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ISSUE 70 - June 2009
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Records Don't Look Like Much

By David Rose, Contributing Editor

The Pentagon likes to keep track of things they buy. Like aircraft. They like to know the whereabouts of, or whatever happened to every aircraft they’ve ever owned. Now with the internet, you can pull up lists of Air Force, Navy and Army aircraft histories. Joe Baugher’s great website,  had me enthralled the other day, until I ran across the notations of July, 1964.

The numbers tell the stories of all the aircraft the military has records of. But those records don’t look like much; when you read through them, they’re just dry statistics. Numbers, phrases, words; nothing coherent; nothing memorable; until you get down to where it says "Narrative".

Then the whole mess gets laid out for you.

Over Death Valley California, there are two North South refueling 'tracks'. Sections of sky which, when designated, are set aside for air refueling operations by the military. The North bound track is flown at 33,000 feet while the South bound track is higher, at 35,000.

Fighters normally conduct refueling operations as a four ship; utilization of resource and all that. As tankers and receivers arrive from different bases, the receiver Flight Leader orchestrates a rendezvous between them. He contacts the tanker by radio, maneuvers the flight to the ‘entry point’ of the refueling track and coordinats the flight's arrival there with, and just behind the tanker. He is then first into the ‘contact ready position’ just behind and below the tanker. Lead waits there for the boom operator to then take control of the refueling and clear the fighter to move forward and take on fuel.

The entire event is outlined in careful detail and the progressive steps are strictly adhered to by both tanker and receiver. It’s a three dimensional arena of five aircraft moving through the sky at 3 or 400 miles and hour and the potential for disaster is ever present.

We were a flight of four F-104-C’s out of George Air Force Base that hot day in July, 1964 and although I was in the front cockpit of a ‘D’ model, I was not Flight Lead. That responsibility rested with the IP in the back seat giving me an annual check ride. So it was that when it happened, I was looking straight ahead, waiting for the ‘boomer’ to clear us in to take on fuel.

Rendezvousing with a second tanker on the North track, 2,000 feet below us, 30 miles to the south and coming toward us, was a flight of four F-105 Thunderchiefs, apparently having some difficulty finding the tanker. Perhaps not realizing they were not behind the tanker, but rather parallel to it, the flight made a right turn and the flights number three aircraft came in contact with the tankers engines.

The records I found the other day didn’t look like much; statistics; numbers, until I got down to where it says "Narrative"

C/n / msn:
First flight:
Collision casualties:
Airplane damage:
Airplane fate: Location:
Departure airport:
Destination airport:
Boeing KC-135A-BN Stratotanker
United States Air Force - USAF
Fatalities: 4 / Occupants: 4
Fatalities: 0 / Occupants: 0
Fatalities: 4 / Occupants: 4
Fatalities: 1
Written off
Written off (damaged beyond repair)
Death Valley, CA, USA
En route (ENR)
Moses Lake-Larson AFB, WA (LRN),USA
Moses Lake-Larson AFB, WA (LRN), USA
Midair collision during in-flight refueling with Republic F-105D-15-RE Thunderchief 61-0091. Reportedly the tanker's nr. 4 engine struck the cockpit of the F-105D when beginning a right turn.

The explosion was a huge ball of fire and black smoke. It appeared instantly, then hung, unmoving, as we arrived overhead. Now the sky was filled with aluminum. Seemingly millions of pieces of aluminum, all descending falling leaf style towards the valley below, while the fuselage of the tanker, shorn of wing and tail, arched down to reach the ground in yet another explosion as the bladder tanks erupted on impact. The cloud of metal shimmered in the afternoon sun as we circled down, vainly searching for chutes. It would take an hour for all the metal to reach the ground; it would take even longer for the choppers out of George to reach the scene. By then night had fallen in an effort to restore sanity and its natural peace to the desert.

My experience is that military pilots are calloused against the sentiments which rise so naturally with the misfortunes of others. Peacetime accidents are a part of the life. Combat casualties are an accepted happenstance of the experience. Too many of us have had the misfortune of experiencing both. As our careers progressed the calluses grew very thick. But memories stay with us, and images, and eventually the calluses relent and we accept how dearly we hold the comrade, memory, and image.

The records still don’t look like much; until you get down to where it says "Narrative"; and then all the images come flooding back, and with them, finally, sentiment for the lives affected by an afternoon occurrence above Death Valley California, a long time ago

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