Cape Town Bound
Albuquerque Center: “AGAR 94, do you have time for a question?”
AGAR 94: “Go ahead”
Albuquerque Center: “Just curious, what is a C-18 and what is your destination?”
In over six years as an ARIA (Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft) pilot, this set of radio transmissions has been the hallmark of many trips around the world. Our latest expedition marked a return to Cape Town, South Africa after a ten year hiatus due to political turmoil in the region. This cold night of February 14, 1996 would be the first leg of a deployment to perform the first-ever telemetry gathering flight over the continent of Antarctica. A recent modification, which allows in-flight refueling, made this flight possible as well as our 6400 nautical mile non-stop leg from Edwards AFB, CA to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.
The EC-18 is the latest version of the ARIA (Apollo, until 1975/Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft). Developed as a joint venture between NASA and the DOD, the first fleet of eight modified C-135 transport aircraft became operational in January 1968. These McDonnell-Douglas/Bendix modified aircraft filled the huge gaps of telemetry and voice relay ground station coverage around the globe.
After the Apollo program concluded, the ARIA fleet moved to the 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. Continuous upgrades allowed new missions including orbital insertion, re-entry vehicle tracking, and cruise missile chase.
In 1981 the USAF announced plans to upgrade the ARIA fleet by converting to the Boeing 707-320 airframe. Eight of these airliners were purchased from the American Airlines corporation for approximately $2 million each. The first C-18 ARIA mission, with its increased takeoff weight and shorter field capability, flew from Kenya in January 1986. More modifications to ARIA provided an ICBM scoring, tracking, photography capability known as SMILS (Sonobouy Missile Impact Location System). The SMILS C-18 lays a pattern of sonobouys to score missile impact accuracy, effectively replacing three aircraft with one C-18 platform. Over 120 re-entry vehicles were scored during testing. During a Peacekeeper missile test in the summer of 1992, a full mission certification was completed at the Kwajelien Missile test range.
The Base re-alignment and closure Act of 1991 closed the 4950th Test Wing and the ARIA fleet moved to Edwards AFB, CA. The new 452nd Flight Test Squadron continued to upgrade the fleet by modifying the C-18 for in-flight refueling. Extensive upgrades to the telemetry mission equipment incorporated digital equipment, SATCOM, and GPS-based timing. In the spring of 1995, the first ARIA in-flight refueling took place over the Mojave desert.
At Ascension Island, the C-18 in our story, tail number 81-0894, AGAR 94, supported a Delta Booster launch of the NEAR spacecraft, which will have a close encounter with the asteroid Eros. The next morning we deployed to South Africa for the Polar Explorer mission. A beautiful, sunlit mountainous area along the coastline greeted the crew as we approached Africa from the north. On landing, the charm of the South Africans overtook us. Greeted by our host officer, Capt Moore of the South African Air Force, the crew of 894 soon discovered the tremendous hospitality of the South Africans. The KC-135R tanker crew from McConnell AFB, KS met us at Cape Town International Airport. Ground transportation took us to our quarters at the South African Air Base of Ysterplaat where, an evening reception followed. The next day, several tours of the historic local area were graciously arranged by our hosts. On the morning of the 23rd, eager to fly, both crews went to their planes to prepare for the long trek south. Shortly after takeoff, the ARIA began to verify their equipment for the mission. About three hours after departing Cape Town, the flight of two aircraft began its historic in-flight refueling, enabling the Antarctic flight.
Without the successful transfer of fuel, the ARIA would not have the range to reach its support point, and the Delta II launch from Vandenberg AFB, CA would be forced into a costly postponement. The airmanship of both flight crews was evident as the refueling went off without a hitch. A jubilant crew continued to another ARIA first; crossing the Antarctic Circle, traveling to 69 degrees south. Ready to support, the ARIA arrived on station only to have the mission canceled due to excessive upper level winds at the launch site at Vandenberg AFB. Returning to Cape Town, the crew found themselves going into immediate crew rest to prepare for the next day's mission.
The locals say, “the table is set." The phrase describes the breathtaking view of morning fog rolling off the Table Mountain summit that greeted us the next day.
Our take off was to the south, and within a few minutes, the Cape of Good Hope passed beneath the right wing. Five hours passed with nothing to see but water and icebergs. The pilot pans, “Lots of water down there.” The co-pilot retorts as he has a thousand times before, “And that’s just the top of it.” Again, AGAR 94 met the tanker, call sign TURBO 95, successfully refueled, and headed south for the second support attempt. After a smooth refueling, trouble struck our mission equipment section. With recorder problems, communication difficulties and processing equipment failures, the mission equipment crew of seven enlisted and one officer had their hands full. With over 30 years experience amongst them, the crew solved every problem. By the time the Delta II was ready to launch, AGAR 94 was ready to receive it. Two additional ARIA aircraft supported the launch near the equator and the initial launch data was perfect (“nominal” in space lingo). Once out of range of the first two ARIA, the Polar vehicle, true to its name, traveled south over the pole and AGAR 94 began to receive telemetry. At this point, the NASA operators looking at the re-transmitted data at Cape Canaveral noticed an unauthorized user on the satellite channel. Increasing to full authorized power on the SATCOM transmitter, we managed to override the interloper and soon Cape Canaveral announced the clear reception of our data which continued through the rest of the mission.
In high spirits the ARIA crew returned to South Africa, departing the next day to return home. The monotony of the final, 15 hour flight, from Ascension Island to Edwards AFB was broken only by the radio talk:
MIAMI CENTER: “Just curious AGAR 94, Do you have time for a question?”