There are people who fly incredibly important and dangerous missions every day. You just don’t know about them. That is a good thing. These are highly classified aircraft as are the missions they fly. Secrecy is the name of the game. Recently there have been published reports about two of these planes being “intercepted” by Russian jets as they flew along the coast of Russia. Following is one such article:
Think of the longest flight you have ever taken on an airliner. The longest non-stop airline flights today last up to 17.5 hours. For most people, a flight more than 10 hours is considered a real ordeal. Now imagine staying on that plane while it is refueled and then flying back. You still would have a shorter day that the crews on these missions. I flew on similar planes on combat missions over the Gulf of Tonkin. We flew out of Okinawa and the flights lasted 24 hours. In addition, we weren’t exactly sitting on cushy coach seats being fed by enthusiastic stewardesses. We often were sitting on our parachutes, wearing helmets and got no breaks at all. There were toilets on the plane, but that was about it. In addition, we typically spent at least two hours in briefings before the flight and two hours debriefing after the flight. If that sounds exhausting to you, that would be more than accurate. By the way, our plane was always escorted by four U.S. fighter jets when we were over the Gulf.
These planes flying along the coast of Russia have far longer missions. I personally know of missions that are in the air for more than 36 hours. The thought of a Russia fighter “intercepting” these planes is not exactly new. This used to happen on almost every trip. The crew members actually enjoyed seeing the Russian fighters, although it was truly tense. The fighter pilots would fly next our the RC135 and flip the bird. The USAF crew members would respond in kind. It just never made the news. Fortunately, it is extremely rare for these planes to be shot down. I also a crewmember on these planes.
I also flew on much smaller planes that flew over South Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail. These planes were EC47s, they were very slow and flew at low altitudes because the planes were not pressurized. Our squadron motto was: “Alone, Unarmed, Unafraid.” The first two parts were true, the last part was absurd. We were terrified. So, we did what every real combat veteran does, we focused on the job. Unfortunately, some of these planes were shot down.
So, when you read the kind of reports, keep a couple things in mind. Although you know little or nothing about these missions, they happen every day. The USAF is only flying these missions because they are necessary. These are not training flights. The technology on the plane we flew over the Gulf of Tonkin was mind blowing. Even after all the training, the first time I got on a plane I was blown away. These flights were flown over 50 years ago, but some of the technology didn’t start showing up in the consumer market until very recently. Some of the technology will never show up.
There are many brave men and now women who fly on these planes. These crewmembers are incredibly talented often doing things most people can’t even imagine. They are the silent warriors, always on duty, seldom recognized. There are other men and women, serving on submarines and other navy ships also operating in harms way. If anything, these missions are even more dangerous. We should all be grateful for all of them. We should be proud of them. And we should all pray that we never hear much