After weeks of preparation at Navigator school, at Mather Air Force Base, we nav students were set for our first actual airborne mission.
Our training aircraft was the twin engine T-29, outfitted with about 12 training stations in the cabin, depending on the mission. Sometimes it was used for basic nav training, other times bombardier training or Electronic Warfare. The T-29, was based on the Convair 240 civilian aircraft and served as the navigator trainer from the early 1950s until 1976. Usually in UNT, three or four nav students were assigned to an instructor, who monitored their progress and graded their position fixes.
A typical mission began at the crack of dawn, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., when we arrived to brief. First, the instructor graded our route charts, which we had drawn in our rooms, and then we prepared our logs for our route fixes using projected winds along the route. All of this took about 40 minutes, we then took a time hack where we synchronized our watches, and went out to our assigned aircraft.
After a pre flight of checking the aircraft, the chutes, and our stations, we were underway. The first flight in many ways was an eye-opener. I had only flown commercially once in my life on TWA from Washington to Chicago. It was a very pleasant experience, in an era when commercial flying was still something special.
The T-29 was far from special.
We were at the point in our training where all of this was very new and we were so inexperienced that we didn’t really have a clue.
Engine startup was like something out of WW II. The propellers began to spin, a distinct smell of oil filled the training cabin, the engine coughed, caught hold and blue tinted smoke emerged from the cowl as it began to rev up. I sat next to the number one engine and the instructor told me to look out the window and report anything unusual.
Report anything unusual.
That depends on what unusual meant. As I said my only flight had been on a TWA 707. This was not TWA. Well the whole engine starting up to me looked unusual, like it was on the verge of blowing up. Then number two started and the whole process repeated itself.
Later we came to call the T-29 “Old Shakey,” as it vibrated so badly. So we lumbered down the taxiway toward the active runway. The plane shaking and vibrating so much I began to think my fillings would come out of my teeth. The lead instructor came over headset: “I want to see a gloved hand in the aisle.” This was a sign that we were ready and 12 hands appeared. We were about to become initiated into the new world of Air Force aviation.
So we took off, one student was designated lead for the first checkpoint and it was his job to throw out the dead reckoning (DR) position based upon time, ground speed, drift, direction, and distance; then take a fix using a drift meter. This was like looking down at the ground through an old Norden Bombsight. He then went back to his station and plotted the town or lake he had observed through the drift meter. If he was accurate it would fall very close to his DR position, he could then compute time and distance to the next checkpoint in the route and pass the heading to the pilot.
If the T-29 was not sleek and classy like a TWA jet, it was not fast either. The T-29 had a cruising speed of about 180 knots; if the winds were head or tail winds, this was taken into consideration as the route was computed. If all went well it was pretty straight forward. That was the operative phrase – all went well.
Sadly for me and others, all did not go well.
Imagine a clown car filled with 12 clowns, all attempting to leave the car at the same time. Now imagine 12 navigator students all attempting to use the drift meter, take their fixes, plot them, and keep ahead of the aircraft. The lead instructor would later say it was “all asses and elbows” as we attempted to do what we had learned on the ground. Needless to say sitting in a room doing a practice mission was far different from being in the air as the plane encountered turbulence and was buffeted from side to side.
The name of the game was keeping ahead. Anything could sabotage that effort. A math error in computing the speed, a math error in applying drift, getting to the drift meter too late and finding the town or lake you were looking for was now behind the aircraft, or a combination of these things. If you got behind once you were sunk, if you miss-identified a town or other geographical feature, you were sunk. Once behind it was almost impossible to catch up.
Math could trip you up quickly: A one degree drift error could result in a one mile error on the map for every 60 miles flown. In other words even a small error over time could result in a big error in determining where one was. Tolerances for a fix were within two or three miles. If you made a 3 degree error in your computations, you could be many miles off when you took your fix. Did I mention I was a history major in college?
For me and others these first missions were a constant game of catch up, always slightly behind, finding errors in my computations and having to correct them. There was a lot to do, to do quickly, and to do accurately.
On these early missions we never had time to eat the box lunch that the Air Force provided. The instructors took great pleasure in eating their lunches in front of us. Most of the choices were very good: sandwiches, fruit, milk and cookies. Some of the best lunches had fried chicken. Sadly most of my lunches I stuck in my nav bag to eat later, after the debriefing where the instructor navigator critiqued my performance.
Often hungry and frazzled, if nothing else in this phase of training, I learned a big lesson:
Double check all you do, assume you have made an error.
It was a lesson I would carry with me the rest of my life.