In Alaska, December is a bitter month.
I have previously written about attending arctic survival school outside of Fairbanks when it was -50F and the techniques I learned to survive. Still it gave me, and every fighter jock I flew with, great pause to think about dealing with the Alaskan winter on the ground. There was no worse feeling than to see emergency lights, such as the Master Caution (MC), illuminate when one was over the Alaskan interior during the cold months.
Master Caution is a misnomer, it implies a sort of benign warning. There is nothing benign about it. It could mean many things, most were very bad. The Apollo 13 crew saw the illumination of the MC light in their capsule just before things went south. There is absolutely no good news when the MC light comes on.
Once while on a training mission far over the interior, we had the MC light come on. It appeared we had reverse transfer flow of fuel. This meant that fuel was flowing out of the main tanks in the F4 fuselage back into either the wing tanks or a center line tank. First we checked the emergency procedures checklist, then if various switches were in the wrong position, and finally if any circuit breakers had popped. Then seemingly the situation was corrected and we returned to base with no more problems.
Still there was that moment when we talked about if we would have to eject over some of the most forbidding landscapes on earth.
“Have to eject.” The three worst words any aircrew member can ever contemplate or hear. The diagrams in the tech manual made it seem so simple.
Which of course it never was.
Ejection is the last resort. The absolutely last thing a fighter jock ever wants to do is eject. The credo of the fighter jock is “Never Leave a Perfectly Good Airplane.” (Actually that applies to about any airplane which is in the air — good or otherwise.) In many minds it was better to ride the plane in than eject, and riding it in was often not a good choice either. In either case, many, many, many things could go wrong.
Which brings me back to December. In December of 1973, just before I arrived in Alaska an aircrew was lost over the interior. Captain David M. Grimm and Captain Frank M. Mutolo disappeared while on an air combat maneuvering training mission. Air combat maneuvering is a very demanding type of flying — think the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds. Usually it involved at least a two-ship formation, and sometimes four. Wingman Captain Lawrence Hoffman later reported that the other aircraft containing Grimm and Mutolo turned into a cloud bank and disappeared. At speeds approaching Mach 1 there is absolutely no room for error.
It is not hard to imagine that they hit a peak in the cloud or that some catastrophic event occurred, which was heralded by the illumination of the MC light. Although an intensive search was performed for the next two weeks, no trace of the aircraft was found. This was still fresh in our minds that day the MC Light came on and we had the fuel problem.
Probably the most famous case of a missing aircraft in Alaska was the disappearance of Congressman Hale Boggs. In 1972, while he was still House Majority Leader, the twin engine airplane in which Boggs was traveling along with Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich vanished. As with Grimm and Mutolo, it was presumed that the aircraft crashed. And it too was never found.
To go down in the wilderness, to hit a peak, to disappear into the crevice of a glacier and be lost seemingly forever is hard to imagine. Harder still for a wife at home to contemplate. In what other profession does a wife kiss her husband and send him off to work with no assurance that he will return that evening.
Flying a jet fighter offers a freedom seldom experienced by 99 percent of the American people. It can exact a price.
December in Alaska can be a bitter month.