What Are Your Intentions?
It was one of those lazy soft days of autumn in Europe as we departed from our military base outside of Frankfurt, Germany heading home to New Jersey. I was flying a C-118 Liftmaster, the military version of the Douglas DC-6 — one of the finest aircraft to ever grace the skies. The two aircraft were nearly identical.
The route of light was scheduled for refueling stops in Prestwick, Scotland and Ernest Harmon Air Base, Newfoundland. I had flown it dozens of times and there was little to be concerned about the route except winter arrivals in Newfoundland. Today the weather was good all the way. As we entered British airspace the copilot checked in with UK’s air traffic control. Their response went somethings like this, “MATS 60894, we just received a call from Frankfurt. We were informed by an unknown caller that you have a bomb on board which is set to explode when you descend through 10,000 feet. What are your intentions?”
My copilot and I looked at each other with that look of “Wotta we do?” My first reaction was to inform air traffic control that my intentions were to scatter small pieces of metal across the English countryside, but this was not a time for jesting. I called back and said, “We would like radar vectors to an airfield higher than 10,000 feet,” knowing full well there was no place in the UK with an airfield with such elevation. With true British politeness the controller came back, “Sorry, Old Chap, we don’t have one.” Of course, I knew that, but I was trying to seem calm. I informed him that we would continue to Prestwick, Scotland. I then briefed the crew and told them to begin a search without alarming the passengers. Nothing was found, but bombs could easily be placed in the baggage compartment below us. Those were the days before terrorists were lurking everywhere and baggage checks were simple.
Finally, the next call came, “MATS 60894, you are now cleared to 4,000 feet.” The copilot acknowledged the instructions, I eased back on the throttles, turned off the “altitude control” and we started down. The copilot and I probably never looked at any other instrument except the altimeter: 15,500, 15,000, 14,500, 14,000 and so on. As the altimeter read 10,000 feet we stiffened, at 9,500 we smiled, at 9,000 feet we laughed. After landing at Prestwick, we were parked in a remote area far from the terminal and taken by bus to the waiting area. Three hours later we were cleared for light and the journey across the Atlantic.
That should have been the end of the story except by chance a week later I was on the same mission on the same day of the week with the same call. This time I had a different copilot. He could not understand why I was so “cool” about that kind of death threat.