written by Robert Von Bargen

Air Force Navigator Pilot Wings

In 1963, I was a Navigator on alert at RAF Upper Heyford near Oxford in England. My crew had flown from our home station at Pease AFB in New Hampshire three weeks before. We were waiting for our replacement aircraft to arrive. We would not be released to fly back to the states until the new crew was in the system. This was during a time of sustained Cold War tension.

When the replacement crew did not arrive at the scheduled time I inquired about them. It is an interesting story that you will not find in the official history of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

The KC-97 Boeing Stratotanker left Pease AFB in the early morning hours, just after midnight. The Aircraft Commander was a congenial and highly proficient pilot with extensive flying time in reconnaissance aircraft. Unfortunately, the navigator was a Second Lieutenant who had never flown across the North Atlantic, or any other major body of water. The aircraft carried a second crew; they were from Otis AFB on Cape Cod. This crew would also go into alert at RAF Upper Heyford. The navigator of that crew was a Major with many hours of over water navigation experience.

The climb and “coast out” from Nantucket were routine. The aircraft leveled off at cruise altitude, about 20,000 feet, and the crew settled in for a night over water navigation leg. They were scheduled to “coast in” off Ireland and then proceed to Upper Heyford via Lands End, on the southern tip of England, about a ten hour flight. `

The experienced navigator from the “Dead Head” crew offered to help the young Lieutenant get settled into the regimen of over water celestial navigation. They used loran (Long Range Navigation) and radio to cross check their initial celestial fix as they flew further away from North America. But, it was not long before the only navigation method available was celestial and dead reckoning … using best known course and groundspeed.

On their second celestial fix, almost four hours out of Nantucket, the Major plotted the celestial bearings taken by the Lieutenant. But alas… he plotted them on the chart incorrectly. He used the wrong line of latitude- a 60 mile position blunder. The plot showed the airplane to have drifted about 40 miles north of course. Naturally, they corrected to the south to get back to where they were supposed to be. The aircraft was actually 20 miles south of course … their “correction” would move the aircraft further south.

The Major then announced that he was going to sleep and told the Lieutenant to wake him if he needed help. Having done the damage, he went “toes up.”

The Lieutenant prepared for his next celestial fix only to have the aircraft enter clouds. Celestial was no longer an option as the cloud tops were higher than the aircraft could climb.

So into the night they flew with the young navigator using an erroneous position to dead reckon his way across the North Atlantic. He could not see the water to get a drift reading or obtain ground speed off the white caps on the sea surface. Loran is tricky and often unusable in the middle of the ocean. He didn’t tell anyone about his problem. They flew through the night using only forecast winds and headings.

The aircraft broke out above the clouds; the morning sun provided a chance for a celestial bearing. With the sun coming up directly in front of the aircraft, the only reference the Lieutenant could get was a “Line of Position” that showed how far along track they had flown. This is like looking at a tall building from a distance. If you know the height of the building and measure the angle from you to the top of the building, you can use trigonometry to determine how far away from the building you are. You may know you are somewhere on 10th Avenue … but are you at 34th street … 42nd Street … or 57th Street? This was the young man’s dilemma after his sighting on the sun told him how far along course he had flown … but he had no way of telling how far left or right of the intended course he had traveled.

The Lieutenant labored in silence. He tried everything he had been taught in navigation school. Nothing worked. No Loran, no radio signals or anything that helped determine his position in relation to the desired course.

At last … the aircraft radar picked up a coast line at 250 miles out. He reasoned: “There it is … the coast of Ireland.” He would have to turn south to get around Ireland to reach Lands End in England. But he could not tune in any of the radio stations shown on his chart. This was not unusual; navigation radio frequencies are line of sight and unavailable beyond 200 miles.

As the aircraft tracked south east bound toward the coast the sleepy pilots peered out as the morning sun illuminated the silvery undercast. They watched intently as they too attempted to lock onto a radio station. Then the pilot saw them. Large snow covered mountains were poking out of the cottony clouds below. He thought: “There are no mountains like that in Ireland. Oh my God! That must be Spain!”

Frantically, they changed charts, locked onto radio stations and quickly used these bearings to position the aircraft near the Spain-Portugal border. The Flight Engineer sadly announced that there was not enough fuel remaining to fly to Upper Heyford in England. Their only available alternate field was Torrejon Air Base near Madrid. It was going to hit the fan!

An embarrassing communication with Oceanic Air Traffic Control provided a flight clearance to Torrejon. The SAC welcoming party was not pleasant. The Honchos at Strategic Air Command Headquarters went berserk. The crew was grounded until they requalified.  Our Squadron became the butt of many jokes. A stringent route checkout was established that required an instructor navigator, who had flown the route, to certify squadron crews that had not completed the route. I was the only squadron instructor who met that criterion.  My wife and children did not see much of me that spring and summer.

It is interesting to note that today you can buy a pocket size Global Position Indicator for less than $200. It is accurate to within six feet.


About ten years later I ran into the young Navigator at McGuire AFB.  He was wearing Pilot Wings.