Flying C-130s in Europe: Operation Cross Switch

Early in the summer of 1966, after I had been checked out in the C-130E and had been in the 347th Tactical Airlift Squadron for about a month or two, I was put on a crew with Elmer “Dusty” Watkins, aircraft commander, Karl Klein, navigator, Robert Coleman, flight engineer, and Robert West, loadmaster. I was the co-pilot. We flew a few local training flights and then were scheduled to fly our first European mission, a three-month temporary duty (TDY) assignment to support American military forces in Europe. Our orders called it Operation Cross Switch. We left Dyess AFB (Abilene, Texas) about the middle of June, our aircraft loaded with men, supplies, and equipment and flew east. Our first stop was at Langley AFB Virginia, where we spent the night and refueled. The next day we flew to Lajes Field, in the Azores Islands, off the coast of Portugal, where we spent the night. The next day we flew to Evreux, France, our operational base for most of the next two months.

France had announced that it was withdrawing from NATO, but for most of the time we flew in Europe, Evreux was our home base. Evreux is located about seventy miles east of Paris; the town of Evreux is picturesque, with a large cathedral at the center of town. The town is located in a valley, and a small stream winds through the town. There are a number of shops and excellent restaurants, and when we were in Evreux, we often ate in town. The airfield was located on an elevated plateau north of town. The field had been used by the German Air Force after the fall of France during World War II; late in the war flying “buzz bombs” aimed at London had been launched from the field.

Flying the Berlin Corridor

One of our first missions was to fly the Berlin Corridor. In 1966 Germany was divided into West Germany and East Germany; Berlin was located in East Germany, which was controlled by the Soviet Union. This division had been determined at the end of World War II. Berlin was an open city, but the West could access Berlin only by narrowly limited ground and air corridors. Three highways, lined by fences, could be used to enter the city, and the Soviets occasionally would close the borders to ground traffic; when that happened, the only way that supplies could enter the city was by air. There were three narrow aerial corridors into Berlin: north, central and south. The Americans used the south and central corridors. The south corridor ran from Frankfort to Berlin; this corridor was used for flights into Berlin. The central corridor, from Berlin to Celle (Hanover), was used for flights out of Berlin. (The northern corridor, from Hamburg to Berlin, was used by the British and French Air Forces for flights into Berlin; aircraft using this corridor usually landed at Tegel or Gatow Airports; they also used the central corridor for flights out of Berlin.) All allied aircraft flew the aerial corridors on a regular basis; in 1949, the Soviets had closed ground access to Berlin, and for several months Berlin received its food and energy supplies exclusively by air during the Berlin Airlift. We never knew when the Soviets might close the roads, so any cargo aircraft flying in Europe had to be ready to fly into Berlin on short notice.

All newly arriving C-130 crews had to be checked out on the Berlin corridor as soon as they arrived. We flew to Frankfurt (which was then, as now, one of the busiest airports in Europe). There we were briefed on the communications and navigation procedures. We followed a radio direction signal from Frankfurt until we picked up a radio signal from Berlin; we couldn’t deviate from that course. The corridor was only a few miles wide and ten thousand feet high. The distance between Frankfurt and Berlin was about three hundred miles, so it was essential that we pick up the Berlin signal at the midpoint. We were in contact with ground controllers throughout the flight, and they let us know if we were drifting left or right of track. We had to fly at a specific airspeed; if we flew faster we might overtake the aircraft in front of us; if we flew too slowly, the aircraft behind us might overtake us. And of course, there were other aircraft besides C-130s flying in the corridors.

We could not fly higher than ten thousand feet, which was not a problem in good weather. But the narrow corridor meant that we could not deviate from our course to avoid a thunderstorm. If necessary, we would have to fly through the storm. If we had been flying anywhere else, we would have deviated around a thunderstorm, because the air currents in a storm could have tossed the aircraft around and if strong enough, even cause the destruction of the aircraft. We always avoided flying through storms. But that was not an option in the corridor, because if we flew outside the corridor, we were likely to be attacked by Soviet fighters. A number of years earlier, Soviet fighters had in fact shot down a civilian airliner which had deviated from course to avoid a storm.

We flew the corridor about 2:00 in the afternoon. Dusty Watkins and I both had maps that we were following; the maps had heavy dark lines showing the outlines of the corridor, and we were able to track our progress by reference to cities and other features shown on the maps. And we were following the radio signal. Karl Klein had the biggest responsibility; as the navigator, he was responsible for making sure the aircraft was following the correct track. His navigator’s station was located on the right side of the cockpit, behind my position where I sat as co-pilot. He had a desk to spread out his charts on and he had a number of instruments at his position (altitude, heading, other navigation instruments) to help him keep track of our location. He was using our onboard radar to track our progress in addition to the radio signal and our visual map reading. We had a wind from the west, so we had to adjust our heading accordingly. We were flying at eight thousand feet.

For the first third of the flight the visibility was good, and we could follow our track easily. Then, just past the halfway point, we could see storm clouds ahead. The sky was growing dark and we could see that we were not going to be able to track our progress by referring to the ground. We would have to maintain our track by instruments alone. So the burden of responsibility for maintaining our track was now mostly Karl’s. Dusty and I could follow the radio signal, but that was about it. And the problem was that in stormy weather the winds would definitely increase and very likely come from different directions. And of course we would have turbulence, which would complicate our task of staying on track. We had to hold heading and altitude exactly. Soon the rain started and the turbulence increased. The aircraft started to bounce around and we could see flashes of lightning, mostly above us and to the side. We had been flying on autopilot, but now Dusty disconnected the autopilot and hand flew the aircraft to make sure we stayed on track. Fortunately the storm was brief—we had flown through a storm cloud that was just beginning to build into a bad thunderstorm. It would be more difficult for the next aircraft coming down the corridor behind us, unless the west wind blew the storm past the corridor.

Soon we could see the city of Berlin ahead of us, and we were now talking to Berlin Approach Control. We had been told to follow their instructions exactly; we had a very tight space in which to maneuver the aircraft to land. We were landing at Templehof Airport, which had been built before World War II. Its runways were relatively short (but not too short for a C-130 to land on, since our approach speeds were relatively slow, and we had the advantage of reversible pitch propellers, which could really slow us down in a hurry). In addition, the airport was totally surrounded by the city, with two- and three-story buildings in a circle around the airport, which meant that we had to maintain a higher-than-normal approach to the runway and then, once we were past the buildings, descend rapidly to land as soon as possible on the short runways. The city, like the country, was divided into two parts, West Berlin and East Berlin. From the air, West Berlin looked quite prosperous; but East Berlin appeared run-down and undeveloped. We spent the night in Berlin and then flew out the next day. Now that we had flown the corridor in, flying out seemed much easier.

While we were in Berlin, Karl and I visited one of the more famous dance halls. The building must have been a converted theater of some kind, because it was very large (I think its name today is the “Adagio”). There was a band playing at one end of the main floor with room for couples to dance. The dance floor was filled. There were many tables on the main floor and there were tables along the second and third floor levels, which looked down onto the main floor. Every table had a telephone and a number on it. I couldn’t figure out what the telephones were for. We ordered beers and just as the beers arrived, the telephone rang. Karl and I looked at one another, wondering what was going on. Karl answered the phone (I think he may have spoken a little German), listened to the person who was calling, then handed the phone to me. “It’s for you,” he said, with a smile.

“For me?” I said.

“They want to talk to you.” This was very puzzling. I didn’t know anyone in Berlin.

“Hello?” I said into the phone.

“Hey, big boy. You want to dance?” Ah. Now I knew what the phones were for.

Turkey Trot

One of the more coveted missions that we flew in Europe was called the “Turkey Trot.” This mission lasted five or six days. On the first day, we left Evreux, flew a short distance to Chateauroux (southwest of Paris), where we picked up a load of supplies, then flew down the coast of Italy, then over the Ionian Sea and landed at the Athens Airport (which was then much closer to the downtown area; this airport has since been closed; the new Athens airport is several miles south east of downtown Athens). We spent the night in a hotel near the airport. The next day we flew to Istanbul (Constantinople), then flew across the Hellespont to several fields in Turkey, ending up at Incirlik Air Base, in southern Turkey. Normally we spent two nights at Incirlik, flying supply missions to other airfields throughout Turkey. We would then fly back to Istanbul, then to Athens (spend the night), then back to Evreux. We flew this mission three times during our sixty day stay in Europe.

Flying south along the coast of Italy was a real pleasure if the weather was good. Flying at our normal altitude of 24,000 feet, we could easily see the large islands of Corsica and Sardinia off to our right as well as the volcano on Sicily, Mount Etna. After crossing the southern tip of Italy, we then flew down the west coast of Greece, flew across the Peloponnesian Peninsula, then landed at Athens. It was always a delight to land at Athens when the weather was good, because the waters of the coastline as we approached the airport from the south were a clear greenish-blue. In the distance we could see the Acropolis in downtown Athens, which we hurried in to see after we landed.

The following morning we flew from Athens to Istanbul; it was a treat for me to look out my side of the cockpit at the coast of Turkey and see the lands where the Trojan War was supposed to have been fought. From Istanbul we usually flew a short flight at low altitude across the Bosporus to an uncontrolled airstrip at Yalova, where we would offload supplies. The field was uncontrolled, which meant that there was no control tower or facilities of any kind. No buildings. Either. The usual procedure was to fly over the field at low altitude to make sure that there were no cows or large birds on the runway, then circle and land. By the time we landed, a small convoy of trucks and a fork lift would have appeared which would unload our aircraft and haul away the pallets of supplies.

From Yalova, we flew to a number of other airfields in Turkey, including Ankara, Merzifon, and Trabzon. I enjoyed landing at Trabzon, on the coast of the Black Sea, not far from the border with the Soviet Union; the runway sat on a hill overlooking the Black Sea—very picturesque. One time we flew the mission with a substitute aircraft commander, who wanted to see the old Roman ruins near the airfield at Diyarbakir, Turkey, so he persuaded the local Air Force communications crew to take us on a quick drive through town while the aircraft was being unloaded.

Except for a few localized areas, Turkey is mostly a desert area. Ankara, the capital, sits in a bowl-shaped fertile valley. I enjoyed the Turkey Trot missions because we visited parts of the world that most people would rarely see.

Assisting the Gemini Support Aircraft

It was not all work while we were Europe; we had a good amount of time off. Often we would drive into Paris in our “crew car.” Many crews had their own “crew car.” It was usually an American-made car that had been brought over several months (or even years) earlier and then sold to the next arriving crew. I’m not sure how many crews had “owned” our car before we took it over. It was a 1956 Chrysler and was a monster car compared to the French cars, at least twice as large as the typical Renault or Citroen. We didn’t worry about driving in Paris traffic—when we entered a traffic circle, it was like driving a tank—everyone else would give way. They knew that if they hit our car, their vehicle might be severely damaged while our car would hardly be dented. Dusty Watkins drove it around Paris without fear or hesitation. Of course we visited the usual tourist sites—the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, the Champs-Elysees.

Occasionally we would be on alert at Evreux; we would have to stay on the base in case there was a sudden need for an aircraft to be sent on some kind of emergency mission. Usually being on alert meant relaxing at the Officer’s club, playing cards, and socializing with the other crew members who happened to be around. But one night about 10:00 in the evening, while we were relaxing in the O-club on alert status, we were notified that we had a mission. We went back to our rooms and changed into our flying gear and went to base operations where we were told we had to go find and fix a broken Gemini Support aircraft that was sitting on the ramp at Dakar, Senegal.

The Gemini Support aircraft were C-130s that carried rescue equipment and special forces personnel designed to recover American astronauts in case their Gemini spacecraft decided to fall out of orbit in some remote area of the world. Every time a Gemini mission was launched, the Air Force would send out a number of C-130s with these special teams on board. They would be stationed at locations near the equator and would have received special diplomatic clearances to fly into the countries where they were located. A number of Gemini space missions were flown during the summer of 1966, but the mission that would have most closely matched our stay in Europe would have been the Gemini X mission, flown on 18-21 July with astronauts John Young and Michael Collins on board.

In this case one of the C-130s that was supposed to fly into an African country had had a problem with one of its engines and needed repairs. The command post at Evreux had no clear idea of how bad the problem was or what needed to be repaired. Communications with the Gemini support aircraft had to be conducted on High Frequency (HF) radio, which could be adversely affected by weather conditions and even radiation from the sun. All that the command post knew was that there was a problem with one of the engines. So we were loaded with an engine, a propeller, associated spare parts, and a maintenance crew and took off shortly after midnight heading for Dakar.

We flew across France and Spain in the darkness. We used a combination of radio navigation aids and other navigational methods to track our route. I’m pretty sure Karl had to use his celestial navigation knowledge, using a starfinder sextant to get a line of sight on various stars. Once we passed Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain, we were required to fly off the coast of western Africa, because we didn’t have diplomatic clearance to enter the airspace of any of the African countries on the northwest coast of Africa. The only country we had clearance to fly into was Senegal, and that was for a one-time flight into Dakar (which was on the coast) with the express purpose of fixing the broken aircraft.

Karl worked hard keeping us far enough off the coast so as not to enter the airspace of Morocco and Mauritania, yet not so far out that we were flying too far over the open ocean. Finally we reached the coast of Senegal and turned in to land at Dakar. Fortunately, the airport at Dakar was located on the coast, and it was easy to find. We landed and parked next to the C-130 that we had come to fix. We could see that it was a B-Model C-130, lacking the external wing tanks of the E-model which we flew. It was early in the morning when we arrived and we saw the crew members sleeping on cots underneath the wings of the aircraft. When we asked, they said they were from Forbes AFB, near Topeka, Kansas. Because of the specialized equipment on board they had not wanted to leave the aircraft unguarded. Leaving the maintenance team behind to fix the Gemini aircraft, the five of us grabbed our personal possessions (we had each packed a small bag with a few civilian clothes and toiletries) and looked for a ride to the nearest hotel.

The nearest hotel was a resort hotel that overlooked the beach. Because Senegal had originally been colonized by France, the local language was French. As the only crew member who spoke French, I explained to the clerk behind the desk that we needed a room. Unfortunately, the clerk informed us, the hotel was completely booked. (Apparently, Dakar was a favorite vacation spot for the French; we had seen an Air France airliner on the commercial portion of the ramp when we landed.) Oh no, I said, we were very tired and needed a place to sleep. Well, the clerk said, I do have few cabins on the beach. I said do they have beds? Of course, he said. Fine, I said. We’ll take them. Unfortunately, none of had any cash to pay for the rooms, but Dusty Watkins had a credit card. (This was in the days long ago, when many locations in the world, and especially African nations, were not in the credit card mode.) So Dusty charged the bill to his credit card and we followed our guide to the beach area. These cabins were built in the native hut mode, designed to appeal to tourists who wanted to live like the natives. They were clustered in small groups in two or three along the beach. Karl and I shared one, the two enlisted men shared one, and Dusty had one all to himself. They had no air conditioning, but the beds were comfortable. We dropped the shutters slightly to block the light (it was now morning) and let the moist ocean breeze flow through and fell asleep quickly with the sound of the waves rolling up the beach.

We slept for four or five hours until it became too hot to sleep. Fortunately, we were reasonably rested. We gathered under an umbrella near Dusty’s cabin and ate a meal of fruits, rolls, and juice served by the hotel staff. A pretty pleasant way to earn our Air Force pay, I thought. Eventually we put our flight suits on and rode in the hotel bus back to the airport. As we walked out to the aircraft, we could see the members of the maintenance crew lying in the ground in the shade of the aircraft. The other C-130 was gone.

“What was the problem with the Gemini aircraft?” we asked.

The ranking NCO, a master sergeant, made a face, then said. “Nothing. Any competent flight mechanic could have fixed it.”

“So you didn’t need any of the equipment we brought?”

He shook his head. “None of it. I don’t think anyone on that crew knew anything about doing basic repairs and troubleshooting the engines.” He spit on the ramp. “Waste of time, coming down here.”

I joined Dusty Watkins in the cockpit. It was hot in the late afternoon sun and we opened all the windows and hatches.

“Call the command post and tell them we’re ready to leave,” he said.

We fired up the gas turbine compressor (GTC) which we used to power the electrical systems on the ground and start the engines. When the power came on the aircraft, I turned on the HF radio. I had to try a couple of different frequencies before I could hear a response at the other end. When I finally was able to make contact with the command post at Evreux, a voice on the other end said, “Is the Aircraft Commander there?”

“Just a minute.” I gestured across the cockpit to Dusty, who was talking to Sergeant Coleman. “They want to talk to you.” He put his headset on. I listened to the conversation that followed. When it was over, Dusty and I looked at each other.

“I don’t believe this,” he said. He took his headset off and climbed out of the seat. “Let’s gather everybody around. I don’t want to have to tell this story more than once.”

After we had collected the maintenance men and the crew members underneath the wing, Dusty told the story: The C-130 that we had just “fixed” was broken again. Shortly after it had departed Dakar, about noon, it had flown inland for about an hour and then had experienced another maintenance malfunction. But instead of turning around and flying back to Dakar, where we could fix it, it had flown on and landed at another African field, in another country, Liberia. Once again, it was not clear what exactly the problem was. But we were going to fly to Liberia and try to fix it once again. The only problem was that we didn’t have diplomatic clearance to fly to Liberia, and it would take a few hours to arrange diplomatic clearance. So we were going to have to hang around the aircraft until we were cleared to fly to Liberia.

By this time the sun was setting, and we knew we were going to be spending another night in Dakar, only on the ramp, not in a nice tourist hotel. After walking around the area for an hour or so, we all found a place to sleep, on or near the aircraft. The maintenance men had brought a few canvas cots, and the red cloth seats along the inside of the aircraft cargo compartment could hold a few smaller bodies. Dusty and I had our reasonably comfortable pilot’s seats, which reclined, and there were two padded bunk-style benches at the rear of the cockpit. One of these would hold Karl, and the other one went to the flight mechanic.

Dusty and I woke up at 3:00 AM to call the command post, but there was no clearance yet. But when we checked in at 6:00 AM, we were informed that we were cleared to fly to Roberts Field, Liberia, where our errant C-130 was waiting for us. Dusty and I filed the paperwork at base operations while the maintenance crew squared away the aircraft. We started engines and taxied out about 8:00. It should be a relatively short four-hour flight. We took off to the north and could see our Air France luxury hotel and its nearby beach off to the right as we lifted off the runway. We turned left, to the west, and then left again to a southerly heading. We would once again be flying well off the coast of West Africa. The only country we had permission to fly over any part of was Liberia. But we had a problem. When I tried to raise the flaps from 50% down (which we used on normal takeoffs) to full up position for cruise flight, the flaps refused to move. Dusty pulled back on the throttles so we wouldn’t exceed the flaps down airspeed, about 150 knots, and trimmed up the aircraft while we discussed our options.

I tried moving the flaps down as well as up, but the flaps wouldn’t move in either direction. The flaps had worked perfectly coming down from Evreux. What could be the problem? All the circuit breakers were set and functional, so it wasn’t an electrical problem. Someone suggested returning to Dakar and inspecting the flaps. Dusty pointed out that we were cleared for one landing and one landing only, and we had just used up that landing. Was it possible to fly all the way to Liberia with half flaps set? That option was not really viable, as we would be flying at approximately half of our normal cruise speed, which meant a very late arrival, and we might well end up burning all our fuel as we would require a higher power setting to overcome the drag caused by the flaps extending into the airflow. So we decided to use the manual method of raising the flaps; the aircraft had an emergency crank that we could insert into the flap mechanism. Access to the emergency flap lowering system was in the cargo section. By manually cranking the handle lots and lots of times, the flaps could be raised. This would be the flight engineer’s job. But Dusty said we would ask the maintenance men, most of whom had already stretched out in the back hoping to get some more sleep, to share in the cranking task.

We headed south, off the west coast of Africa, at 150 knots while the enlisted men sweated the flaps up in the cargo compartment. We could see the flap indicator showing a very gradual change as the flaps slowly were cranked up. Finally, after about a half hour, the chief maintenance sergeant, thoroughly wet with perspiration, climbed into the cockpit to report that the flaps were up. We thanked him for his assistance.

“Hey no problem,” he said. “Gave my boys a little hands-on experience. We read in the maintenance manual about how it’s supposed to work. Now we know that it really does work.”

Now that the flaps were up, we accelerated and climbed to our cruise altitude.

“What do we do when we get to Roberts Field?” I asked. “Crank the flaps down again? Make a no-flap landing?” No-flap landings were not used often, as no-flap landings required a lot of runway, and we weren’t sure that Roberts Field had that much runway.

“We’ll worry about that when we get there,” Dusty said.

Once again Karl was required to use a variety of navigational skills to fly south parallel to the African coast. We had to pass the coastal waters of three countries—Gambia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, before we reached Liberia. Fortunately, these were small countries and we flew past them relatively quickly. It would have been much simpler if we could have flown from radio signal to radio signal using the land navigation system, but we didn’t have diplomatic clearance to do so. It helped a little that it was daylight instead of nighttime. By the time we turned in towards Roberts Field, it was late in the afternoon.

“Well, let’s give a try,” Dusty said, as we approached the airport. “Flaps half.”

We held our breath as I lowered the flap handle. We were both relieved to note that the flaps behaved normally. (And in fact they continued to behave normally all the way back to Evreux.)

Roberts Field, near Monrovia, Liberia, was an airfield that had been established by Pan American Airways back in the days when it was the most important transcontinental air carrier, and the field was still maintained by Pan Am staff. We parked next to the B-model we had last seen at Dakar. Even before our props stopped turning, our maintenance men were off the aircraft and talking to the men from the B-model. We were met by a van with Pan Am Markings and driven to a nearby country club operated by Pan Am. We were put up in some nice rooms in the country club. We were informed that when we departed the next day, we should wear civilian clothes. Fortunately we had brought some casual clothes with us. It felt very strange (but very comfortable) the next day when we did our preflight planning in khakis and golf shirts.

When we walked out of the flight planning building at Roberts Field the next morning, we were surprised to see that the B-model aircraft was gone.

“What was the problem this time?” we asked the maintenance sergeant.

“Same thing as before—their heads were stuck up their a—-,” he said.

“So where are we going to meet them tomorrow?” I asked.

The maintenance sergeant clenched his fist and shook it. “We better not see them again. If we do, I’m going to do some body work on a couple of airmen.”

That was the end of our African excursion. We never heard from or about that Gemini Support aircraft again. We flew to Torrejon, Spain, where we spent the night, happy to eat in a dining hall and sleep in the VOQ. We flew back to Evreux the next day.

The End of Operation Cross-Switch: Mildenhall and Home

When we departed on our last Turkey Trot mission, we were told that we were probably going to be coming back to a deserted base; the deadline for the U. S. military forces to leave France had arrived. During the time that we were flying into Greece and Turkey, most of the base personnel had departed Evreux for our new base at Mildenhall, England. Most of the C-130s would have been loaded with equipment and supplies and flown to Mildenhall. Even though we had been informed of the closure of the base, it was mildly shocking to see, as we approached the field at Evreux late one afternoon on our return from Athens, empty parking ramps and parking lots. We may have been the last American C-130 to land at Evreux. We spent one last night in the largely deserted VOQ and the next morning departed for Mildenhall, which was located northeast of London. We had several pallets of equipment, mostly furniture, which would be distributed as needed to American units in England. We flew across the English Channel, circling to the east of London, and landed just after noon. We carried our bags with us to the VOQ which, we were pleased to see, was a lovely old two-story building built during World War II. It was located right next to the Officer’s Club, which was a good thing, as we spent most of the next week there. We flew no more missions in Europe. We rode back to the States on a C-130 flown by another crew, sleeping wherever we could find places to lie down on and around the cargo strapped to the pallets. Eventually we stepped out into the mid-August sun of central Texas.

After we had a few days off, Dusty Watkins, Sergeant Coleman, and I were scheduled for a week-long training session in the C-130 simulator at Dyess, in which we practiced various instrument flying and in-flight emergency procedures. Karl did not need to participate, as all emergency procedures involved only the three of us, the two pilots and the flight mechanic. During this time, Karl volunteered to fill in for a crew that needed a navigator for a low-level night navigation mission. The night that Karl flew on that flight, I was awakened about midnight by a phone call from Dusty, who told me that there had been an accident and Karl was dead. The aircraft in which he was flying had impacted the terrain in a shallow left turn. Everyone was dead except for one of the loadmasters, who was severely burned. For the next week or two we were involved in preparations for Karl’s funeral service, which was held in San Antonio. We were in a state of shock the whole time. We couldn’t believe that Karl was gone.

Four months later I was in Vietnam.