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Maj. Jon 'Ghost' Alexander USAF Phantom Pilot Towed to Gander

Phantom refueling

On the 5th of September, 1983, 4 USAF F-4E Phantom jets were flying over the Atlantic en route to Europe along with the support of a KC-135 known as North Star. These five aircraft were part of a larger number of Phantoms and tankers on a routine trans-Atlantic flight. To make the crossing, the Phantoms would need to tank a total of 8 times to fill their thirsty engines.

Midway across the Atlantic, and just prior to the fourth refuel, one of the F-4Es piloted by Maj. Jon 'Ghost' Alexander and his Weapons Systems Officer started to develop some engine problems. After a quick visual from one of the other Phantoms, it was discovered Ghost’s F-4E was bleeding oil. The emergency divert base at Gander, Newfoundland was contacted with an emergency declaration.

Shortly after, things began to rapidly deteriorate when the still turning, but barely burning turbines started to wind down. The Phantom, which is known for its dependence on a lot of power to keep flying through the sky, started to bleed airspeed and altitude simultaneously.

At this point, with the number two engine barely hanging on, the number one began to struggle with the higher temperatures and load of keeping the Phantom airborne. Watching the airspeed decay, Ghost decided to jettison his external tanks to reduce drag and weight in hopes of saving his dying jet.

Struggling with a dying number one, and an overheating number two, all the while maintaining a 45-degree nose-up attitude to keep far away from the frigid Atlantic beneath. But sadly for Ghost and his WSO, things were about to go even further south. Moments after dropping his tanks, his jet’s hydraulic system failed, crippling the stricken jet even further. The list of available options was reduced to one.

Eject.

Still 520 miles out of Gander, and facing a certain death in the waters below, North Star KC-135, crewed by Captain Robert Goodman, Captain Michael Clover, First Lieutenant Karol Wojcikowski and Staff Sergeant Douglas Simmons pulled high and in front of Ghost’s Phantom, dropping flaps and slats to slow to the speed of the crippled jet.

As the altitude dropped to 4000 feet over the water, North Star hooked up with Ghost’s Phantom, and started to transfer fuel to his starving J-79 engines. Considering the lack of hydraulics, and asymmetric thrust produced by the F-4, as well as the high angle of attack flown by both aircraft at low airspeed and altitude, this was no easy feat.

The F-4E could not hold on, and broke away from the tanker, nose down in a final decent towards the waters below. The crew of North Star pushed their nose over and chased the Phantom lower and slower, this time indicating as little as 190 knots at 1,400 feet above the waves.

Amazingly, holding the connection, North Star began to actually tow Ghost’s Phantom for the final 160 miles to Gander, using nothing but the fueling boom.

As the coast of Newfoundland appeared on the horizon, and at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Ghost was able to coax a little power out of his now cooled number two engine, disengaged from the boom, and was now left with the simple proposition of landing a Phantom that was only capable of banking left. Ghost’s WSO Wojcikowski quickly formulated an approach that would allow the jet to align with Gander’s main runway while taking into account the jets limited performance abilities.

Moments later, Ghost and his WSO touched down safe and dry on the runway complex at Gander, and rolled to a stop.

The crew of North Star all received the Mackay Trophy for their efforts above and beyond the call of duty in saving the F-4E crew from certain death in the waters below.

[The account above was provided by the good folks at SierraHotel.net. Check out their great flying gear]

Further details from WhiteEagleAerospace

The valiant crew of a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker performed multiple aerial refuelings of a stricken USAF F-4E Phantom II over the North Atlantic Ocean. Conducted under extremely perilous flight conditions, the remarkable actions of the aerial tanker’s crew allowed the F-4E to remain aloft long enough to safely divert to an alternate landing field.

On Monday, 05 September 1983, a pair of USAF F-4E Phantom II fighter-bombers departed the United States for a routine flight to Germany. To negotiate the trans-atlantic distance, the F-4E’s would require aerial refueling. As they approached the refueling rendezvous point, one of the aircraft developed trouble with its No. 2 engine. Though still operative, the engine experienced a significant loss of thrust.

The problem with the Phantom’s engine caused it to lose speed and altitude. Further, its No. 1 engine began to overheat as it tried to keep the aircraft airborne. As if this were not enough, the aircraft’s starboard hydraulic system became inoperative. Coupled with the fact that the fuel gauge was edging toward empty, the specter of an ejection and parachute landing in the cold Atlantic looked all but certain for the F-4E crew.

Enter the venerable KC-135 Stratotanker and her crew of Captain Robert J. Goodman, Captain Michael R. Clover, 1st Lt Karol R. Wojcikowski and SSgt Douglas D. Simmons. Based with the 42nd Aerial Refueling Squadron, their immediate problem was two-fold. First, locate and navigate to the pair of F-4E aircraft flying somewhere over the open ocean. Second, get enough fuel to both aircraft so the latter could complete their trans-atlantic hop. Time was of the essence.

Following execution of the rendezvous, the KC-135 crew needed to get their steed out in front of the fuel-hungry Phantoms. The properly operating Phantom quickly took on a load of fuel. However, the stricken aircraft continued to lose altitude as its pilot struggled just to keep the aircraft in the air. By the time the first hook-up occurred, both the F-4E and KC-135 were flying below an altitude of 7,000 feet.

Whereas normal refueling airspeed is 315 knots, the refueling operation between the KC-135 and F-4E occurred below 200 knots. Both aircraft had to fly at high angle-of-attack to generate sufficient lift at this low airspeed. Boom Operator Simmons was faced with a particularly difficult challenge in that the failed starboard hydraulics of the F-4E caused it to yaw to the right. Nonetheless, he was able to make the hook-up with the F-4E refueling recepticle and transfer a bit of fuel to the ailing aircraft.

The transfer of fuel ceased during the first aerial refueling when the mechanical limits of the aircraft-to-aircraft connection were exceeded. The F-4E started to dive as it came off the refueling boom. At this critical juncture, Captain Goodman made the decision to follow the Phantom and get down in front of it for another go at aerial refueling. As the second fuel transfer operation began, the airspeed indicator registered 190 knots; barely above the KC-135’s landing speed.

While additional fuel was transferred to the F-4E, it was still not enough for it to make the divert airfield at Gander, New Foundland. The KC-135 performed two more risky aerial refuelings of the struggling Phantom. The last of which occurred at an altitude of only 1,600 feet above the ocean. At times during these harrowing operations, the KC-135 actually towed the F-4E on its refueling boom to help the latter gain altitude.

At length, the F-4E manged to climb to 6,000 feet and maintain 220 knots as its No. 1 engine began to cool. Able to fend for itself once again, the Phantom punched-off the KC-135 refueling boom. Goodman and crew continued to escort the F-4E to the now-close landing field at Gander, New Foundland. The Phantom pilot greased the landing much to the relief and joy of all.

KC-135 Crew

For their heroic efforts on that eventful September day over the North Atlantic, the crew of the KC-135 received the USAF’s Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of 1983.

A comment from Fred Lange USAF (retired):

"I was part of this tanker task force out of Loring: three cells, 30 minute intervals, 1 KC-10 and 1 KC-135 refueling 4 F-4s in each cell headed to Europe. I was flying a KC-10 in the second cell, in the cell ahead of me an F-4 developed engine troubles and he and his wingman peeled of to divert into Gander (about an hour behind them). Quick decisions calculated the KC-10 could get the two remaining F-4s in his cell to destination so the KC-135 peeled off to render whatever assistance they could and chased the two aborting F-4s down. As the troubled F-4 could not maintain altitude, he punched off his externals but was still unable to maintain altitude – he was also having some lateral flight control issues. The 135 maneuvered into position and they got a manual boom latch at around 2000′ over the North Atlantic. I recall there were a few disconnects along the way but they were able to get them over the airfield. We were not even aware of all this until we landed.

As this crew received the USAF’s Premier Airmanship award for that year, I would defer to its documentation over any discrepancies in my recollections of so long ago.

I recall stories of this kind of save during Viet Nam but it was cool to see the tanker culture still alive in the 1980s. I met this crew in the club the night before and there was no hint in their personalities that they were anything special – just your average Tanker Toads – says something about your average Tanker Toads."

Jon 'Ghost' Alexander (USAF retired) - below - writes in December 2013:

Jon Alexander

"I was the pilot of the F-4E on this mission. The above gives the 'gist' of the episode there are several errors.(eg. Bob was the designated spare tanker for the ocean crossing, my WSO and my wingman’s WSO found the tanker, not vice versa, I was in cell #3 etc, etc. There is a six page story about this in the Aug ’84 Airman titled 'Hell or High Water'. There is also a very detailed account in the book 'War Stories and Flying Tales', a large hard cover book sponsored by the Daedalians.

PS. I received the Kolligian Trophy from the Air Force Chief of Staff about a week after Bob got the McKay trophy. I also heard last year the Bob had passed away

Cheers, Ghost Alexander, Ret Lt Col USAF"

Story from Ron Craft (USAF retired) onboard the KC-135 from Bangor Daily News

Ron Craft of Ansonia, Connecticut, says he is neither a writer nor a public speaker, but his passion to share the story of an air rescue he witnessed as a 23-year-old stationed at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone has compelled him to be both.

It is the story of heroic valor executed with such calm competence that only in retrospect did Craft recognize the significance of what he had observed.

“I was inexperienced,” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t know that they don’t do this on a regular basis. Everyone did his job professionally, as though rehearsed. I’m thinking, ‘Man, we have a cool job.’ But this is not in any manuals. Months later, I realized what we did.”

And 31 years later, he is translating his admiration for military bravery into a book and a movie about the experience, with help from California-based screenwriter and producer Mark Roemmich, president and CEO of Noble House Entertainment. Titled “Hell Over High Water,” the project represents the culmination of 12 years of effort by Craft to record his memory of a dramatic mid-air maneuver that changed his life.

Ron Craft USAF KC-135 Crew

It was Sept. 5, 1983. Craft was midway into a four-year assignment as an airman first class working maintenance on planes at Loring when he was picked for his first overseas trip. Crew chief Mike Bouchard, now of Fort Kent, had to replace his assistant, who had been injured, for a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Craft became Bouchard’s assistant crew chief.

They were assigned to one of six KC-135 tankers to accompany 24 F-4 Phantom fighter jets from Pease AFB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to an Air Force Base in Germany, via England. Because fighters could not travel that distance without refueling, tankers (comparable to commercial Boeing 707s) carrying 70,000 pounds of fuel escorted them, one tanker for every four fighters. Eight times during the eight-hour trip, the tankers refueled the fighters through a mechanical boom temporarily linking the planes mid-air.

“We had refueled four times when one of the fighters had an engine problem, losing power instead of accelerating when throttled,” Craft recalled. “The wing man circled underneath to check.” (F-4s fly in pairs, a fighter and a wing man.) A cracked oil line was causing oil loss, reducing oil pressure.

Craft said the engine failure caused the F-4 to fly at a 45-degree angle. Attempts to gain lift caused the remaining engine to overheat, making the plane rotate as it lost altitude.

Craft’s KC-135, North Star, was 100 miles from the stricken fighter when he heard through his headphones, “Go get ‘em,” the signal for the tanker to reverse direction and attempt to help the fighter make an emergency landing.

“We did an about face from our direction toward England and turned to the closest dirt: Gander, Newfoundland, 500 miles away,” he said. “We went from beautiful conditions to the worst — a 150-mile headwind — in minutes.”

In addition to the six-member crew, the tanker also was carrying 22 passengers, service personnel and dependents allowed to travel on military hops.

“We went full throttle to overtake [the F-4], pulled to an idle, overshot him by 12 miles, did a giant S turn,” Craft said, reconstructing the attempt to slow down the tanker enough to hook up to the fighter. “Speed brakes up, still too fast; flaps down, still too fast. Then the pilot did an incredible move, rocking the plane side to side like a hammock to create more drag and slow the plane down.”

The North Star made two attempts to connect the refueling boom to the aircraft below. Each time the boom disconnected, the fighter lost altitude and the tanker had to dive to overtake it. The third time the hook-up was successful.

Craft said each time the crew members repeated the procedures they seemed “even more cool and collected,” methodically adjusting their actions until they got it right.

“There is no comparison for their professionalism,” Craft said of his co-workers. “There was no panic.” But he did notice the flight suit of the boom operator, Sgt. Doug Simmons, was “black with sweat” when it was over.

According to Craft, the fighter pilot, Maj. Jon R. “Ghost” Alexander, told his weapons systems operator during the mid-air rescue, “Come hell or high water, we’re going to get on that tanker and not let go.”

The planes had dropped to 1,600 feet above the icy waters of the Atlantic.

“You could see the foam on the 50-foot waves breaking below. We were that close,” Craft said. The two fighter pilots would have perished from hypothermia within minutes of hitting water had their plane continued its downward course.

Once connected, the tanker was able to use the boom as a tow bar for the ailing F-4 and save the pilots.

Gradually they lifted to 20,000 feet, back within range of radar, and completed the flight to Gander Air Force Base. Other mechanical failures complicated the landing, but Craft is saving those details for his printed and visual account.

Once on the ground, the pilots boarded the KC-135 and continued on to England and Germany.

The story of the dramatic rescue made the front page of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, but it never won the recognition Craft thought it deserved.

“Nobody wrote it,” Craft said, describing his efforts to write a screenplay. “I tried first person and third person. I wrote and rewrote. Then I met Mark, who will make it marketable.”

Hoping for a release in 2015, Craft and Roemmich plan to interview the surviving crewmembers for the film and the book, and they may shoot scenes for the film at the former Loring Air Force Base, now the Loring Commerce Centre.

“Their professionalism inspired me for the rest of my life,” Craft said of the crewmembers who accomplished the 1983 rescue. “I carry it to what I am doing now.”

Craft is a quality supervisor for Sikorsky Aircraft, which manufactures Black Hawk helicopters.

“What they did is one of countless acts of bravery. I am dedicating the book and movie to military men and women for their daily acts of courage.”

He also would like to distribute copies to patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to thank them for their service.

Last July, Craft was asked to speak at a reunion of Loring personnel at the Military Heritage Center on the former base to help mark the 20th anniversary of the base’s closing.

“I had never spoken publicly,” he recalled. “I wrote three pages of notes. I was nervous. Then I pushed the papers aside.”

Craft told his story from the heart and earned a standing ovation.

“How’d I do?” he asked a member of the audience as he left the podium.

The response: “You know you did OK when you get half the old guys to cry.”

SY 29.11.2015

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Last Modified: 13 July 2017, 18:11