It was the night before Christmas Eve in 1970 at Torrejon Air Base near Madrid, Spain. I was a captain in the United States Air Force and the junior aircraft commander of one of the three Strategic Air Command (SAC) KC-135 tankers. We were from three different air bases. My home base was Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. We were there to provide backup air refueling for the SIOP war plan, emergency air refueling and training sorties. It would be another Christmas on SAC alert duty away from our families.
It was the first day of my two days off from alert duty. I had made plans to go into Madrid and do my favorite thing – enjoying the city as if it were a living museum. I was always surprised during my walks in Madrid, London, Paris, Tokyo, Copenhagen or Rome that when I roamed these cities at random, I somehow always returned to where I started, as if I was a human homing pigeon. I have lost that ability now and get lost after the first turn. I now have to use the hotel business card or name of a train station given to the taxi driver to return to where I started.
It was to be another day of interesting random wandering around downtown Madrid, also Christmas shopping and later that night, Tosca Hopping. My crew was scheduled to return to Barksdale AFB before New Year’s Eve. We would not be home for Christmas, but we would be home for New Year’s Eve with many very nice Christmas presents.
Just before I left the base, all three aircraft commanders were told to report to our operations center. There they shared the good news that one of the KC-135’s could fly back the next day to their home base for Christmas and that it was up to us to decide which one would go back.
But instead of one of the three commanders pulling the short straw or the low number from a hat, the Major pulled rank on us and designated his own plane. That did not sit well with us. At any other time it might have been OK. Maybe. But in my mind, it was not in the spirit of Christmas to pull rank. The operations people accepted his decision, and the schedule was set. They would leave in the morning and be home Christmas Eve and that was it.
The other remaining crew took their place on alert, and I headed for Madrid. We woke up the next morning with their planned departure being delayed due to a very thick fog. To me that major was already “persona-non-grata“, and if he could not make it back for Christmas, it would have been some well-deserved bad luck. It would have been OK with me if they could not take off in time, except for the fact that the aircraft was also packed with ground crews and maintenance personnel, none of whom had been part of the major’s decision to pull rank. So, instead of being indifferent to whether they got home late, we were all hoping the fog would lift for their takeoff and that they would all make it home in time for Christmas.
It was a suspense filled morning as the fog very slowly lifted. And it was well after lunch when leaving for another shopping trip to Madrid that I heard the fog-muffled sound of their KC-135 takeoff. Good! They are on their way home.
I had my alert duty radio with me, and less than ten minutes after they took off I received a call from the SAC Control Center telling me that they had had to shut down an engine after takeoff and would recover at Morón Air Base. They had taken off at weather minimums for takeoff but below minimums for landing. I was then asked if I had had “crew rest” and had not been drinking and, if so, to round up my crew, and return to the operations center where we would fly a spare engine down to Moron Air Base.
If it was only the major, I am still not sure what my response would have been and wonder if I would have said that “I got in late last night“ (true) or that “I had a few beers for lunch“ (not true) and then just headed for town and shopping.
But I could not let down our maintenance troops. I changed into my flight suit, rounded up my copilot, navigator and boom operator and went directly to my aircraft which was already on alert scramble status. The spare engine was already loaded on my aircraft by the time we got to the flight line. They filed our flight plan. I did a walk around inspection, started engines and we were airborne all within 10 minutes. I pushed the power up and flew just below the red lines to Moron Air Base.
The short visual approach, landing and fast taxi to the ramp was like a Formula One pit stop; they off loaded the spare engine as soon as the chocks were in place and the engines stop rotating. The going-home mechanics had already removed the bad engine and others were rapidly unloading the replacement engine. What I saw would make all Americans proud seeing their teamwork. I’m sure they set a record for the fastest engine change ever.
After the replacement engine passed a test run and inspection, they buttoned up the cowling, quickly boarded, started engines and took off. It was, overall, a perfectly executed USAF mission that deserved a Well Done for everyone, especially the mechanics.
I decided that as a Christmas present to my crew and me, that we would celebrate the mission by flying a slow, low level air tour of Spain on our way back to Torrejon Air Base. I filed for a high altitude but changed the altitude when in contact with the Spanish air traffic controllers telling them that we wanted to enjoy a low altitude air tour of their country back to Madrid and would avoid cities and towns…which we did.
Our 300-mile random air tour of the Spanish countryside was enjoyable. The air was smooth. I sat back with the aircraft on autopilot relaxed and just enjoying viewing the countryside turning here and there when something looked interesting – as if flying a Cessna 172. We overflew the vast National Park the Sierra de Andiron Mountains and passed by the cities of Cordoba and Toledo, landing at Torrejon Air Base after a very suspenseful, successful, interesting, rewarding and enjoyable day of flying.
Cornelius “Neil” Cosentino became a US Air Force pilot in 1960, and went on to log over 6,000 hours in military, commercial and private flying. He flew the B-47, KC-135, F-4CDE, including three tours in Vietnam. He was awarded 9 Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Neil joined OLLI-USF in 2018. He has taken classes in writing, music, teaching, activism and online searches. Neil is always interested in new projects.