Have you ever been on the flight line of a major airport or a military air base when it is really, really quiet? Probably not. At Atlanta, Los Angles, Boston, or even Kansas City and Wichita, after the last passenger flight has closed out there will likely be the freighters from FedEx, UPS, and DHL being serviced, cranking, and taxiing for takeoff, and the inbounds rolling out and heading for the trans-shipment points.
On most military bases during peacetime, quiet hours are invoked around 2300 and in force until 0400 the next day. In the interim, there will be much reduced activity. Hush houses are in place to allow for engine runs, so the noise is lower. But there is still activity associated with towing aircraft, moving ground equipment, bringing jets out of hangars and to the flight line for the first go – around daybreak. Quieter, but busy.
I can think of a few times where I was on a quiet, I mean really quiet flight line. Once was when I was the commander of an F-4 squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. In the mid-eighties Seymour was a busy operation – nearly one hundred Phantoms and a squadron of KC-135s were bedded down there.
It was the Reagan days, and the Commander of Tactical Air Command had his sortie production philosophy at full throttle. Each squadron – there were four – generated about 500 sorties a month. On a periodic basis we’d surge the wing, and in a three-day period put out 70 sorties per day for three days running. Do the math and 70 x 4 x 3 works out to around 800 sorties on the equivalent of a three-day weekend. (For my Navy friends who used to tell me how the equivalent of Seymour was jammed on a carrier all we had was a golf course – well, I admire the skill of the carrier crews, but there is value in mass over an extended period – and that doesn’t come off a single deck many days in a row!)
So, air bases are busy pretty much 24/7. Quiet times are few – the occasions I remember were Christmas Eves. We tried not to fly any that day, but there were always a few early sorties to clear maintenance deficiencies and fill some proficiency requirements. But we were always wrapping up the day before noon. Usually the afternoon staff meeting was accomplished by paper review. A few pilots and WSOs lingered in the squadron to close out some paperwork and in the Rocket Lounge for a few Coors.
Around 1400 the last in the building – probably some of our life support technicians finishing the post flight care of helmets, masks and harnesses – were shooed out and the door was secured. Around then I’d walk down to the Aircraft Maintenance Unit and get together with the AMU chief, the senior maintenance NCO, Chief Kirkman (while this is arguable, I believe he’s the originator of “good to go” as the signal to send an aircraft out quick on a mission – and he meant it) and perhaps Woody, the best flight line expediter in the entire Tactical Air Command.
We’d walk the 30 or 40 yards from their office on the flight line to make sure the work force was gone – we’d give the remaining few a pat on the back, a handshake of thanks for giving their best in the Nellis heat, the Cold Lake cold, and the thick humidity of the American Southeast for the year. With that done, we’d take a look at the 24 yellow tail F-4Es of the Rocketeer fleet. Buttoned up and looking good.
Even in North Carolina, it was usually cold. On Christmas Eve, it was quiet – way quiet. Down the line were the Blue tails of the 334th, the Green tails of the 335th, and the Red tails of the 337th.
As we’d walk the line, we’d groan about some of the last-minute tasking we’d choked down, laugh at some of the rookie mistakes made by aircrew and maintainers alike, and give thanks for a year where every jet we had and every man and woman wearing the Rocketeer patch was with us to celebrate a most significant holiday and give a short prayer for a safe and happy holiday, and return for more “opportunities” in the days to come.
It wasn’t silent, but in the cold December air it was quiet. No power carts running. No expediter trucks hustling specialty technicians to a Double Ugly trying to join a flight already taxiing. No loaders bringing the inert munitions from the bomb dump to the jets. No jets on the hot pits.
Merry Christmas. Silent Night.