ARIA Held Hostage
It was supposed to be a typical mission to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, requiring two days to reach the island by aircraft. The task would require a layover in Paramaribo, Suriname, South America. We would never make it to Ascension Island.
I was an Air Force Sergeant attached to the 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio. I worked with the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft, ARIA, program as a prime mission electronic equipment operator and was affectionately called a PMEE. Our mission was to acquire, track, and record data from airborne vehicles, including weapons, from governments and private corporations. The Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft allowed us to go anywhere in the world to accomplish this mission. My job on the aircraft was to acquire and track these airborne vehicles. I have had my share of missions staged from Ascension Island.
It was late on Sunday, February 24, 1980, that I arrived at Paramaribo, Suriname en-root, to Ascension Island on aircraft 60-0374. It was even later when I arrived at the hotel with the rest of the crew. It was just past midnight when Neil Hendricks, the aircraft's radio operator, and I headed out to find some excitement. We found it just after 2 am with the sound of small arms fire. This was not a single shot that was heard but the sounds of many rounds being fired. After the initial gunfire, all was well, and we continued our quest for excitement. It was about 04:30 by the time we arrived back at the hotel, we didn't want to miss the transportation to the airport. As night was turning into day, the sound of machine guns firing filled the air. A few moments later, the sound of artillery rounds being fired and then hitting their target drowned out the sounds of the machine guns. I headed across the hall into the room of Gil Siefert, the aircraft's System Analyst, and through his window was able to view the destruction of a block of buildings. Being up near the top of the hotel made it possible to see the city and the crowds of people running through the streets evading heavily armed military. I ran back into the room when gunfire from the streets passed so ever close to my head. Hours passed, and the city became quiet, and all signs of life disappeared from the road.
Communication was made with the US embassy to get all of us out of the country unharmed. Any time that we traveled to a foreign country, it was mandated that we donned civilian clothes before we left the aircraft. The ARIA aircraft did not display the "United States Air Force" on its fuselage. It instead read, "United States of America." This distinction was shared with only a few military aircraft, Air Force One, and a few others. We also had the distinction of having no way to protect ourselves even if we could make it back to the airport.
It was mid-afternoon before we could attempt to return to the airport. The crews loaded up onto a bus, and then we proceeded to the airport following a vehicle from the American embassy. When we arrived at the airport, the Surinamese army welcomed us. The aircraft commander was forced to the ground. A gun was placed to the back of his head. The funny thing was I wasn't worried about him at all, I knew if they shot him that I was dead. It didn't seem real, time stood still. After what felt to be an hour, the aircraft commander was allowed to get up, and tensions seemed to subside. We were then allowed to make our way to the aircraft. To this day, I don't remember making the walk from the bus to the plane. The plane was located on the tarmac, a substantial distance from the gate. Somehow being back at the aircraft provided a feeling of security, short-lived security.
It wasn't but a few moments after arriving at the aircraft that a military truck pulled up. The heavily armed soldiers pointed their guns at us and flagged us to get into their vehicle. At this point, my mind was racing. Thinking of how I was going to get to the tree line without being killed. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do after I reached the tree line when reality struck. It must have been our arrogance of who we were, Airmen of the United States Air Force from the United States, which drove all of us to refuse their demand. I sincerely think that they were surprised and stunned at our response. In unison, we told them, "No." They looked at us, then the aircraft. I believe there was only one reason that they didn't kill us or force us to get into the truck. It was those four words painted on the side of the aircraft, "United States of America."
All of the three Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft were eventually cleared to take off. We returned to the states via Patrick Air Force Base Florida, our mission scrapped, and 63 very anxious crew members. The first thing I did after arriving back in the states was to call my parents to keep them from worrying. They weren't concerned, they never heard the news of the coup in Suriname and that USAF personnel were caught up in the middle of it. In fact, only a small hand full of people heard the news. This was the first time in my life I realized that there are events that happen that the public is not made aware of. We made our way back to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the days following the coup. I cannot recall a single conversation taking place about the events of Suriname after we arrived back home.
We were lucky, oh, so fortunate. We survived a situation that could have proved deadly to all of us. We later returned to Ascension Island that year. In the months that followed, we performed our missions as though the events of Suriname never happened.
Staff Sergeant Randy L. Losey
Antenna Control Operator ARIA 60-0374
Proud to have been a PMEE