You're Coming In Garbled

by Phil Rowe
It was always winter in Indiana. Memories of my B-58 crew days there will forever be tainted by those cold, blustery winters. It's thoughts of those freezing times on the flight line or around our stone cold planes parked in the Alert area that vividly come to mind.

Maybe that's why I was so pleased to come across a logbook entry that reflected a winter's short deployment to Fort Worth, Texas. That was a place of welcome warmth. Fort Worth was also the original nest of our sleek supersonic birds. B-58's were produced by the folks at Convair Fort Worth, just across the runways from Carswell Air Force Base. And that's where we got our initial training in the exciting Hustler.

It happened quite by chance, one stormy January night. Our crew was returning from a routine training flight. We began the termination phase of the flight by checking in with Indianapolis Air Traffic Control on the radios, while still 100 miles out. They would be the ones to give us clearance for approach to Bunker Hill Air Force Base. We were still at 30,000 feet, above the clouds, and had about four hours of fuel remaining.

"Understand, Indianapolis Center. Bunker Hill is closed due to weather. Galaxy 22 will remain at angels 30 and hold over the TACAN." That meant that we, the crew of Galaxy 22, would have to contact our Command Post for instructions. The question was whether or not we would be told to continue holding above the base, waiting for the weather to improve ... or divert to someplace else with acceptable weather.

"Damn," my pilot muttered. "That mess won't clear up soon enough. I just know it. Phil .. how long can we hold with the fuel remaining?"

I quickly re-totaled the sum of the fuel gage readings, made a pencil notation on the "how goes it" graph on my notepad, and calculated a rough estimate of how long Galaxy 22 could remain aloft at economy cruise.

"Al, I figure we've got just under four hours to dry tanks, provided we remain at cruise altitude. If we have to make a descent and missed approach, that'll cut an hour off."

"You don't suppose they'll divert us to Carswell, do you?" piped up our navigator, hopefully. "I'll give you a heading to Carswell whenever you want, Al."

"Galaxy Control. This is Galaxy 22, Over." Al switched the Number Two radio to the Command Post Frequency and made contact with the decision-makers in our headquarters, while advising me to continue to monitor Indianapolis Center on the Number One.

"Galaxy 22," the Command Post advised, "weather is to remain below minimums for the next several hours. What is your fuel state?"

Al responded, "Two-two can loiter for no more than three hours. What are your instructions?"

I knew that Al had "banked" that extra hour's worth of flying time, just in case the Command Post wanted us to continue circling before making a decision to divert us.

"Galaxy 22. This is Galaxy. You are instructed to hold for one hour at present altitude. We're expecting another weather report within the hour. Copy 22?"

"Roger. 22 copies. Will advise Indianapolis Center. Out."

"Phil. Tell Center that we've been instructed to hold at altitude for one hour. Get us a clearance at this altitude,"

Indianapolis Center told us that we could hold at our present altitude, but because of other traffic we would have to establish a new holding pattern farther south. They told us to divert to the vicinity of Terre Haute and advise when we were in the new holding pattern.

This little change became a crucial element to what happened next, for Terre Haute was in an area that often presented us with poor radio communications with our Command Post. As the hour ticked away, Walt re-figured the new heading direct from Terre Haute TACAN to Fort Worth. "Standing by with that Fort Worth heading, Al". The anticipation in Walt's voice reflected our own feelings. Each of us hoped for the word to head for warmer climes.

"Galaxy 22, this is Galaxy Control .... you are instructed to divert to *%&$@$$%%^&*," came the garbled and somewhat faint message. "Do you copy 22?"

Al responded, hoping for a decision that would have us headed to Texas.

"What did they say, Phil? Did you copy those instructions?"

"Not clearly, Al. It could have been divert to anywhere. Maybe they said Fort Worth or Carswell. I didn't make it out"

We completed a turn in our racetrack-like holding pattern. As soon as Al leveled our plane out. He tried again. "Galaxy, this is 22. What were those instructions? Say again. Over."

" .. &^#%^78xftrdyy. Do you copy Galaxy 22?"

"Sounds like divert to Carswell to me," offered Walt. "Yup, that's just what it was." "Did you get that too Phil?"

"Nope. It was all garbled. But it could have been Carswell. Don't you think?"

We would not have been at all disappointed if the message said Carswell, but with such badly garbled reception from down near Terre Haute, none of us could be sure.

"Roger, Galaxy Control. Galaxy 22 copies. Will divert to Carswell," Al finally decided to advise the Command Post. He knew full well, as did Walt and I, that a clear message never came through.

I quickly informed Indianapolis Center that we would like to immediately alter our flight plan to proceed direct to Fort Worth and Carswell Air Force Base. In seconds we had the approval and were turning to the new heading that Walt had at the ready. Two hours and forty minutes later we would be in warm country.

That's the way it was, one stormy winter's night over Indiana. It wouldn't be until we got to Texas and called our Command Post over the telephone that we'd learn we were actually told to divert to Michigan. Too bad. We already had plans to have Bar-B-Que at Angelo's and managed to borrow wheels to get to downtown Fort Worth.