Flying C-130s in Europe: Operation Reforger

Soon after I became qualified as an operational pilot in C-130s in the 347th Airlift Squadron at Dyess AFB, Texas, I began to fly missions across the United States and Europe. My first flight across the Atlantic occurred in May of 1966, when I flew as co-pilot with Major James Ashcraft, who, like me, had recently come into Tactical Air Command (TAC) from the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Unlike me, however, he had been in the Air Force for many years; I had been in for four. Our mission took us to Erding Field, near Munich, Germany, where we, along with many other stateside C-130s, were participating in Operation Reforger, in which we were to airdrop supplies and equipment to units of the United States Army near the Communist-controlled border. The point of the exercise was to practice airdrops on a large scale and to demonstrate to the Russians that we could supply the American army (and its allies) with necessary equipment if the Russians ever decided to cross the border into western Europe. This was a cold war scenario of some concern in the mid-1960s, especially since the Cuban missile crisis had occurred only four years earlier.

However, the weather, which had been quite nice when we arrived, suddenly turned cold and rainy, and the visibility remained at or below minimums, too low for us to make our airdrops in VFR conditions. We would gather in the briefing room every morning, review the take-off, assembly, and airdrop procedures, and then wait for the weather to improve, which it refused to do for three straight days. We would usually be released from duty about 2:00 PM, and would promptly change into civilian clothes, take a taxi to the Erding train station, catch the first train to Munich, and spend the remainder of the afternoon and evening in the Hofbrau House, drinking beer and schnapps, and then catch the train back to Erding, hoping we would recover sufficiently to be able to fly the mission in a reasonably sober state the following morning. But every morning the weather was bad, and by the time we were released for the day, we had sobered up and were ready to start the cycle again.

Finally, on the fourth day, the higher-ups decided that we should drop our supplies in spite of the bad weather. We had too many Air Force C-130s sitting on the ramp at Erding, and we just couldn’t turn around and go home without dropping anything. So the planners came up with a scheme that involved the aircraft flying one at a time, instead of in formation, as would occur in a normal air drop. We would be guided individually into the drop zone by ground controllers, whose job was to make sure that we didn’t follow each other too closely and drop our loads on the guys on the ground who were still trying to extract the previous load from the drop zone. In theory, the plan should have worked.

We took off with our load on board and flew to a location where we orbited briefly until we were told to proceed on course. We were guided to our drop zone by a radar unit on the ground and followed their directions as to slowing down to our drop airspeed and opening the ramp. When we were in the right location, the ground radar guy said drop now, so we gave the loadmaster the green light and he released the pallet containing our load. Out it went into the cloud (we had been flying in clouds ever since takeoff and never saw the ground).

The problem was that three days of rain had soaked the ground in the drop zone pretty thoroughly, so that when the load was released from the aircraft, it would bury itself in the mud and required specialized equipment to dig it out. The parachutes that were designed to slow the descent of the load in a manageable fashion were not able to slow the load sufficiently to prevent it from plunging into the soggy ground. One aircraft dropped a jeep on a platform and the parachute broke free as it deployed from the aircraft. The result was that the jeep and the platform that it was tied to dropped like a bomb, whistling down into the drop zone like a missile out of the clouds. It buried itself so deeply in the mud that the army left it where it was and marked it with a flag so the local farmer wouldn’t hit it with a plow.

After a number of planes had made their drops, the folks on the ground realized that they couldn’t possibly clear the drop zone before the next aircraft passed overhead to drop its load, and loads were being dropped on other loads. It was a mess. So after about two hours, the operation was called off and the remaining aircraft were told to return to Erding and land. The next day we departed and flew back to the States.