Dassault-Breguet Br.1150 ‘Atlantique’
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The longest flight I ever made, in distance and time, was in an A-10 Thunderbolt II (the ‘Warthog’, or ‘Hog’).

Some background: The Hog is a single-seat fighter. There is no co- or auto-pilot, you hand-fly it ALL the time.  On deployment flights to distant locales (i.e., across the Atlantic or the Pacific Oceans), it was fitted with a 600-gallon fuel tank under each wing; sometimes, there was another on the centerline.  Those BIG tanks were not perfectly aligned, which meant you couldn’t get the airplane trimmed away for very long.  They also made the airplane sluggish in both pitch and roll inputs.  Despite carrying them, on loooooong flights, you still had to rendezvous with airborne tankers for aerial refueling.

Squadron patch of the ‘355th Fighting Falcons’.

Squadron patch of the ‘355th Fighting Falcons’.

Additional background: In January 1979, our squadron, the 355th Fighter Squadron (the ‘Fighting Falcons’), deployed to Germany as part of a REFORGER exercise.  REFORGER was an acronym for REturn of FORces to GERmany in which US air and ground forces deployed to West Germany, could exercise countering the Russians invading and turning the Cold War hot.

Nordholz German Naval Base (ETMN) was our squadron’s Co-located Operating Base (COB) where we would be based if REFORGER changed from an exercise to reality.  Located in northwest Germany near the North Sea, it’s west of Hamburg and north of Bremerhaven.  Our host unit at Nordholz flew the Dassault-Breguet Br.1150Atlantiques’ (below) on maritime patrol missions.

Dassault-Breguet Br.1150 ‘Atlantique’

Dassault-Breguet Br.1150 ‘Atlantique’

To get to Germany, our squadron launched 18 A-10s from our home base (Myrtle Beach AFB, SC – MYR) VERY early on a cool January morning and flew a non-stop, great-circle route to Nordholz.  Joining up with KC-135 ‘tankers’ off the east coast of the US while it was still dark, the Hogs refueled while crossing the North Atlantic.  After topping off the Hogs west of Ireland, the tankers landed in England and the Hogs continued eastward, cruising into West Germany late in the afternoon.

Along with several other pilots, I was part of the advance party (ADVON) who had flown to Nordholz several days earlier on a chartered 707.  The ADVON consisted of support personnel (crew chiefs, maintainers, weapons handlers, etc.) plus us frustrated pilots, who would rather be flying a Hog.  We set up to greet our ‘Pigs in Space’ (thank you Muppets for that line).

As our Hogs shut down, I welcomed the pilots by clambering up their boarding ladder and handing them a cold beer.  Shortly after landing, the wing tanks were downloaded and stored until we prepared for the return flight.

When it kicked off, REFORGER went as planned, except we had to redeploy to Sembach Air Base in central Germany because a blizzard swept in from the North Sea clobbering Nordholz.  From Sembach, we flew missions across West Germany with many sorties flown close to the infamous Fulda Gap through which we believed the Russians would invade West Germany.

Sidebar:  On my first REFORGER mission, I flew my very first precision approach to minimums. I had just started the throttles forward when I spotted the runway and landed! WHEW!!

When REFORGER ended, we redeployed to Nordholz to prepare for our return to Myrtle Beach.  Our COB hosts were most gracious for our one-month visit.  One evening, they fed us smoked eel.  As payback, we took over their mess hall a few nights later and fixed them Mexican food.  Like we had done, they said they enjoyed the meal.

I was selected to fly one of the Hogs home as #2 on the squadron commander’s wing.  I was excited to make my first (and only) ‘Trans-Lant’ (trans-Atlantic) flight.  Primarily because of the jet stream, we planned to fly home via a southern route stopping in Spain, the Azores, and Bermuda.  Join me now on that flight.

Taking off from Nordholz one morning, we crossed France on our way to Zaragoza Air Base, Spain (ZAZ).  We didn’t have to refuel in flight, but the external fuel tanks were slung under our wings again, and they were full so we could check them before venturing out over the Atlantic.  We spent an extra day at Zaragoza waiting for weather over the eastern Atlantic to clear.  Finally, we launched and headed to the Azores.  We also flew this leg without any aerial refueling, but our external tanks were full in case we had to turn back to Spain.

I must now confess something I did as we were letting down to the Azores.  Imagine flying one of 18 fighter aircraft descending to a cluster of beautiful islands in the midst of a peaceful ocean.  The sky was clear with the sun glinting off the surrounding waters.  We easily spotted the Azores from many miles away.

In a moment of inspiration, I keyed my radio on our squadron common VHF/FM frequency so everyone could hear what I said, and ATC would be none the wiser.  I couldn’t help myself as I broadcast, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”  Nobody said a word, but I’ll bet there were smiles in at least 16 of our A-10s.  The squadron commander in #1 and the operations officer in #10 probably only smiled to themselves.  Nothing was ever said, but I’m certain voice recognition led most to realize I was the guilty party.  I’m also sure others kicked themselves for not doing this sooner.

After landing at Lajes Field (TER), we spent a couple of days waiting for the weather to clear in the central Atlantic.  When we awoke on our scheduled departure day, it was pouring down rain.  However, the ‘weather-guessers’ said everything cleared up a few dozen miles west of Lajes and we were given a thumbs up by the controller serving as our escort in a ‘Duck-Butt’.

If you’re wondering about Duck-Butts, there’s an earlier Air Facts Journal article about them.  Had one of our pilots ejected over the Atlantic, they would have provided rescue operations.  Despite their name, it was reassuring to have them escort us.

As we rode a bus to our unsheltered Hogs, the weather looked awful.  When I got to my steed, I got soaked as I did a thorough preflight, but I was not as wet as my crew chief who greeted me planeside.  Before I climbed up the boarding ladder to strap in, I told him to get under the wing for a brief respite from the weather.  I then opened the canopy for the first time, climbed up and climbed in, closed the canopy and then strapped into my ACES II ejection seat, which was certainly NOT a Barcalounger recliner.  I started the engines and, with the crew chief on his headphones with me, completed the preflight checks.

We then engaged in a ‘Hog walk’ (below) as our squadron commander led us to the active runway.  When we lined up for takeoff, he broadcast on squadron common, “Gents, this is going to be tough, let’s fly ’em like we always do, professionally!

A ‘Hog Walk’ sans wing tanks.

A ‘Hog Walk’ sans wing tanks.

With that, he released his brakes and we were off on a radar-trail departure.  We were to maintain position one mile behind the preceding aircraft using our onboard radar.

WAIT A MINUTE!… the A-10 doesn’t have a radar system!  Instead, we were flying a Standard Instrument Departure (SID).  The spacing was achieved by each aircraft releasing their brakes 20 seconds after the preceding aircraft started their takeoff roll.  After getting airborne and accelerating to 250 KIAS, everyone set their power to 98%, maintained that airspeed, and lumbered off into the weather.

The SID was based on the local TACAN.  We first flew a radial, which was basically the runway heading (southeast).  From that radial, we intercepted and flew a clockwise arc at a designated DME until we intercepted another radial taking us westward (“Go west young men!”).

As the commander turned onto that arc, I used cutoff to join up with him in a break in the weather. I then flew in ‘fingertip’ formation (stacked slightly low with three foot wingtip clearance) as we flew back into the ‘goo’.  At 250 KIAS, reduced power, and those %@$#&! wing tanks, it took a very long time to get on top!

Emerging from the weather, lead broadcast, “One and two are joined up in the clear at 16,000.”  About 40 seconds later, #3 broke out of the clouds and transmitted, “Three’s in the clear, two aircraft in sight.”  The commander responded, “Cleared to rejoin.”; he was quickly in ‘fingertip’ (below) with us.

Three ‘Hogs’ in fingertip formation.

Three ‘Hogs’ in fingertip formation.

Shortly afterward, #4 broadcast, “Four’s in the clear, three aircraft in sight.”  This time, lead replied, “Cleared to trail.”  After rejoining, #3 had changed to a new TACAN channel and #4 had set his TACAN so that it would display the DME from #3; #4 took up station one mile in trail.  We then heard #6 call in the clear, and #4 cleared him to rejoin.  We were all on the same radio frequency; everybody was wondering, “Where’s #5?

Then, things got VERY interesting as #7 broke into the clear and took up station a mile in trail from #6 and was soon joined by #’s 8 and 9.  But there was still no word from #5!  Finally, to everyone’s relief, we heard, “Five’s in the clear, 8 aircraft in sight!”  He was cleared to rejoin #’s 4 & 6.  To this day, nobody knows how he got so far behind AND avoided a mid-air!

Shortly thereafter, the second bunch of nine Hogs got rejoined (with nobody going missing); next stop, Bermuda.

To make things interesting, we reentered the weather.  We plowed ahead, with each element of three aircraft flying in fingertip formation.  Trailing elements kept their distance from preceding elements using the TACAN DME aid as well as stacking 500 feet lower than the element in front of them.

As we groped along in the ‘goo’, we began getting concerned about our planned rendezvous with the KC-135s (two cells of three tankers each) assigned to refuel us.  They had launched after us because, like every other Air Force aerospace vehicle (except maybe helicopters), tankers fly faster than Hogs.

So, how did we rendezvous with the tankers as they overtook us flying in IMC?  They were at the top of a reserved altitude block we were assigned, which put them several thousand feet above our lead element.  They were in VMC, but we couldn’t climb until we had visual contact with them.  This situation continued for several very long minutes with a lot of head-scratching (helmet-scratching?) and chatter between #1 of our gaggle and #1 of theirs.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glint of sunlight off one of the tankers.  For the first (and ONLY) time in my flying career, I barked, “Lead, check twelve o’clock high!”  He turned his head upwards, called, “Tally Ho!”, and started climbing.  It was the lead cell of three tankers with each three-ship element of Hogs assigned a tanker from which to refuel.  With us in the clear, the nine trailing Hogs were able to safely climb and rejoin with their tankers.

You would think things got easier, but you would be wrong.  We ALL plowed into the weather with three Hogs flying formation on each KC-135 tanker!  Thanks, ‘weather-guessers’!

Aerial refueling is challenging, but isn’t that hard, until you throw in extenuating factors like weather and those %@$#&!! external fuel tanks making trouble for our trim, pitch, and roll inputs.

At one point while I was connected to the boom taking gas, I wondered why the tanker was slowly doing Dutch rolls above me.  I finally realized I was in a PIO (Pilot Induced Oscillation); I was overcontrolling my ailerons!  The boom operator must have been a real pro; he never disconnected me, until I had my offload of gas.

We continued flying in IMC while refueling from the tankers; eventually, we emerged into VMC conditions, which came MUCH later than we had been briefed.  Being in VMC allowed everyone to relax and move from fingertip to ‘route’ formation, which is one to three ship-widths from the element leader/tanker.  A while later, everyone topped off and the tankers left us behind as we now had enough gas to reach Bermuda.

It was a great relief to be out of the weather and enjoying the warm sunshine.  The sun glinting off the waters of the Atlantic and our view of the seaborne ships below was spectacular.  But my troubles weren’t over; I started getting sleepy from the time changes we had experienced over the past several days.  On top of that, I had eaten my lunch (a sandwich and bag of chips washed down with a Coke), and relieved myself using a ‘piddle-pack’, an oversized, heavy-duty Ziplock with absorbent powder inside to soak up that which I deposited therein.  Additionally, this flight had been exhausting – TO SAY THE LEAST!

To stay awake, I took two ‘Go-pills’, which the flight surgeon had prescribed.  Under pre-deployment supervision of the flight docs at Myrtle Beach, we took these ‘uppers’ while not flying so that they (and we) knew how they affected us and that we could manage those effects.

The ‘Go-pills’ kept me ‘going’ until Naval Air Station Bermuda (TXKF) came into view (and, no, I didn’t transmit “Tora! Tora! Tora!” again); our 18 Hogs landed safely.

My flight lasted NINE and a HALF! hours 9.5!!! with NOBODY else to fly while I ate lunch, which was NOT served by a flight attendant.  I also refueled in both VMC and IMC conditions, and filled my ‘piddle-pack’.  Finally, there was NO inflight entertainment, unless one counts aerial refueling in the ‘goo’, which could be considered the ultimate video game.

I WAS DOG-TIRED, but those ‘Go-pills’ kept me awake through dinner at the Officer’s Club and a movie (National Lampoon’s ‘Animal House’) before I ‘hit the hay.’

The next day, we launched for the three hour flight to Myrtle Beach.  However, the weather once again intervened, the ‘Beach’ was socked in, and we held off the coast in VMC for an hour hoping it would clear.  When it didn’t, we diverted to Naval Air Station Jacksonville, FL (NIP) for the night.  The next morning, we launched into and landed under blue skies with our families glad to see us, and us glad to be home!

Postscript:  Upon landing and deplaning, each pilot was sporting a small German flag sewn on the right shoulder of our Nomex flight jacket below our squadron patch.  We did this to show solidarity with our allies in the Cold War.

However, one ‘intrepid Hog driver’ went the extra mile.  He was wearing a German Naval officer’s gray leather flight jacket.  He had traded his own jacket with one of our hosts and gained a new callsign.  We now called him ‘Deiter’, which means ‘Army of the People’; in his case, it meant ‘Air Force of the People’.

Dale Hill
10 replies
  1. don
    don says:

    Fun read, Dale- thanks for sharing your experience. Very interesting to read about the effects of the external tanks of the A-10s trim-ability. 9+ hours is a long time in the saddle!

  2. Howard “Howie” Biichle
    Howard “Howie” Biichle says:

    Col. Hill,

    My Uncle flew FAC in Vietnam early in the war. I was wondering if you knew Stuart Kane.

  3. John Entwistle
    John Entwistle says:

    Dale, you always tell a great story. I look forward to your postings they are one of the highlights of AFJ.

  4. Cal W. Tax
    Cal W. Tax says:

    You are really a pro and you help me refresh my aged memory of the experiences I have had while flying and fighting. Keep the great stories coming and I still want to drag you over here for a Stearman flight.
    Check Six!

  5. Drew Kemp
    Drew Kemp says:

    Another great story, Dale! We were with you the whole way. I tried aerial refueling once in a KC-10 level -D sim once, at Travis AFB (SUU). That was a hoot!

    Cheers, Drew

  6. José Serra
    José Serra says:

    So good to read stuff like this. I hope that kids have interest in reading stories like the one You’ve written, for the sake of aviation, either civil, either military, and in tha last, for the defense of the country and freedom. Bless You.

  7. Mike N
    Mike N says:

    Dale, thanks for the usual great read. You had me thinking “learn something new every day” when I read about your radar trail departure – you got me! Interesting throughout from both a fellow pilot’s perspective and from a civilian who appreciates all that you and others who served would go through.


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