• Know Your Equipment

Back in the olden days (circa 1970), after flight school at VT-10 in Pensacola, Naval Flight Officers were sent to NAS Glynco GA, near Brunswick, for Radar Intercept School if you were going to F4s, or Jet Navigation School if you were going to A6s.

At Glynco we all flew in T-39s, the Navy's version of the North American Sabreliner, a twin-engine business jet. First built in 1958, 62 were produced for the Navy with the sexy designator T3J-1 reminiscent of its famous blood kin, the Navy's version of the F-86 Sabre known as the FJ Fury. Eventually 52 more were accepted by the Navy and they all became known as the far less glamorous T-39A. At the turn of the century seven were still being used for Navy flight training, and the Naval Weapons Test Squadron, China Lake (NWTSCL) had one too.

Our navigation training was somewhat less interesting flying, presumably, than China Lake's, but maybe not. Navy flyers being, well, Navy flyers they may have used theirs for the same thing we did.

I remember one flight when we loaded 10 cases of Coors beer at Buckley Air National Guard base in Colorado Springs and flew it back to Georgia. At that time, Coors had an almost cult following, but it wasn't available outside the Rocky Mountain States so we were definitely a hit at the O' Club that night.

Don't worry, the taxpayers got there money's worth too. You have to go someplace on a cross country training flight after all.

This particular flight started at zero dark thirty with a weather brief, and the instructor's review of our flight plans. After a long night of studying and planning, the early launch was reason enough for several cups of coffee. Two hours later I realized that was a very bad idea.

Now, as a derivative of a business jet, you'd think our flying carpet would have had certain facilities. Nope. No potty in the back. The UC-45Hs we flew at flight school, built in the '40s, had trash cans in the back with a plastic bag in them, for crying out loud. Modern flamethrowers, you'd think, would have at least something equivalent.

Three hours into the flight I was having trouble concentrating.

With stronger than forecast westbound headwinds the flight was taking longer than planned, and I was seriously thinking about just letting go in my flights suit. Even dreamed up an, "I spilled my coffee" excuse.

I begged the pilot to forgo the obligatory shit-hot overhead break (and associated delay, never mind the Gs), and soon found myself duck waddling from the ramp to Air Ops where I learned the real meaning of "relieve yourself."

As I exited the "head" trying to look nonchalant, the rest of the crew was enjoying a good laugh with every one in the building, it seemed.

"Did you, harr harr, ever think, harr harr harr, to try the, harr harr, relief tube?"

Relief tube? In a jet? The idea had occurred to me an hour or so ago, but I dismissed it as impractical at best and dangerous at worst.

A relief tube is a hose with a funnel at the end that exhausts to the outside of the aircraft. In an, um...pinch, they can serve as a convenient solution to the circumstances I'd endured for the last 90 minutes or so. But I'd never heard of such thing in a fast moving jet flying high enough to need pressurization.

Wouldn't a hose exhausting into a good approximation of outer space cause problems for the pressurization system? Wouldn't wind whistling by the end of the hose at .8 Mach create a suction sufficient to...?

Ever since that experience I've had an almost fetish-like interest in knowing exactly what capabilities an aircraft has. While this circumstance was merely uncomfortable, you could break something if you're not up to speed on an aircraft's equipment.


  1. Tom,

    I love your blog with the historical component. My husband was a Marine fighter pilot from 1969 to 1987. He went through the training command in 1969 and then was an instructor at Kingsville from 1971 to 1974.

    I have linked to your blog on my blog, and would like to be a link on yours. I looked for contact info but couldn't find any except the comment section. Thank you.


  2. hi, I'm writing a novel based on my own experiences in general aviation in 1973, and I need some help -- a pilot I worked with in 73 was a former navy fighter pilot in vietnam in the late 1960's, and when we had to pick up injured AWOL Navy or Marine personel from backwater places and return them to Oakland, he put a hand gun under front seat of the plane - I didn't know anything about handguns at the time, and wondered what kind of side arm/service weapon a former navy or marine fighter pilot might have.

  3. On a carrier we were issued .38s, but they were very carefully controlled. There's no way we could have left one under the seat, especially since it was an ejection seat. What did he fly?

  4. I wasn't clear enough, sorry. I worked in General Aviation, and our chief pilot was a former Navy fighter pilot. It was a private business that contracted with the Navy to fly out to remote areas of California to bring back AWOL Navy personnel, who basically got caught because they were injured or ill and had to be hospitalized. These were essentially air ambulance flights, but because the patients were AWOL they sometimes attempted to flee, and so our chief pilot carried a side arm, wrapped in cloth under the co-pilot's seat. I saw the gun on more than one occasion, but was not familiar enough with sidearms to know what type it would be. I do know that it was a type of pistol that he became comfortable with while in the Navy (not necessarily the side arm he actually used while in the Navy).

  5. oh yes, the type of plane was a Piper Arrow, twin engine.

  6. Ah. Hard to say, then. A .38 revolver or .45 automatic would be a good guess.