Panama.

Howard AFB Howard AFB

Two months into this endeavor and the novelty has worn off. Standing in the hangar at Howard AFB, the LCDR surveys the flight line – what little of it he could see through the sheets of rain, and does some mental calculations.

‘Do I make a mad dash for the plane and wait inside for the rain to stop, or just stay here?’ he thought. Two months of experience with the “wet” season in Panama had taught him you could almost set your watch by the rain showers’ comings and goings. What had one moment been a partly cloudy sky suddenly darkened and with no warning, turned to buckets of water that nothing in the way of raingear effectively kept you entirely dry. Five, ten minutes later, the rain genie throws a switch (‘or zips up his fly’ he continued wryly) and it stops as suddenly as it started, leaving the air and ground a steamy, fetid mess.

Glancing at his watch he figures on another 5 minutes and then the exigencies of the flight schedule will push him forward. The prospect of sitting in wet flight gear for the next few hours didn’t fill him with a lot of cheer.

Panama.

In the near decade that the VAW community had been involved (no, more like dragged kicking and screaming…) in counter-drug, or CD-OPS, the venues had changed, some. The initial operations, under Operation Thunderbolt, had seen a measure of success with the drop of daily traffic flying from the Bahamas into south Florida. The price of doing business had gone up, forcing those parties that had been merely interested in a quick buck out of the game. As the stakes went up with increased radar coverage and intercepts by Customs, the smugglers changed tactics. Origination sites moved further away from the prying eyes of the Hawkeyes and the orbits of the Customs interceptors. From Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, even the continent of South America they launched. Entry points changed too – now pretty much anywhere along the Gulf Coast was the destination of the more “professionally” crewed planes. Even the planes themselves had changed – where once the “Moms & Pops” had relied on older piston light business twins, the current generation of smugglers preferred the economies afforded by turbo-props – longer range and higher speeds. The gross weight on these aircraft was higher; permitting greater fuel and “product” loads, all to feed a growing constituency among the affluent and not-so’s back in the States.

Of late, a new dimension has been added. Reaching back to a supply, inexhaustible it seemed, of ancient transports – DC-4’s in particular, the organized crime syndicates that had taken over the smuggling business sought to fly a “hail Mary” pass around the Caribbean. Instead, launching from the heart of Columbia where coca was plentiful and the labs for producing the paste could operate with impunity, these birds of an earlier and nobler age, flew well out over the Pacific and would not see land again until crossing back over past Nicaragua for the gulf coast of the US or into Mexico. There they would typically land in a remote area and be abandoned, their one-way mission fulfilled. The “product” would then be dispersed among human pack animals and portaged across the very porous Yanqui borders. Occasionally, “wagon trains” of 3 or four aircraft would queue up and make the long overwater flight and most recently had come rumors of a 727 being prepped for delivery of a mega load. That, of course, got everyone up the chain in a high lather and the E-2’s and F-16’s, being at the end of the whip, usually bore the full brunt of launches against will-o-the-wisp rumors.

With the changes in smuggler tactics and difficulty in obtaining and using DOD aircraft on a consistent basis, Customs had obtained their own AEW and intercept force. Using P-3 airframes and E-2C and F-16 radars, a fairly effective hunter/interceptor team was generated that had the benefit of longer legs than the Navy E-2C/ANG F-16 team. Still, even their numbers were limited and here he found himself, again, on the forward lines chasing smugglers. Compounding his frustration was the building force on the other side of the world, in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, in preparation for moving Saddam out of Kuwait. Here the greatest concentration of naval air power was collecting and he was stuck in this backwater…


‘If only…,’ he thought.  He’d been set for another squadron coming out of the AIRLANT tour until the call had come from the Commodore, asking as a personal favor if he’d take the slot at VAW-127 instead of the other squadron.  Any other Commodore and he’d have politely declined, but he’d worked closely with this one, both on this tour and a while back and had come to greatly value their relationship.  The Seabats had become one of the top squadrons on the seawall these past few years, inspite of having to fly off Coral Sea (which by 1988 was consuming over 45% of AIRLANT’s operating budget all by itself) and he’d come to enjoy the commraderie.  The Skipper was an old squadronmate from Bluetail days and the department heads he knew and got along well with and he was slated to role in as the next Maintenance Department Head – a position he’d looked forward to (short of command) for many years.  Still, the squadron he was originally going to was in the thick of it over in the Gulf and he was…here. Chasing wraiths…


His mood darkening at this thought, he checked his watch again – grimacing he pulled  the surplus poncho tighter around him – hopefully the patches would hold this time and the only part that would get seriously wet were his boots and lower legs of the flight suit. Joining up with the rest of the crew they half-ran/jogged out to the flight line in the driving rain. Quickly tossing their helmet bags in the main entrance hatch, they closed up the door and began pre-flights. While he completed his part of the preflight outside, the ACO was taking care of the very detailed RO preflight in the forward equipment compartment, praying fervently that the rain would stop before he had to pull the aft itching hatch open for the topside inspection of the plane. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go on top of the a/c, indeed because it was so wet and slippery, squadron SOP allowed him to conduct a visual inspection from the hatch, but, the mere act of opening the hatch would ensure the ACO seat would be soaked in the rain. Of course, as it was wont to do, the rain stopped just as the crew was finishing its preflight.  Not long afterwards Seabat 603 was airborne and heading out over the Eastern Pacific, bent on a mission in search of the elusive 727.
One of the distinguishing features of this particular area of the tropics (that area being the lat/long occupied by Panama and the rest of the Pacific coast of Central and South America) was the sheer majesty of the thunderstorms that would develop. Now, Ernest Gann may have been impressed with the storms that developed over the Adirondacks, storms he had to penetrate in a pre-war DC-2, but to the LCDR, no slouch either in the thunderstorm category having grown up in Nebraska, these were beasts worthy of deep appreciation and utmost regard.   Like their cousins up north in the Plains states or those that found life in the cradle of fearful hurricanes that brew off the African coast, these monsters regularly grew to where their tops soared to stratospheric heights – 60 to 65,000 ft and more, the tops of these storms were higher than even the U-2’s which shared the ramp with the Seabats’ Hawkeye’s could fly. And while their distant cousins unleashed their fury in tornadic or hurricane activity, these storms were best known for their heavy rain and lightning. As if the prospect of a single storm wasn’t daunting enough, the tendency to line up and form a solid, impenetrable and stationary front that could run from Honduras in the north to Ecuador in the south.
Woe to the unfortunate aircraft and crew that found itself on the other side of one of these Maginot lines of Mother Nature…
…which, more or less, was what the LCDR was thinking at the moment, though in execution it was something quite more profane…
It all had started about 10 minutes earlier with a call from the front via the ICS. The mission heretofore had produced nothing and given the time of night, the LCDR mission commander (CICO) was open to the idea of slowly moving the station back to the northeast to lessen the distance to Howard when calling off station. Doing so might also help communications as the HF radios were nearly useless due to atmospherics (SATCOM was still in the future for the E-2 at this point). As the plane closed the Panamanian coastline, on the northern leg of its barrier patrol, the ICS light for the pilot and copilot brightened on his panel.
“CICO, Flight…you might want to come up here for a minute”
Given that there was no traffic and welcoming the opportunity to move from the cramped confines of the aircraft’s CIC – to the relatively cramped confines of the cockpit (at least they had real windows), he passed the radio watch over to the ACO and proceeded forward. Hooking up on the ICS lead found in the forward equipment compartment he stretched it into the cockpit and squatted behind the center pedestal, between the two pilots.
“What’s up?”
With a sweeping gesture, the CAPC in the left seat pointed to the horizon and simply said
“That”

Following his hand, the CICO noted a series of irregular flashes on the far horizon, not unlike the opening stages in a war with the two sides duking it out.


Except that there was no war and these flashes spanned the horizon, from one end to the next. Peering without comment for the next couple of minutes he tried to discern a part of the horizon that remained dark. His inspection was interrupted by the pilot in the right seat;
“Forget looking for a hole, we’ve been trying for the last half-hour,” he said. “We need to get to UHF range to give weather a call and see what the conditions for our alternate (an airfield well to the north, and as luck would have it, also behind the curtain of energy) or, if they can get us a steer between the worst of the cells.
“Wait a minute,” the CICO replied, “I don’t recall the weather guessers saying we’d be looking at this tonight – they only mentioned isolated storms in and around Howard.”
In the dim glow from the instruments he could see the half-laugh and shrugged shoulder of the co-pilot.
“Yeah, well, it wouldn’t be the first time this deployment” he said, which in turn, drew a snort and a wry laugh from the CICO and pilot.
“OK, lets close the coast, don’t worry about having to do it at mission profile – nothings out there tonight (“except us,” he thought) and if anything did show up now, no one is launching out of Howard tonight to chase them. I really don’t like the idea of the alternate either, what with these storms, the mountains in the vicinity of that field and none of us have been in there yet. I’ll go back and see if we can raise them on HF in the meantime…”
And with that he headed back to the CIC wondering what new adventures that night’s flight would have for him.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to wait long as he was met with an angry ACO and a “high torque” light lit on the trailing wire antenna panel.
“What happened” he asked, but already knowing the answer.
“As I was tuning to Howard weather I got two blinks on the antenna light as it started to change and suddenly went to ‘high torque’” he replied, adding an editorial comment that relayed his thoughts about the design of the TWA.
The E-2C has two HF (high frequency) radios – one tied to a fixed wire antenna, those long, black strands of what looks like cable running from the tail of the aircraft to the wings and back. The other HF was tied to a reel-device that streamed a long cable with a 12-pound lead weight at the end. The length of the antenna was adjusted according to the frequency selected and as such (when it worked) was a more precise radio to work with than the fixed-wire HF. The problem was the reel had occasion to stop, either due to the motor freezing up, a bearing gone bad or the wire somehow became snagged. In any event, if the wire was not able to be brought back into its fairlead all the way, then it had to be cut to avoid becoming a hazard to the aircraft on landing as well as to those on the ground below. Tonight, for whatever perverse reason that seemed to amuse the gods, the TWA was now stuck with a “high torque” light, and with the way HF-2 (the fixed-wire HF) was acting, they would effectively be without HF for the rest of the flight if he ended up cutting the TWA. After a couple of abortive attempts to try and tune the HF back into place, he had to give up and cut the wire.
Some time later they had drawn within UFH range of Howard and the report wasn’t good. The alternate was socked in with heavy thunderstorms that were expected to last until morning, so it was out of the picture. Howard was OK, but to get there required penetration of the storms and the radar at Howard was not optimal for giving the kind of weather avoidance steers necessary to guide the Hawkeye through the worst of the storm. The E-2 itself did not have weather radar though some were equipped with StormScope.

‘So,’ he thought ‘here we go – the old school way…’


With this final bit of reality, the crew prepared for penetration of the storm front. All loose objects were secured. The radar and IFF placed in standby and the crew turned facing forward with harnesses locked and cinched tight. Up front, the pilots lowered their seats and turned up the cockpit lighting and sought the area of least activity to begin the penetration. No sooner had they entered the cloud front than St. Elmo’s fire appeared. First as a delicate, lacey gray-green web reaching up and across the windshield. The further into the storm (turbulence started rocking the plane) the heavier the St Elmo’s became. At one point it was washing like waves across the front windscreen and flowing off the props.

Example of St. Elmo's fire

Example of St. Elmo’s fire (not from E-2 cockpit)

‘Impressive – must have been really alarming to the old sailors in the square-rigged days to have seen this in the mast tops,’ he thought.
Like Pinocchio’s nose, a long spike began to grow off the nose of the aircraft. Prior experience had taught the crew that when the St Elmo’s grew to this extent a lightning strike wouldn’t be far behind. Indeed, even as they thought this an explosion of light and sound enveloped the aircraft. Usually, in this, the heaviest part of the cell, hail could be found – and if so, at the combined velocity of the Hawkeye and the sizeable chunks of ice a storm this large could forge, damage to the aircraft could be severe enough as to render it un-flyable and require the striking of a multi-million dollar asset. As it turned out, the bark was worse than the bite and other than some missing static wicks on the port wing, as determined by a later inspection.
However fickle Fortune was earlier this evening, for now it seemed to smile on the crew as the pilots found and pursued a relatively darker area amongst the discharges of lightening and eventually broke out on the other side – a little battered but no worse for the wear. Half an hour later and on deck the CICO turned to the pilot to ask a question, but it hung in the air as once again, the skies opened and the crew found themselves enveloped in the deluge from above and a good 50+ yards from the hangar.
‘Typical,’ he thought ‘wonder if I’ll ever get out of the tropics…’
And like that, the mad dash to the open hangar doors commenced – another mission completed and logged, with little to show but hours and sore bodies, and there were many more to come.

To be continued…

4 Comments

  1. Good stuff and a powerful read, SJS! Thanks!

  2. Triletter

    That initial photo of Howard brought back memories (nightmares?) of Panama. DH tour, flying with the Skipper on his “famous” Shuttle One Approach which the first couple of times had the tower wanting to know if everything was ok. Vultures sitting in the trees too wet to fly. Yep, them was the days! From jungle to desert, what a transition. Love reading your stuff.
    E.

  3. Howard and Panama City was so nice!

    I was always amazed that P-3 guys bitched about it.

    Now Rodman on the other hand………. Thanks Mike! Thanks a lot! 👿

  4. Michelle

    Hey, no fair, I just found this! 😯
    Sure glad I did though.
    I guess I will have to make sure I venture over this way more often.
    And keep better track of the numbering. 😳

Comments are closed.