Written by Jim McStay
A B-52 flies over the beach at U-Tapao, ca. 1973 (Jim McStay)
Navy P-3 Orion pilot Jim McStay recalls a long day in the air from Diego Garcia with special cargo in a cooler and a badly hurt SeaBee on a litter awaiting emergency surgery.
Back when I flew there in the early 1970s, we nicknamed the tiny atoll of Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, “Dodge,” as in the Old West, remote from civilization. Amenities were mostly absent, including medical treatment. There was one Navy doctor, supervising a clinic of Hospital Corpsmen. One little runway was the island’s only link to the outside world where you could get modern emergency services.
I got in and out of Dodge regularly and saw that it was growing into a major military outpost. In typical Navy fashion, the emphasis was on first getting the operational things operational. Any non-operational support would come along as time and resources allowed. There was no hurry to get a hospital built or roads paved.
Given these priorities, it was inevitable that there would be emergencies beyond the ken of Dodge’s medical personnel.
It happened late one afternoon on the site of some building project. A poor young SeaBee was monitoring the output of a cement mixer pumping wet concrete. Somehow, his arm got caught in machinery and severed cleanly between the shoulder and elbow.
The local Corpsmen and MD, knowing that reattaching the arm was a possibility, however slim, did their best to clean up the wound, and immediately asked for a Medevac to the nearest military hospital, which was thousands of miles away.
Time was critical. The medics put the arm on ice, sedated the patient, and waited.
That’s when my crew and I arrived. We’d just flown twelve-plus hours from Bandar Abbas, Iran (back when the Iranians, under the Shah, were our friends), via a route that took us over the Soviet Union’s fleet anchored at Socotra, off Ethiopia.
The standard practice then was to extend our flights to the “Prudent Limit of Endurance” (PLE) and land as close to official twilight (30 minutes prior to sundown) as practicable. The island’s runway was not certified for night operations.
On this occasion, for reasons I still don’t know, we were the only P-3 crew on Diego Garcia. Normally, there was another crew waiting that would’ve taken our aircraft out early the following morning.
Sunset at Diego Garcia, with our P-3 Orion on right (Jim McStay)
All we knew was that we were tired, thirsty, and looking forward to a day off in Dodge, sleeping in, hanging out, and avoiding the monstrous coconut crabs that were everywhere on the island.
Even before our engines were shut down, the Officer in Charge appeared and told us about the severed arm. He made it clear that we were not in any way legally permitted to fly, and he couldn’t ask us to do so, especially after our already long day.
I told him that my crew and I absolutely would volunteer to fly the SeaBee and his arm to the nearest hospital, a seven-hour flight away in U’Tapao, Thailand.
I have to admit we did feel queasy at the thought of an arm in an ice chest. The P-3 wasn’t a Medevac, but it was all we had. And its two back bunks were enough for the Corpsmen and their comatose patient.
We knew it was a long shot, but we wasted no time. We disregarded any paperwork and formalities. No PPR (Prior Permission Required) or Time Slot for our landing in U’Tapao. We took off as soon as the aircraft had been re-fueled and the patient (and his arm) were settled in.
By now, it was well after dark. We simply trusted our operations team in Dodge to file our flight plan and required message traffic to U’Tapao expeditiously.
Once airborne, we settled in for the seemingly endless ride over the Indian Ocean, the Andaman Sea, and the Gulf of Thailand. We tried to give our onboard medics anything they needed, but mostly steered clear of the aft end and its makeshift ICU. To my knowledge, the patient, while tossing, turning and moaning a bit, never fully regained consciousness. Kudos to the corpsmen, as always.
We arrived at dawn, battling the rising sun and the unsettling feeling of sand under our eyelids, despite the gallons on Navy coffee we’d consumed en route.
We called the tower requesting “priority handling.” The reply was brief: “Unable.”
I repeated myself, and said the key phrase “Medical Emergency.”
Again, the terse reply was “Unable.”
The tower operator said there was a major B-52 airstrike awaiting takeoff and told us to go to U’Dorn, another air base up near Bangkok.
I tried to be diplomatic and explain our medical situation. By now we could see the base, with the B-52s and their KC-135 tankers all lined up. I told the tower I could land and clear the runway before the air strike was scheduled to commence. The Air Force operated strictly by the clock.
I was again told “Unable.”
We had already confirmed, on another radio, that the medical team was assembled, with an ambulance waiting. The surgeons were scrubbed and ready in their Operating Room. I tried to explain that to the tower operator, who had to have seen the ambulance’s lights flashing directly below him. But he was steadfast: the runway was closed.
I made a quick decision, knowing it could be the end of my flying career. I was going to land on the taxiway parallel to the runway, and then pull up to the waiting ambulance. I announced my intentions to the tower. Things then got a bit rushed.
There was a good deal of ignored radio chatter. We landed on the taxiway and stopped by the ambulance. Our human cargo was being hustled off and whisked away for surgery.
By the time we shut down the engines, got unstrapped, and started to walk aft through the “tube” (fuselage where the P-3 sensor operator stations are), I saw a big red-faced Air Force full colonel striding forward and bellowing for my head. Behind the irate colonel, I saw our Navy Officer in Charge, two full ranks junior to the colonel and about a head shorter.
I began to tremble. But the Officer in Charge was calm as could be. He simply put his hand on the colonel’s shoulder, and said: “Colonel, if there is anyone to yell at here, yell at me. I authorized this.”
It was bullshit. He had had nothing to do with it. The Officer in Charge had been on the ground with the ambulance. I had made the decision on my own, and I expected to pay for it. But who was I to argue?
As the Air Force colonel steamed loudly about violations, regulations, and insubordination, the Officer in Charge looked past him at me.
“Get your crew to the barracks and get some sleep,” he said. “You’ve earned it.”
I never heard another word about it and never asked any questions. The whole thing was illegal, from the night time take-off to the taxiway landing. Better to just carry on and not stir the pot.
Neither did I ever hear about our patient’s well-being or the fate of his arm.