Will and Rocky. Two names I haven’t thought about in many, many years. The ice and snow that most of us are experiencing this winter brought back memories of a snowy icy flight made long ago.
We went to Milwaukee, I remember that part, and my logbooks confirm that the trip was sometime in March some forty years ago. If either of the two that are in this narrative are still around, good on you. I’m glad you lasted into this century.
A bit of a background for this tale, we were in a TC-4C, a heavily modified two engine turboprop executive transport saddled with an A-6 nose on the front end and a passenger compartment turned into a flying classroom for new A-6 Bombardier/Navigators. Flying an A-6 and instructing a new guy in the right seat is the definition of task saturation, and aside from the fact that lots of A-6 pilots weren’t nearly as savvy about the ‘trons and things that dominate the B/N’s side of the jet, it was not a good use of precious flight hours. So the Navy came up with the TC-4C Academe (we called it the Tic 4), the classroom in the back of the transport, complete with an entire A-6 cockpit.
Everything on the B/N’s side of the cockpit in the Tic 4 passenger compartment worked just like the jet. Students could go from a cold start through a complete INS alignment, systems check, and then radar navigate to the target, drop a simulated bomb or two, then bring the airplane back to home base without ever looking out the window. The pilot and copilot of the Tic 4 were up front, of course, and did all the flying and followed the headings passed forward from the newbies in back. We also kept a keen eye out for important things. Mountains were important things. ATC kept an eye on us all the time and knew we would wander around the sky on occasion.
I can remember telling ATC at one time that we were going to the 265 radial at 60 DME off the VOR we had just passed. The controller’s response was, “You mean you are going to the “vicinity of” the 265 radial at 60 DME?” He’d seen our act before. Anyway, back to the story.
I was a newbie to the airplane, stashed in the right seat of the Tic 4 for a while after becoming a carrier qualified jet aviator. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I was in an A-6 squadron and was willing to wait for the opportunity to fly the Ugly if I could some day. The aircraft commanders of the Tic 4 were typically VP types, most of them were getting a shore tour and were P3 multi motor seasoned veterans. They were used to a big airplane and lots of crew so I’m not too sure how many of them liked being in the Tic 4 in the midst of a big attack training squadron and far away from the Antisubmarine community. Will was one of the first aircraft commanders I flew with in the Tic 4. The qualification for being in the right seat was you had to be a warm body with wings. I fit that profile well even though I had maybe 400 hours of flight time to my name. I had never flown in a multi crew airplane up to this point, I had no clue about the dynamics of the cockpit with one guy responsible for the conduct of the flight and management of the crew in back and the other guy (me) being along to assist. Have to admit I was clueless about how a crew meshed. Will was different from Mike, who was different from Pete, who did things a bit different from Jim, and so forth. CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) was not a part of the aviation vocabulary yet.
Will was an autocrat. He ran the cockpit with total authority and in doing so was at times a bit abrasive. Me, I was just happy to be around and didn’t let the abrasive thing get to me. After all, I was an Ensign, the only Enswine on the entire base with wings, and I was at the bottom of the pilot food chain. Will had to put up with me and I wanted the flight time. Looking at my old log books lets me know how much Will placed faith in his right seater’s abilities, I can see very few landings credited to me when flying with Will. Matter of fact, in almost 30 flights with Will he allowed me one landing. My job was to talk on the radios and keep ATC happy and read the checklists. I could do that.
So, you might well ask, what does all this have to do with Milwaukee? Well, once in a while there are extra funds and flight hours available and the thing that aviators do is fly, and when all the x’s are in the box for training and there is some slack time it is allowable to go somewhere, gain some more experience and visit exotic places. The opportunity for a cross country in the Tic 4 arose and Will, being the most senior Tic 4 driver at the moment, decided he was going to visit the Air Force Museum at Wright Pat in Ohio. By way of Milwaukee. In March. I know, somehow this doesn’t fit the list of exotic places, but that was the game plan, could have been Will had relatives in Milwaukee, don’t really remember, and I was the only available right seater at the time so I was making the trip with Will.
Oh yeah, Rocky came along too. Rocky heard about the trip and wanted to see the aircraft the Air Force had accumulated in Dayton, so he asked Will if he could come along, and Will welcomed another soul to share the trip. Background on Rocky: he was a RAG instructor, he flew the A-6 and knew it well enough to be an instructor. He had experience, all of the pilots instructing in the RAG had experience. They had all been shot at, dodged stuff flying through the air meant to kill them, flown at atrociously low altitudes on dark rainy nights, and survived the night landings on the carrier afterwards. Rocky had been there, done that. I think his name may have been indicative of something more…
The first leg was from The Rock (Whidbey Island) to Milwaukee, we were to overnight there, refuel, and then make the Museum on a short flight the next morning. It’s a long flight in a lowly turboprop, the Tic 4 couldn’t get up as high as the jets, but the fuel miserly airplane could go a long way. Rocky sat in the back for a while. It didn’t take long for him to become restless and bored so he came up front and watched the goings on. He found the cockpit interesting, I guess, sitting up front in the sunshine on a comfortable seat without all the survival gear and helmet/O2 mask that was typical of Rocky’s normal trappings in an A-6 was novel to Rocky. Eventually he asked if he could fly the right seat for a while. Will could have been tired of the Enswine in the right seat at the moment (me) and readily agreed to the idea, even telling Rocky to stay in the right seat through the rest of the flight and the landing in Milwaukee. I retired to a seat directly behind the cockpit bulkhead, the seat faced aft but I could look over my left shoulder and see Rocky in the copilot’s seat. My intention was that on occasion I might offer Rocky some assistance. I had a very good seat to hear and watch what happened later on.
Didn’t know it was a ringside seat.
The weather at Willy Mitchell Field in Milwaukee is unpredictable. Nearby Lake Michigan influences what happens at the airport and the weather forecasters are often reduced to weather guessers when it involves Milwaukee. In my later career as a civilian I flew into the place many times and learned that what is predicted and what actually occurs may be radically different and will happen on short notice. For our flight the weather forecast wasn’t bad, we wouldn’t have launched to the place in March if we thought it was going to be less than comfortable. However, as we neared our destination in the diminishing light of the afternoon the weather reports began to show a trend. A snowstorm was developing and the ceiling and visibility at the airport was dropping there and everywhere else in the area. The approach was going to be a long descent through icing conditions and the landing would be at close to minimums on a snowy runway that the snowplows were working on continually to keep operations going. Hearing Will and Rocky discuss this didn’t bother me much, I was the new guy, my experience level was such that I didn’t know enough to understand that the approach and landing were going to be a real challenge. Sometimes being young and naive helps keep a calm and optimistic attitude going. Which is what I had.
Will kept Rocky busy on the radios checking the weather at alternate fields in the area, the options seemed to be few. The aircraft started the descent into the goo, I could look outside from my seat and see the ice beginning to build up on the wings, and I could also hear the conversation level in the cockpit rising as the clouds around us grew darker. Much darker. Night was not too far away. The voices from up front were mostly from one person, Will. What I heard was typical of Will: “Descent checklist” Followed by a two or three second pause as Rocky looked for the checklist and was interrupted by a radio transmission, followed by Will saying in a little bit louder and harsher voice, “Gdammit, get the descent checklist!” I looked over my shoulder at Rocky and could see him look at Will. I knew Will was concentrating on the instruments. He could not see the look on Rocky’s face. Rocky was not used to being cursed at.
The descent continued, we were getting closer to the field, and we began picking up ice on the big Dowty Rotol propellors. The ice would build up and then the heated props would sling the ice off at tremendous speeds, the impact on the forward fuselage near all of us making a colossal sledgehammer noise each time it hit. Will made some more requests of Rocky. Demands. Complete with the same language. Rocky was silent, he would just look in Will’s direction with a bit of a scowl. We were slowing down, I knew we were around 10,000 feet or so just by the sound of the engines and the noise of the airstream around the plane.
Will needed the current landing information, broadcast continuously as ATIS (automatic terminal information service). He commanded, “Rocky, get me the current ATIS.” Followed by a short delay and then “Gdammit, get me the frabbing ATIS!” (I have cleaned this up for you younger readers, Gdammit and frabbing are not the real words used. But you know that.) I glanced over my left shoulder again. Rocky was giving Will the stare mixed with the scowl. Rocky listened to the ATIS and wrote it down, then read it to Will. The runways were freshly plowed with packed snow, the wind was blowing, the visibility was not much, and it was snowing. Heavy snow was the description.
Wham! More ice came off the props, I actually lifted a little out of my seat but the seat belt impeded my upward progress. I could feel the aircraft turn as we began to get vectors for the arrival, and then more commands came from Will. “Get the approach checklist out.” Rocky wasn’t fast enough. “G**dammit, Rocky, get me the frabbing approach checklist now!” I saw something in Rocky’s face I hadn’t seen before, the glare and scowl he was giving Will went a few degrees beyond both and I could see the rage about to boil over. Rocky wasn’t used to being cursed at. Will cursed again with the G and F words and made his demand for the checklist.
Rocky took action. He unbuckled his seat belt and stood up, I heard Will say, “What the hell are you doing?” Rocky’s response was controlled and to the point. He simply said to Will, “If you’re so good why don’t you do this by yourself?”
Rocky left the cockpit, sat down and strapped into the seat across the aisle from me. I started to reach for my lap belt and head up front. Rocky pointed a finger at me before I had the buckle undone and said, “Don’t even think about getting out of your seat!” The look on Rocky’s face was kinder than the look he had given Will a few seconds earlier, but it was enough for me let go of my seat belt buckle and put my hands on the armrests. Dang, Rocky scared me. No way was I getting unbuckled! Will was on his own. So Rocky and I sat while the props slung ice into the fuselage, the tail of the airplane yawed to and fro with the turbulence, and Will juggled the approach and checklists while flying on instruments. A one man show in a two man cockpit.
There was a sudden clunk as the landing gear started down, then the noise level diminished as the Tic 4 slowed for the approach. I sat in my seat wondering how all this was going to play out. Never heard of anyone leaving the cockpit like this, never before. Then the engines throttled back and the approach began, I could feel the subtle attitude changes and hear the engines surge and retreat as Will made the approach. Then, after a few minutes, the engines retreated to idle and I knew we were about to touch down. Instead of the minor short screech of the tires I was used to the sound of touch down was a muted thump, which I later realized was the sound of tires making contact with packed snow. The aircraft slowed as the props went into ground pitch and Will worked the rudder pedals. With a little bit of skidding the aircraft finally slowed and I looked out the window as we cleared the runway.
Snow was everywhere, the runways and taxiways were only apparent due to the yellow and blue lights that outlined the edges. It was windy, cold, and ugly out there. Almost as ugly out there as it was inside, or was going to be as soon as the airplane stopped. It was a long slow ride to the ramp, it was quiet inside the airplane. Eventually the Tic 4 crunched to a stop in the snow and the engines whined down. I got up and opened the air stairs door, then began collecting the pitot covers and gear pins to put in place. By the time I was done installing the pins Will and Rocky had the bags unloaded and the air stairs stowed.
We trudged to ops through the silent snow. Not a word was said. What’s the deal? I thought to myself. I was prepared for strong words, harsh words, maybe a little pushing and shoving. But nothing happened. Nothing.
The next day we flew on to Dayton, I took the right seat for the rest of the flights. We enjoyed the AF Museum, back then the facility wasn’t what it is today and most of the big jets were outside on a taxiway, lined up. We stopped and looked at each airplane, admiring each one. It was snowing softly. The trip was worth it, so many treasures in the aviation world just sitting there, from a B-17 to the XB-70 Valkyrie. We were the only visitors outside. Had the place to ourselves, and we discussed what we knew about each plane. A pleasant outing, but the events of the previous day gnawed at my brain. What the heck is going to happen to Rocky? He left his station! What was Will going to do when we got back to The Rock, was he going straight to the skipper with his damning story? Was I going to be a witness in some sort of a proceeding, a disciplinary action?
The next day we flew back to The Rock. All the way there my mind was churning with what was going to happen after our arrival. Will and Rocky had been very cordial with each other for the last two days, heck, Will was even somewhat restrained with me in the right seat. He had changed, not a big change, but nevertheless a change. The autocrat Will wasn’t always present, at times Will was almost…pleasant.
What happened after we returned?
Nothing. No discussion, no talks, no dancing on the green rug in front of the skipper’s desk. No inquisition. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
What’s the deal here?
Years later I can come up with a theory that could work.
Will was embarrassed.
The multi motor big airplane aircraft commander was abrasive and rude enough in his cockpit to incite mutiny in the cockpit. His crew of one abandoned ship in the storm, as it were. It was Rocky playing the role of Mr. Christian to Will’s Captain Bligh. Rocky knew and I figured out later that Will wasn’t going to report the event to anyone. A big hearing, some kind of investigation, a table of fellow aviators appointed to get to the bottom of things and record their findings, all of those possibilities were just that, possibilities. Possibilities that were going to fade away.
Will didn’t want the world to know what happened. Will got the message that Rocky delivered and I remembered through my aviation career: just because you’re not the guy in charge doesn’t mean you have to allow anyone else to abuse you.
Thanks, Rocky. There were times later in my flying that you gave me backbone in the right seat. Sometimes people will push you just because they can. Sometimes you push back because you can. Rocky taught me I could. When I earned the right to sit in the left seat memories of Will were with me. I knew who I didn’t want to be.