David E. Steiner

Retired USAF, Teacher, Dad, Grandfather, Curmudgeon

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C-130s

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A C-130 with JATOTo the left is a picture of a C-130 using a JATO unit for takeoff. I never saw a C-130 so equipped. On the other hand, just for the heck of it, we sometimes flew low enough to kick up four rooster-tails of water behind us. Not many people have done that. Just below is a picture of a C-130E belonging to my squadron, the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, long since deactivated, based on Guam. The latest C-130 is the J model. "Onboard computer advances have allowed the removal of the flight engineer and the navigator, making the J model less expensive to operate in terms of man-hours." A navigator is still used by Hurricane Hunters and there may be other missions I don’t know about, but GPS is now in kids shoes, so I’m now officially obsolete and my passing is a saving of man-hours. However, I'm told by Bernie Barris, the webmaster of the Air Weather Reconnaissance Association website www.awra.us that one of the modifications to the WC-130J used to fly into hurricanes is the addition of a navigator station on the flight deck. So maybe we're not obsolete, but we're still going to be Combat Systems Officers rather than navigators.

 

I recently attended a reunion of Typhoon Chasers at Biloxi, MS, current home of Hurricane Hunters at Keesler AFB. Reservists on active duty do all the hunting these days. Typhoons are the same tropical storms as hurricanes, just on the other side of the dateline. We enjoyed the tour of their J model WC-130. It carries much more sophisticated equipment to measure a storm’s power than we used in typhoons.

 

When you first flew into a typhoon you got a certificate. As it happened, Elsie was for many years listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded. I had no idea at the time; I just thought it was pretty neat work, flying into the eye of a typhoon and living to tell about it.

 

Eventually I penetrated the eyes of typhoons 99 times. It isn't a record number, but it's close. The airplanes we used to fly into typhoons had some modifications that helped them survive the high positive and negative G-loads. We could go from a minus one to a plus four in just a second or two. One time the wings flexed so much that we popped the covers to the 20 man life rafts we carried in the top of the wings and they went sailing away.

 

We also got hit by lightning all the time. Sometimes we got hit so much that we lost the radome off the front of the airplane. And we often had St. Elmo's fire running around the cockpit. The idea of an airplane crashing because of lightning is mostly a myth. Being hit by lightning is loud, and it can burn holes, usually in leading edges, the nose or the tail. But by itself it can't cause an airplane to crash unless it gets into a fuel tank, with is exceedingly rare. It sometimes hit our antenna, which was a heavy wire used for High Frequency radio running from the tail to the nose. If it broke, as it sometimes did, burned through, it was trouble. It could get caught in a control surface or, in the worst case, caught in a prop. When it happened to me it just banged on the fuselage, making a big racket, but not causing any serious damage. It did play havoc with our radios, however.

 

Once we had a plane that had made an emergency landing on the old WW II landing strip on Ponape Island and it had lost its auxiliary power unit so it couldn't restart its engines. We flew in, parked in front of it and ran up our engines so the dead bird's propellers started to spin and eventually the engine lighted off. It's called an air start, and it's a pretty silly way to start an engine, but when you're 500 sea miles from ground power you try just about anything. We did a number of strange things with our airplanes: you're not supposed to be able to back a C-141 using its engines, but we did it all the time in Vietnam when we had no other choice. It backed up very nicely.

 

Here is a picture of a model of one of our squadron airplanes. It was made for me by Island Enterprises in the Philippines based on a number of pictures I sent them and it's correct in every detail. They make superior models and their web site is here.

 

We used these airplanes on temporary duty assignments in Southeast Asia. The idea was to make rain, believe it or not, to flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was only one of hundreds of hare-brained ideas concocted by people in broom closets at the Pentagon. And it didn't work. As Senator Pell put it, "An elephant labored and a mouse came forth."

 

The last patch of the 54th WRS, early 1980s.

 

Our call sign for this mission was "Motorpool," while our call sign for typhoon missions was "Swan."

 

The original call sign of the 54th was "Vulture," which is why that bird appears on the patch, but when it was changed to "Swan" in the late 60s they kept the vulture on the patch. The squadron was on its last legs anyway and was disbanded in October of 1987. You'll notice the little "atom" symbols next to the vulture's head. That's because the squadron sometimes did some air sampling work when China set off its nuclear weapons. Subtle, eh? Weather Recon was often a cover for things the government wanted kept quiet. One of the guys devised the patch to the right, which has the swan motif along with a question mark, since we couldn't tell anyone what we were doing. But many people did strange and spooky things, and one learned not to pry. I flew 2,344 hours in C-130s.

 

"I had no idea at the time; I just thought it was pretty neat work, flying into the eye of a typhoon and living to tell about it. Eventually I penetrated the eyes of typhoons 99 times. It isn't a record number, but it's close."

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