It was 2300 hours and the alert came just as I crawled into bed. Being on standby for a flight was not the best position to be in as you didn’t know when the call would come, and scheduling sleep time was not that easy.
Reporting to Base Operations, we found that the first leg of our mission would take us to Lajes Field in the Azores, a group of islands belonging to Portugal about three quarters of the distance between the U.S. and the European Continent. From there we would proceed to Chateauroux, France, to offload some of our cargo and then fly to our final destination—Athens, Greece.
Normally, after reporting to Operations, we would fill out our flight plan, get our weather briefing, clear the Transport Control Center and Base Ops, proceed to the airplane, check out the plane’s systems, take off, and be on our way. However, this mission did not go that smooth! It appears that we would get a few hours of “ramp time” before departure due to maintenance. I might add that the normal crew duty day was 18 hours. That started from the time we arrived at Base Ops and the arrival time at our destination when the engines were cut.
“Pounding the ramp,” a term that seemed to be used more than ever lately, was extremely tiring especially when you were awake most of the day prior to being alerted for the mission. This, my first solo flight as a C-124 navigator, started out by watching the clock and rechecking the length of time en route on our flight plan to make sure that we would have enough crew duty time to make the first leg of the mission.
Well, with minutes to spare, the flight engineer reported that maintenance had fixed the problem, and we were ready to go. This was almost 24 hours of awake time before we even got airborne, and we were a tired crew. Anyway, off we went headed to Lajes; time en route, 11 hours.
The weather guy behind the desk at Dover said we should have an easy flight with just a few high clouds over the Atlantic. Well, what the h___ did he know? About four hours out we found ourselves headed straight for a cold front with ferocious thunderstorms showing up on the radar with no way to circumvent them. Crew, prepare for a bumpy ride!
As the navigator, my job is to get the airplane and crew safely across the pond and to our final destination with the pilots taking over for a safe landing. This mission would take everything I learned about navigating an airplane safely and efficiently.
With all eyes on the instruments and cockpit lights on, we headed into the front. Within minutes, St. Elmo’s fire surrounded the airplane and then a “big bang.” We were hit by lightning! The airplane went up like an elevator and down with a forceful drop. A check of the crew was done and the loadmaster, in the cargo compartment, reported that the load was secure. Still in the soup about an hour later, we got hit again! This time a ball of fire came into the cockpit and rolled down the crew ladder and out the tail end of the fuselage. This one was a big one! Thanks, Dover weatherman, for your CAVU forecast. The airplane shook like crazy, and the pilots were doing everything they could to keep it straight and level.
Finally, after many hours in the extreme weather and with virtually no navigational aids, we broke out of what would be the most severe weather that I had ever encountered in my 10,000 hours in the air. Finally, I was able to get a “fix” to find that we were 350 miles north of our intended course. Well, let me tell you, this old boy was working his tail off to get the airplane back on course. Finally, there they were, the Islands of the Azores. Still, a smooth flight was not yet ahead. Nearing Lajes, we were informed that the field had gone below minimums, and we would have to divert to Santa Maria, another island in the Azores south of Lajes. Off we went and had a successful approach and landing. Things were not over yet for our crew. A walk around of the airplane showed that we had lost the outboard exhaust stacks on number four engine, and there were two holes about the size of grapefruits in the vertical stabilizer where the lightning had exited the airplane. Then a call to the command post at Lajes was made looking for answers as to what we were to do now as there was no maintenance available at Santa Maria. How about a three-engine takeoff with number four caged? OK, came the answer and, as soon as the weather cleared, we were off again with a waiver on our crew duty time. At this point the crew was completely exhausted with just about enough energy to get this bird in the air and on to Lajes.
We finally made it, and off to the “O” Club for a well-deserved beer. Then a call came for the aircraft commander, “What the h___ were you people in?” asked the maintenance officer. “Do you know that you have cracked one of the main wing spars on your airplane? You guys are lucky that you made it!” That was it; what a way to end the day! But we were all safe, had a few more beers, went to bed, and the next day picked up another airplane but this time headed to Burtonwood, England, the Gateway to Europe, and one of the best crew rests in the MATS system.