Controlling An English Disaster
(Of American Origin)

Richard Franklin Bishop

© Copyright 2014 by Richard Franklin  Bishop  

Pilot ejecting from jet.

My Military Life Series (Without Deadly Force)
Part One - Enjoying Asia
Part Three - My Life As A Non-Combatant
Part Four - A Mysterious Disappearance
Part Five - Controlling An English Disaster
                       (Of American Origin) 
Part Six - Well, Major, What Do You Know?                    

In 1968, after serving exactly one year in Thailand, I had applied for and was given another overseas assignment, this time to England. The U.S. Air Force called this a “Consecutive Overseas Tour.” This Permanent Change of Station (PCS) was considered to be a “Plum” by me since for 11 years I had been trying (unsuccessfully) for an European overseas tour after obtaining my Commission as a U.S. Air Force Officer in 1957. The Main Island of the United Kingdom seemed to me to be an adventurous destination for an American, or as the tongue-in-cheek saying goes: “two English-speaking peoples separated by the same language.”

Early on, as a First Lieutenant, I had been offered (and had accepted) a REGULAR Commission in the U.S. Air Force. I wanted the permanence of a full professional career in the Military (not just “Reserve” status) and hoped to experience:

“. . . every kind of extraordinary adventure that a two-legged being without wings could encounter” (my apologies to the late, great Jules Verne in his book, The Mysterious Island (1876), for taking his words slightly out of context).

Up until my tour at U-Tapao RTNS (Royal Thai Naval Station), 90 miles Southeast of Bangkok, Thailand, my military career had been fairly uneventful – most of the time I had been assigned to Troop Carrier units of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) [now called Military Airlift Command (MAC)] and I was “a desk jockey,” i.e., a “pencil pusher.”

The “Gulf of Siam” assignment with PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) changed all that as my Finance Office directly supported a Strategic Air Command (SAC) Wing of B-52 Bombers and their crews; their mission being to bomb Viet Nam. They were a lively bunch to say the least, and Thailand was “no slouch” as a place to hang your hat. Besides that, being armed with a .38 Caliber Revolver and accompanying foot-lockers full of cash payrolls in the millions, did qualify as somewhat beyond what I had imagined I would be doing.

And to break the monotony of these peaks of otherwise exciting events, on payday, our responsibility included taking care of itinerant U.S. Naval ships; the last one being a large ocean-going Tugboat !

I had survived this tour of duty and was a newly promoted Major. Further, I had been selected to be given the Accounting and Finance “Account” at RAF Lakenheath in England. I was really looking forward to this job as I could imagine continuing to be a partner in sharing exciting events - this time on SHAPE's front line. This was the home of a Tactical Fighter Wing of USAFE (U. S. Air Forces, Europe) and I eagerly joined the Staff of the Base Support Group, at the town of Brandon, also near RAF Mildenhall and the City of Bury-St. Edmunds in Merrie Olde England.

I found out right away that fame was no stranger to this outfit. My Wing Commander, a Colonel, had won the Bendix National Air Race Trophy back in 1953 while still a Major by flying an F-86F from Edwards Air Force Base, Muroc, California, to Wright-Patterson, AFB, Dayton, Ohio, in three hours, five minutes and 25 seconds or an average of 603.55 Miles per Hour.

5 September 1953 - The Bendix Event Is Highlight Of National Races. 

DAYTON, OH (UP)--The national air races--aviation's greatest show--opened here today highlighted by a 1,900-mile dash from California by 10 Sabrejets (F-86) in the Bendix Trophy race. The Bendix trophy flyers were scheduled to reach here from Edwards Air Force Base at Muroc, California , about noon EST. More than 50,000 persons spent the morning here marveling at the exhibits of aviation's progress since two of Dayton's most famous citizens, Orville and Wilbur Wright astounded the world by flying 50 years ago. There were more than 700 planes and other exhibits for the crowds to see attracting considerable interest.

Our Base Commander, also a Colonel, had been the Bendix Trophy “runner-up” the same year. I, and others, were to re-live this race with them many times over. After settling-in to the daily routine of pay problems and paydays, I was notified that I had been selected to perform another “additional duty.” Such “extraordinary duties” were normally given to young Officers to give them a a chance to acquire in-depth and varied experiences. But, this one was different – not for desk jockies – not for paper-pushers – not for couch potatoes – but for one who would become assigned directly to the front-line during emergencies. This remarkable additional job came complete with a white Helmet, and white Coveralls and was called the “Disaster Control Officer” – and he commanded the Disaster Control Team, when called to duty.

That was all. No vehicle with a siren. No “Walkie-Talkie.” No Video Camera. More than one of my fellow Officers were sharing my joy on this roster; each of us rotating with the duty every few weeks.

I was in my Finance Office when the Base Siren sounded. It was not Wartime so nobody headed out for the Air Raid Shelters. My name was on the roster this week and the screaming siren was just for me and a chosen few others. I grabbed my white helmet and was out the door struggling into the white coveralls just in time to be greeted at the curb by the Base Commander in his big Staff Car. He said, sympathetically: “How about a ride – I'll fill you in on the way about what's happened.” It was then I knew for sure that my first case was not a practice exercise !

One of our Jet Fighter Aircraft had had a Flame-Out in the landing pattern. The pilot had some altitude still but couldn't restart it. After that unsuccessful effort, there was no time remaining to divert left or right and he was forced, with full approbation of the Tower to eject (they had quickly calculated that with his extraordinarily fast loss of altitude & relatively low speed, the resulting trajectory would cause the aircraft to fall (like a stone) well short of the populated areas into a forest of trees). Luckily, he had safely landed in a forest clearing and was uninjured. The Medics had already picked him up and were on the way to the Base Hospital for a more thorough examination.

The Base Commander had gotten all this information from “the Brick” (his “Walkie-Talkie”) and we were on our way off-base to the impact area of the aircraft. It was sunny and dry when I heard this scenario, and I was really happy to have this ride and some sturdy shoes on – more than glad to think that we didn't have to worry about mud up to the knees.

In 15 minutes or so we pulled over and stopped on the left side of a two-lane asphalt country road running through the forest that surrounded the Base. The road was at a 90° angle to the Runway. The pilotless aircraft had continued on “dead ahead” in the direction of the Runway, had plummeted down about 1½ miles short of the Base, bounced on the soft earth a couple of times mowing down pine trees like grass, skidded across the road we were on – scuffing a shallow furrow – and came to rest about 150 yards on the other (Right) side of it.

We were witness to the RAF Lakenheath Base Fire Department battling the flames with foam – the aircraft, being at the end of its mission, had minimal fuel on board and so they were successfully controlling the flames which, luckily, had not spread much in the underbrush of the woods after a wet season. Two Air Force Security Policemen from the Base were putting up barricades in two places on the road (one on each side of the damage marks) and stringing yellow “Crime Scene” tapes to stop civilian traffic and to reserve access to the road only for emergency vehicles.

When the Base Commander saw that the aircraft fire was under control (and diminishing) and that the proper personnel were on the scene, he said: “I'm dropping you off here. Make sure that the Photographers get pictures for the formal Aircraft Accident Report before the aircraft 'remains' get moved.”

Then he departed -- leaving me on my first assignment as a Disaster Control Officer (like all Commanders) feeling really alone. I had just taken in the physical aspects at a glance; a sticky mess, burning hulk and all. I thought to myself, thank God the Pilot got out and was unhurt and we only had an empty cockpit to contend with. I further thought; well you asked for it; there's nothing “ho-hum” about this assignment ! But, little did I know what still lay in store for us shortly on the human aspects.

I made contact with the Security Policemen and the exceedingly busy Fire Chief. At about that time, in the distance, I saw a very British looking Official Police Vehicle rapidly approaching from the opposite direction with a siren warbling a scream and lights blazing (blue, blue, blue). It arrived, skidding to a halt on our Right with all four wheels locked. For an instant, the only sound was the tall antenna going “Swish, Swish, Swish” like a whip. Out stepped the “nemesis” of every law-breaker in the British Empire – a towering and spotless British Police Superintendent. Now, I knew right then and there that we were in for it because this was not your average friendly British “Bobby- on-a-Bicycle.” He didn't immediately identify himself or ask for my I.D. but he just started talking and got right to the point.

His manner told me that he was greatly irritated and upset about the course of events that had “broken the peace” in his Community. With his rank, they wouldn't have assigned him just to some small town, but rather to a sizeable City and the surrounding areas. He probably had the equivalent of two U.S. Counties under his jurisdiction. I could sense that this was not a good time to ask him to show his “badge” of authority. So we both were forced to get along with our respective uniforms as authorization enough to be in this “face-off;” my white coveralls and helmet looking like a rumpled fugitive from an Atomic Reactor Plant and his; spic & span & immaculate, like he had just come from the formal ceremony of being “Knighted.”

He said words of great import: “You are blocking a well-traveled improved road of Her Majesty, The Queen. Your vehicles are rutting-up Her Majesty's Forest while an illegal and dangerous fire is in progress. I want the flames put out and that burning thing taken out of here straightaway!” 

I wanted to say dryly: “No Kidding ?” But, I knew that he was really only doing his job, although he was seemingly brusque about it.

So I said instead, trying to keep the prevention of an International Incident uppermost in my mind: “This is an Aircraft Crash Impact Area – this is not a U.S. Military Exercise of RAF Lakenheath. It was and still is a real aircraft Emergency – and we're bringing it to an end as fast as we can.”

He didn't let me off for one minute with that and said: “Stuff and nonsense. The emergency is over – just tidy-up, shift that warplane, leave some warning barriers on the roadway, and take away that ridiculous tape.” (Apparently his authority ran to having the last word in every conversation - but at that moment I had to give him credit – his instructions had changed from very formal to very succinct and were “glass” clear).

Nevertheless, I was persistent and said patiently: “Of course, we are already doing what you ask – but very carefully. We'll transport the aircraft as soon as the fire is completely out.” And, with a nod, he was off tramping around the area with scissors-like steps noticing especially the blackened areas sometimes streaked with foam, the long corridor with flattened trees, and the deep grooves in the soft Forest earth made by the heavy fire-fighting vehicles.

The problem was that the Cameramen from the Base Photographic Laboratory still were not yet here because they, like me, had no assigned vehicle and were always “bumming” a ride. Remembering what the Base Commander had said, I walked over to the Fire Chief and asked hopefully: “How much foam do you have left ? Perhaps enough for another half-hour ?” 

And he said: “Yes, because of the bad weather this year, we haven't put in as much training time as we usually do with those old fuselages on Base, so we've got plenty to spare.” I explained what the Base Commander had said and he said: “Not to worry, the fire is not officially out until we stop spraying. Right? And besides, it's better to use it on a real fire for a change.” 

And I said, with great relief: “You've got the picture....Thanks a million !”

But, since the situation was already so fragile, the “sweating it out” now began in earnest. This was because, in the meantime, via a radio/telephone in the fire-fighting equipment, a mobile crane-hoist had been ordered-out together with a Semi-vehicle (heavy-mover). The crane-hoist could travel on its own “flat feet” perhaps 3 to 4 miles per hour. Since it had been en route 20 minutes or so already, we expected it in less than half an hour. When it actually arrived, we would be in a “time-crunch” (“he” could put the entire British Police Force on our backs) to move the aircraft immediately. Would the Photographers make it here before the heavy equipment “removers?”

For the rest of the day the hours went as minutes because, suddenly, it got really busy; the Photographers finally arrived just ahead of the heavy movers; the spraying of foam stopped; the heavy fire-fighting vehicles rolled up their hoses and pulled-out; the snapping of “scores” of pictures finished recording the smoking and wet, dripping-with-foam, whitened fuselage; the crane-hoist arrived right behind the Semi-vehicle (heavy-mover); the now cooled-off aircraft was lifted aboard, and it was moved out mangling several more trees in the process and leaving a much disturbed ground. I was so busy that I never once looked around to see what the British Police Superintendent was up to.

A while later, the USAF Security Policemen took in the “ridiculous” Crime- Scene tape and they left barricades at each side of the road to warn local traffic to slow down because of the shallow furrow in the asphalt. Then I got a nice warm feeling inside because when I looked around, the very British looking Official Police Car was gone !

Several months later, the U.S. Air Force got a hefty bill in the mail for this “pernicious and unwelcome incursion into Her Majesty's Forests.” There were hundreds of trees belonging to Her Majesty to pay for; we also had to pay for Environmentally sanitizing the areas where fire-fighting foam had landed; and for Environmentally sanitizing the spot where the aircraft had come to rest and the residual JP-4 fuel had leaked out; for X-miles of ruts in the ground from heavy vehicle wheels, and finally, for plowing a furrow across one of Her Majesty's improved and well-traveled asphalt roads.

Naturally, I bucked this “tab” on up to Higher-Headquarters and it was duly paid at around the SHAPE or NATO level.

How do I know of these sensitive (but unclassified Security) details in the Bill? Soon afterward, I was promoted from Accounting and Finance Officer to Base Comptroller. It was part of my new duties (and I now had the necessary “need to know”) to review such local claims against the U.S. Government.

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