20 October 2009

The Day the Queen Came to Town

It was twenty-five years ago. I was on my last assignment of active duty at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. On a day in September, one of the security people from Headquarters Strategic Air Command called a meeting with several of us base support folks; only base security and airfield management were invited. When the meeting started a civilian stood next to the security officer. The civilian turned out to be a member of the Secret Service.

We were informed that Queen Elizabeth II, monarch of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (at least the six northern counties) would be passing through in a few week's time. Her transportation, a Vickers VC-10 operated by the Royal Air Force, would need refueling. It turned out that the Queen would be coming from Sheridan, Wyoming, where she was visiting her racing manager (horse racing, that is) in Buffalo, Wyoming.

It turns out that Queen Elizabeth was on an unofficial tour of the United States. She was to visit Kentucky and Wyoming because she had horse racing interests in both states. The Wyoming visit was especially significant. Her hosts, Lord and Lady Porchester, were descended from British citizens who had settled in Wyoming in the 19th Century. Lady Porchester, although American born, was a granddaughter of Oliver Wallop, an Englishman and early investor in Wyoming cattle and horse ranching. Lady Porchester's brother was US senator from Wyoming, Malcom Wallop. We didn't know any of those details at that point. All we knew was that the Queen wanted her refueling stop at Offutt AFB to be as low-key as possible.

The VC-10 had to land at Offutt for refueling because the runway at Sheridan, Wyoming, which was as close as the RAF could get the Queen to her Wyoming hosts, was too short for the aircraft to take on sufficient fuel for a non-stop flight to London. The longest runway at Sheridan is 8300 feet, and the airport altitude is 4021 feet above sea level.

Initially, the plan was for the Queen and her party to deplane and wait in the VIP lounge in the Base Operations building at Offutt. To do that and insure adequate security, we were going to have to evacuate everyone who wasn't critical to the Queen's security or the refueling of her aircraft. That included a US Navy personnel office; a SAC airlift operation; a MAC airlift operation; and almost all other base operations folks, other than the on-duty dispatchers. Now the VIP lounge was okay for generals and the odd politician passing through, but this was the Queen of England. General Bennie Davis, who at the time was Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Air Command (CINCSAC), vetoed the VIP lounge as the place where the Queen would while away the hour or so it would take to refuel her aircraft and continue on to London.

General Davis had a point in nixing the VIP lounge idea. There had been a recent flair up of trouble with the IRA; they had bombed several locations in/around London. Besides that, there were Irish sympathizers on both sides of the Atlantic -- even around Omaha, Nebraska. I didn't know that detail at that moment in time, but I would meet some of the more rabid neo-Irishmen just a few years later. I was told that some of them gave active support to NorAid, a front group that funded the IRA. I suppose that the AFOSI (the Air Force equivalent of the Navy's NCIS) briefed General Davis on the local IRA supporters, some of whom were Irish-born. In any case, General Davis intended to host the Queen in the inner sanctum of the SAC Headquarters building, Building 500. In Building 500, she would be safe from anything the IRA might be tempted to try. We still had to evacuate the Base Operations building, however, because it was right on the route the Queen would take to/from Building 500.

After General Davis decreed that the Queen would await her aircraft's refueling at SAC Headquarters, the rest was pretty easy. Without explaining too much of the why, I went around to all the tenants and told them that on 17 October they would have to leave the Base Operations building at a certain time in the afternoon. I just told them it was a security issue. No one seemed to mind that they would get the afternoon off.

As the day approached we were told that we could inform all of the tenants of the Base Operations building the reason why they would be required to leave. They were also told where to stand to get a look at a real live monarch. Everybody was okay with that. There was no sign that the neo-Irish had taken any offense by the revelation that their hated enemy would be on Offutt Air Force Base for an hour or so.

The day of her arrival, we were given a detailed time table of what would happen and when. Having been assigned to RAF Mildenhall, Suffolk, England, prior to coming to Offutt, I was passingly familiar with how things worked when the Royals were traveling. Some of the RAF I worked with told me that everything was planned down to the minute. In addition, similar to security for Air Force One, all Royal Flights had the airspace around them for several miles cleared of other aircraft. Now that Queen Elizabeth II was about to land at Offutt I was going to get a demonstration of what they meant. The first item on the time table was that the Queen's VC-10 would land at a specific time. Okay, I thought, let's see how they pull that off.

Prior to the Queen's arrival my Airfield Manager and I were giving the runway and taxiways a once over, just to make sure the everything was in good order. Then we waited. Ten minutes prior to the scheduled VC-10 touchdown time, a VC-10 appeared approaching Offutt's Runway 12, that is, it was approaching from the northwest. As the aircraft passed over mid-field, the pilot executed a tear-drop approach. It was clear that the way they landed exactly at the time planned was to arrive early and do a precise timing maneuver to put them at touchdown when they wanted to be there. Sure enough, the VC-10 flew a tear-drop maneuver and landed within thirty seconds of the planned time.

In addition to the touchdown time there was a precise time for the aircraft to come to a halt, for the exit door to open, for the Queen to depart the aircraft, and on and on. Someone must have spent more than a little time working out a moment-by-moment time table for this stopover of a little more than an hour.

The VC-10 came to a stop at the planned parking spot and began the engine shutdown procedure. I could see that this one bore the name of Captain Albert Ball, VC. Ball had been a Royal Flying Corps war hero during the Great War, as the British call WWI. He died not at the hands of a German pilot but because he flew into a thunder shower and lost control of his S.E.5a.

Sure enough, the exit door opened exactly at the time given, a passenger debarking ramp was rolled up. Exactly at the time given on the time table, Queen Elizabeth II appeared at the exit door and stepped onto the ramp. General and Mrs. Davis waited at the foot of the ramp. The Queen descended the ramp, was greeted by General and Mrs. Davis, presented with a bouquet, and was whisked off to SAC Headquarters.

Since the Queen wanted this stopover to be low key, there was no brass band, and the color guard was the regular SAC security forces in their every day uniform. It turned out, however, that every member of the RAF cadre at Offutt was given the afternoon off for this event; their families were present too. As the Queen's motorcade departed the flight line there was a cheering throng, each waving a Union Jack. There was more to this planned stopover than we knew of. In any case, Queen Elizabeth II of England, and General Bennie Davis had high tea at SAC Headquarters while the worker bees set about putting enough fuel on her VC-10 to get her safely to England.

Refueling that VC-10 turned out to be trickier than everyone thought. A fuel truck was waiting in the wings, so to speak, and rolled up moments after the greeting party left for SAC Headquarters. The refueling equipment was quickly connected to the aircraft and fueling began. It was going much more slowly than expected. The RAF crew refused to let our ground support people anywhere near the fuel panel on the VC-10; they were going to do it their way. At one point the chief of Offutt Transient Maintenance came up to us and briefed us on the slow pace of the RAF crew and their rejection of any assistance in getting the Queen's aircraft refueled. To make matters worse, the RAF crew's fuel management wasn't the best in the world; several times jet fuel vented from the VC-10 wing vents. Great, now fire trucks would have to wash down the fuel spill before the Queen boarded her aircraft.

Time was running out; there was just a few minutes left before the Queen and her escorts would return. We knew that there was no slack in the timing so everything was going to have to go perfectly to get the show back on the road. Finally, the RAF crew was satisfied with the fuel load. The fuel truck quickly packed up and left, and the fire truck moved in to wash down the fuel spill. With just seconds to spare, the fire truck moved off as the Queen and her escorts returned to the aircraft.

Everything else went smoothly, and in short order the Queen had reboarded her VC-10, it was made ready for flight, and taxied to the active runway. The VC-10 made its takeoff roll and soon disappeared heading out in a northeasterly direction.

As a post script, I should mention that as part of the security arrangements, local news reporters, especially TV news, were not allowed on Offutt to cover the visit of Queen Eliazbeth II. That irked them no end; the best they could do was park their trucks on the approach end of Runway 12 to catch some footage of the VC-10 as it made its approach to Offutt. The TV news ran that footage, along with a little verbal lament on the Friday evening news broadcast.

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