Flight to the Gulf: What else can go wrong?
November 29, 1990
Eastern Saudi Arabia
Mike Engel, a sometime major and full-time AM-PM Mini Mart mogul, must wonder if a jinx has followed him here from Orange County. In five days away from home, Engel's first lucky break comes just now, when he sits down to lunch just before the Saudi cafeteria line closes for midday prayers. Radios have gone on the fritz, switches have failed and his plane almost ran out of fuel. Outside, sand is gusting 30 miles an hour across the airfield where he plans to take off in a few minutes. And his back aches.
"Can you believe it?" he says over lunch. "What else can go wrong?"
Engel is 10,000 miles from home commanding a flight crew of Air Force reservists from Southern California. All volunteered to leave their jobs and families for about ten days in November to fly cargo into Saudi Arabia. They landed two hours ago with a load of X-ray machines. Besides Engel, the crew consists of a railroad engineer for Southern Pacific, two California state corrections officers, a jet-engine mechanic and a student. Tech. Sgt. Jo Ferry, the senior flight engineer -- a veteran of last year's Panama invasion and a medical consultant in civilian life -- is the only woman. Most in the crew have served in the Air Force before. Their unit, the 445th Military Airlift Wing at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, has provided reserve crews for 93 missions in the massive delivery of American might to the Persian Gulf.
For Engel, 47, this is the fourth trip down-range -- Air Force slang for the gulf area. The world may view the standoff here as high drama, but for flight crews the missions are more grind than excitement. The cockpit seats are mushy -- "awful," Engel says. Box lunches and long layovers in old barracks become tiresome, and the scenery lacks the richness of the Pacific island runs they usually fly. "It's the most boring flight in the world," Engel says of the seven-hour stretch into Saudi Arabia from Western Europe.
Now that he is here, Engel is eager to get it over with. Saying goodby to ten-year-old daughter Shannon is still fresh in his mind. "She looked me in the eye, held my hand and made me promise I wouldn't get hurt. That gets to you," Engel says. " . . . Little girls can do that to you."
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Engel and the crew fly the aging workhorse of the Military Airlift Command fleet, the C-141B Starlifter. Lumbering giants with wings that span 160 feet, Starlifters are neither sleek nor comfortable. But more than half the 5,000 airlift missions into Saudi Arabia have been on the camouflage-painted birds Engel calls green lizards.
Crew members like flying the Starlifter. But time and the strain of a long-distance airlift running nonstop for nearly four months have sapped the plane's dependability, as Engel and crew learn on the mission. "Most people don't drive cars as old as these airplanes," Engel says. Built by Lockheed-Georgia in the mid-1960s, the Starlifter "is a very reliable plane -- but it does break down."
Trouble begins almost as soon as the wheels leave the runway at Norton one early morning. The plane, the General Lee, is empty except for the crew and six passengers. An easy flight is promised to Dobbins Air Force Base outside Atlanta, then to New Jersey for a rest stop at McGuire Air Force Base. "Got a problem with a bogie on the left," Lt. Col. Ron Fluitt, the co-pilot, calmly announces. A warning tab on his panel says the main landing gear on the left side did not fully raise. On a plane this old, the problem may be just a defective warning switch. But if the gear indeed is stuck, the crew might have to return to Norton for an anxious landing.
Tech. Sgt. Chris Roybal, a flight engineer who monitors the plane's engines and physical condition, goes to the cargo bay and peers through a hatch in the fuselage. The gear looks OK, he tells Engel. Over the California desert, Engel calls on Ferry for advice. She was a C-141 crew chief in the active Air Force and knows the Starlifter more thoroughly than anyone on board. Her counsel will be sought frequently as the crew comes to regard the mission as snake-bit, if not cursed.
Ferry suggests to Engel that he could recycle the gear -- lower, then raise it again -- to see if the warning signal corrects itself. Regulations allow the mission to continue, but it's his call, she advises. The pilot decides to press on. "It is probably just a bad micro-switch," he says. Ferry concurs, but she leaves the flight deck to make her own inspection. When she returns, Engel asks for a prognosis. "Let me think about it," she answers, then buries her head in a manual.
Cruising at 41,000 feet, with three hours before landing in Georgia, the pilots relax. Most actual flying is done by the inertial navigation system. It senses the plane's movement and the wind, then makes minute adjustments to the controls to keep the aircraft on course. Engel and Fluitt have not flown together in a long time and use the time to catch up on personal news. Fluitt, also 47, is an engineer at the Southern Pacific railroad yard in West Colton. He flew C-141s in the Air Force, and these reserve missions constitute the only flying he does anymore. He is the crew member most enchanted with the cockpit scenery, and he comments on the red sliver of moon that rises in the windshield.
Engel's grandfather was a flier in World War I, and his father was killed flying in World War II. A Tustin native, Engel was on active duty for seven years and dropped bombs on Vietnam from B-52s. He also flew secret observation missions over Laos. "There were no numbers on the airplanes," Engel says of Laos, "and we flew in blue jeans." He opted out of the Air Force in 1973. "I just got real tired of being in 'Nam," he says. After getting a master's degree and spending 14 years with Bank of America, he took the franchise three years ago on a busy AM-PM Mini Mart in Garden Grove.
Engel may be one of the few Americans deployed on Operation Desert Shield whose livelihood -- the gas station -- is entwined with the world oil market. But he didn't volunteer out of self-interest, he says; nor is a lust to fight Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a motivation. "I'm past that," Engel says. "I spent too many years in Vietnam." He volunteered, he says, because his country made the decision to prepare for war. "I wanted to help out," Engel says. "It's my duty to the unit, to the military, to everybody who is involved."
* * *
The landing gear flaw does prove to be the suspected micro-switch. The crew lands without incident in Georgia to pick up the load for the next leg --eleven Army reservists being mobilized for the Persian Gulf. Many are middle-aged. All are secretive about their specialized unit.
Before takeoff, a new glitch is found in the General Lee. The cowling on the number three engine is stuck open. It takes three hours and a phone call back to Norton to cinch it shut. For the first time, the possibility is mentioned that the mission is jinxed. "Some planes seem to be no problem," says co-pilot Fluitt, waiting impatiently on the flight deck. "Others, well . . . "
The flight to New Jersey goes more smoothly than the jump out from California. The General Lee and her cargo are turned over there to a fresh crew for delivery down-range. Engel and the Norton crew must rest at least twelve hours before they will be assigned another Saudi-bound C-141. Unlike at some bases, the quarters at McGuire are welcoming -- private rooms in a Days Inn off the base. With scores of flight crews deployed on Operation Desert Shield, shared rooms are common. Ferry drew a room on the men's floor of a barracks on one mission. "I had to go to the third-floor latrine for some privacy," she says.
Planes are late coming in, and the twelve-hour rest grows past twenty-four hours. The crew becomes restless. Engel delights in roller coasters and spied a good one on the landing approach, but it is closed for the winter. Ferry goes for a run in the central New Jersey countryside. On the second night in New Jersey, the crew finally draws a plane. The flight across the Atlantic should take about eight hours. American bases are located in Spain, Germany and England, among other places. Defense Department rules forbid disclosing the exact staging country, despite the non-sensitive cargo -- mail for the troops. As the U.S. coast slips behind, the talk turns to Saudi Arabia.
Engel's three trips down-range are the most of any crew member. First time in, he was told to expect dry heat but was misinformed. "It was so humid," Engel says. "It's horrible." Fluitt has been down-range once, Ferry twice. On her first trip to the gulf area, flight crews were required to carry flak jackets and survival gear. Now that airfields are secured, the heavy gear is not required. The most essential extra gear on the plane now consists of blankets for the long nights in the air. Ferry is reticent with personal details, including her age. She spent six years on active duty, time she used to travel overland in the Middle East from her base in Turkey. She has flown volunteer reserve missions for seven years. "I have my own business, so I have control of my time," Ferry says. "My family has gotten used to it."
Still, Engel and Ferry agree to try massaging the military bureaucracy to get the crew home in under ten days. Everyone has work waiting for them. Engel's gas station manager, a Pakistani Muslim who did not relish his boss flying off to fight the Iraqis, is reliable -- "but he's not the owner," he says. Midway across the Atlantic a new problem arises, this one partly of Engel's making. Instead of flying at 41,000 feet, the plane's most efficient altitude, the crew is assigned 29,000 feet. The jets burn more fuel -- much more -- at the lower level. Bad weather or a landing delay could leave them short. About 250 miles from the airport, Tech. Sgt. Edward Kingcade, one of two loadmasters on board -- both of them state correctional officers in civilian life -- pours himself a bowl of Rice Krispies in the cargo bay. Up front on the flight deck, the pilots advise the ground that they need to land as soon as possible. "Should the fuel go below 10,000 (pounds), I want you to tell me immediately," Engel barks to a flight engineer -- one of his few instructions on the mission to carry the tone of a direct order.
Twenty miles out, Engel peers into a haze. He is tense. "Anybody see anything that looks like a runway out there?" he asks of everyone on the flight deck. A few minutes later, the plane turns onto final approach with about 10,000 pounds still in the fuel tanks. Relieved, Engel lands in Europe without a bump. Ferry keys her mike: "Nice job, pilot." But Engel is upset with himself for not insisting that more fuel be loaded in New Jersey. "I hate it when I do that," he says. "I'm a sweaty mess. . . ."
Fuel gauges on the old planes are notoriously imprecise, so the crew isn't sure exactly how close they came to running dry. "You know, 10,000 pounds sounds like a lot unless you're in the air," Fluitt says.
* * *
From Europe, the flight down-range makes for a long day. It is at least seven hours to Saudi Arabia, an hour longer coming out due to winds, with about three hours on the ground between legs. Plenty of adrenaline flows on the trip down to Saudi. The transponder that beeps codes to inform ground radar that the Starlifter is a friendly aircraft failed over the Middle East. Engel is advised to return to Europe rather than risk overflying the Arab world unprotected, but the fuel is too low. Landing at Cairo is rejected because of zero visibility. Engel finally picks his way to an airfield beside the Persian Gulf with guidance from Navy ships in the Gulf and Red Sea. Crew members get three hours on the ground to eat, stretch their legs and make a quick inspection of the plane.
During the taxi to takeoff -- the first leg toward home -- Engel's navigation system abruptly dies. Buttons are pushed and circuit breakers tripped. Nothing. "OK, anybody got any ideas?" Engel asks. Finally, Engel taxis back to the parking ramp and shuts down the engines, frustrated. "Oh, man . . . " he mutters. "Remember when I said at lunch, 'What else can go wrong'? Well, next time I say that . . . "
The problem turns out to be a bad circuit breaker that takes 10 minutes to replace. The flight out is routine. But in Europe, bad news awaits. Instead of flying home as they wished, the crew is tapped for a second mission to Saudi Arabia. Engel appeals to 21st Air Force headquarters, but the crew is needed. "They more or less ordered us to do it," Engel says.
This time, the long Saudi trip is uneventful. The crew delivers classified cargo to a desert airstrip close to the front lines, then high-tails for Europe. Now, the 21st Air Force is sympathetic. After a rest stop of twenty-four hours -- time for a little sightseeing and a relaxed dinner -- the crew flies to Charleston, S.C., and on to Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento. A plane is dispatched from Norton to fetch them home. They land in San Bernardino late on a Wednesday night, nine days after first taking off in the General Lee.
Flight engineer Roybal is home in time for his son's first birthday. Engel's store and gas station survived his absence. The neighborhood gangs and the kids who boldly swipe six packs of beer were kept at bay. In fact, he's in the market for a second Mini Mart. Engel wrote letters for five years to get in the reserves. Promotion to lieutenant colonel may be coming next year, and he plans to stay "until they kick me out." The mission's troubles are already fading from his mind.
©Los Angeles Times 1990