On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Rides On The Wild Side
As he emerged from a dream and lay beneath the cozy flannel sheet, the Footloose Forester started to brew his next chronicle about flying and flying machines. After many years of wondering why his most creative moments came in the early morning hours, he finally concluded that it was because the thoughts that had been escaping from various parts of his brain during dreamy nights had coalesced and were waiting to emerge as he awoke. When he arose from the bed into the quiet darkness of his bedroom, his mind and body were not distracted by other things. It was time to write.
The latest dream barely touched on the bizarre itinerary he pursued when he was a young soldier. With plenty of days of annual leave in Europe in the early 1960s, the Footloose Forester wasn’t thinking about how wild things might get as he set off alone on another adventure. It would be decades before he reflected back; and some of the details about how wild and bizarre some of the trips were, came in occasional dreams. As fuzzy as some dreams tend to be, sometimes they also dwell on real and nagging details about how wild some past adventures really were. If he was ever going to straighten out his stories to the point of getting them right, he thought that at some point he needed to reconstruct enough of the details to satisfy himself that, in those days, he really did go off half-cocked. Boldly, but half-cocked.
With a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) flight schedule in his back pocket, getting around Europe was cheap for a soldier like the Footloose Forester. It was not always convenient as regards schedule and destination, but it was cheap transportation. When people asked where he was going, he sometimes joked that it depended on where the airplanes were flying. On this dream-inspired trip, however; he had a plan, with a Plan B and Plan C as a back-up just in case Plan A didn’t work out.
Back in 1963, Plan A was to fly round-trip from Rhein-Main airbase near Frankfurt, Germany to Lakenheath airbase in England to visit his brother, Airman Joe Pellek. We Americans often referred to the various airbases scattered around Europe as US bases partly because American military personnel had leased many former bases after World War II, and had virtually exclusive use of some sectors of civilian airports. Although Rhein-Main International Airport was a well established international air terminal administered by the Germans, the American section was devoted to American military aircraft, even with its restricted access roads. It was there that the Footloose Forester went to wait out his departure on a four-engine C-124 Globe Master to Lakenheath, England.
Four-engine C-124 Globe Master
Getting off the ground that day was not a sure thing. The fog was so thick that visibility was near zero. In fact, the scheduled flight had been scrubbed the previous day because of the fog; and this day was no better in regard to visibility. The pilots were facing mounting pressure to deliver their cargo, so just as we boarded they did mention that we might have to turn back if we didn’t get landing clearance on the other side in England. We took off in thick fog and landed in thick fog, with the aid of radar departure and landing procedures. The Footloose Forester was the only passenger in the cargo hold; it was, after all, a C-124 cargo plane.
It was only by guessing about the tight turns, throttling back of engines and the manipulation of flaps as we approached our destination that the Footloose Forester surmised that we must be close to the ground and making our final approach. He saw the ground for the first time from a height of less than 100 feet, by his estimation. That was probably below minimum acceptable visibility standards, but he had been warned. Besides, that is what he expected of hotshot Air Force pilots.
Lakenheath Air Base was home to two squadrons of F-101 and F-102 fighter jets, as far as he could tell. The Footloose Forester looked for other types of aircraft, but except for the occasional C-54 cargo plane and the more modern C-124s like the one he was on, it seemed to be a small tactical base of operations.
Plan A included returning to Rhein-Main on the same C-124 on which he arrived, but only a week later. But when it was time to go back to Germany, the Footloose Forester could not get clearance to board because the mission was carrying classified material. As the Footloose Forester watched the C-124 clear the end of the runway and the landing gear being hoisted up, he set Plan B into motion. He and his brother Joe turned around and set off by taxi for the local train station. It wasn’t too worrisome waiting there for the train to arrive; if he didn’t make the next connection on time, Plan C could go forward.
The train arrived on schedule at Charing Station, London and he immediately hailed a London cab for a wild ride to Heathrow Airport. Although the cabbie had doubts about his making the outgoing flight to Rhein-Main or wherever Footloose Forester was going, the Footloose Forester wasn’t too worried about that, either. He knew that he could take another flight to another place on the continent, and he also knew that he could pay cash. In those days, airline companies would accept cash over the counter and having reservations wasn’t always required.
In retrospect, he doesn’t remember what the booking agents said on the phone regarding his desired scheduling of Heathrow to Rhein-Main. When he got to the ticket counter at BOAC (British Airlines) they were waiting for him, because they were in the process of closing the counter for the night and he was the last passenger. The two very friendly and helpful young gals also told him that they couldn’t book him on a direct flight to Rhein-Main, short a flight as it was; but could book him on a British Airways flight into Brussels, Belgium and then on a connecting flight to Rhein-Main. That is what happened.
The Footloose Forester was starting to see a miracle unfold as he was led by the hand by one of the booking agents to the tunnel that would take him to the gate leading him to his waiting Boeing 727. In the meantime, the other booking agent was calling ahead to the pilot and asked him to hold the plane. When the Footloose Forester stepped through the side passenger door of the Boeing 727, the attendant inside wordlessly buttoned it up.
Nobody said a word. He was expecting to see a disapproving scowl or two from the aircraft crew that had waited for him to appear; or from one of the other passengers. Nothing! And he was gratified that everyone had so graciously accommodated him. Furthermore, it would not be the last commercial airliner into which he would be the last tardy passenger grateful to make an ongoing connection.
The final thought about the short trip across the English Channel came minutes after the Boeing 727 leveled off on our short hop into Brussels. The other BOAC attendants hurriedly began to serve a full course dinner, including the pouring of wine. Imagine, serving all the passengers from front to back with a complete hot meal and complementary wine, and then gathering up the dirty trays; all in stride -- during the 25-30 minute flight between London and Brussels. Even the young and inexperienced Footloose Forest though that BOAC was taking things a bit too far in trying to please, but the experience did get stamped into his brain as one he was not likely to forget.
In case you are wondering, the Footloose Forester arrived back at Fliegerhorst Kaserne, Langendiebach, Germany a couple of hours late. A few of the other soldiers in his unit relished the thought that he might be AWOL, but the company clerk pragmatically noted in the log book that he had overextended his stay by one day. Thanks, PFC Hutchinson, for the official reminder about those wild rides.