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The author with his anti-sub Lockheed Orion. (Courtesy Tracy Wilkinson)

Above & Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea

Above & Beyond: Adventures in the South China Sea

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By now we were all dreaming of food. We'd not had anything to eat since dinner the night before, close to 24 hours ago, and I am not one who misses many meals. The coffee was long gone, as was the last of the stale corn chips someone had passed around. We were exhausted, sweaty, filthy, and hungry.

Then the fighters showed up.

I was dozing in my chair when somebody hit me in the leg. "Hey man, we're being intercepted!"

Crap! I pulled on my headset, peered into the blackness, and saw the flashing strobes of a fighter a mile off our right wing. Our Chinese friends had scrambled interceptors, and they'd been tracked coming after us. The two fighters in close formation a few feet from the window were in fact Japanese F-4 Phantoms that had come to deal with the threat, but we'd not sorted that out just yet. The Phantoms escorted us toward friendly airspace, but it was a very tense few minutes waiting for the communist missiles to arrive. This was the same area in which a Chinese F-8 Finback fighter would collide with an EP-3 Aries II—the electronic reconnaissance version of our airplane—less than two years later.

When we finally landed at Kadena, the total elapsed time since the knock on the door was just under 23 hours. The duty driver was waiting in the van to take us back to quarters. When we climbed in, she wrinkled her nose, and in her lovely Georgia drawl said, "All y'all smell like a bunch of billy goats."

We drove to the other side of the base in fetid silence. Without prompting, she pulled into the Popeye's Fried Chicken. We all sat together, stinking and eating the piles of chicken. No one said a word.

Later, in a bar in Okinawa, we came up with ideas for the traditional cruise patch. It's a circle (sort of) with a misshapen number 1 (our crew) and an odd silhouette of the Chinese sub. The quality is horrible, the stitching is falling apart, but it's still my favorite.

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