Supplemental Sections for Runway Visions
This page includes three supplemental sections that rightly belong in my book, Runway Visions. When I prepared early drafts of Runway Visions, I wrote two detailed descriptions of routine C-130 activities which I decided not to include because I wrongly thought they would not provide particularly interesting reading. I did keep copies of some of these sections, however. Later I regretted not including the following two sections in the final draft, because they provided important information about C-130 operations in Vietnam. The third section was important also, but for other reasons. So I have provided these missing sections here, with indications as to where they should fit into the book.
First Supplemental Section: Description of the C-130 Cockpit
(This section, describing the C-130 cockpit setup, should replace the second paragraph of page 10, Chapter 1, “New Guy.”)
On my left hand, the four throttle and four propeller condition levers rose out of the center console that separated the pilot and copilot seats. The C-130 was powered by four turboprop powerplants; a turboprop consisted of a jet engine driving a propeller. There were two controls for engine operation instead of the standard single control—the throttle—typically found in most jet-powered aircraft. Our throttle levers worked much like the throttles of a jet engine—moving them fully forward provided full thrust. Moving them fully to the rear provided minimum in-flight thrust.
Once the throttles were fully to the rear, at the flight idle position, they could be lifted up, over a mechanical stop, and pulled farther to the rear. This position gave minimum forward thrust, used on the ground for taxying. Pulling the throttles farther to the rear caused you to hit a detent. Beyond that detent was the reverse thrust range, provided by the action of the propeller blades moving from the forward thrust blade angel to the reverse thrust blade angle. We used reverse thrust during the final segment of landing and for backing out of tight parking areas. The application of reverse thrust was crucial for landing at short fields. Reverse thrust could be applied only after the weight of the aircraft was on the gear; reversing the propellers in flight would have catastrophic consequences.
When we landed, we moved the throttles from the forward thrust range to the reverse thrust range steadily but carefully; we wanted to avoid a situation in which one propeller blade would remain in the forward thrust area while the other three propeller blades entered the reverse thrust area. In such a situation, if full power were applied (by pulling all four throttles to the full reverse stop), three propellers would provide full reverse pitch while the propeller that remained in forward blade angle would produce full power in the opposite direction. This situation could cause loss of directional control, and resulting in a serious accident, especially if the propeller of an outboard engine were producing full thrust.
We always paused for a moment during landing when we moved the throttles from the forward thrust range into the reverse thrust range to make sure all four propeller blades had moved into the reverse thrust range. Because the pilot was fully occupied keeping the aircraft moving down the centerline of the runway, he relied on the flight engineer (and the co-pilot, and anyone else in the vicinity who cared to look) to tell him that all four propellers were safely in the reverse thrust range. This indication was shown by a fluctuation of the needles on the torquemeter gauges, located in front of the engine control console.
The throttle levers were located to the pilot’s immediate right; farther to his right were the propeller condition levers. These levers, one for each propeller, were used to control propeller angle when starting the engine, when shutting the engine down, and during in-flight emergencies, when it was necessary to feather the propeller, to place the propeller blades in streamline position into the wind to reduce drag on the aircraft in flight.
When the pilot was flying the aircraft and needed to move the throttles, he merely had to move his right hand slightly to the right, off his right-hand arm rest, and grab the four throttles. When the copilot was at the controls, however, he had to reach past the propeller condition levers to the throttle controls with his left hand. This left-handed reach was a little unusual and took a little getting used to. Normally, of course, the pilot flying the aircraft was sitting in the left seat. The copilot sitting in the right seat read the checklist and assisted the pilot in command as necessary. The copilot usually was assigned the task of communicating with the ground and traffic control stations over the radio.
If there were two fully qualified pilots flying the aircraft, they would normally take turns siting in the left seat on each leg of the flight. However, an instructor pilot checking out or giving instruction to a new pilot in the left seat normally sat in the right seat; but he had to be capable of operating the aircraft safely from the right seat. He had to be adept at handling the throttles with his left hand.
Aircraft control on the ground was maintained through the use of nosewheel steering, which was normally controlled by the pilot sitting in the left seat. There was a small round steering wheel located at the pilot’s lower front left position, which the pilot could easily reach with his left hand. The pilot controlled the movement of the aircraft on the ground by steering it with his left hand and controlling the throttles with his right hand. While the aircraft was taxying, the copilot held the yoke (control wheel) and control column immobile.
On takeoff, as the aircraft picked up speed, the pilot gradually released the nosewheel steering and took control of the aircraft by grasping the yoke with his left hand. On landing, the pilot controlled the aircraft with the yoke until the speed of the aircraft slowed sufficiently and then maneuvered the aircraft off the runway using the nosewheel steering.
A pilot sitting in the right seat could maintain directional control of the aircraft on the ground only through use of the rudder pedals (at higher speeds) and the brakes, also controlled through the rudder pedals. Toe pressure applied to the top of the rudder pedals would result in braking action. Pressure to the left rudder pedal caused brake pressure to be applied to the main wheels on the left side of the aircraft, and pressure on the right rudder pedal created braking on the main wheels on the right side. The aircraft could be steered from the right seat relatively easily by an experienced pilot adept at the use of differential braking and throttle manipulation.
The engines of the C-130 gave an unmistakable growl as it taxied on the ground, a sound that fairly suggested the strength and power of the aircraft. Its appearance as it taxied also suggested strength, for it resembled a large animal, an overgrown groundhog with wings, trundling down the road, with a slightly protruding nose created by the placement of the radome beneath and in front of the cockpit. Looking at it parked on the ramp, you might not think that it was capable of smooth and graceful flight, but when it lifted into the air, any doubts vanished.
In the center console, in addition to the engine controls, were the radio controls, one set for our standard UHF (ultra-high frequency) radio, another for our less-used VHF (very high frequency) radio, and a third for our even less-used HF (high frequency) radio, which we used only for extended overwater flights (across the Atlantic or Pacific, or the South China seas) or to contact operational control centers from remote locations. Here were also the controls for the navigation radios, the TACAN, the VOR, which combined to give us our bearing and distance from known stations, and the little-used automatic direction finding (ADF) unit.
Ahead of me, on the copilot’s side of the front instrument panel, were the copilot’s aircraft control instruments, the altimeter, aircraft attitude indicator, compass, and the turn and bank indicator. The pilot had a similar set of indicators in front of him. In the center of the instrument panel, easily visible to both pilots and the flight engineer who sat immediately behind us, were several sets of engine instruments: turbine inlet temperature gauges, exhaust gas temperature gauges, oil pressure gauges, and turbine RPM (revolutions per minute) indicators.
Mounted in the top center of the instrument panel was our radar scope, whose image repeated that of the radar scope located at the navigator’s position. To my right rear, below my side windows, were the control switches for our airdrop indicators, my oxygen mask connector, and a panel of fuses and circuit breakers. A few feet behind my right shoulder was the navigator’s position, where the navigator sat at his desk, watching his radar scope and navigation instruments, marking the progress of our flight on his map and in his flight log.
Just behind my left shoulder sat the flight engineer. His seat was located immediately behind the center console; he had an unobstructed view of the engine instruments on the main instrument panel and easy access to any of the engine controls if he needed to act in a hurry. Over his head was the fuel control and air conditioning panel; he was responsible for maintaining control of the fuel as it fed from the wing and fuselage tanks into the engines. Using the controls on the air conditioning panel, he tried to maintain a comfortable temperature in the cargo compartment, an impossible and thankless task, given the primitive system he had to work with.
A few steps behind the engineer and to the right of the navigator’s position were two padded benches, one above the other, the equivalent of a double-deck bunk; these bunks were secured to the back wall of the crew compartment. There was room for two people to sit comfortably on the bottom bunk, three in a pinch, and if we carried only one or two passengers, we would normally invite them to sit up front with us. If we chanced to carry women passengers, a rare event, they definitely sat up front, and we spent more time looking at them sometimes than we did monitoring our progress through the air.
The upper bunk was not easily accessible and there was not enough room for anyone to sit on it, for there was only about a four-foot clearance between the top bunk and the top of the cabin. We often threw our larger B-4 bags and duffel bags onto the top bunk to keep them for becoming soiled from being tied down in the main cargo compartment. Above the top bunk was a removable circular hatch which we would use to climb up on top of the fuselage if we needed to inspect any part of the exterior surface of the fuselage or slide down its sides to walk out on either wing. The fuel tank filler caps were located on the top of the wing, and the flight engineer often used this exit to monitor refueling activities, especially when it was necessary to refuel in remote fields.
More often than not there were no passengers, especially when we flew in-country, and our loadmaster would sit on the bunk after he completed his after-takeoff walk-around inspection. It would be one of his first tasks after takeoff to see if any of us needed coffee (we always needed coffee, especially flying at night), and he would fill our paper cups from one of the coffee jugs located at the rear left of the crew compartment, at the right side of the stairs leading down to the crew entrance door on the left front side of the aircraft fuselage, forward of the number two engine.
In all, the C-130 crew compartment was a comfortable and even pleasant working environment, made even more enjoyable by the twenty-three window panels which extended across the cabin from left to right.
Second Section: Danang ABCCC
(This section should follow Chapter 2, “Check Out,” and precede Chapter 3, “On the Shuttle.” To be consistent with my book, in this section I use an incorrect spelling, “Da Nang,” which I spell as one word, “Danang,” because that was how I spelled the word in Runway Visions.)
After a short run to Okinawa, I was scheduled for another flight, something new this time: the airborne communication mission at Danang. My aircraft commander on this flight was Lieutenant Colonel James Marable. We flew the usual route to Danang: CCK to Naha, Okinawa, where we picked up a load of supplies for Vietnam. Our load from Naha was to be delivered to Qui Nhon this time, and we arrived as usual in the small hours of the morning. From Qui Nhon it was a 45-minute flight up the coast to Danang, where we landed just before three in the morning. But you wouldn’t know it was night as a result of the amount of illumination flares descending over the airfield. The west perimeter of the base was lit up like a playing field.
Approach control steered us onto a left-hand downwind heading north, parallel to the coastline, then turned us west onto a base leg that bought us north of Monkey Mountain, a high hill on a peninsula several clicks northeast of the field, where a radar station was located. The lights on the radio masts on the hill were on our left as we flew past. When we were over the bay north of the field, approach control turned us onto a southerly heading for our final approach to landing and directed us to contact the tower for landing instructions. Tower cleared us to land on the left runway. The water of the bay was dark below us, but we could see the runways and taxiways of Danang Air Base, lit up clearly ahead of us.
Almost three months after I had first seen it, and frequently flying over it enroute from Thailand to the Philippines, I was finally landing at Danang, the location that provided my first glimpse of the American presence in Vietnam. I wondered at the strange system that controlled my movements in and out of Vietnam, that should show me Danang so often at a distance yet prevent my landing there for a period of three months. Danang and the other bases in the northern area of South Vietnam I had scarcely seen, yet I knew airfields in the mid-section of Vietnam, and the territory between them, between Qui Nhon and Saigon, like the back of my hand. I thought of the map on the wall in my room, the few pins I had placed in them to mark fields I had visited, and the many places where I had not yet placed a pin. Now I would be able to place a pin in Danang, making it a part of my mental landscape of the terrain of Vietnam.
The follow-me truck led us to the C-130 ramp on the east side of the field. The night was warm and humid when we exited the aircraft. Danang smelled pretty much like Tan Son Nhut—a little more of the sea, perhaps, mixed in with the sweet-sour aroma that drifted down from the city to the north. We would be flying only two missions, one the next day, and one the day after that, and then we would return to CCK. The crew truck took us to our crew quarters, a small air-conditioned trailer that was intended to insulate us from the heat and noise of the base.
Danang was a noisy base; in addition to the Air Force F-4 fighter units and our own cargo operations, there was a Marine fighter unit on the west side of the field and some Army flying operations as well. It was the largest airfield in the northern part of South Vietnam. Like Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa in the south and Can Ranh Bay in the coastal midsection, it provided logistics support and air assistance of every variety for the numerous ground operations in Vietnam. The Viet Cong presence was also large, and the activities of the Viet Cong were brought to our attention on a regular basis. The field often experienced mortar attacks at night, and slit trenches, bunkers, and other safe havens were situated at various locations around the field. It was a common sight to see Army Hueys and Marine helicopters hovering above some portion of the perimeter or of the open fields beyond, engaged in an exchange of gunfire with unknown and unseen (by me) persons in the vegetation on the south and west sides of the field.
Early the next morning the crew truck carried us to the operations building, where we received our mission information. The airborne command post mission, or A B triple C mission, as we called it, was simple. The ABCCC bird was a specially fitted C-130 with a communications capsule inserted into the cargo compartment. Once fitted with the communication capsule, the aircraft was flown exclusively on that mission. The aircraft carried its normal crew, except for the loadmaster, whose presence was unnecessary, for the only load we had was the communications capsule, the men who manned the capsule, and a full load of fuel. The job of the aircrew was to get the aircraft safely airborne, climb as high as it could go with a full fuel load, and orbit over a predetermined location, climbing higher as we used fuel.
While we were orbiting and climbing, the communications men in the back did their work, which was to communicate with the aircraft and command posts in their area of operations. There were about ten of these individuals on board, some of them Air Force officers in uniforms and some were Vietnamese or other local nationalities; these were in civilian clothes. These men provided the communication linkups between spotter aircraft, like the O-1 Bird Dog, or the occasional F-100 spotter aircraft, and the strike aircraft called in to assist the Army, ARVN, or Marine Corps troops on the ground. When a ground unit needed assistance, the unit called for a spotter aircraft. When the spotter aircraft identified the ground target, the pilot called ABCCC requesting assistance from a strike aircraft. The capsule folks in the back relayed the request for strike assistance to the appropriate agencies at Danang (usually a flight of F-4s), or if needed, Chu Lai, or Cam Ranh Bay, or other units at sea or farther south.
When the strike aircraft arrived in the target area, they checked in with the capsule folks, who coordinated their communication hand-off to the spotter aircraft flying at treetop level somewhere below. If the strike area was in questionable territory (like somewhere in southern Laos), the locals in civilian dress had the authority to approve or disapprove the air strike. As far as I know they never disapproved of a strike; but they were the first to know if an unusual operation was taking place on the ground. One ABCCC aircraft was airborne over the northern operating area at all times. The call sign of the daylight aircraft was Hillsboro and the call sign of the night aircraft was Alley Cat.
We were assigned the Hillsboro portion of the mission, which called for us to be airborne, on station over the northern section of South Vietnam, for twelve hours. Flying time to and from the orbit area added an additional hour. We arrived in the orbit area about seven o’clock in the morning. The weather on our first day’s flight was generally good and visibility was excellent. Our orbit area was west and north of Danang, over an area of lush green hills. The navigator established orbit points by radial and distance fixes of the Danang TACAN. We flew over Laos as much as we flew over Vietnam.
Our initial altitude was low, about sixteen thousand feet. As we burned fuel and lightened our load, we climbed a thousand feet at a time, eventually peaking out about twenty-four thousand feet by the time our orbit activities ended. We flew the aircraft on autopilot all the time; to fly the aircraft by hand for that length of time would have become a mind-bending and arm-numbing experience. For most of the flight, we flew in one direction, turned when the navigator said turn, and flew back in the opposite direction. After a while we could tell when to turn by visual reference to the ground features. But when the weather was bad or clouds reduced our visibility, only the navigator knew where we were, usually by relying on the radar set.
While we were in orbit, only one pilot was required to be in the seat at a time. The other pilot could walk around the aircraft, hobnob with the communications crew, eat, catch a short nap. The other pilot’s seat had to be occupied by another crew member. Often the flight engineer would sit in one of the pilot’s seats, keeping his eye on the gauges and dials above his flight engineer’s position as well as on the engine instruments on the front instrument panel. Occasionally the flight engineer would be able to grab a little stick time. We would take the aircraft off autopilot control and let the flight engineer try to hold it steady on course and on altitude.
Occasionally we would even let him wrestle the aircraft around one of the turns. Holding the aircraft at altitude in a turn was a bit of a challenge, especially when the aircraft was full of fuel. When the nose of the aircraft started to drop too much in the turn, the pilot in other seat would help the flight engineer get the aircraft back up to the desired altitude by pulling back pressure on the yoke. We hoped that the sudden increase of back pressure on the yoke would not distress the folks back in the communication capsule, pulling the extra Gs to get the aircraft back up to its assigned altitude.
Occasionally, however, we would pull a little too much back pressure, and one of the troops in the back, usually the senior ranking officer, would suddenly appear in the cockpit, yelling, “What the hell’s going on! You’re about to make us puke back there!” And we’d make up some weak excuse about rough air.
When it was my turn to stretch for the first time, I got up out of the co-pilot’s seat while Lieutenant Colonel Marable settled into his pilot’s seat. I made my way back to the communications capsule through the door from the crew compartment. I was impressed when I saw the elaborate set-up. The communications crew seats were spaced down the left-hand side of the cargo compartment as I walked toward the rear; each set had a complete set of radio controls on the side. Each member could dial in any frequency he wanted, in the VHF, UHF, and HF ranges. The crew members wore headsets with long cords so that they could walk around and still be tuned in to any conversations that were occurring. There were also some FM radios, which were used by Army units. Across the aisle, on my right, was a large board holding a variety of maps of the area, covered with a solid sheet of thick, clear plastic. If there was a mission in progress, the names of the aircraft were written on the board with grease pencil, with target areas circled, lines showing routes of flight, radio frequencies, call signs, and any other relevant information.
Farther back were banks of radio sets and communications gear. There was also an in-flight kitchen, where hot lunches were prepared and a row of coffee and water jugs. It looked like a pretty good set-up. The only disconcerting aspect was the fact that the normal attitude of the aircraft in flight at our most fuel-efficient cruising speed resulted in a slightly tail-low attitude, which meant that those sitting in the seats tended to lean to the left. Usually, however, we dropped a few degrees of flaps, which helped to bring the cargo compartment to a more even keel.
As the day progressed, our fuel load lightened, and our altitude increased. We had to continually alter our flight path, however, for the afternoon thunderclouds were beginning to build, especially over the more rugged hills to the west. We orbited closer and closer to the Danang TACAN, eventually holding practically on top of it, and when we received word that the evening bird was launched, we began our letdown over the field, descending in wide circles and landing to the south in the dark. We landed at seven-thirty at night, exhausted after flying nearly thirteen hours in circles.
Two days later we were airborne again. The weather was once again clear and smooth, at least before the clouds began to build. We were once again orbiting to the northwest of Danang. Shortly before noon, I was flying the aircraft while Colonel Marable was out of the pilot’s seat stretching his legs. Someone came up front from the capsule and stuck his head over my right shoulder to look at the scenery below. He started to talk to me, so I removed my headset to hear what he was saying. He said that we were flying over something called the A Shau Valley. I nodded and said it was very pretty. He gave me a pained look and snorted. Only much later did I learn that the A Shau Valley was owned by the Viet Cong.
Soon afterward, I was looking out, admiring the rugged terrain below. The visibility was exceptional. As we approached the northwest end of our orbit I looked down and saw a pattern on the ground below. It looked like some kind of construction work, a regular pattern of earth turned over as if some company were laying down a housing development, with long lines indicating streets and excavated areas suggesting building foundations. I was confused by what I saw. Who could be doing construction work out here, in the middle of the jungle?
As the aircraft flew closer to the site I could see more clearly that it was a parallel series of holes in the ground, a long series of deep holes. They had to be deep if I could see them clearly from eighteen thousand feet, our altitude at the time. They looked now like a pattern stitched in brown and white on a green blanket of jungle. And then I could see another pattern of holes crossing the first pattern at an angle. Then it dawned on me what I was looking at: patterns of bomb craters caused by flights of B-52s.
The bombs had really cratered this portion of the valley. I tried to imagine what it must have been like, to be on the ground as the string of bombs erupted along the valley floor, detonating in a long continuous series of uninterrupted explosions, the smoke and noise if the raid had occurred during daylight hours, the blinding light and concussion if it had been at night. Even from eighteen thousand feet, the sight was impressive: long lines of bomb craters in a never-ending green jungle. The pattern started to pass underneath the nose of the aircraft.
Then my concentration was abruptly broken as a large shadow passed slowly over the aircraft, blocking out the light of the sun that had been shining down through the cockpit windows. My heart stopped. What could have caused such a large shadow at to pass over us at this altitude? No birds flew this high. There was only one kind of aircraft that could be above us and cast such a large shadow: a B-52. And no B-52 ever flew alone. This must be a formation of B-52s, come to drop another load of bombs over the A Shau Valley. And here we were, directly underneath their route of flight.
In a panic, I grabbed the yoke, about to turn off the autopilot and make a sharp banking turn to the right. I knew such a move would profoundly upset all those back in the communications console, but I thought that my hard turn to the right would be preferable to being blown out of the sky by a rain of B-52 bombs. Then I paused, remembering that the sun wasn’t directly overhead. Where was the sun? I twisted frantically around in my seat, looking through the copilot’s windows on my side of the aircraft for the sun. There it was, off to our right, to the south. As I looked for the sun, another shadow passed between the sun and our aircraft, and I saw clearly the outline of one B-52, the high sharp tail fin first and then the bullet-like nose moving steadily through the sun. And then beyond it, another, and then another, an entire formation, turning slowly, gracefully, impressively, onto a northerly heading towards North Vietnam. I watched until they disappeared in the haze and high clouds that rose in the north.
My heart was beating rapidly and I wanted to tell someone what I had seen, how close to death I was sure we had come, what an amazing sight, what a strange and preposterous sequence of events had unfolded in a matter of seconds, but there was no one in the other seat at the moment, and it was too late (and, I now realized, unnecessary) to call out over the intercom, because the bombers were now far to the north and out of sight.
Just then the navigator called out, “time to turn back to the east; we’re moving beyond our assigned orbit area.” I relaxed my grip on the yoke, reached down with my left hand, and turned the autopilot control to the right, causing the aircraft to begin a gentle turn to the right, steadying at a mild bank angle of fifteen degrees, and the aircraft came gradually around to a southeasterly heading.
I never saw bomb craters in the A Shau Valley again, never saw another B-52 in the skies of Vietnam during the rest of the time I flew in South Vietnam, but the vision of those B-52s in formation, of their elegance in flight and their impersonal awesome potential power has remained in my mind as vividly as it did at that moment. I knew fear in many forms during the time I flew in Vietnam, but I was never more instantaneously and completely frightened than I was that day at the west end of our orbit over the A Shau Valley.
I realized later that there was no way the men in the back of our aircraft, a flying communications command center, would not have known of the movements of all aircraft, even B-52s, in the area, but at the time all I knew was extensive bomb patterns on the ground, B-52s above us, and us flying along compacently in between. I was beginning to develop an awareness that accidents could happen quickly and for the most bizarre and unexpected of reasons in the skies of Vietnam, where aircraft operations could occur in ways never imaginable in the more rigidly controlled skies of the United States of America.
The next day we flew directly back to CCK, a four-hour flight. My first ABCCC mission was over.
Third Section: Taipei R&R
(This section should follow Chapter 12, “Gear and Flaps Man,” and come before Chapter 13, “Christmas at Khe Sanh.”)
For the next two weeks the squadron scheduling officer, Horse Pemberton, kept me at CCK, flying proficiency flights in the local area for new pilots, practicing landings and low level navigation. I flew two out-and-back cargo hauling trips, one to Iwakune, Japan, and one to Naha. On the ground at Naha I persuaded the flight engineer to let me control every sequence of the engine start procedures, so that I could become more familiar with all of the systems operations during the engine start process. While the pilots initiated the engine start procedure by pushing in the engine start buttons and manipulating the engine condition levers, once the propellers started turning, the flight engineer normally completed the rest of the engine start activities.
There was another reason I was given the unheard of luxury of nearly two weeks at CCK: I was being given a few days of rest and relaxation (R&R) at Taipei. Horse said I had better take advantage of my time off the in-country shuttle while I could; now that I had passed my Instructor Pilot checkout, I could anticipate many days on the road, checking out new pilots in-country. While I was enjoying myself in Taipei, Horse would be assembling the other members of my new crew, who would be flying with me for the next few months.
I left Taichung on the Friday afternoon train and enjoyed the leisurely ride to Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, located about an hour’s train ride to the north. I had brought a book to read on the train, but as the train made its way through the rice fields and terraced hills, I preferred to look out the window. My plan was simple: check into a good hotel, enjoy a complete Chinese dinner, and relax by walking around the city.
When I stepped off the train in Taipei, I asked the taxi driver to take me to the best hotel in town. He smiled, nodded, and drove straight to the Ambassador Hotel, a large elegant structure in the heart of the city. I liked it at once. I walked into the spacious lobby, admiring the oriental styling and art, the tall vases on pedestals, the large paintings on the walls. Yes, I thought, this is nice. Two hours out of CCK, into a totally different world, a world so unlike the world of a C-130 crewmember; here I was a long way from anything remotely connected with the war.
My room was modest but stylish, one bed, tastefully if sparely furnished. I took a long hot shower, put on some casual clothes, and went down to the hotel dining room. The dining room was large and blue, the Ming Garden Dining Room. It was still early in the evening, and when I walked in, the room was practically deserted. It felt strange to be in an empty room. Everywhere I had been in the last eight months, there were lots of people around me, mostly in flight suits and other uniforms. To eat alone was not usual. But it did not bother me.
I ordered a complete meal, rice wine, egg drop soup, an entrée with many side dishes, dessert, tea. I took my time. Because there were so few people eating, I had lots of attention from the waiters and waitresses. I indulged myself completely. I ate slowly, forcing myself to take my time. The food was excellent, nothing like the ubiquitous grilled hamcheese sandwiches which I normally consumed at every base’s flight line snack bar. I drank my tea slowly, enjoying every minute. By the time I pushed my chair back from the table, I had taken an hour and a half to eat.
I looked at my watch. Not quite nine o’clock. What could I do to round out this pleasant evening? As I waited for the elevator to take me up to my room, I noticed an advertisement for the Sky Lounge, a bar on the top floor of the hotel with a view of the city. I pushed the button for the Sky Lounge.
When the elevator door opened, I walked into a room with windows on three sides, offering views to the east, south, and west. Many tables, a bar along the north wall, some couples at tables, a few people gathered around a piano in the southeast corner. I made my way over to a table in the southwest corner, sat down, and admired the view. The sun had set in the west, but the city below was still visible in the fading light, the city lights just taking effect.
The streets of Taipei were laid out before me, fading into the smoke and haze of street life and cooking fires. From where I sat, I could see aircraft approaching the Taipei airport, which was located on the northeast side of the city. They circled around to the west, then headed to the east on final approach, briefly disappearing behind the north wall of the hotel, then reappearing on the east side, descending toward the runway, anti-collision lights flashing regularly in the growing darkness. As I drank my scotches, I followed the approach course of several aircraft, following one another to their landing.
I sat there, completely relaxed, watching the city lights grow stronger as the twilight faded. I let myself realize how unhappy I had been at the prospect of playing permanent copilot for the remainder of my tour at CCK, and how totally surprised and exhilarated I was to have been given the opportunity to upgrade to instructor pilot and pleased to have done so well in my brief ten-day checkout period. There was much in my mind I needed to process.
I had finished my third scotch (or was it my fourth?). By now the room was almost deserted. The nighttime view of the city was lovely, but apparently few local people cared to see it, and there were few Western tourists interested in coming up here for the evening. The only activity was over at the bar. Three or four people were sitting around the piano, requesting songs and approving the pianist’s performance. I decided I would join these few, have one more scotch, and retire for the evening.
I sat down next to a slender, dark-haired woman, older than I was, but strikingly attractive. She was dressed in a simple black dress. She had been talking to a local man seated next to her. They had been together at the bar when I came in, and I had assumed they were there together. But she increasingly directed her remarks to me.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“From the air base at Taichung,” I said.
“Have you been there long?” Her English was excellent.
“Why are you in Taipei?”
“Three days of R and R—rest and relaxation.”
Her name was Tamiko. She did not have the Chinese look of most of the residents of the island. She looked almost European. When I asked her, she said that her father had been Japanese, and her mother had been one of the native Taiwan islanders. These people, I knew, were distinguished by their distinctly Polynesian features.
She seemed knowledgeable about the music the pianist was playing. She had taken piano lessons in Japan and had been fairly proficient in playing classical music. Chopin, Brahms. The few details suggested that she had a very unusual background. I was impressed. I said it was too bad the pianist didn’t take a break. I would like to hear her play.
Oh no, she said. She hadn’t practiced for a long time. Did I play a musical instrument? Yes, I said. The trombone. The what? The trombone. The slush pump. I gestured, holding my left hand near my mouth, as if were holding a trombone, moving my right hand in and out, as if I were moving the slide. Oh, she said, using the Chinese word for the instrument. No, I said, I wasn’t very good. It had been a long time since I had played the trombone.
We had been talking together for a long time. The man seated on the other side of her seemed to be a little distressed that she was paying so much attention to me. I said I had to go to the bathroom and would be right back. When I finished my duties in the bathroom and stepped out in the hall, she was there waiting for me.
“Do you want me to spend the night with you?” she asked.
I was a little surprised by the abruptness of her question. But on very brief reflection, it seemed like an excellent idea.
“What about . . .?” I nodded in the direction of the bar, hidden from view by a wall.
She smiled and grabbed my arm.
“Don’t worry about him. Let’s go.”
We made a quick exit, laughing together as we stepped onto the elevator.
On the train back to Taichung two days later, I reflected on the surprising sequence of events I had experienced in the last two weeks, and I smiled contentedly. When I went to see Karla that night, she asked how my IP checkout training had gone. Tough, I said. Really hard. Poor man, she said. Let me hold you.
That would be nice, I said. I deserve some consolation. Really, I said to myself, I did.