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Flying Without GPS One Dark, Stormy Night

March 11, 2015  - By
Don Jewell

Don Jewell

Editor’s Note: Don Jewell, GPS World’s Defense PNT newsletter editor, served 30 years in the United States Air Force as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. The views expressed are his own.

It was a dark and stormy night, followed by an even more challenging predawn in the far North. Clouds and blowing snow mixed with stinging ice crystals scudded over the ocean and the hills of southwest Iceland. I knew from personal experience that the crew inside the Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft (AWAC) E3, especially the cockpit crew, were watching the weather closely as they listened to tiny ice pellets pinging off the aircraft. The winds gusted at 20-30 knots from the east, and the Keflavik tower was in the midst of turning the airport around, which meant that all aircraft would depart to the east over land, versus the normal departure SID (Standard Instrument Departure) to the west over water.

(I must interrupt my tale briefly to tell you that GPS plays no role in the 1978 drama that is about to unfold. At its conclusion, I will describe the differences GPS has made in the operation of strategic military aircraft, and why a recent book is one of the best arguments for GPS/PNT systems I have ever read.)

Air-Control-WingI was stationed as a permanent party USAF officer in Iceland assigned to Detachment One of the 552d Airborne Warning and Control Wing which flew the latest AWACs out of Iceland to help defend the GI-UK (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom) gap. Russian TU-95 four-engine turbo-prop Bear bombers flew non-stop over the GI-UK gap, at jet speeds (550-575 mph) from Murmansk in what was then the Soviet Union, on a regular basis, en route to visually and electronically surveilling and reconnoitering — spying on — the East Coast of the United States, and then landing in communist-controlled Cuba.

Russian TU-95 “Bear” Bomber (courtesy of Wikipedia and RAF).

Russian TU-95 “Bear” Bomber (courtesy of Wikipedia and RAF).

That memorable morning just before Christmas in 1978, I was the Supervisor of Flying (SOF) for all USAF military aircraft at Keflavik AB, which was both an Icelandic commercial airport and U.S. military installation. As SOF, I double-checked all the flight information for the AWACS aircraft, visually checked that the aircraft were ready for take off and flight, and surveyed the airport and runway environment to make sure there were no hazards to the aircraft or crew. Because the weather was rapidly deteriorating that morning, I also checked all the alternates for the AWACS in England and Scotland.

Supervisor of Flying (SOF)

AWACS (Photo courtesy of the USAF).

AWACS (Photo courtesy of the USAF).

I was comfortable in my Command Vehicle, a new British Range Rover, vintage 1978, equipped with a plethora of radios that connected me to everyone on the airfield, including the control tower and the U.S. military Command Post. Externally, the vehicle had a constantly flashing yellow light so that I could be easily seen and identified by the tower and the aircraft I inspected. There were external blue and red lights and sirens, which came into play when we launched the alert E3 aircraft or there was an emergency. All in all it was a very comfortable and functional mobile airfield office. But this morning I had a welcome addition. My boss, Major General-selectee John L. (Pete) Piotrowski, the 552nd Wing Commander, had stopped by on his way from Japan, en route the long way home to the AWACS base, Tinker AFB in Oklahoma.

For many officers (I was just a major at the time), having your General Officer boss onboard might have been intimidating, but not for me. General Piotrowski was a valued mentor and friend as well as a true gentleman and professional USAF officer of the highest caliber, and frankly, I welcomed his presence and experience. I was happy he had come to personally check out the very first AWACS detachment. Little did I know how pivotal his presence would be that cold, dark and blustery Icelandic morning.

There were two full crews aboard the AWACS aircraft I had just checked and cleared for departure, a senior crew in the cockpit and two mission crews that would get some much needed training on the way back to Tinker, so they would not go “non-current” over the Christmas holidays. Crews typically deployed to Iceland from Tinker AFB for a 10-day tour and then rotated back to CONUS and then to other disparate operation locations around the globe.

(Courtesy of the USAF).

(Courtesy of the USAF).

Weather and planning-wise, Iceland was the most challenging for the E3 aircrews because of the annual snowfall of 311 inches and the siren call of suitable and weather-wise more hospitable alternates, with proper facilities and security arrangements, which were more than a hour away in England and Scotland, so planning was key. However, that morning all the crew was thinking about was getting home and enjoying the holidays (we called it “gethomeitis”) and, unfortunately, it played a key role in that mornings near catastrophe. I, of course, wanted to impress my boss with my thoroughness and professionalism, so I was double- and triple-checking every little detail.

Remember, 1978 was the same year the first fully operational, non-test, GPS satellite was launched into MEO orbit, so there were no GPS receivers on the AWACS aircraft. Instead, at that time the prevailing technology called for precisely surveyed aircraft parking spots on the ramp. The coordinates of these spots were typically entered into the E3’s INSs (inertial navigation systems) before they taxied for takeoff. Because the departing AWACs were nominally always parked in the same spots near the prevailing runway for a quick reaction or alert takeoff, the procedure quickly became routine for the AWACs flight crews. This routine also contributed to the nearly catastrophic incident that blustery and memorable morning.

Even with the deteriorating weather and the gusty winds, there appeared to be no reason why the E3 should not depart on schedule. Then, just five minutes before scheduled take off, the wind shifted dramatically and suddenly to an easterly direction. The tower immediately “turned the airfield around” and cleared the E3 for a takeoff to the east – the only problem was the aircraft was already lined up on the prevailing runway ready for a routine westerly departure. So the Icelandic controllers in the Keflavik tower promptly cleared the E3 for a rapid taxi down the active runway, so they could turn around (180 degrees) on the other end and still make an on-time takeoff. This was actually rather a common occurrence for those of us who were permanent party, so no one was concerned.

The E3 Aircraft Commander (AC) was a senior 06 — an USAF full Colonel. (Note: The subsequent safety investigation proved the AC’s rank and seniority, plus the crew’s reluctance to question his decisions, were a contributing factor in the incident.) The colonel responded to the tower, “Roger, understand, cleared for takeoff” and the aircraft began to roll down the runway in what General Pete, the tower personnel and I all initially assumed would be a fast taxi to the other end of the runway. At the time, I remember thinking, “I wonder why he did not respond correctly with the complete clearance, which was to taxi to the other end of the runway and then be cleared for takeoff to the East?” However, since it was 0500 and no other aircraft were in the area, no one was too concerned — until we saw that the E3 aircraft was continuing to accelerate to the point that the spray caused by the tires and the blowing snow thrown up by the four big jet engines nearly obliterated the aircraft from our vantage point.

General Piotrowski (Photo Courtesy of the USAF).

General Piotrowski (Photo
Courtesy of the USAF).

I think General Pete and I realized at the same moment that the EA was making a dangerous downwind departure. However, we realized it too late, as did the tower. General Pete and I simultaneously reached for the radio microphone, connecting us to the departing E3 aircraft at the same moment, but then neither of us made the radio call to the aircraft because we realized the pilot in command would have his hands full. At this point, the aircraft was going much too fast to stop on the wet and icy runway available, plus the AC did not need the distraction of a radio call in the middle of what was rapidly becoming a possible emergency situation. I do vaguely remember turning on my red and blue lights and my siren and accelerating down the active runway, in pursuit of the E3, and making the radio call “SOF on the Active” to the tower, as I wanted to be as close to the aircraft as possible if it stopped with hot brakes, or crashed into the barrier or the water. E3 (707 320B) aircraft are notoriously susceptible to control and start issues with tailwinds, and I must admit that I did not think for a moment the aircraft stood a chance of actually getting airborne. Miraculously, the E3 managed to lift off in the overrun at the far end of the runway and grudgingly managed what appeared to be about a five to ten feet per minute positive climb rate out over the water, before it rapidly disappeared into the lowering cloud deck.

General Pete and I sat there in shock and disbelief for a full five minutes before we heard the tower give the aircraft a new departure heading and frequency. We waited to be sure the aircraft replied, and since no emergency was declared, we knew they were finally safely on their way home.

Needless to say, incident and safety reports were filed, audiotapes from the tower were copied and forwarded to the 552nd Wing Safety Office, and I filed my SOF report. Normally, I would have called the 552d Wing Commander as well, but of course he was seated right there beside me. Long story short, the rest of the flight went without a hitch, and the crew landed safely at Tinker AFB 14 hours later after a successful mission that included two aerial refuelings. The flight crew was immediately suspended pending an investigation and the aircraft was impounded and inspected.

AWACS refueling (Photo courtesy of the USAF).

AWACS refueling (Photo courtesy of the USAF).

Two months later, I attended the safety inquiry at Tinker AFB into the incident in question. At the time of the incident, only the Keflavik tower, General Pete, myself and the cockpit crew knew what had happened. The 20+ mission crew members had no idea their lives had been in peril. There were reportedly comments among the mission crew about an extremely long takeoff run, but beyond that, there were no crew concerns.

During the hearing, the AC admitted that once he realized his mistake and calculated he could not stop the aircraft on the wet and slippery runway, he asked for full military power (military-rated thrust) on all four engines, which means the throttles were pushed to the stops and every ounce of power the engines had was engaged. It was a matter of life and death, and yet at the inquiry, when General Piotrowski fired most of the flight crew and told them to find jobs elsewhere, there were no raised voices or angry words, no shouting or swearing. General Piotrowski handled it like the true gentlemen he still is today. Later that same day over lunch, I asked him how he could remain so calm. He replied, “Don, always remember, when you are in the right and you have the power to make the right decision, there is never a need for shouting or cursing or loud voices. Do what is right and do it quickly and firmly but calmly. Emotions have no place in these types of decisions.”

This was merely one of the leadership lessons I learned from this great man, wonderful leader, mentor and friend. I have known General “P” for over 38 years now, and have never seen him lose his cool. He is the consummate professional and, frankly, I could tell General Pete stories all day long, but fortunately I don’t have to because he wrote a wonderful can’t-put-it-down book — The Secret War and Other Conflicts — about his life and the lessons he learned during his almost 40-year career in the USAF. There are many more stories like the one you just read, and at the end of each chapter in his book are the lessons he learned and that he hopes we all learn as well.

GPS Connection

There is, of course, a definite GPS/PNT connection, even though I am reasonably sanguine General Piotrowski did not have that in mind when he penned this 715-page tome of military life and knowledge. Every scenario in this very educational book that relates to military operations and/or training has the same theme for aviators everywhere.

There I was trying to figure out where I was, where the target or destination was, and how I could get there, and once there how I could deliver my ordnance, my passenger(s) and/or just get the aircraft safely back on terra firma. 

In this regard, and so many others, General Pete is right on the money, and he should know. Like many of us, including General Curtis LeMay, he trained as a navigator and an aviator.

Take the AWAC E3 aircraft and the whole support system that surrounds it. How did the introduction and integration of GPS change those operations and procedures? To say the least, the changes GPS enabled were drastic — revolutionary versus evolutionary — to those of us who have experienced pre- and post-GPS AWAC flights.

The most obvious change both to the AWAC organization and to the USAF, as it pertains to the rated career field, is that the navigator position was eliminated on the E3 and several other large flight-crew-type aircraft. The navigator planned all the missions for the aircrew, including the flight route (on the ground and inflight), planned and ran the rendezvous for the air refuelings (typical AWAC sorties average 14 hours), and trained with and used a sextant (sun, moon and stars) for navigation in case in war time the electronic navigation aids were unavailable. The navigation system supplied the position, time and velocity references to the mission end of the operation. That crew position and all the manual functions associated with it were eliminated when GPS was installed on the aircraft. The operations still had to be performed and the mission successfully completed, but GPS proved to be so accurate and provided such reliable information that the navigator position was no longer necessary. The position and timing accuracy sent from the navigation hardware and software to the mission computers improved to the point it was accurate to the centimeter level — versus thousands of feet with the old system.

In the old, pre-GPS days, the navigator or pilot would initialize a time hack for all crew members and members of a flight so that everyone had the same time reference as the lead pilot or aircraft. That timing was — five, four, three, two, one hack! — accurate to a whole second and no more. Today, GPS provides continuous atomic-clock-level global timing for everyone. All systems onboard the aircraft, as well as the ground interfaces and communications systems, are accurate to over a millionth of a second and no time hacks are necessary.

Additionally, in the pre-GPS days, aircraft — even the versatile E3, which is capable of and has historically fulfilled the functions of an FAA Control facility for aircraft — mostly flew airways over CONUS and used Federal Aviation Administration radio-based navigation aides such as TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation), VORs (VHF-Very High Frequency Omni Directional Radio Range systems), VORTACS and DMEs (Distance Measuring Equipment) to determine their position while the navigator practiced his craft. However, go feet wet — that is, strike out over water where none of those navigation aides exist, en route to Hickam AFB, Hawaii, for instance — and all of a sudden the navigator became the most important member of the crew. Today’s AWAC aircraft and most modern GPS-equipped military aircraft are able to fly direct to any point in CONUS or anywhere on the globe, saving thousands of hours of flying time, wear and tear on the aircraft and crew, and of course fuel and money. The savings are practically incalculable, but certainly run into the hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars a year. Plus, from a military point of view, the safety factor of putting bombs on target the very first time, day or night, from any location on the Earth cannot be accurately calculated, especially when you consider the number of lives saved.

In WW II, in Vietnam and even in Korea the U.S. Army Air Corps and USAF would fly hundreds and then tens of sorties, endangering thousands of lives, just to take out a single bridge that a single JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) or any GPS-guided weapon today can take out from such a distance that the aircrew may never actually see the bridge, but be certain to a high degree that it was destroyed with a single weapon and a single sortie.

Ask any pre-GPS navigator or aviator, and they will tell you that the biggest error in any bombing mission was always target error. This error extended to exactly where the target was located, how it was defended and how it could be destroyed. With modern GPS weapons, all those variable target errors are greatly minimized. Human lives may not be involved as GPS is capable of providing the PNT information necessary for a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to perform the mission, sans any threat to the pilot or weapons systems officer, who may well be thousands of miles away from the fight.

So, back to General Pete’s book. As you read this wonderful compendium of Air Force lore and knowledge and become involved in the scenarios of just getting to and from the targets in war time, to airfields in bad weather and home again through the clouds, think from time to time about how GPS has greatly simplified all those tasks and made them infinitely doable. Indeed, this 715-page aeronautical volume is one of the best arguments for GPS/PNT systems I have ever read.

Basic Airman to General: The Secret War and Other Conflicts – Lessons in Leadership and Life

(Courtesy of Barnes & Noble)

ISBN-13: 9781493161874, Publisher: Xlibris Corporation, Publication date: 1/28/2014 (Courtesy of Barnes & Noble)

This remarkable manuscript is so much more than the biography of a two-striper airman that retired as a four-star general. Amazing as that accomplishment is, the true value of the book is in the journey it took to get there — the life lived and lessons learned.

True to form, General Pete pulls no punches in his biography – in print as in life what you see with General Pete is what you get. He is honest to a fault, and is as critical of himself as he is the United States Air Force he loves and served in uniform for almost 40 years. I recommend this book as an Air Force primer to anyone thinking of joining the military and to members of Congress who never served in the military, and unfortunately that number stands at 80% today, because truly they (Congress) don’t have a clue what putting your life on the line to defend your country means. They have no idea what flying, fighting and dying for your country means. They have no idea of the sacrifices made by USAF military forces on a daily basis.


Unfortunately, during the Vietnam War there was a very revealing event that highlights a major failing of civilian leadership that cannot be reconciled or apologized for but is still a major lesson that must be learned by everyone in the U.S. military and in the U.S. government. General Piotrowski reveals treacherous acts by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that literally took my breath away. It made me physically ill. I have to admit I was gasping for breath after I read it and I had to sit down. I was so shocked that I read it several times and still had trouble believing what was revealed. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly never doubted General Piotrowski’s veracity concerning the politician’s confession; I was and am still just amazed that anyone in the U.S. government in any position of power could be so ignorant and criminally naive. General Piotrowski reveals stunning facts about the Vietnam War on pages 246-247 of his 715 page-turner of a book that shook me to my core. General Piotrowski writes:

“Nearly twenty years later, [ed. after the Vietnam War ended] I saw former Secretary of State Dean Rusk being interviewed by Peter Arnett on a CBS [ed. CBC] documentary called “The Ten Thousand Day War.” Mr. Arnett asked, “It has been rumored that the United States provided the North Vietnamese government the names of the targets that would be bombed the following day. Is there any truth to that allegation?”

To my astonishment and absolute disgust, the former Secretary responded, “Yes. We didn’t want to harm the North Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the NVN government through their embassy in Hanoi.” As I watched in horror, Secretary Rusk went on to say, “All we wanted to do is demonstrate to the North Vietnamese leadership that we could strike targets at will, but we didn’t want to kill innocent people. By giving the North Vietnamese advanced warning of the targets to be attacked, we thought they would tell the workers to stay home.”

No wonder all the targets were so heavily defended day after day! The NVN obviously moved as many guns as they could overnight to better defend each target they knew was going to be attacked.  Clearly, many brave American Air Force and Navy fliers died or spent years in NVN prison camps as a direct result of being intentionally betrayed by Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara, and perhaps, President Johnson himself. I cannot think of a more duplicitous and treacherous act of American government officials.  Dean Rusk served as Secretary of State from January 21, 1961, through to January 20, 1969, under President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Perhaps Senator John McCain, POW for five years and presidential candidate in 2008, was one of the many victims of this utter stupidity and flawed policy flowing from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Peter Arnett opined that this would be a treasonous act by anyone else.”

After reading this horrendous revelation, I was so shocked I couldn’t function properly for the rest of the day. I am still aghast and incredulous that government officials could be so deceitful. I lost so many friends, aviator comrades and loved ones in that terrible war, including my father who was literally eaten from the inside out by parasites and the drugs and alcohol he used to try and dull the physical and mental pain and anguish. There are still tens of thousands of veterans suffering today from the effects (such as PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder) of that war, and to think that our government leaders at the highest levels told our enemy what our targets would be on a daily basis because they cared about Vietnamese civilian casualties. Seriously, we were at war. Obviously the administrations, especially the SECDEFs and Secretary’s of State, did not care about American lives, especially American fliers. You can never hope to win a war when all of your targeting information is being treacherously given to the enemy on a daily basis. I am still incredulous they could be so treacherous.

Lessons Learned

Yes, this is sensational and revealing, and there are obviously lessons to be learned — indeed, lessons that the current administration could, should and indeed must learn — such as allowing military professionals to do what they do best and stop micromanaging the Defense Department. But this represents merely a handful of lessons, and this book, this wonderful tome concerning life and leadership at all levels from basic airman to four-star general, is such an educational tool for today’s leaders that it needs to be required reading at all the service academies, certainly the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). But you don’t have to be in the government or the military to enjoy and learn from the life lessons presented here. General Piotrowski is incredibly honest about his triumphs, his failures, his family life, and his service. He is brutally honest and self-effacing concerning the effects of time spent away from his family defending his nation. Not only in wartime, but during the Cold War as well. For example, remember AWAC aircraft at the time had no CONUS (Contiguous United States) mission, so all the missions were flown overseas. I flew AWAC missions for nine years, average sortie length 12-14 hours, including four years flying NATO AWAC aircraft from Geilenkirchen, Germany, and one year in Iceland. The other four years I was TDY (temporary duty) overseas an average of 220 days per year. General Piotrowski did the same and more, and believe me, it is a huge sacrifice for the service member and their families.

So, there is a lot of good fatherly advice in this book, and I only wish someone like General Pete could have written this book 40 years ago when I was a young lieutenant.

The bottom line is the title says it all: Basic Airman to General; The Secret War and Other Conflicts — Lessons in Leadership and Life. Get a copy today, you won’t be disappointed.

Until next time, happy navigating, and remember: GPS is brought to you courtesy of the United States Air Force.



This article is tagged with , and posted in Defense, Opinions

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.

4 Comments on "Flying Without GPS One Dark, Stormy Night"

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  1. William Norton says:

    Hello Mr. Jewell. General Piotrowski first heard about the policy to forward information on targets to the North Vietnamese government in a public interview with a State Department official. Presumably other high ranking officials in the administration knew of the policy. I would like to know if someone in the Defense Department was aware of the policy.

    Clearly the Defense Department knew of the requirement to forward the names of targets and they complied. Surely the question of what use that information was put to would have occurred to someone.

    • Don Jewell says:

      I could not agree with you more and we should certainly strive to learn who knew what, when. It is fighting a war with both hands tied behind your back. The number of lives lost to this flawed strategy is most likely a staggering number, but even one is too many.