by Phil Rowe
Just before Christmas we were sent to Madrid, Spain as part of an exercise to familiarize ground crews at overseas bases with the new B-58 aircraft. One day it might be necessary for those folks to service or repair those unique planes, so giving them a chance to work on a real one was a good idea.
It certainly was a good idea from our perspective too. Getting a trip to Madrid any time was a treat, but to do it just before Christmas was even better. It was an opportunity to do some bargain shopping in the famous stores and gallerias of that exciting city. Not surprisingly, the three of us on the crew all received long "wish lists" from our wives.
Our task was to bring the plane back from Spain to Indiana. Another crew was already in Madrid and would return on the KC-135 tanker that brought us over. Such a rotation gave two crews a chance to travel.
I have no idea why we were chosen and really didn't care. It was enough that we were going. For me, though, it was extra special. It was my very first time to see Spain. I was very excited, but my crew mates had been there before, back in B-47 days. For them it was "old hat" and not so special, save for the chance to buy Christmas goodies for their families.
I badgered them with questions about what to see and do in Madrid. Though we would spend but a few days there, I wanted to know how to make the most of it. And I wanted to know where the best places to shop were.
We landed at Torrejon Air Base on the outskirts of the city. It was nighttime and surprisingly cold. Snow on the ground was something I didn't expect in sunny Spain. We were told that we had no special duties for the next few days. Just be back in time to take the plane home as briefed.
Three days and nights were crammed with activity. Shopping for leather goods, jewelry, Toledo steel ware and perfume kept us busy the first day. We went to dozens of stores and shops, checking off the many items on those "wish lists". By the second day we found time to see some of the city, its wonderful boulevards, public buildings and parks. And we found some fabulous places to eat. Madrid during the holiday period is wonderful.
Perhaps the most unusual place we went was Casa Botin, a grotto-like place reportedly in business for over 500 years. It was a premier restaurant my crewmates said should not be missed. And they were right. The roast suckling pig dinner was a meal to remember. So was the Sangria wine and fruit punch that flowed like water. And after dinner we found a Flamenco dance theater. Mmmmmm, terrific!
When it was time to head for the airplane and load our goodies for the return trip home, we realized that we had a problem. Where would we put all of that stuff? The B-58 is not a large and roomy craft like the KC-135 we'd come over on. Nor was it nearly as capable as the old B-47 for lugging bootie often carried in the bomb bay. B-58's don't have bomb bays.
There wasn't room enough in the craft for us to move about or stow packages. Each of our tandem cockpits was isolated from the others. We sat in spaces barely larger than those of jet fighter seats. Where could we possibly stow that loot? And loads of it we had.
A creative ground maintenance man came up with the solution. He suggested that some of the stuff would fit between the pilot and the navigator, under and to the right of the electronic equipment between their seats. All he had to do was remove a panel on the starboard side to reach one of the few empty cavities in the plane. Quickly he unscrewed dozens of fasteners and pulled the cover off to reveal a space big enough for several boxes and a guitar, the one I'd bought at the last minute.
We couldn't get to that stuff in the air, and would have to pull the panel again on returning home. But it was sure a great place to stash it for the flight back. Still, where to put the rest, including three cases of booze? That cognac and Mateus wine was a real bargain not to be left. My pals said they guitar would be left behind if space couldn't be found elsewhere. But where? Again to the rescue came the ground crew. They pulled a panel from the upper side of our bomb pod hung below the fuselage. Though the space was barely enough, between the dummy payload ballast and the fuel tank, it held the remainder of our stuff. No matter that the pod was unheated and might cool to minus-40 at flight altitude. The booze wouldn't freeze.
We got back to Indiana after an uneventful and smooth flight across the Atlantic. We refueled just west of the Azores and made it home from there with gas to spare. We landed late in the afternoon of a blustery and snowy winter day. Boy was it cold. It was so cold, in fact, that the fellow assigned to customs duty refused to leave his warm vehicle and check the airplane and our cargo.
It was almost too cold to ask our local maintenance troops to unbutton the airplane so we could retrieve our stowed goodies. But the offer of a couple bottles of cognac and wine solved that problem. Soon we were unloaded and headed home. Our wives and other relatives enjoyed a bountiful Christmas that year too.
Oh yes, I never did master that guitar. And besides, I discovered that there were already several guitars in the Alert Facility. I sold it to another fellow and bought a concertina, which I did learn to play. Sort of.