Ron Craft of Ansonia, Connecticut, says he is neither a writer nor a public speaker, but his passion to share the story of an air rescue he witnessed as a 23-year-old stationed at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone has compelled him to be both.
It is the story of heroic valor executed with such calm competence that only in retrospect did Craft recognize the significance of what he had observed.
“I was inexperienced,” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t know that they don’t do this on a regular basis. Everyone did his job professionally, as though rehearsed. I’m thinking, ‘Man, we have a cool job.’ But this is not in any manuals. Months later, I realized what we did.”
And 31 years later, he is translating his admiration for military bravery into a book and a movie about the experience, with help from California-based screenwriter and producer Mark Roemmich, president and CEO of Noble House Entertainment. Titled “Hell Over High Water,” the project represents the culmination of 12 years of effort by Craft to record his memory of a dramatic mid-air maneuver that changed his life.
It was Sept. 5, 1983. Craft was midway into a four-year assignment as an airman first class working maintenance on planes at Loring when he was picked for his first overseas trip. Crew chief Mike Bouchard, now of Fort Kent, had to replace his assistant, who had been injured, for a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Craft became Bouchard’s assistant crew chief.
They were assigned to one of six KC-135 tankers to accompany 24 F-4 Phantom fighter jets from Pease AFB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to an Air Force Base in Germany, via England. Because fighters could not travel that distance without refueling, tankers (comparable to commercial Boeing 707s) carrying 70,000 pounds of fuel escorted them, one tanker for every four fighters. Eight times during the eight-hour trip, the tankers refueled the fighters through a mechanical boom temporarily linking the planes mid-air.
“We had refueled four times when one of the fighters had an engine problem, losing power instead of accelerating when throttled,” Craft recalled. “The wing man circled underneath to check.” (F-4s fly in pairs, a fighter and a wing man.) A cracked oil line was causing oil loss, reducing oil pressure.
Craft said the engine failure caused the F-4 to fly at a 45-degree angle. Attempts to gain lift caused the remaining engine to overheat, making the plane rotate as it lost altitude.
Craft’s KC-135, “North Star,” was 100 miles from the stricken fighter when he heard through his headphones, “Go get ’em,” the signal for the tanker to reverse direction and attempt to help the fighter make an emergency landing.
“We did an about face from our direction toward England and turned to the closest dirt: Gander, Newfoundland, 500 miles away,” he said. “We went from beautiful conditions to the worst — a 150-mile headwind — in minutes.”
In addition to the six-member crew, the tanker also was carrying 22 passengers, service personnel and dependents allowed to travel on military hops.
“We went full throttle to overtake [the F-4], pulled to an idle, overshot him by 12 miles, did a giant S turn,” Craft said, reconstructing the attempt to slow down the tanker enough to hook up to the fighter. “Speed brakes up, still too fast; flaps down, still too fast. Then the pilot did an incredible move, rocking the plane side to side like a hammock to create more drag and slow the plane down.”
The North Star made two attempts to connect the refueling boom to the aircraft below. Each time the boom disconnected, the fighter lost altitude and the tanker had to dive to overtake it. The third time the hook-up was successful.
Craft said each time the crew members repeated the procedures they seemed “even more cool and collected,” methodically adjusting their actions until they got it right.
“There is no comparison for their professionalism,” Craft said of his co-workers. “There was no panic.” But he did notice the flight suit of the boom operator, Sgt. Doug Simmons, was “black with sweat” when it was over.
According to Craft, the fighter pilot, Maj. Jon R. “Ghost” Alexander, told his weapons systems operator during the mid-air rescue, “Come hell or high water, we’re going to get on that tanker and not let go.”
The planes had dropped to 1,600 feet above the icy waters of the Atlantic.
“You could see the foam on the 50-foot waves breaking below. We were that close,” Craft said. The two fighter pilots would have perished from hypothermia within minutes of hitting water had their plane continued its downward course.
Once connected, the tanker was able to use the boom as a tow bar for the ailing F-4 and save the pilots.
Gradually they lifted to 20,000 feet, back within range of radar, and completed the flight to Gander Air Force Base. Other mechanical failures complicated the landing, but Craft is saving those details for his printed and visual account.
Once on the ground, the pilots boarded the KC-135 and continued on to England and Germany.
The story of the dramatic rescue made the front page of the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, but it never won the recognition Craft thought it deserved.
“Nobody wrote it,” Craft said, describing his efforts to write a screenplay. “I tried first person and third person. I wrote and rewrote. Then I met Mark, who will make it marketable.”
Hoping for a release in 2015, Craft and Roemmich plan to interview the surviving crewmembers for the film and the book, and they may shoot scenes for the film at the former Loring Air Force Base, now the Loring Commerce Centre.
“Their professionalism inspired me for the rest of my life,” Craft said of the crewmembers who accomplished the 1983 rescue. “I carry it to what I am doing now.”
Craft is a quality supervisor for Sikorsky Aircraft, which manufactures Black Hawk helicopters.
“What they did is one of countless acts of bravery. I am dedicating the book and movie to military men and women for their daily acts of courage.”
He also would like to distribute copies to patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to thank them for their service.
Last July, Craft was asked to speak at a reunion of Loring personnel at the Military Heritage Center on the former base to help mark the 20th anniversary of the base’s closing.
“I had never spoken publicly,” he recalled. “I wrote three pages of notes. I was nervous. Then I pushed the papers aside.”
Craft told his story from the heart and earned a standing ovation.
“How’d I do?” he asked a member of the audience as he left the podium.
The response: “You know you did OK when you get half the old guys to cry.”
For more information, visit nhepictures.com/HellOverHighWater.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.