see lightning to his right. In the moonlit dark the towering cumulous hid the mountains below them and rose well above their altitude.
“Pilot, Co, I have Pamarola approach on UHF 1. They say the field is closed and there is no traffic.”
“Tell them to open the field and turn on the runway lights full bright. I want the TACAN descent.”
“Through a thunderstorm? In the mountains?”
The intercom was completely silent for a long time. A few moments later the UHF cracked back to life, “Herc 21, Carrottop, interceptors at 30 miles.”
“Crew, Pilot, I’m turning toward the thunderstorm.”
“Nav, Pilot, you’re pointed right at the center.”
“Herc 21, Carrottop, interceptors at 20 miles and closing rapidly.”
“Crew, Pilot, strap down tight! Get ready for a quick descent and a thunderstorm penetration!”
“Herc 21, interceptors at 18 miles… 16 miles… 14 miles… 12 miles.”
“Crew, Pilot, ready, ready…”
“Crew, here we go.”
Mac jerked the throttles back and pushed the C-130 over into a steep dive then he pushed the power back up to max, “Set the power, Eng. Descent checklist. Approach checklist. Load, keep your seat.”
“Interceptors at 8 miles,” crackled over guard.
“Pilot, you’re cleared the approach.”
Mac smiled. They broke directly into the main column of the thunderstorm.
“Eng, Pilot, you’re near redline.”
The first burst of turbulence and rain hit them at the same time.
“Pilot, Nav, mountains ahead! Turn ten degrees left!”
“TACAN’s bouncing around,” said Dean, “I think the fix is just ahead further right.”
“Pilot, Nav, right is clear.”
“Herc 21, Carrottop the interceptors are at 5 miles. I’m losing them and your paint in the thunderstorm.”
“Crew, hang on.” Mac yanked the Herc into a hard right 60 degree turn.
“Watch your Gs,” said Master Sergeant Brown calmly.
“Pilot, Nav, terrain at two miles keep it coming around.”
The radios were silent for a long time, then the controller yelled, “Herc 21, Carrottop, I lost your paint. Repeat, I lost your paint. Are you alright?”
Herc 21 didn’t respond. The controller called again, “Herc 21, Carrottop, the F-5s are turning north. Are you alright?”
Mac completed the descending turn and pointed toward the TACAN. The turbulence reduced significantly, but he couldn’t see through the windows because of the rain and hail buffeting the C-130.
“Co, tell them we are safe and on the approach.”
Lieutenant Dean let out his breath and transmitted, “Carrottop, Herc 21, we are on the approach to Pamerola. Thanks for your help.”
Mac slowed the aircraft and intercepted the approach about half way through.
“Pilot, Nav, you are clear of terrain. I don’t paint anything ahead for 10 miles.”
Mac turned onto final approach and Dean radioed the tower, “Pamerola tower, Herc 21, final approach fix, gear down, are we cleared to land.”
“Herc 21, Pamarola tower, we have you loud and clear. Weather is 600 and 1 with heavy rain. Winds are 360 at 30 gusting to 40 knots. We have lightning within 5 miles of the field. You are cleared to land. Good to hear from you. Carrottop reports interceptors are returning to base.”
“Pamerola we are glad to hear you too. We want the air-conditioned hooch and five large beers.”
“Five large beers, roger.”
As Mac stabilized on final approach Captain Drake pushed back from his Nav station and said, “Well, that’s one way to hide a C-130.”
– The End –
This is a true story. The names have been changed, but the incident occurred almost exactly as recorded here. Thanks to a very capable crew, Herc 21 landed safely and we spent 7 days in “beautiful” Pamarola getting the aircraft fixed. SouthCOM forgot to pass the country clearance to the Honduran government.