ONE MORE NIGHT was pumping through my Aiwa earbuds in late 1985 in the middle of an Egyptian operating location. I was sitting in my office, up front in a Lockheed Starlifter, with a very nervous team of Israelis in the back of the aircraft along with some anonymised cargo. Israelis normally don't walk the Egyptian desert but as long as they were inside my aircraft, they were notionally enjoying sovereign protection of a US-flagged aircraft. But all those things meant little when just outside the thin metal fuselage sat a .50 calibre gun mounted on an armored-plated transport. I could tell from the high frequency (HF) radio chatter that this was going to be an interesting interlude. And what followed might explain why the Egyptian military are currently willing to abandon the official government position in that turbulent State.
I turned down the volume on "No Jacket Required" and thought it apt that I didn't have a flak jacket for this simple little in-and-out of a strip of concrete that does not exist on Google Earth. Normally, we could make field visits of Egyptian out bases with little fanfare because of the airborne protocols we used to transit the country. We would cancel Instrument Flight Rules, decline radar services, and make a tactical approach to a barren desert strip with our four-engine jet transport. Once down safely, we would offload 15 tonnes of assorted ammunition and gear, then take off for points-unknown. Our command-and-control was miles away over HF radio.
The problem with this mission was in the cargo that stayed aboard the aircraft. Some bright spark had decided to "optimise" the load with a few pieces of gear that had no permission to touch Egyptian soil. And part of the load optimisation meant the equipment had to be offloaded before the heavier munitions were rolled off the plane.
Through field binoculars several miles away, an Egyptian monitoring unit spotted the unique form factor of an Israeli loading dolly. Anyone involved in military intelligence could spot these specific pieces of equipment because they were only used to hoist special weapons. We had questions to answer.
The HF radio chatterbox knew the sequence of unloading and we provided simple updates of our status, up to "doors closed and locked." Then Mr Fifty Cal pulled up and pointed his barrel at the midsection of my plane. An officer pointed at me in the cockpit and gestured for me to come outside.
The third pilot aboard the C-141 told me that "Al Cee don't want you to get off the plane." I told the pilot to acknowledge the guidance as I stepped out of my seat and stood in the crew door.
The Egyptian major got out of his armored vehicle and walked directly to the foot of the crew ladder. I recognised a patch on his shoulder and his pilot wings as he gestured pointed to the ground at the foot of the ladder. He wanted me on Egyptian soil. Then the local military would have grounds to take me away. Without an aircraft commander, the plane would sit helpless on its taxi stand.
I pointed to his shoulder and said, "First, give me that patch." In perfect English, he told me, "That's my Aggressor Squadron patch. What do you have?" I opened my bottom left flight suit pocket and said, "How about one from Dreamland?"
We swapped patches and I stepped onto the sand.
The Egyptian major told me, "We have a problem. I have to inspect your aircraft." I told him, "That's the sovereign territory of the United States and you have not been invited inside." He waved his hands above my head and gestured directly at the plane. From a distance, it would appear that he was shouting but his voice was calm and collected.
"They're watching us and they know you've got the loaders aboard the plane. I need to verify the weapons are not with the loaders."
I told him that I couldn't let him aboard but after a few minutes it was obvious that things were going to escalate quickly. If he didn't climb aboard, the .50 calibre would simply open up an inspection hole in the plane.
A few more minutes went by. I learned that the major was a graduate of the American Armed Forces Staff College and that he had spent a year as a military attache in Washington. He knew details about the role and purpose of the special operating locations in the Egyptian desert to cause me to believe that he was actually a tactical field officer, not a mere airport security officer.
I got back onto the aircraft to hear what the radio was squawking and the chatter had escalated to another rank. Under no uncertain terms was I to engage in a discussion with the armored detachment. The American embassy--hundreds of miles away--would handle the situation. And the plane was off limits to any visitors.
I stepped back off the plane and chatted with the major. He agreed that we were free to depart the airstrip if he went aboard the aircraft and inspected it. I told him that I needed him to limit his inspection to the area to the left of the crew entrance ladder. We had a blast curtain installed to the right of the entrance way and it blocked the view of the cargo compartment. He nodded and I took him aboard the aircraft.
Once on the flight deck, he took four more patches from crew members, including a patch of an American flag and a very special Special Ops patch from our heavily-armed courier. He sat in the aircraft commander's seat for a few minutes, opened its side window, and waved at the soldier standing behind the .50 caliber gun. He was happy with his visit and was quite amicable.
I followed him back off the aircraft and sat on the crew ladder. Within a few minutes he was back with a smile and a handshake.
We were cleared to start engines and take off. Nobody knew our next destination would be Ben Gurion, even the confused voices on our HF radio net. Because of the way we filed our travel vouchers, there is no record of my desert visit ever happening. But I have to think that there's some senior officers in the Egyptian military who can see a big picture when they watch things unfold outside of their armored plated seats.