Operation Provide Feline

Transporting the squadron cat.

dragon art.jpg

While I was stationed in Germany, my unit, the 512th Fighter Squadron, spent time in Turkey, participating in Operation Provide Comfort I and II in the early 1990s. Turkey has a lot of cats. The legend is that the national hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was reincarnated as a cat. The problem is, nobody knows which cat. Atatürk is Turkey’s version of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin all rolled into one. Nobody wants to whack a national hero, so as a result, there are plenty of cats roaming the country.

A family of cats took up residence under a shipping container outside our Squadron Operations Center at Incirlik Air Base, just outside Adana. Small, furry creatures and large, dangerous machinery do not get along well. The mom cat and one of the two kittens were killed, despite our best efforts to keep them from harm. However, the remaining kitten thrived. We adopted him as our unofficial squadron mascot and named him Dragon, which was also the squadron’s nickname. The troops in the life support section were kind enough to keep him fed. Dragon would wander in and out of the operations center, enjoying the air conditioning and the company. He spent enough time in “the vault,” where the classified equipment and documents were kept, that we briefly suspected him of being a Kurdistan Workers Party spy. Several weeks passed without Dragon attempting to steal or photograph anything, so we decided he was just a loyal, if curious, NATO cat.

It occurred to me that it wouldn’t look good to have the F-16 contingent of Operation Provide Comfort grounded for rabies, so the base vet brought Dragon up to date on his shots.

When we were getting ready to rotate out of Turkey and back to our home base in Germany, the squadron replacing us made it clear they had no intention of caring for our mascot in our absence. A check of Germany’s quarantine laws showed that vaccinations were required at least 30 days prior to importation. The departure date of the last transport bringing our squadron personnel and equipment back was only 28 days after Dragon’s shots. While I knew he wouldn’t be bringing rabies to Germany, I was pessimistic about the German customs agents’ flexibility on the issue.

With no one to take care of him in Turkey, and no way to get him back on a regular transport, I decided to bring him back in the cockpit with me. Customs agents never bothered with single-seat fighters, and I remembered one of my German flight instructors regaling us with tales of smuggling stereo components in the nose fairings of F-104 wingtip fuel tanks. Compared to a turntable, a small cat should be easy.

Since I was single at the time and spent too much time on the road, I couldn’t keep Dragon. But one of the maintenance guys had a wife and kids who could. I made sure I was on the schedule to take one of the fighters back home. It was a five-hour flight, with one mid-air refueling and some squirrelly routing due to European politics. The external travel pod was out of the question, since it was unpressurized and unheated. I took a small cardboard container, cut it down to fit in the cockpit with me, knocked a few air holes in it, and lined it with one of my T-shirts. Since Dragon was only about 12 weeks old at the time, he had room in the container to move around.

I even gave passing consideration to emergency procedures. If I had to eject, and had enough time, I planned to take Dragon out of the container and stick him to my survival vest, his head below my chin, and between the ends of my horse-collar life preserver. None of the lap or shoulder belts would be under him (important for man-seat separation, and for avoiding man-cat separation after ejection), and he likely could hold on during the 14-G ejection and subsequent parachute opening. Since I’d flown about 800 hours in the F-16 without ever having to eject, I thought the five hours to Germany would pose less of a risk for him than staying in Turkey.

I wasn’t sure about Air Force regulations covering the shipment of pets in fighter cockpits, but I was fairly sure my superiors would not look kindly upon the act. I told only a few guys in the squadron of my intentions: the life support techs, Dragon’s adoptive family, and one or two of the pilots flying home earlier. There were several points during our trip where we could have been ratted out if the players involved didn’t go along. The first test came when I arrived at my airplane to mount up. The crew chief took a look at the container next to my helmet bag and asked what it was. When I told him I was taking Dragon home, I got a thumbs-up.

Pre-flight, takeoff, and the first two hours of flight were without incident. Clouds started rolling in as we approached the tanker rendezvous. Dragon’s cardboard box was on my lap and blocking my view of the instrument panel. This hadn’t been a problem while we were in the clear, but now I had to move him. Not having a whole lot of room in the F-16 cockpit, I had little choice but to turn the box sideways and put it on the right console behind my elbow. Joining with the tanker and refueling in the clouds kept me fairly busy, with occasional interruptions by my passenger clawing my elbow through an air hole.

Shortly after we finished refueling, we broke out of the clouds and had good weather up the boot of Italy and through France. The next challenge came at our home field, Ramstein. I was number four in the flight of four aircraft, so I would be last to land. Ahead of me was Mongo.

Mongo was a pilot who started his career flying RF-4 Phantoms. Maybe it was because his first jet had started life as a Navy fighter, or maybe he was a frustrated naval aviator, or maybe he just really liked the movie Top Gun—whatever the reason, Mongo had more cable engagements than anyone else in the squadron.

Most Air Force bases have several arresting cables stretched across the runway. Unlike the cables on aircraft carriers, the ones on Air Force runways are used only for emergencies, and it takes a lot more time to clear an aircraft from them than it does to clear an aircraft on a carrier. Unfortunately, today was Mongo’s day to have another brake failure and take the cable. As I executed a go-around, I called the supervisor of flying in the control tower and asked, “How long before you get Mongo out of the cable?”

“Ten or 15 minutes” came the reply.

I checked my gas gauge. “Ten, or 15?” I said. “It makes a difference.” When I couldn’t get anything out of him other than a “Stand by,” I told him I’d call him from Pferdsfeld, our standard divert base, which was close to Ramstein.

I landed and taxied to the transient ramp to park. A German crew chief met me and hooked a ladder to the cockpit after I shut down. The first thing I handed him was Dragon, still in his container (I wasn’t about to take him out now; I was afraid I’d never get him back in). When the chief asked “Was ist das?” I replied “Das ist meine katze” in a tone that implied “Aren’t all German fighter pilots issued cats?” He merely shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Americans are weird” and took Dragon down the ladder.

I called home to Ramstein, and my squadron commander told me to fill the jet’s internal tanks full for the short flight back. I had hoped to take on only about half that much fuel, but he pointed out that there was no way to be sure a half load would be distributed evenly in the internal tanks. Actually, the F-16 does enable the pilot to balance fuel manually, but I wasn’t going to argue with the boss. Also, he didn’t know I was carrying Dragon (my theory was it’s easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission), so I couldn’t use the cat to justify a lighter fuel load. Now I had to burn down fuel to a respectable landing weight. F-16s can’t jettison fuel, so I had to burn it using a combination of steep turns, afterburner, and speed brakes (known as “burner and boards”). I didn’t like putting Dragon through that, but I figured the 10 minutes of Gs would be preferable to his spending another hour in the container while I burned down fuel at a more sedate rate.

When I finally landed at Ramstein, my flight commander met me at the jet. He didn’t know about Dragon either, but as soon as I hopped out of the jet, he seemed to know what the container meant. The smile on his face told me I wasn’t in trouble, at least not enough to warrant documentation. I finally liberated Dragon from his container. He immediately took a potty break in the grass next to the jet’s parking area.

Dragon now had a total of 5.4 hours of F-16 flight time in his logbook, plus the ground time at Pferdsfeld. Almost as impressive was the fact that my T-shirt was still dry. He hadn’t urinated or gotten airsick during either flight—truly a fighter squadron’s cat. Five minutes later, he was wandering around our squadron building like he owned it. Because it was so late, I took him home for the night and brought him to his new family the next day. The squadron weapons officer had a name tag made for him, with a cat silhouette in place of pilot’s wings, and we displayed it in the squadron bar with the name tags of other former squadron members.

I think I know which cat is Atatürk. Just don’t tell the Turks.

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