The Navy liked keeping an eye on us, using route-checkers for the job. It was not unusual for an officer in an orange flight suit to be waiting for us as we arrived to start a trip. He’d announce he was Commander so-and-so, and wanted to route-check the flight. This would be accompanied by a slip of paper from Navy-Norfolk, stating Commander So-and-so had permission to ride, and to please show him all courtesies. Generally these guys were nice people who made no comments other than to thank us, congratulating us on a well-run operation. I got the impression it was a routine that filled a square – the Navy had a lot of routines that made no sense.
Early one-morning a Commander James showed up in Alameda asking to route-check me to Paine Field in Everett, Washington, and back. He was a smiling likeable guy in his late forties dressed in the proper regulation-orange flight suit festooned with an assortment of patches that included a leather name-badge giving his name, rank, and squadron. I’d seen him before when he was checking other crews.
“Good morning captain, do you mind if I ride with you this morning?”
“No sir; do you have your authorization?”
Turning to our dispatcher he asked, “Son, has Norfolk sent in my authorization yet?”
The dispatcher shuffled through the stack of papers he was about to hand over to me before answering, “I’m sorry it isn’t here; I’ll put in a rush request – you should have it in a moment.”
“Thank you; sometimes the Navy drops the ball.” Addressing me he continued, “May I see the licenses and medicals of you, and your first officer while we’re waiting?”
“Certainly,” I replied as I reached in my back pocket for my wallet. Ray Roy, my copilot already had his out and handed it to the Commander.
Examining the certificates he carefully wrote in our names and other details on his clipboard before handing them back. “I envy you both, being so young and flying these beautiful jets. I never got past the propeller equipment; ah, to be young again.”
I was given a copy of his authorization when it arrived over the Teletype from Navy-Norfolk. Everything was in order before we proceeded to the aircraft. Other than low clouds and the usual morning fog at Everett it was going to be a routine run. I grabbed another Styrofoam cup to share my thermos of coffee with the Commander.
The takeoff over the Oakland-Bay Bridge always made me wonder if the loaded aircraft really met second-segment-climb; or would I have to fly under the span in the event we lost an engine at a critical time. Climb-out was smooth, the stratus cloud-deck was thin, we leveled off at thirty-one thousand feet; our cruise altitude for the hour and forty-minutes to Paine Field. The sun rose brilliant in the East lighting the cobalt blue sky and white clouds below. It also shone on the contrail of another jet probably out of San Francisco and bound for Seattle that was a few miles ahead of us.
Taking a sip of his coffee Commander James casually addressed Ray Roy, “You know you have a very good captain here.”
“Yes sir,” Ray answered.
“Yes, you see this cloud we’re following? That cloud is formed by the cold, moist air of the ocean meeting up with the warmer air of the land. That cloud is an indicator that we are flying right up the Coast. It will take us right up to Seattle.”
“Really?” Ray responded. We were both waiting for the punch line – this had to be a joke.
“Really. I once followed one of these long clouds all the way to Anchorage in an R-4-D. If anything should happen to the ship’s navigation equipment; all I’d have to have done is turn west and let down over the ocean to safety.”
“Aren’t there some big mountains on the way to Anchorage that could have gotten in the way?”
“Not if you fly the coastal route. I’m sure Captain Case here knows what I’m talking about?”
“Huh, yes sir.” Ray and I exchanged glances. The hair on the back of my neck was standing up. Who is this guy? He’s no pilot and what he just said is completely wrong.
We continued along in silence following the contrail with the Commander smiling and sipping his coffee. Ray called my attention to a message he’d written on a scrap of paper, ‘What do you want to do?’ it read.
I scribbled back, ‘Call Center – tell them we want security guards to meet our plane when we arrive.’
It was a quiet flight except for Commander James’ casual comments that all of sudden made no sense to either of us. This wasn’t funny; who was this guy?
The ILS instrument approach seemed to take forever. We’d turned off the overhead speakers, using headsets so Commander James couldn’t hear our conversation with the ground.
“Ah, Quicktrans 9-3-6 we received a message you want Security to meet your aircraft – do you have a problem?”
“Roger Approach, we have route-checker on board who may not be who he says he is,” Ray answered.
“Roger, do you want armed intervention?”
I picked up the mike, “This is the captain; that’s a negative. Just make sure we have some guards meet the plane.” All we needed was a bunch of police waiting to kill us all.
We touched down with less than a half mile visibility, there were flashing lights and an ambulance behind the marshaller who waved us to the parking spot.
“Looks like you’ve attracted quite an audience with that landing?” Commander James commented as we shutdown the engines.
“Ha, that’s a good one captain. I’ll bet they’re here because of all the classified cargo we’re carrying. Ambulances normally meet the plane when we have valued serums on board.”
Ray extended the stairs, walking down, followed by the Commander and me. At the bottom of the stairs was an older gray-haired man I’d never seen before. He nodded to me, but addressed Commander James, “Billy, Doctor Brooks says to say, ‘Hello’ and he misses you.”
“Really?” the commander never missed a beat, “I’ll be with you in a moment; I have to complete my mission first.” He turned to Ray and me, “Gentlemen, you did a fine job. I’ll certainly mention your instrument skills to the brass. It’s good to have you both on board.” He then shook our hands, “And captain, I certainly enjoyed your coffee.”