I have had many requests to write about the missions we flew on. I always explain that the missions themselves were – still are – classified and I cannot comment about what we did. But I can describe what it is like to prepare for a mission.
For Airborne Missions Supervisors (in charge while airborne), flight preparations actually started the night before. Briefings had to be prepared and mission materials had to be updated. Once everything was ready, the AMS had to go to the In-Flight Kitchen to order the meals for the Recon Crew.
One detriment of flying always struck me: a lack of sleep. Getting up for briefings that occurred two hours before take-off doesn’t sound bad – until you realize that most briefings were at 0430 for 0630 take-offs. That meant rolling out of the rack no later than 0330. That is pronounced “oh-three-thirty,” none of that “zero” or “hours” crap that Hollywood throws in.
Briefings usually took about 45 minutes. First, there was a common briefing that included the Front-End Crew – two pilots, two navigators, and two others. The common briefing was to review general aircraft safety, bailout and crash-landing procedures, and other mundane stuff. General intelligence items were discussed. Then the Front-End Crew left to preflight the aircraft.
Once they were gone, the Recon Crew got into the good stuff, getting very specific as to what was of special interest for the mission. During the night, others had made certain that the prepared mission materials were still current, with any changes being noted. Then it was off to the bird.
The intent was to be at the aircraft at least 30 minutes prior to engine start. The Recon Crew had work to do. First came personal safety. We had to fit our parachutes, which formed the backs of our chairs, taking care that parachute straps were tight but that our “personal equipment” was not caught under the lower harness. Otherwise it would be a highly uncomfortable bailout and descent. As part of standing up to see that the parachute fit properly, we also ensured our butt-boats were hooked to the parachute harness. The butt boats formed the seats of our chairs and contained all sorts of survival gear along with an inflatable personal dinghy – a boat of sorts and hence the name.
Our underarm inflatable life preservers were always worn, as I recall, since there would be no time to don them when strapping on a parachute in an emergency. Helmets, headphones, and mics along with oxygen masks had to be checked to ensure that everything worked properly with aircraft systems.
In addition, certain pieces of mission-specific gear had to be set up and tested before departure. All this was tedious and time-consuming, yet it had to be done. And just about when everyone was finishing up, it was engine start time – time to strap in and prepare for any ground emergency or an unsuccessful take-off. Once in the air, there were usually a few minutes in which to relax before mission work began in earnest.
I flew precisely 500 glorious missions during my Air Force career, and I will never forget my sense of anticipation as I boarded the aircraft – or the faint but ever-present smell of burnt electrical insulation and something metallic. It was the perfume of a dream job and I miss that to this very day!