by Michael Little
I started out in the Air Force as an enlisted aircraft electronics (avionics) technician, and at one point was stationed at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. One night, about 2 AM, I was sent out to perform a cold install of a “black box” in a B-52. This meant that there was no power cart, so the operations check would have to wait until day shift. The airplane was parked in a remote location on the ramp, which was a vast, mile-long concrete plain lit by stadium lights. My supervisor dropped me off, promising to be back in 30 minutes to pick me up.
The installation was in the aft fuselage, between the bomb bay and the tail turret. This section has a crawlway that goes through it but no windows. It is not designed for human habitation. Even in broad daylight it’s DARK in there, never mind the middle of the night. There’s a belly hatch, to give maintenance guys access. I opened it, dragged a stand over to help me climb inside with my tools, and settled in to install the box, working in the narrow cone of light from my flashlight, surrounded by pitch blackness relieved only by a dim, square glow from the open hatch in the floor behind me.
As I was working I heard one of the outside access panels open. We had more equipment there, brutally heavy jamming transmitters, but there hadn’t been any work orders on them that I knew about. Puzzling. I could hear tools clinking and two guys talking and chuckling to each other, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. It was obvious, though, that they had to be from my shop. I began to feel irritated that they hadn’t checked in with me. How could they not know I was there? If nothing else, I wanted to ride back with them instead of waiting for my supervisor. I put down my tools, hopped out of the hatch, said “Hey, guys. . . .” but stopped.
Nobody was there. The panel was closed. There was no truck.
The lighting wasn’t the best but on the open ramp there was nowhere they could have hidden, and there was no way they could have closed and secured the access panel, in the two seconds it had taken me to climb out. I searched around to be sure, peeking into the wheel wells and around the landing gear. Nothing.
Well, that was weird. I climbed back into the airplane and resumed my installation. I had no sooner started than the clinking and talking and chuckling picked up again.
Enough’s enough. I completed that installation in record time, gathered my tools, and dropped out of the hatch. Yup, nobody was there and the panel was closed securely. After a moment’s hesitation, I started the long walk back to the shop.
My supervisor met me about halfway back. “What happened?” I debated a moment with myself about whether I could trust him or not, and finally asked if strange . . . things happened on the airplanes occasionally, like voices, maybe?
He gave me a very stern look and said “Yes. But we don’t talk about it. Ever.”
Oh-kay. The sergeant told me to shut up, so like a good little airman I did.
Then, a couple weeks later, I was hanging around Dispatch waiting to go out, when one of the guys from another shop came storming in.
“It happened again! I told you before I will NOT go out on an airplane without a light cart, power and a crew chief. But you sent me out on a cold airplane and it happened again. THERE’S WEREWOLVES ON THOSE PLANES!!!”
We got the story in bits and pieces, but to put it together, he had been working in the back of the cargo bay of a KC-135 on a cold install when all the hair on the back of his neck stood up. The cargo bay is almost windowless, the only windows being tiny ones in the emergency exit hatches which don’t let in much light in at best, let alone at night. He had turned around and looked toward the cockpit, and in the shadows at the other end of the bay had seen this dark shape standing there watching him with two glowing red eyes.
Warning lights, we asked? No power, he said. No power, no lights.
He had dropped everything, popped the aft emergency exit hatch, shinnied down the escape rope and run back to Dispatch.
He refused to go out on an airplane after dark ever again. The powers-that-be, instead of taking some kind of action against him, reassigned him to Dispatch. He, in turn, went to great pains not to send anyone out on an airplane after dark alone, without power and supplemental lighting. The stories similar to his and mine, which it seemed like everybody had experienced at one time or another and were willing to share once he had broken the silence, pretty much stopped.
Later, over a beer, one of the powers-that-be shared some background on our little problem that traced back to the Vietnam War and involved a shortage of aircraft parking at U-Tapao Royal That Naval Base in Thailand, a grove inhabited by Thai tree spirits, and an impatient US wing commander, but that’s hearsay. Maybe another time!