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Tomcat's First Kill
Iran’s Top F-14 Pilot
"As a 'two year veteran' of what we called the 'Sacred Defense War' against the invading Iraqi Armed Forces, I was witness to air battles fought over fronts and our cities by our fighters....including the F-14's you delivered to us."
IRAN[This vignette is included here, not for any real relevance to my career, but for its interesting uniqueness.]
When I originally signed up to ferry an F-14 to Iran - six months prior due to the necessary security checks required - I anticipated only a few days away from home. What it turned out to be was a month-long adventure.
In 1974, the Shah of Iran ordered 80 F-14's. 79 of them later would be delivered over the course of two years, usually in groups of three. I had the pleasure of delivering one of them (F-14 US Buno, #160345 / Iranian designation,
Normally, ferry flights are to be avoided. This one however was different. The whole program was orchestrated by the U.S. State Department, which delegated supervision to the U.S. Air Force. However, since no U.S. Air Force pilots were F-14 qualified, we junior Navy Officers got the mission.
The long legs to Iran would require Air Force in-flight refueling. Since the Navy and Air Force have far different methods and apparatus for in-flight refueling, our first step was in-flight refueling practice some weeks earlier at NAS Miramar, with Air Force tankers and their special and ungainly contraption used only for Navy aircraft. (Ugh! What had I signed up for? It was a very short and stiff hose that could easily whip around and break your canopy!)
Mastering that 'goat-rope', our three crews - 6 of us - each made our own way to the Grumman facility in Calverton, Long Island, New York. For me, it was a pleasant "red-eye" from San Diego to JFK. As I was in uniform, the kind [also young and attractive] flight attendant moved me into an empty 1st Class seat for the night.
Upon arrival at Calverton, we learned that we would not immediately be flying to Iran. We needed to test fly the aircraft, to make sure they were in absolutely perfect condition. So we did test fly them, followed by sight-seeing over Martha's Vineyard, followed by a "couple of turns" (as fighter pilots are wont to do) and then RTB'd (returned to base) for an expensive dinner in one of the Hamptons. La Dolce Vita
Few pilots in their careers ever have the opportunity to fly an airplane that "smells" exactly as a new car, and still has cellophane covering the cushions of the ejection seat. Well, I had that amazing experience. Although my F-14 was "factory fresh", it had an Iranian specified camouflage paint scheme. And while it did have U.S. military markings, as I found out later, those markings would be ingeniously and quickly changed upon arrival in Iran. The U.S. paint easily disappeared when a certain solution was applied, thus exposing the Iranian Air Force markings underneath.
August in the Hamptons
We would spend a week at Calverton - 6 Navy fighter pilots under the supposed "command" of a short, fully desk-experienced Air Force Colonel.
Of course there was some natural friction. This was the famous Long Island "Hamptons" in August, and we were eager to go out at night. (In fact, the notorious New York serial killer, Son of Sam, upon the day he was finally captured by police, admitted he was on his way that night to "shoot up the place" in the Hamptons - the same place where we were!) Moreover, this time the State Department, and not the Navy was paying our per diem. This meant for a welcome change, we could dine like we actually belonged in the Hamptons.
Noting our nocturnal sorties, the Colonel became concerned about our needed crew rest, prior to our long mission ahead. Although we were all staying at a Holiday Inn, the Colonel instituted a 2100 (9 PM) "bed-check" for us. Of course as young Navy fighter pilots of the time, we all were nowhere to be found when he checked our rooms at 2100. Thoroughly incensed, he threatened to scrub the whole mission if we missed the next night's bed check. Quick to adapt as usual, we Navy fighter pilots knew enough to appear to be sound asleep in our rooms at 2100 . . . and be somewhere else in town at 2115.
Despite the diminutive, red-faced Colonel's threats, we eventually did launch. The ferry to Iran involved two legs: The first leg from Calverton on Long Island to Torrejon AFB in Madrid, Spain. The second from Madrid to Isfahan, Iran. It should have taken a couple of days. It didn't.
It was for many reasons, a sensitive mission. Therefore, we needed to be "topped-off" with fuel for most of the 7-hour flight in case we had to divert to an emergency field. This meant at least 6 in-flight refueling events for each leg, despite some weather conditions (and the KC-135's difficult, Rube Goldberg type of refueling hose to accommodate Navy aircraft). Three KC-135's fueled us half-way across the Atlantic until drained. We then (thankfully) met three more fully fueled KC-135's out of Mildenhall Air Force Base, England, in the Mid-Atlantic (after some troublesome navigational problems on their part).
People often wonder, and it is rarely discussed - how did you relieve yourself, strapped into an ejection seat and immobile for 7+ hours? Well as for me - although we were provided with little "piddle-packs" - I personally held it for 7 hours . . . as I had planned and for which I had prepared by remaining dehydrated. (Hey, I'm a fighter pilot.) However, upon arrival in Torrejon, I could barely salute the welcoming Air Force Colonel. Bending over and doubled-up under pressure, I feverishly ran to the nearest 'head' to relieve myself - for seemingly and refreshingly forever, before I could then return to properly meet, greet, and properly salute the receiving Air Force Colonel.
Two Week Delay
The Colonel thought he had bad news for us. He said the KC-135 tankers were all down and they would be unavailable for at least two weeks. He said we were therefore stuck in Madrid, Spain for two weeks. We cheered! We told the Air Force Colonel that we would spend the two weeks, not in Madrid, but down on the Costa del Sol - Malaga and Torremolinos (We decided against Palma - an aircraft carrier was scheduled in port there.) He countered that he wanted us close by the phone in Madrid, ready to go to Iran with any change in the tankers' status. A Navy vs. Air Force face-off ensued, with U.S.State Department's interest. Later that day, 6 smiling Navy fighter pilots and RO's from NAS Miramar rented 3 economy cars, and made the long drive through the hills of Spain to the Mediterranean coast for two weeks of sun and sand in August, on the Costa del Sol. . . Ah yes, and where they may still fondly remember those "crazy" and happy Navy fighter pilots, even today.
The flight two weeks later to Iran was just as long as our flight had been to Madrid. Although we had another 6 KC-135 tankers en-route, this flight was near some unfriendly territory. Indeed as we had been forewarned as to the possibility, we were "locked-up" with some serious Soviet fire-control radar at one point en-route. This can be considered a hostile act of war, of international concern, and potentially severe repercussions. But it was brief and we continued without incident. Then later, flying past Mt. Ararat, we looked in vain for the biblical, Noah's Ark.
The airbase at Isfahan was as modern, and more importantly, as prepared for war as any I had ever seen. I taxied not to a normal flight line, but to a remote, covered revetment, fortified with nearly 8 ft. of rock and concrete at its base. As I was transferring the F-14 to the high-level Iranian dignitaries assembled next to the aircraft and signing documents, one of their ground crew looted some of my personal belongings and gifts from Grumman, from the cockpit.
Trapped In Iran
Very shortly after our arrival in Iran and having been away from home far longer than planned, we wanted to immediately return home. However, upon our arrival, their government officials had taken our official business passports, and couldn't or wouldn't return them until after a long Muslim holiday. Feeling somewhat trapped and not knowing exactly when we could leave, we spent 5 more "interesting" days with our kind American (Navy and civilian) hosts awaiting our release to go home.
We spent one interesting day visiting Isfahan's 17th century bazaar, buying a number of unique trinkets at great prices. But because of the religious holiday, drinking any liquid was forbidden until sundown. Parched from the heat, we finally and thankfully found a young kid in a back alley, secretly selling sodas. We hurriedly paid him 5 times what they were worth, just to quench our by now, overwhelming thirst.
One other evening, we visited a remote and clandestine (illegal?) casino. It was a lavish place. But in this oil-rich country, the minimum bet was much more than any in Las Vegas, and well beyond what this Navy Lieutenant could afford. . . so we didn't stay.
On one of the last days, a Navy pilot who was a friend and an old squadron-mate previously, was seriously injured in a car accident. By luck, two of us were in the American Compound at the time, and could relay, via HF radio to the Embassy in Tehran the need for a critical, life-saving MedEvac.
To leave Iran we needed our passports, which we learned were now in Tehran and available. So we flew the 210+ miles north, from Isfahan to Tehran for them, and for our flight home. After being picked up at the Tehran airport in a bulletproof limousine with a nasty-looking automatic weapon armed guard outside, sitting on our fender, we finally were given our passports upon our arrival at the U.S Embassy.
Following a relaxed and enjoyable late lunch at the embassy, we were given a tour of the environs. We then later spent a quiet
but somewhat anxious night in a luxurious Tehran hotel before leaving on Pan Am's famed westbound, "around the world" Flight # 001 early the next morning. After a small security scare in Istanbul, (tanks and armored personnel carriers rushed out to meet our B-747), we went as far as Rome. There we took an extra day off to explore the Eternal City, before finally continuing on to San Diego exhausted, and our long month's mission finally completed.
Anecdote: For this mission to Iran I was issued a brown “Official Passport” in April of 1977 with an expiration date five years later in 1982. Being naïve in these matters at the time, I was not aware that this passport was to be used only for this one mission and nothing else. I found that having an official passport had great advantages in going through customs quickly in most any country.
A little over a year later I was in Hong Kong. For some reason that I no longer remember, I went to the American Consulate their. The clerk needed to see my passport so I handed her my official passport. I was asked to have a seat. Shortly thereafter I was escorted into the Consul General, John Coffee’s impressive office. From him I received a friendly but also very stern lecture that my passport was to have been used for that Iranian mission only, and nothing else. While at the consulate, my official passport was confiscated and in turn I was issued a new tourist passport. In all my travels subsequent, I really did miss the priority I was given going through customs with that old brown passport.
[Post script: 15 months after I delivered 'my' F-14, the Shaw of Iran was forced to leave, the Iranian Revolution followed, and our Embassy people were held hostage for 444 days. Nevertheless I still wonder whatever happened to 'my' F-14, now over three decades later with some of them still flying in 2013.]
[Edit: I have just learned, now in 2015 that 'my' F-14 aircraft is in fact still flying in Iran, out of Mehrabad Airbase in Tehran.]
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