Flying on the EC-121
with the 551st Aew & Con Wg

By A.J. Northrup SMsgt (ret)

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On August 16, 1955, immediately after completing the Airborne Radio Operators Course I was assigned to the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing (AEW&C), 961st Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron, Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts.

After undergoing all the in-processing and survival training, along with the many aspects of squadron training, I made my first flight on the RC-121 on October 9, 1955 for 7:45 hours. It soon became routine to fly the missions over the North Atlantic approximately every third day.

I recall that take-off times were scheduled for all hours of the day and night since several aircraft were manning different airborne stations at the same time over the North Atlantic who were to be relieved by other crews and aircraft.

Your schedule basically was fly, get some time off for a little rest, train, fly and repeat this cycle forever. You soon got used to eating breakfast at the time you normally would eat the evening meal, dinner at the time you normally would eat breakfast and so on. Generally the "time off' after a flight was really not time off since it seemed they always found something for you to do.

Time spent preparing for a typical flight would require you to arrive at the Squadron Operations Briefing Room at least three hours before take-off time. There were crew briefings, weather briefings, administrative reminders from the Squadron. There was the checking out, fitting and inspection of the survival equipment by the individual crew members and crew inspection by the Aircraft Commander. There was a the walk around inspection of the exterior portions of the aircraft where radio antennas, static dischargers, etc., were located, as well as the inspection and testing of each of the pieces of the communications equipment to make sure it was operational and if not arrangements for it to be replaced or repaired had to be done timely. Sometimes the crew had to seek out another aircraft when problems were extensive or not immediately repairable. When that occurred all your equipment had to be transferred and the inspection and pre-flight process of the new aircraft begin allover again.

Each of the approximate 20 member crews had their own inspections of their respective equipment and work areas and operational tests of the equipment they used (Pilot, Co-Pilot, Navigator, Radio Operator, Radar Maintenance Technicians, Radar Operators, Radar Observers) prior to take-off.


The Radio Operators obtained the ATC Flight Clearance and after confirming this the Aircraft Commander requested take-off clearance from the tower. Take-offs on the flight I made were relatively uneventful, although at times there was a lot of anxiety when the plane, with such a heavy load of fuel, seemed to take up a lot of runway or when there was excessive unfamiliar engine noise or what seemed like a lot of exhaust flames coming out of the engines.

Once we were in the air things relaxed somewhat en route to the assigned station area over the North Atlantic where we were to meet and relieve another crew and aircraft or assume the station which had not been manned for one reason or another.

However, there were times when emergencies occurred soon after take-off which required the dumping of excess fuel to get the aircraft's weight down to acceptable landing weight. The fuel

dumps became routine, although dangerous non the less, since all electronics had to be turned off except for the minimum emergency radios and no transmissions during the actual dumping. One commercial airline using the super constellation reportedly caught fire, exploded, and crashed after dumping fuel upon approach to an airport in New York. I don't think Nantucket ever has cleaned up all the fuel that was dumped over and near there while the wing flew those missions over all those years.

Once the aircraft arrived on station and begin flying its race track pattern things normally soon became routine and boring. The weather over the North Atlantic normally was not good and commercial aircraft got assigned to preferred altitudes where the weather was not so rough leaving the military aircraft to be assigned to the altitudes where the rough weather was.

A lot of the flights were rough and bumpy and you soon learned that it was best to stay buckled up in your safety belt at all times. You soon learned to drink coffee from paper cups when experiencing both negative and positive G-forces at the same time -- yet not spill your coffee.

After being on station a lot of the missions were aborted for mechanical or electrical problems with the aircraft and its tons of electronic equipment. We regularly trained for emergencies and normally, sometime during each flight, usually when en route or on the return from station there would be an unannounced emergency to which the crew had to respond and be ready for ditching at sea. You never immediately knew when the alarm bell was sounded whether it was a practice or not, particularly when some of the crew were on break and in deep sleep in the bunks. One was surprised how fast one could react from full sleep to the emergency drill. I'm thankful they were only drills -as we knew what the possibilities of survival were if we had to ditch in the North Atlantic -particularly during the winter months.

A lot of things happened, ice would build up on the aircraft due to the weather in which we flew, engines had problems and were shut down and feathered, a lot of equipment failure, lightning strikes, etc. But most of the time the missions were boring, tiresome, long, noisy (particularly for me, the Radio Operator, sitting next to the left inboard engine).

I recall we sometimes were given pilots from the Pentagon who were trying to accumulate flying time and were assigned missions with us. On one such occasion, I recall taking a cup of coffee to the cockpit for the Aircraft Commander (a routine the radio operators gladly did) and found the pentagon pilot fast asleep in the cockpit and the plane on autopilot. The Aircraft Commander had sought a short period of rest and left the aircraft in control of the Pentagon pilot. Both the Pilot and Co-Pilot could not be expected to maintain alertness, without some rest, when the actual flight time of the missions averaged more than twelve hours duration. That situation wasn't the best but there were other crew members who also were monitoring the aircraft' s altitude, position, heading, etc.

After your aircraft was relieved on station by another aircraft and crew you headed home. The relief aircraft did not always come for various reasons and sometimes you were required to fly longer missions to maintain coverage of the station than you wanted to. One entry in my Form 5A (Individual Flight Record) reflects that on May 22, 1958 I flew on one mission for a total of 17:05 hours. It was not all that unusual to fly missions of 13, 14, and 15 hours.

Upon landing there was approximately two hours involved with the turn-in of the survival gear, making write-ups on malfunctioning meeting with maintenance people about problems with the aircraft and equipment, attending the post-fight briefing, etc. This two hours added to the time you flew, plus the earlier three hour pre-flight duties, made it a very long day. In numerous instances there were not enough radio operators for two to be assigned to each mission and that really made it a long day for one person.

You were supposed to get crew rest after the flight but that always did not happen commensurate with the total time you had spent regarding a particular mission and immediately afterwards you were back to training, flying, crew rest and "time off'.

My time with the 961st Squadron was a memorable time and although my last flight with the Squadron was on October 11, 1959 I never forgot the men, my friends, the crew members (both officers and airmen) who had placed so much trust in one another.

I regret that brave men lost their lives when the Texas Tower collapsed one of which I knew and had flown with when he (Tsgt Prater) was a supervisor of the radar operators on the RC- 121.

Likewise, I salute the fifty crew members who lost their lives and those four crew members who survived when three EC-121 aircraft (53-0136 - July 11, 1965) (55-5262 - December 11, 1966) (55-0549 - April 27, 1967) were lost at sea. I remember having flown with one of the Flight Engineers who did not survive the ditching of 53-0549, Msgt Frank W. Garner, Jr., and he like many of the men on those aircraft also were assigned to the 961 st.



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NOTE: I left Otis AFB in 1959 for a three year tour in Germany and returned to Otis, and to the 961 st in January 1963 where I flew just a few more of the unchanging missions before realizing that is not what I wanted to do forever. I then became a Special Agent in The Air Force Office Of Special Investigations (OSI) where I remained until I retired in August 1975.


EC-121 Constellations