“Yeah, it scared the shit out of me. It’s waaaaay short and that downslope’s wicked,” the co-pilot answered. “High pucker factor for sure.”
I had to agree. After hundreds of hours of flight time, I’d never been to a loose gravel runway with an upper end on the downslope of a Turkish mountain, the other end wetted by the Black Sea, and so short it was barely long enough to land our airplane. To say the flying was challenging was an understatement. To say it was frightening was too.
Was Food Really Necessary?
The Cold War was on and the Russians were not so far away on their own side of the Black Sea. The Turkish shore sported dozens of listening posts and radar sites and all those listeners and watchers needed food, mail, equipment, and all the other things a modern army needs to wage a tense, non-shooting war. I checked the tie-downs for a few tons of the stuff and wondered whether food really was all that essential.
I finished the checks and climbed up to the flight deck. It was bright and the sun reflected through our greenhouse windows, off the Black Sea. Straight ahead a huge mountain blocked our path. There was a tiny brown slash along the shoreline and I felt a familiar pucker feeling in my butt.
It really did invoke a high pucker factor.
We began our approach flying up the slope of the mountain and past the runway. The uphill flight produced a slight sense of vertigo as the ground rose to meet us and we climbed to keep it away. Our sense of distance felt odd too. Contrary to the normal physics of sight, the runway seemed smaller as we neared. About a mile past the runway, we made a long, climbing turn and aligned ourselves with the strip.
“OK, just as soon as we touch, we’re going to stand on the brakes and go full reverse,” the pilot said. “Crew, I want everyone strapped in. It’s going to be rough as hell.”
The ground that previously rose up to greet us now fell away more like a takeoff than a landing. To my stomach and inner ear, we had entered a climbing descent. That couldn’t be right, could it? Was I feeling negative Gs or positive? Only the altimeter and accelerometer could tell for sure.
The pilot flared for his landing before we even reached the runway. His goal was to use every last inch of the loose gravel. Our nose seemed frighteningly high as the loose rocks rained against our belly like buckshot at close range.
“REVERSE! BRAKES!,” the pilot yelled.
A Near Dip in the Black Sea
The reversing engines screamed. The airplane bucked and wobbled crazily as gravity threw us into our straps like a devil pushing us toward the lip of a yawning maw. Although the runway was short, it seemed like the noise and tumult went on forever. The Black Sea roared toward us, opening itself for a possibly fatal embrace. Through a side window, I saw a pickup flash by at breakneck speed.
“Shit, that water’s coming up fast. Too fast,” I thought.
Oddly, there was little sense of slowing. We seemed to go straight from a screaming tear down the runway to a full stop. When the pilot pulled the engines out of reverse, the airplane became shockingly quiet and an unnaturally still. The Black Sea lapped placidly a few feet away from our nose, certainly too close to see the line where land met sea.
“OK,” the pilot said, “Let’s get this puppy turned around. Chief, hop out here and walk me around. This is a tight fit.”
A Very Good Day
I let the door down – only a few feet away from the supersonic propeller tips – and hopped out. Taking up a position on the left wing, I began using hand signals to direct the pilot through a turnaround. It was a tight fit, not unlike parallel parking a 175,000 pound car in a tiny Manhattan parking slot. We had to pull forward and then back up several times. I constantly jockeyed away from the screaming propellers so I wouldn’t be blown into an unplanned Black Sea swim.
Once turned, I led the airplane back upslope – like a pooch on a long leash – looking for brush or obstacles the airplane might encounter. With a break to shoo a few lounging goats away, the walk was uneventful. A Navy Commander in civilian clothes met us at the end of the runway. As he and his men loaded their goodies into the pickup truck, an ancient Turkish man and his grandson served the crew sweet Turkish tea and delicate almond cookies. I thought, what a day. The amusement park ride of my life and fine dining – al fresco – on the shores of the Black Sea.
It was a very good day indeed.