THIRTY YEARS AGO, I used to sit up front at the controls of camoflagued Lockheed C-141 aircraft and occasionally fly hit teams (my term, not official military lingo) into hot spots. The "Starlizard" was really good at this role. Most of the time, it was just practise but often the guys in the back carried live munitions. We would normally drop into home bases, pick up special operations teams, and fly hours away to forward operating bases. It got to be routine work because most of the pick-ups were flown to validate our true responsiveness in a critical emergency. After providing these teams a special air taxi service for two years, I started recognising the faces and the profiles of several chisel-jawed operators. They had the form you see in today's shoot-em-up games. Getting those guys airborne and safely dropped off thousands of miles from their home bases was just part of the mission. The work actually started years before.
Everything depended upon credible, breaking intelligence. In the 80s, overhead satellites weren't as efficient as SR-71 spy planes. So when things started heating up on foreign soil, an SR-71 crew often flew a figure eight pattern overhead and let their cameras follow the action. Oftentimes, the cameras would record the movement of a single motorbike or they would film construction crews building fortified structures. Before the diggers were pulled out of a site and well before a roof was put on top of thick reinforced walls, the SR-71 could look down and determine the depth of a basement. This construction information and the kind of cargo coming onto a building site would tell analysts more about the structure and use of a building.
For our part, we might be asked to meet the SR-71 when it had landed out of crew duty day and near the end of its on-board fuel. Sometimes that was on an island in the Indian Ocean, in the mid-Pacific or in a remote area of an Hawaiian airstrip. Our next stop would be a special imaging facility, often eight time zones away. We would have film canisters on-board and we would meet up with a KC-135 tanker for in-flight refueling. If everything went right, the film would inform the Joint Chiefs of Staff whether to recommend a special ops mission.
Those missions sometimes involved building exact replicas of the SR-71 footage, down to the thickness of the walls and the intricacies of the gates. Two teams would conquer the special-built facility: one to defend it and another to attack it. For years, teams would practise climbing walls, running through corridors and egressing safely. They would get very good at the ground operation and then perfect the same movements while dropping in by rope or by helicopter. You expected to break a leg because knowing that practise structure became your mission in life, as long as it remained a valid JCS Priority Special Operation.
The teams that practised with the dummy structure were the cadre that would be used in the real thing. For my part, I was the taxi service. Every two months, just like clockwork, I'd be told to scramble to an aircraft, pre-flight it, and then sit in a boring dormitory for several days, ready to fly the aircraft away within an hour of being told to launch. I got several launch orders and most of them involved flying into Fort Bragg (North Carolina) under cover of darkness to load up a crew of armed men for a short flight to Norfolk (Virginia) to meet up with some SEALs. As far as I could tell, these little meet-ups were joint intelligence briefings for the teams. We merely responded to a launch command, dropped in, picked up, and watched the men run off the plane while our engines were still running.
One one occasion, I took a multi-lingual team into a remote desert location. They brought two beat-up trucks with them along with several full 55-gallon drums of gasoline in the back of each truck. They planned to drive themselves to some sort of a ethnic tribal meeting in Africa and talk about the importance of being loyal. I saw the men a few months later. They told me they gave their trucks to an ethnic clan on the north African coast.
I'm thinking about all these things as news unfolds about a hit team that descended into Abbottabad to conclude a 10-year special operation involving Osama Bin Laden. It sounds like an operation that took years to practise.
I have logged more than 2000 flying hours in the Lockheed C-141 aircraft, with several disavowed sorties to my credit.
Hat tip to Sohaib Athar for breaking a related story.