Given my poor understanding of the statute of limitations on these kinds of events, I would like to make it clear that this story did not happen to me.
OK, I did personally know these folks and so I know this is a true airplane story… inasmuch as any USAF “War Story” can be considered 100% true. But I did not participate. And if you bring me forward to testify against these folks, I doubt I could even remember the names of the individuals involved. Besides, it was all so long ago. ; )
This was back when Beale AFB housed the only in-flight refueling tanker wing that supported the SR-71 Blackbird. The crews had special training, we flew world-wide missions at the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President. Heck, we even flew in formation to get the job done. Yeah, we thought we were special. We were.
Also when you are gone from home this much, a certain amount of fun is expected by the crews and dreaded by the colonels in charge. Does this story reflect a lack of professionalism? Well, you be the judge. I think it’s great.
It was a dark and stormy night in RAF Mildenhall, but the weather was expected to clear in time for the mission tomorrow. The Beale Bandit Tanker Crew were all huddled around a table at the pub with their pints of ale and fish & chips. They were, on the one hand, disappointed that their long time Navigator would be unable to fly with them tomorrow. They were, on the other hand, striving to find a creative way to take advantage of the fact that their replacement navigator was a brand new second lieutenant and had, in fact, never met anyone in this crew or from Beale AFB.
The European Tanker Task Force, based at RAF Mildenhall, was manned by temporary crews and tankers from all over the USA. Given that the Beale Bandits had a reputation to live up to, this opportunity could not be squandered. The crew had the great advantage that they were very senior Standardization / Evaluation crew members. They knew the mission and the aircraft so well, that they gave evaluations to all the other crews in the Wing. In fact, they knew the aircraft and the mission so well, they knew each others’ responsibilities almost well enough to perform them….. WAIT A MINUTE! That’s it! The aircraft commander and the boom operator looked at each other. They were, after all, virtually the same size.
Everyone knew that the Beale crews were special. Even this new second lieutenant must have heard the stories.
The next morning, The aircraft commander (a major) arrived at the pre-flight briefing wearing the boom operator’s flight suit. And the boom operator (an enlisted man) was wearing the aircraft commander’s flight suit. The co-pilot played himself. And the brand new, fresh second lieutenant walked in just as the boom operator (in the aircraft commander’s uniform) said: “Ugh! I am not feeling so good.”
At this point the aircraft commander (in the boom operator’s flight suit) said: “DON’T do this to me AGAIN, Bob!”
“Hey, I’m just saying I’m a little, um, under the weather, you know.”
“You were drinking too much and how you’re HUNG OVER!” This story line was more than credible as this was before the USAF campaign to de-glamorize alcohol. It was typical for flight crews to studiously measure the crew rest requirements for any flight to ensure it would not interfere with their drinking. In other words, if you were not flying or in crew rest to fly, you were drinking. Yes, alcohol. There was a lot of smoking too. And sometimes, if you believe it, people would utter inappropriate words.
“%$**, Rick! Don’t shout! I just need a couple minutes to rest.”
“Not again, Bob.” In a sad, tired voice.
This banter continued through a very thorough and by the book pre-flight briefing and all the way to the aircraft. Whereupon the boom operator (in the aircraft commander’s flight suit) said: “Look, just let me rest my eyes here in the back of the aircraft. You, you can do my pre-flight Bob. The copilot will keep you out of trouble.”
“DAMMIT!” said the aircraft commander (in the boom operators flight suit). “DAMMMMMM IT!” He trudged begrudgedly up to the cockpit and plopped down into his regular crew position. The young navigator had been taking this all in very quietly. He now saw the person he knew to be the boom operator sitting in the aircraft commanders position and going through the pre-flight checklist very precisely and thoroughly.
“Er…” Said the navigator. He was not aware that the boom operator (in the aircraft commander’s flight suit) was in the back performing his own checklist.
“Just get your checklist done, Nav.” Said the copilot. It should be mentioned here that the scowl on the co-pilot’s face was a rather poor attempt to stifle his barely controlled internal chuckling.
As the checklist got closer to engine start, more grumbles were heard from the mock boom operator. He turned to the back of the aircraft and said: “We’re about to start engines! Get your ass up here!!”
“Bob you can do it. You’ve done it a million times. Just need another minute of rest.”
Grumble, grumble, and the engines were started. Expertly, of course, since it was the real pilots in the seats.
It now became a question for the Beale crew. How long do we keep this up before we tell the poor bastard? They never really thought it would go this far. No one is THAT gullible, are they?
The unspoken answer to the unspoken question, communicated only in glances, was: “…as long as we can.”
As the checklist neared completion and the co-pilot was working the radio, the next step loomed. The aircraft would need to be taxied to the end of the runway. This is performed only by the aircraft commander since he has the nose wheel steering at this station.
The co-pilot received permission to taxi. All procedures were done very much by the book. Taxi-ing the aircraft was a masterful job of jerking the nose wheel steering and stomping the brakes just enough to make the ride seem in-expert, yet look completely normal from the runway tower. It took a very experienced pilot to pull this off!
Now the tension builds. Will the navigator say anything before take off? Will the crew break and give away the scheme?
No! The banter continued between the boom operator and aircraft commander. The phony boom operator (but very real pilot) sat in the left seat as the co-pilot performed the take off and climb out.
Surely, the cat would be out of the bag by the time the rendezvous and refueling occurred?
The aircraft commander “pulled himself together” just long enough to lay in the boom pod and perform the duties of the boom operator. Easy enough for him, since he was the boom operator.
In fact, the mission was over and the tanker had just set its wheel chocks in tarmac parking when the thoroughly impressed navigator uttered the now famous catch phrase: “Boy, you guys from Beale sure are versatile!”