"War" story Friday: Repat 84

Good for Fridays: "war" stories. This was common practice when I taught history at the Air Force Academy, and is well suited for an aviation blog. It's only that despite being a military pilot, I haven't done a lot of war fighting, so it is air-quotes "war" for me.

I'll start by saying that this trip really encapsulated the spirit of adventure I'm looking for in aviation, even if it wasn't obvious when we set out.

This was a trip to Papua New Guinea to support JPAC's (now called DPAA) search for the remains of a downed airman from WWII; specifically, this time they were out to investigate a couple of plane crash sites around the northern coast of PNG. When they find what they're looking for, the service member's remains are "repatriated" in a solemn ceremony at the aircraft, when he is first returned to U.S. "soil" (note: the link of the ceremony is not from my mission but our crews do the same duty as the crew at the end of the linked video--very, very cool). From the start, it was a great thing to be a part of, complete with the call sign for such missions--Repat 84.

We read everything we could about the place, both flying and otherwise, and were a bit chagrined to think that this wasn't going to be a fun place to be, exactly. Port Moresby, the capital of only 250,000, is rated one of the most unlivable cities in the world, which is too bad, because its setting could hardly be more picturesque. Flying in from the north, you pass over some amazingly rugged terrain, rising from sea level to 18,000' in just a few dozen miles, covered of course by dense jungle, to land at Jacksons (ICAO: AYPY) after passing Port Moresby and its blue waters and beautiful foothills dividing the town approximately in half. We imagined how easy it would be, with 1940s cockpit instrumentation, training, and technology, to get the climbout a little wrong and smack into one of those mountains in PNG's bad afternoon weather. We also couldn't help but notice how awesome it would be to fly low-level in this country, as the absence of power lines, towers, and even roads would make for some exciting 300' modified contour flying, save for the occasional spear thrown at us by some natives scared and upset by the large, loud bird in the sky--true story.

Jacksons is teeming with Air Niugini and Airways PNG Fokker 100s and Dash-8s, but surprisingly this international airport closes at 1900 as the regional aircraft don't much care for the remarkable afternoon cumulus formations that inevitably build up over that rough terrain as the intensely moist air is carried so rapidly aloft, so said a couple of Aussie blokes who fly for Airways PNG.

As for us, we were performing our bread and butter mission: intratheater airlift. We were to shuttle some of the JPAC team's stuff up to Nadzab (ICAO: AYNZ) brought in by C-17 from Hickam AFB (PHIK/PHNL). The giant report (mil version of the A/FD) said Nadzab was suitable for C-17, but not any taxiways--only the runway. An active regional airport, it appears the DoD couldn't or wouldn't convince PNG to shut down one of their few paved fields for offloading some stuff. As we'll see in another post, these Repat operations have months of painstaking diplomatic background to them. For us, this just means we get a night on Tumon Bay in Guam enroute to Port Moresby and then a stay at the "nicest" hotel in the country.  This is also where the real adventure begins.

Thanks in part to that inevitable afternoon weather and in part to our sometimes crippling rules, Jacksons was forecast to have some low clouds and thunderstorms, and for some reason unknown to us all the instrument approaches were all NOTAM-ed out. So, for us this international airport became a day-VFR field. That's a problem with duty day restrictions and limited time and gas

Owing precisely to our planning miscalculations, we finally awoke to the awful truth: we could *probably* fly back VFR and make it with the gas and daylight we needed--in retrospect probably the better choice but--or stay the night there at Nadzab. And staying the night had further difficulties: the drive to the hotel in town was 40 minutes, we didn't have reservations, and we had no clue what the night's sleep would be like to prepare for our inevitably long day to follow. Oh, and recently a tour bus of backpackers had been ambushed by local tribesmen and several people were killed. We presumed that meant they had been eaten, as well. So, we decided to lower the paratroop seats and make due with our on-board accommodations for the night.

The "Herky Hilton" was one of those fabled, even apocryphal stories that the Vietnam Herk pilots-cum-simulator instructors at Little Rock told us about but we thought nobody actually did, then or now. Now, we faced the uncomfortable reality of sleeping there ourselves. But we had made our bed, and damnit, we were going to sleep in it.

The Marine officer in charge of the JPAC team very kindly brought us burgers and beer before retreating to their hotel in town before dark as we settled in. There, on the dark ramp, chomping on burgers and fries, sipping some cold cans of SP Lager, and staring across the barbed-wire airport fence at the crowd of locals that had gathered, there was actually something really nostalgic about the crappy night of sleep that we faced. Although by our own doing, we were partaking of a long line of Herk drivers who had used their bird as as a bed, however many or few times before.

The next day was truly hell as we had to finish the job we started, which meant picking up the flyaway security team (FAST) members who were off shift back in Port Moresby, and then flying all the way back to Guam. The sweaty night, sweaty morning, and sweaty gas-n-go at Jacksons made for a sticky, smelly, tired flight back to Guam, but we rested well that night (and the navigator a little extra on the bunk enroute) back in our rooms on Tumon Bay knowing that we had accomplished the mission, with panache. Oh, and that JPAC team? They found what they were looking for and another Herk crew went back to pick up one of America's fallen airmen from World War II, thereby completing one of the most fulfilling missions I was part of as a C-130 pilot. 


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