Thirty years ago this month, I checked into my first operational squadron in Gitmo. They gave me the “gouge” about flying in the Caribbean, including divert/bingo information for any reason when we could not return to Guantanamo. I gathered up the divert info, checked it out, made the required maps and memorized the numbers. Then I promptly dropped package into the lower right pocket of my G-suit. That’s where the information stayed for almost two years…
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We were sitting around the campfire. . . No, that’s not really the truth. We were down at the beach guzzling beer, no that’s not quite right, either. Aw, nuts, the truth – we were sitting around the backyard of a friend’s house in Gainesville right after Vanderbilt handed the Gators their tails in a 17-34 blowout. Homecoming was ruined! Some of us were drinking beer, but not guzzling the way we used to back in the 70s; we had learned to drink responsibly over the last few decades.
There was all kind of talk going on between old friends. Talk about the Gators, talk about living in Gainesville in the “old days,” talk about how things had changed. Talk about problems with parents, talk about parents and grandparents who had passed, talk about dogs and cats, talk about the new technologies and how easy the students of today have it compared to the times we were students at the University of Florida. And we talked about hurricanes.
My mind immediately jumped back in time to November 1985. I misidentified the hurricane to my friends, and when I reached my computer and started researching, the hurricane in question was Hurricane Kate.
Kate spawned in the Caribbean just northeast of Puerto Rico on November 15, 1985 and fizzled out eight days later after cutting through the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern part of America. Kate was the last hurricane to make landfall in the United States that year and did so as a Category 3 hurricane. From inception to the time she finally fizzled out, Kate caused $700 million in property damage and killed 15.
As it passed to the north of Cuba on November 18, one of our aircraft carriers was in the area doing workups. One of the exercises they were to engage in was a mock attack on our base and our squadron would go out and defend against that attack.
With Kate just to the north of the island, weather wasn’t great. I was the guy who went to the metro office and was told, “Well, it won’t be great, but it won’t be bad. You should be able to get out and back with no problems. We don’t expect it to get worse than about 1200 broken with intermittent moderate rain throughout the day.” Weather guessers – a bunch lyin’ sacks of…
So, we checked with the ship. “Yes, the exercise is still on.”
We brief. The XO was the mission commander and would lead the flight with a junior officer on his wing and then split into different sectors at altitude. I would fly solo – low. The other two were to simulate fighters at high altitude and as such, maintenance removed the drop tanks from their A-4s. Since I was going to cover the low sector and needed the gas, I retained my drops and the extra 4000 pounds of JP-5 they provided.
The weather was not so bad at takeoff, but shortly afterward, it went bad fast. We flew to our positions for the start of the exercise and waited. We waited too long. Then we got the word from the ship – “Hey! The weather is too bad. We canceled!”
So we turn to head home to Gitmo.
Tower reported the weather at about 300 with gusting winds, heavy rain. XO makes the decision for the flight to head to Jamaica. Up above, they had split into single ships and the junior officer was closest to Norman C. Manley International at Kingston. In the meantime, my immediate boss, who was attending a meeting near our radar facility, walked into the radar station and started asking questions about the situation. He asks about my fuel state and since I had drop tanks, would I would be comfortable trying an approach into Gitmo to see what the weather is really like? I agree to it, the XO agrees to it, and I turn north.
A few minutes later, my real boss (the skipper of the squadron) walks into radar and sees two of his jets heading south on a bingo and one coming north. After asking for the identity of the northbound jet, he told me very clearly to turn my young butt south and join the others in Jamaica. OK.
We faced more problems landing at Norman C. Manley. The tower’s radar was down and they only had VHF radios. We only had UHF radios in the jets. In essence, we just showed up and surprised them. We cleared the airspace of airliners ourselves and landed. The first one down was the other JO who had no experience with civilian airports at that time. He landed and rolled to the end of the runway and pulled off. He was sitting there waiting for a “Follow Me” truck when the XO landed, taxied past, and transmitted, “Follow me,” and then gave me a heads up as to what to expect on my arrival and where to find them.
On the ramp, we were surprised to find a lot of Cuban airplanes. Evidently, Castro’s air force also was running from Kate. We were met by U.S. Marines who took us to the United States embassy. We contacted the squadron to let them know we were all safe on deck and preparing to return. Of course, the meteorology department said we should be able to get back to base the next day.
Three days later, we finally got home.
©2013 J. Clark
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