22 May 2016

We Were Navigators Once, and Young

Fifty-five years ago today, 22 May 1961, I achieved an ambition that I first had in grade school:  I was an officer and a navigator in the US Air Force.  In fact, I started out wanting to be a pilot, but in the end I became a navigator, however, the objective was the same:  to fly airplanes, preferably jets, and fast jets if at all possible.

Step one in achieving that objective was passing all the screening tests that would land me a slot in an Air Force pilot training class.  I was told that I could have a slot as an aviation cadet in a navigator training class, if I wanted one.  What the hell; it was a flying job.  I took it.  I received word that I had a slot in Undergraduate Navigator Training Class 61-07 and I was to report in on 7 June 1960.  Destination:  Harlingen Air Force Base, Texas.  One of my uncles, who had been a B-24 gunner in WWII, told me a bit about Harlingen:  hot, humid, and the gnats were bothersome.  He had gone through aerial gunnery training at Harlingen.

On the stifling morning of 8 June 1960, after an all night flight that took three of us from Chicago-Midway to Dallas, two other would be aviation cadets and I got off a Trans Texas DC-3 at Harlingen Air Force Base.  We were met by a Blue Bird bus and a soon-to-be-graduating aviation cadet.  Double Gold they called those guys.  Unlike all the rest of the aviation cadets, their shoulder boards were white and had two gold stripes running their length.  We were fortunate in that we got a the laid back, what me worry, Double Gold cadet.  The would change as soon as we got off the bus.

The Blue Bird trundled several brand new aviation cadets, including me, off to D for Dog Squadron.  It was there that we would start our training as officers and navigators.  Needless to say, there was much shouting in somewhat unintelligible jargon used in the universe of aviation cadets.  We were dog tired (no pun intended) having flown all night and now we were being shunted from here to there trying to get settled into Dog Squadron.  It took all day and into the night -- all to the din of shouting by upperclassmen.  When lights out came I went right to sleep, only to be awakened a minute later by some nitwit yelling something about "At Ease, At Ease, CCQ..."  It was dark and everyone was  jumping out of their bunks; I could hear the feet hitting the floor.  "They can't mean me," I thought, hoping all of this was a bad dream.  It wasn't.  So we crawled back into our civilian clothes and stumbled out into the semi-darkness toward Company Street.

The next two weeks were our break-in period.  We marched around in the sage green cotton flying suits that were the standard garb for Air Force aviators.  We lived in those green bags; literally.  The cadet jargon for this initial stage of training was Green Tux(edo).  We marched and sweated and marched some more and did things like get initial issue of clothing and equipment that we would be using for the next ten or eleven months.  Oh, those green bags did get sweaty in the south Texas sun; they became salt encrusted with sweat; day after day, they became sweatier and sweatier, saltier and saltier.  It got to the point where we didn't need to hang them on a hangar; they could stand on their own.

After two weeks, those of us who survived the first two weeks of screening as Green Tux transitioned to Fourth Class Aviation Cadets and started learning the basics of marching, saluting, and all the other basic military skills we needed to have.  Then, finally, the navigation training began.  The curriculum included all the skills that MATS and SAC wanted in a newly minted navigator.  It would take about ten months to complete.

The aircraft we would practice our new-found knowledge in was the T-29C "Flying Classroom", a version of the Convair 240.  In practicing, more of us would be weeded out by the challenges posed by the various navigation techniques we had to learn and show some semblance of proficiency in before we could be awarded our wings and a commission as a Second Lieutenant.  Only after 22 May 1961 did the journey begin in earnest.

The Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum is about 26 miles southwest of Omaha.  The museum has a long history of telling the story of Strategic Air Command and has an impressive number of aircraft to support the telling of that story.  One of the aircraft happens to be a nicely restored example of the T-29C.  Last Veterans Day, the museum had a tribute to all veterans; Linda and I attended.  Prior to the event I asked the new museum director, Dr. Mike McGinnis, for access to the interior of The Flying Classroom to get some pictures.  As an aside, Mike McGinnis is also a retired Army Brigadier General and probably the best thing that has happened to the museum in many years.  Mike happily obliged and after the day's events were over I went over to the T-29; a couple of museum restoration people and I went aboard.  I was amazed at the interior.

It was all there, pretty much.  And pretty much as I remember it, from a distance of 54 years.  

T-29C, tail number 0-00190 is a gem.  Nicely restored, both inside and out.  It has been restored as a walk-through display, when the situation warrants.  It is also used as a classroom, just as it was during its flying days.  It's just that it never leaves the protection of the hangar these days.  It has all the basic equipment I remember from all those years ago:  several driftmeters; three or four astrodomes (now crazed by exposure to the Sun), a periscopic sextant mount complete with Kollsman D-1 sextant.  The integrator timer works and the two averager indices aligned after the timer ran out.  I wonder if the bubble chamber still works.  Unfortunately, the sextant mount was sealed some time ago to keep water from seeping into the aircraft.

Entering the bird from the aft hatch (that bailout strap that used to be there is gone) the first things you see are a couple of driftmeters and an APN-9 Loran receiver.  In fact, there are several Loran receivers on board.  The seats and desk tops are pretty much the way I remember them, but they likely are not original equipment.  And we definitely didn't have those nifty little desk illumination lamps built into the interior wall of the bird.  Those would have been nicer than the lamps we actually had.  And check out that oxygen regulator under the right rear corner of the nav table.

I just had to go forward to check out the APS-23 Master Radar position.  It was pretty much
as I remember it.  I only sat there for a sortie one time, and that was on one last flight for the month's flight pay before we graduated.  The instructors were busy monitoring student progress on whatever it was they were practicing, day celestial, I think.  The students were officers  and a couple of them kept bugging me wanting to know where we were on that Edinburgh-to-Sweetwater route we all recall so well.  I just ignored them.  What could they do?  I noted one detail about the Master Radar position that escaped me as a student navigator:  That half a dog house looking thing sitting on top of the indicator is part of the radar scope camera mechanism.  It houses a mirror assembly that directs an image of the radar scope itself to a 35mm film canister mounted behind the dog house.  You can see the back end of the film canister just behind the yoke that suspends the radar indicator.  I learned about radar scope photography flying the EB-66C in Southeast Asia.  As an aside, in Southeast Asia they suggested to you that if you found yourself to be temporarily disoriented, you should remove the cover of the film canister and shine a flashlight inside to make sure the film was feeding properly.

Taking in some of the other details in the bird, I noticed a hand held sextant hanging in one of the astrodomes.  It wasn't the MA-2  that we used, but an older one that was being phased out when we went through UNT all those years ago.  I did find the carrying case for a MA-2 sextant, but sadly, it was empty.  However lying right next to it was the aluminum mounting arm for an astrocompass.  I asked the two restoration folks who were with me where the astrocompass was.  Turned out there was none.  I then explained what it was, how it fitted onto the mounting arm, and how the whole assembly fitted into the astrodome.  "Oh," they
said, almost in unison, "we were wondering what that was."  At that moment I decided that an astrocompass would be a worthy addition to the exhibit.  And I knew, sort of, where I might find one:  Bill Day.
Bill Day

John McKinnon
When we got back home I did a quick check of eBay and found out how much a relic like the MKII astrocompass was selling for.  And then I emailed Bill Day.  Bill told me that he used to have a MKII astrocompass (sun compass he likes to call it), but he had given it away to John McKinnon as a prize several class reunions ago.  However, as far as he knew it was still in McKinnon's possession and stashed under his bed.  In short, that piece of history was gathering dust someplace in California (correction:  he lives in Tacoma, Washington).  

Bill said that John McKinnon was a hard man to find and didn't answer his phone or emails very often.  In fact McKinnon had been out of contact for some time.  Bill recruited Gill Armenta, another classmate into this effort since Gill lived fairly close to McKinnon and looked in on him from time to time.  Armenta, too, tried to contact McKinnon with no success.  It looked like I was going to have to buy a MKII astrocompass because that T-29 in the museum needed one to complete the historical picture.  
Gill Armenta

The effort went on for several months while Bill and I shopped on eBay and even bid on two or three MKII astrocompasses -- and lost out on every bid.  The astrocompass pickings were beginning to look pretty slim and the price on the less than desirable pieces of junk astrocompasses went up as supply became tight.  Finally, Gill made contact with McKinnon by, as I recall, driving to his house and talking to him.  In any case, a deal was struck and Gill took possession of the astrocompass.  From then on the going was simple.  I waited until I had the astrocompass in hand before I contacted Mike McGinnis; he in turn, contacted his curator, Brian York, to arrange transfer of the astrocompass to the museum.  Finally, on fine day in March (I think it was in March), I drove the twenty-some miles out to the museum and found Brian York waiting for me at the front desk.  We were headed for the library when Mike McGinnis joined us.  I gave them a verbal description of what the thing was and what it did; and then I asked if we could go down the T-29 exhibit and I would demonstrate how it fit in the aircraft.  Brian and I went down to the bird and Brian rolled up a boarding ramp; we clambered aboard.  I found the mounting arm, took the astrocompass out its carrying case, and inserted it into the mounting base.  Then I slipped it into the
mounting bracket on the rim of the astrodome.  Perfect.  Almost.  You with sharp eyes will note that the astrocompass is pointed 90 degrees off of where it should be pointed.  Some day I'm going to have to go out there and correct that minor error.

Maybe Dr. McGinnis will let me show his restorers one more detail.  Better his restorers actually work on the thing than me.  They do have lots of unique skills.