Flying in Alaska was always amazing. The scenery was spectacular, but also challenging.
Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage was located off the end of the Knik Arm, one of the two branches of the Cook Inlet. The other branch, the Turnagain Arm, went down to the Kenai Peninsula. South from Anchorage the Cook Inlet went to the Kachemak Bay and Homer Alaska. On the other side of the base was the Chugach mountains, which also provided challenges. It was common for aircrews to wear exposure suits when flying over the water, and in the winter, heavy flight suits and boots were added. We looked a lot like the Pillsbury Dough Boy as we waddled out to the flight line and climbed slowly up the ladder to the cockpit. With all this on, it was a very snug fit in a cockpit that was more like wearing a fighter rather than sitting in one.
Flying into the remote bases was challenging as well. Galena Air Station was surrounded by the Yukon River, which routinely flooded in the spring, causing the base to be evacuated. Eielson Air Force Base was deep in the interior near Fairbanks experiencing wide temperature swings from the -40s in the winter to 80 or 90 in the summer. And King Salmon Air Station was down on the Aleutian chain which was dotted with active volcanoes.
In January 1976, the Mount Augustine volcano, located 180 miles south of Anchorage, erupted spewing clouds of dust and gas into the atmosphere. These clouds rose as high as 70,000 feet. It was a weekend and on Sunday morning the sky was a peculiar red-brown color, shortly afterwards, red-brown ash began falling covering the snow. Two of the 43rd TFS F-4s flew through a cloud of volcanic ash which sandblasted the paint off the leading edges of the wings, tanks, and tail; making it also impossible to see out of the front windscreen. One pilot reported that they went from a normal cloud into a very nasty cloud. The fighters were able to recover at Galena, and returned to Elmendorf the next day.
These crews were lucky as other aircraft operating in the Alaskan air space had crashed in the past and in some cases had never been found. One of the most famous cases was the disappearance of Congressman Hale Boggs, who vanished in 1972 when the plane he was in simply vanished over the Alaskan wilderness and was never located. And in 1973, an F4 from Elmendorf vanished during an air combat training mission and again was never found. Given the challenging terrain and demanding flying schedule, it was amazing that not more of these events occurred. In 1974, the 43rd flew 4,315 sorties totaling 8,121 flying hours, and while no military accidents happened, in December a pilot assigned to the 43 was killed in a private aircraft crash during a takeoff from a frozen lake at Elmendorf.
Yet, there was no denying that the flying in Alaska was amazing. Much of our operations were conducted in the interior near Denali National Park. One summer we were flying a four-ship formation near Mt. McKinley, when we flew over the summit there was a climbing party on the peak. They were very excited to see us and waved, probably thinking the Air Force had scrambled our flights to honor their arrival on the summit. It was a nice thought but we were running air intercept training to prepare for the Russians who tested our defenses off the Alaskan coasts.