ARIA – Applause on the Flight Deck
This is the story of one of those flights I made to the Pacific in one of our NASA modified C-135/Boeing 707 aircraft called ARIA (Airborne Range Instrumented Aircraft) in support of NASA’s Apollo 9 mission in the early part of 1969.
Apollo 8, with Frank Borman in command, had circled the moon in Dec. of 1968 but had not separated the Lunar Module from the Command and Service Module. This mission (Apollo 9, with Jim McDivett in command), was a near earth orbit mission to practice and thus verify the capability to separate and rejoin these modules as would be required for Tom Stafford’s Apollo 10 flight wherein he and Gene Cernan would (and did) separate from the Command and Service module in the Lunar Module and descend down to about 50 miles from the moon and circle it a few times before ascending again and reattaching to the Command and Service Modules. All of the above flights were verification flights needed to assure that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could safely land on the moon and return to earth; as they actually did in July of 1969.
Simply stated, our objective on this mission was to be under the Apollo spacecraft at a point far out in the Pacific, beyond where a NASA ground station could receive signals from the spacecraft. It was at this point that McDivett and company were to perform some of these verification tests maneuver/s that Houston would need the data from, in order to clear them for Tom Stafford’s Apollo 10 mission. Our job was to be under them when they did this and gather the data being emitted from the spacecraft with our antenna in the nose of the aircraft and transmit it back to Houston by the high powered HF radio system NASA had paid to have installed in our ARIA aircraft.
This point just happened to be in the Pacific, about 29 degrees South Latitude and 150 Degrees West Longitude. This is in the general area where the story of Mutiny on the Bounty was set. In my own terms it was way out in the middle of nowhere.
The flying range capabilities of our NASA modified C-135 and airfield availability in that lonesome part of the world dictated that the mission could only be supported if we took off from Pago Pago in the Samoan Islands, flew about 2000 nautical miles to the southeast down to the data gathering point, as described above, spend about a half hour on target and then go north up to Papeete in the Tahitian Islands to land for fuel (we would not have had enough fuel to get directly back to Pago Pago from the target area). Then we would fly back to Pago Pago, take a little crew rest, pick up the ground support troops and ground equipment and head home.
If we could have supported our mission out of Papeete the flight would have been a piece of cake but the French own the Tahitian Islands and they were doing Atomic testing of some sort there during those days and did not want any USAF folks around. But, after some very high level meetings and much diplomatic arm twisting the French agreed to let us land there on the return part of the mission, provided we only took on fuel and departed immediately.
Approximate path of the ARIA flight.
From a scan by Mike Dinn of an Apollo 9 groundtrack map
Thus, we took off from Patrick AFB, Fla. at the appointed time and had an uneventful flight to Pago Pago (they pronounce it Pango Pango there), stopping for fuel on the west coast of the US and at Hickam AFB on Oahu. There were three pilots (I was the Aircraft Commander), two navigators, two flight engineers, about 20 or so of the back end electronic guys, and a half a dozen ground support guys. Additionally NASA had dispatched one of their instrumented surface ships to be in the area for this test event to gather data also. So, it must have been some very important data they wanted considering the ship’s cost, our plane and crew’s cost, plus all of the diplomatic effort it took to get us cleared to land at Tahiti.
The thing I first noticed on the landing approach into Pago Pago was a small mountain-like ridge stretched right across the flight path maybe 5 miles out from the end of apparently the only runway they ever cleared you to land on. I can’t recall how high the ridge was but I would guess it was about 800 feet high, which was enough height to make you have to hold a little higher on your approach than you would like, especially since the runway was only about 9000 feet long, as I remember it. They had a Non Directional Beacon and a VOR approach there but no Tacan, ILS, and certainly not GCA. So it was pretty austere from a landing facilities stand point. I do not recall that they even had a tower there. I must be wrong but I watched the local guy communicating with some aircraft once, while I was wandering around there the day before our mission and he was doing it from inside a little building next to the strip. He had a little bank of old fashioned looking communications equipment that you cranked/turned for frequency changes rather than push buttons. In fact the setting of that rather seasoned looking operator (an American refugee from the States no doubt) and the old equipment located in that small building with wooden louvered windows and banana plants growing all around, made me think of some of the scenes my brother Zack depicted in his comic strip “Smilin’ Jack” during some of Jack’s adventures in South America.
Pago Pago airport, just 13 months later.
David Dunn, of ARIA 4, took this photo of the Apollo 13 recovery forces at Pago Pago in April 1970.
There were very few airplanes at Pago Pago. I only recall one commercial plane, a Pan American Boeing 707, being in there during the time of our stay. And speaking of Pan American 707s, as just a bit of historical information, a few years after our visit there, a Pan American 707 making an approach in bad weather at Pago Pago crashed into that same little mountain like ridge crossing the approach end of the runway, that I described above, and wiped out the whole flight. I can’t remember if there were any survivors or not but it was a full scale crash. I am sure that the runway is in the same place even to this day but I would hope that by now they have at least put in some updated approach equipment, namely like an ILS because I’m sure those tropical rainstorms, as will be discussed later, still exist.
To repeat/review our flight plan – We were scheduled to take off about 6 PM Pago Pago time so as to arrive in our target area a little over 4 hours later (about 2000 miles). To make sure we were on time we would get there a little early and then orbit until the spacecraft came into the target area (one thing about spacecraft, if you get them launched properly, you know where they are going to be exactly to the second). After getting the data and relaying it, we would then head on up, pretty much due north, the 1500 nautical miles to Papeete, Tahiti to get fuel. That leg would take about 3 hours. After refueling we would head on back west to Pago Pago which was about 1300 nautical miles away or about 2 and 1/2 hours flight time. So obviously it was going to be a long day (and night).
Back to Pago Pago – The weather was perfect at the time of takeoff and was forecast to be good throughout the whole flight except that there was a front stretched across, from west to east, just north of Tahiti, but it was not supposed to be moving into Tahiti during the time of our operations.
There was not an alternate to go to from Tahiti. And, while we would have enough fuel to hold the specified time required, when you have no alternate airfield for your destination, it is a bit unusual and it always introduced a little more drama to the scenario knowing that you were committed to land at your destination and no other options would be available (Like at Lajes /Azores, out in the middle of the Atlantic, in my MATS flying days).
In any event, concerned or not, we made an on time takeoff just as the sun was going down; creating a beautiful tropical scene as we lifted off out over the blue/green ocean, which came right up to the departure end of the runway. We trudged on out into that lonely part of the Pacific without incident for about 4 and a half hours, arriving at our target coordinates on time. Not too long thereafter we got word from Houston that McDivett and company were behind in their timeline of doing things and the TEST WE WERE TO SUPPORT HAD BEEN SCRUBBED. We could not believe it. NO FURTHER EXPLANATION WAS EVER GIVEN. Whether they ever did that test they were going to do was never made known to any of us. But when you think of the months of planning involved, the diplomatic wrangling, the expense of sending a surface ship all the way down to that forsaken spot on the globe, the expense of sending our plane and crew down there for absolutely nothing was mind boggling. Well, we were excused and there was nothing to do but head for Tahiti; which we did.
That leg was uneventful until we got within about an hour from Tahiti and we started encountering bad weather. The front that was supposed to have stayed north of Tahiti had moved south and was just about sitting on Tahiti. As we approached closer the weather got more turbulent and lightning was showing up ahead with thunderstorms showing on the navigator’s radar. It was about 1 AM by this time and it should be noted that no one on that plane had ever seen Tahiti before, let alone make an instrument approach in a thunderstorm there.
Additionally, Papeete was years behind in approach facilities and only had a Non Directional Beacon (NDB) for their instrument approach aid. Basically, this is what the Japanese were using when they homed in on Oahu during their attack on Pearl Harbor. Way back then it was pretty good stuff, especially when compared to making an instrument approach using those old Adcock 4 Beam Range affairs with the A and N quadrants. But, at the time of this mission it was many years later and NDBs with Automatic Direction Finders (ADF) in the plane were not used very often. In fact, it had been several years since I had made a serious ADF approach. But I knew that I was going to be making one shortly in a thunderstorm with lightning banging all around. The big concern about an ADF is that it is like a not too reliable bird dog (which is what it was commonly called – the bird dog) in that in addition to pointing at the emitting station, it liked to point at thunderstorms and the magnetism in mountains. Tahiti had all three at the moment so I did not have a warm feeling that I knew exactly what I would be homing in on.
We eventually got to Tahiti and were cleared for the approach. I added on a little altitude for all of the specified altitudes on the approach chart since I really did not trust anything at that point (not even our radar in that weather) and there were certainly no other nuts up there in that storm that my “add on altitudes” were going to hurt. So, I sucked up my gut and said Bob, “You have got to make this one right, you have 30 people depending on you”.
The navigator was assisting me as much as possible but I was locked into my own world, calling on my past experience flying ADF approaches, adjusting for the wind and trying to average out the wild variations of the needle as the “bird dog” pointed at thunderstorms, mountains and the station (I knew not which). The procedure turn was out over the ocean. Not that I could see it of course but I knew if I was where I thought I was I would not hit any mountains. I made my turn to the inbound course and although higher than the specified altitude I knew I could get rid of the extra altitude once I committed to the final approach. – I committed to the approach and down we came.
The approach minimums for most ADF approaches are usually 500 feet (higher than the usual 2 to 3 hundred feet for most instrument approaches because it is so non precise), however, I did not break out at 500 feet. But, making the wishful assumption that I was where I was supposed to be, I let her on down a little more and at about 400 feet I broke out. Dead ahead (I did not even have to make a heading change) was one of the most welcome sights in my life; the runway lights at Papeete, clearly visible, even though it was still raining. I still have the picture of it in my mind. –– THERE WAS APPLAUSE ON THE FLIGHT DECK. I had not been aware of it of course but there were more interested spectators in that cockpit area than there should have been. They actually applauded and yelled. To use the overused expression, with regard to flying, at that moment “That was what it was all about”.
I have flown many many ILS and GCA approaches down to and even below minimums of 200 feet before breaking out, but nothing was ever as satisfying as cracking that ceiling of 400 feet in a thunderstorm at Papeete (with no alternate), using an ADF as my only approach aid.
And it was the largest gas bill I ever personally signed for at a gas pump.
With thanks to Robert L. Mosley for his kind permission to reproduce his story. It’s also available at Ed Cathcart’s mofak.com.