Coff looked so peaceful as he slept on one of the couches in the Pilot’s lounge.. I almost hated to wake him, but I knew he had to be off as soon as possible, so rather than shaking him, I gently wafted my steaming cup of Coffee under his nose and waited for the reaction…
His nose started to twitch and after inhaling he smiled and opened his eyes. “Where did you get that from?” he asked. Knowing Coff to be THE connoisseur of roasted beans on the planet I wasn’t sure if I had sparked his curiosity or just offended him! “Peet’s Café, over on Webster Avenue, just down the road”, I said cautiously. “Not bad at all”, he replied. I breathed a sigh of relief as he gave me a hug. “I do, however, have a present for you” he continued, “and this is from my private stash”.
He pulled out a small pouch of what appeared to be his own blend, which I gratefully received, “and, you will want this too” he continued, holding the Mutley’s baton out to me. I looked quizzically at it for a moment. It looked pretty much as I remembered if from last time; no glowing, no humming, no snakes (thankfully), nothing that would allude to it being anything other than the genuine article. Even though suspicion is a regular part of my other life as ‘Sharon’, a heightened sense of self-preservation would not go amiss here, given some of the reports I had read recently from JG and Tim. I took it from his grasp and pushed it into the side pocket of my rucksack; I’m sure it will all be fine.
“You take care and have safe travels.” he said as he waved to me and disappeared off to his waiting Taxi. I wasn’t due to take off till the early morning, so I sat for a few moments to finish my coffee and then headed back to my hotel where I met up with some of the crew I would be travelling with the following day. Grant, my co-pilot, and Andy, the Crew Chief, were both sat in the hotel bar when I collected my room card and waved to me to join them. As this was a military ‘goodwill’ trip, I was honoured to be taking the left seat, although Grant and I would share the piloting duties.
We would be taking the USAF version of the Osprey across no fewer than 8 states over the next couple of days, and I could barely contain my excitement. It had been a while since I had flown a Tilt-Rotor, and although my preference would have been for a C130 or a A400M as I was more ‘current’ on them, I was looking forward to the incredible flexibility that you can only get with an aircraft that wants to be both a fixed wing and a helicopter. It really was an amazing feat of engineering, and although they were not used as much as they could have been in the military across the globe, they still had a special place in it.
The aircraft was set up for carrying soldiers as opposed to vehicles, so the cargo bay was kitted out with seats, although this was a matter of opinion as they gave no indication of comfort whatsoever, but then again, this whole aircraft was utilitarian, so I expected to need a chiropractor when I got back to the UK.
Crew Chief Andy had organised the taxi to the Alameda Naval Air Station for 3am, so I was up at 2, showered and ready in the lobby by 2:45. Alameda had been decommissioned as an active NAS in 1997 but is still used as a testing ground by the popular TV series ‘Mythbusters’, and for ad-hoc ‘missions’ like ours. The USS Hornet Aircraft Carrier was sited at the other side of the airfield and was now a museum depicting her active duty during WWII, Vietnam, and later as part of the Apollo program, recovering astronauts from Apollo 11 and 12.
Our planned altitude on the first leg from Alameda to the Air Force Base at Ellsworth would be 17 to 19 thousand feet depending on weather. The expected westerly winds would extend our range, but with our heavy load of fuel and passengers, it meant we would need to refuel en-route.
Pre-flight done, and our 24 passengers in the rear, we were ready to go. The USS Hornet is in the background
Thats a nasty crosswind
Climbing out and the sun will be up any second
The speed at which the Osprey goes from ground to air is much quicker than one would expect, even with the load we were carrying.. this aircraft wants to fly. I, however, still wanted to do a bit of sightseeing over San Francisco bay on the way out as I had never seen Alcatraz Island from the air.
We went round for a second pass much lower, and with the sun up, we could see a lot better
Flying past Benicia, Martinez and Concord
Heading out to the East, we would leave California, cross Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming before our planned stop for the night at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota.
Although the winds had been favourable, it invariably came the time to re-fuel, and as this was both a goodwill tour, and from what Grant had briefed before we left Alameda, a ‘training’ session for all concerned, we would top up the tanks mid-air.
Now, personally, not having done this before, I was not allowed to even attempt it (and quite happy to put my hand up to the fact!)
It was pretty intense, let alone dangerous, but necessary training for those who pilot the CV-22.
I didn’t think taking photographs at this crucial time would have been distracting and inappropriate, so I will satisfy your curiosity with a video link which I think pretty much sums up what we went through..
Tanks topped off, we continued through Idaho close to the border with Utah
…and then into Wyoming.
Passing over the Bighorn National Forest
A few more miles on, just North East of Gilette and Sleepy Hollow, a large dustbin shaped mountain finally came into view. It’s one of those iconic places which, unless you have seen it in real life, you would question its very existence!
There were no alien runways, no ‘piggly-wiggly’ trailers hauling equipment, and no false anthrax warnings for the local population.
Devil’s Tower is now a tourist attraction which welcomes thousands or tourists every year, fascinated by the Laccolithic butte (where magma is injected between existing sedimentary rock layers, forcing them upwards). The site holds significant spiritual significance to the Native American Tribes, and is known as Bear Lodge, by the Crow, Lakota and Cheyenne, and Bear’s Tipi by the Arapahoe.
We did a couple of circuits of the site then turned East in case anyone decided to report us.
Crossing over the Black Hills National Forest into South Dakota, I couldn’t help but hum along with Doris Day in my head, “the pines are so high that they kiss the sky above”. As light began to fade and we came into the pattern for Ellsworth Air Force Base, I could understand why Doris and Howard Keel loved the ‘Indian country’ so much.
Approaching the Ellsworth pattern
Our flight the next morning was after sun-up, so I might actually get a lie in.. on an AFB? Who was I kidding…
Located just Northeast of Rapid City, Ellsworth is home to no fewer than 5 units, hosted by the 28th Bomb Wing, and hardly a quiet place to overnight.
Time to do a walkaround and prepare for departure
Our flight today would take us North to Deadwood (I just had to say I’d seen it), then Southeast to Sioux City, Iowa, and then to Eppley, Nebraska, where I would be dropped off, and our aircraft and passengers would continue to their destination of Offutt Air Force Base.
Lining up at Runway 31 Ellsworth. The bright start to the day was now turning into a heat haze.
We headed North leaving Rapid City behind us
…and on to Deadwood just past those Black Hills
Turning South East, we followed the I90 for a while.
When the I90 intersected with the Missouri River we followed that all the way down to Sioux Gateway airport.
Back in 1989, Sioux City was the unintended destination for a United Airlines DC10 which suffered a catastrophic engine failure, resulting in all loss of hydraulics. The story of the crash and the efforts of the cockpit crew, local fire and rescue services and the Air National Guard, are remarkable piece of history.
Approaching Sioux Gateway Airport
After our brief flypast at Sioux we continued due South
On the approach to Eppley the ATC advised they had suspended inbound and outbound flights due to some protestors who had managed to get out onto the field and were a danger to aircraft movements.
Waiting for options from ATC
We pressed ATC for an alternative as we had ‘orders’ from the USAF to offload me at Eppley, and after some hasty deliberations in the Tower, we were finally granted clearance to “hover” out to the far East of the airport where there was an area of grassland... we just had to get close enough for me to descend by a wire.
Not strictly PC, but hey, this is ATWC so we must be creative when necessary...
I was hooked up and having made sure my rucksack was still attached to my harness by carabiner, I was dropped rather unceremoniously out the back.
Back on the ground, I made a line for one of the Aircraft hangars and put in a call to Mike. His number went straight to Voicemail. Dammit, I could be here for a while..
I persuaded one of the hanger mechanics to take me over to the main terminal where I had to make my excuses to the authorities about my unorthodox arrival, and then having delivered a reasonably believable story, I was free to go.
Still noting from Mike.. where was he?
Never mind, I would find somewhere to grab a cold beer and keep myself occupied while I waited. No sense in crying over spilt milk is there.
(Jess, want me to send this to you when I’m finished?)