Following graduation and assignments at Vance AFB (pilot training), McGuire AFB (flying C-141’s), Scott AFB (flying CT-39’s and HQ MAC), and the Pentagon, I found myself back at McGuire flying C-141’s again. It was 1989, with the usual MAC routine of flying to Europe and back, keeping the US forces supplied. Then, on 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein decided to mix things up a bit and invaded Kuwait. Everyone at the base knew this would change the daily routine, but not to what extent. I found out the magnitude about a week later with a 2200 hours phone call from our squadron crew controller, “pre-departure crew rest is waived, you’re on alert, and if you have a holster, bring it.” Since typically only two enlisted MAC aircrew members were armed, I knew it must be serious. About an hour later I was alerted and on my way to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the armory only issued .38 caliber revolvers with five rounds of ammo - underwhelming firepower for a potential combat situation. This mission ended up being the first C-141 into Saudi carrying the advance support team for the F-15’s that arrived the next day. Many more missions followed over the next six months with my family only seeing me for one-day stretches between missions, a pseudo-deployment without being deployed. Welcome to OPERATION Desert Storm - the First Gulf War.
In January 1991, I was on a mission to an austere airfield in Saudi Arabia located a few miles from the Iraq border. We arrived at night at the airfield’s location, but it wasn’t there. Without night vision or other navigation aids, we crisscrossed the area flying 500 feet above the ground looking for the totally-blacked out airfield. After 30 minutes of failed visual reconnaissance, we eventually had to call the tower and ask that they turn on the beacon. It was almost five miles away when we finally saw it. Even though we had continually updated our inertial navigation system during the entire flight, the navigation system had that much error in it. The landing was uneventful, but the same can't be said for the unloading and servicing of the aircraft. Being an austere airfield, there wasn’t much support and my five man crew had to assist with most of the unloading and, naturally, the forklift was broken so we had to offload the cargo by hand. We also found the airfield’s single-point refueling system had broken earlier that day and the only way to refuel our aircraft was “over-the-wing”. This meant someone had to sit on top of the wing and fill the fuel tanks with a hose and nozzle not much larger than your everyday automobile gas pump. Since my crew was busy unloading the airplane, I “volunteered” to do the refueling. Approximately 100,000 lbs (12,500 gallons) of fuel and a few hours later, we were fueled, unloaded, and ready to go. However, unbeknownst to us, that night just happened to be the start of the coalition air attack on Iraq. A classmate at the primary fighter base later told me it was the most awesome event he had ever witnessed. Wave after wave of coalition fighters departed and arrived for what seemed like hours. And there we were, hand un-loading a C-141 in the dark with me sitting 25 feet in the air on top of a wing pumping 12,500 gallons of fuel through a garden hose. Only a few miles away a full-fledged war raged and our only defense was three .38 revolvers with fifteen rounds of ammunition.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!