After four long years at the Air Force Academy, and a year of flight training in the T-37 and T-38 at Williams AFB, AZ, the time was nearing for the fateful date - Assignments Day! While still at the AF Academy, my goal had solidified strongly on obtaining a fighter out of pilot training - any fighter. I was able to snag Williams AFB (known to all as 'Willie') outside Phoenix as my pilot training location, which was the premier location of all the USAF pilot training bases.
While waiting on 'casual status' for five months before the start of Class 78-02 in January 1977, I tried to get a temporary assignment in anything related to real airplanes, not boring desk jobs. I found out that Willie was short on T-37 crew chiefs, so I volunteered to be a crew chief until our class started, and pulled my friend Scott Anderson along with me. Scott and I had both been cadet instructors in sailplanes at the USAF Academy, and felt very comfortable in the air and receptive to the anticipated training we would get while flying the T-37s and T-38s at Willie. We quickly learned to pump gas, clean windshields, marshall aircraft, change tires, and then start and taxi T-37s to help the ground team. The five months went quickly, and a few days after the start of pilot training, after observing the composition of the 'competition' in our pilot training class, Scott and I made a simple observation - if any fighters came down to our class of 60+ trainees, he and I were going to get them! We started ahead of the class, due to our flight instructor background and our recent T-37 familiarization, and we never looked back. As we progressed through the T-37 and on to the T-38, we were both in our element. We were actually getting paid to learn all we could about aviation while flying jets - it was hard work but a very rewarding and enjoyable time.
While I enjoyed my flying time in the T-37, I was in heaven when I started flying the T-38. I loved the performance of the sleek bird, and seemed to be able to grease the approaches and landings, and really hit my stride in T-38 formation flying. Although instrument flying was a chore, I could always nail the approaches, and even pulled out a 'well done' on my T-38 instrument check flight. Both Scott and I were doing well, and we were anticipating good options when assignments came down. As assignment day was nearing, we filled out our 'dream sheets', and here's where the strategy planning began. The 'dream sheets' were used to provide Air Training Command leadership with the trainee's desires, which became a factor in the final assignment. We were asked to list our first, second and third choices. If your position was at top of the class, you would expect priority on your first choice, and down the line as the aircraft were assigned. My plan was to list #1 as F-15, #2 as F-4 and #3 as F-106. Since the F-15 was brand new and very rare for first assignments, it was a long shot, and if someone else had F-4 or F-106 as #1, you may get bumped way down if no F-15s were available.
One threat to getting a fighter was Air Training Command itself, which often picked students to return as instructors, either in the T-37 or T-38. I had been approached by my Flight Commander about an ATC instructor assignment, and believed I had pleaded my case for a fighter slot successfully, if one did come down.
A bigger threat to preferred assignments were rumors about Strategic Air Command (SAC). At the time, assignments to SAC heavies, such as the B-52 and KC-135 tanker, went to pilots way down on the list, far below the requested fighters or T-38 instructor pilot choices. The rumor was that SAC was going to take pilots from the top of the class, regardless of their preferences. After all the rumors and strategy concerns, I stayed with my plan - F-15 #1, followed by F-4 and F-106.
On the day that assignments were scheduled to arrive, I was scheduled for a T-38 cross-country flight to March AFB, CA, with Scott's regular instructor pilot, Kel Weller. As we cruised back from March AFB into UHF radio range of Willie, Kel Weller suggested that I check if the assignments came in. I eagerly called the Supervisor Of Flying (SOF), and he stated, "Yep, assignments just came in". "What did I get?" was my immediate response. After a short delay, the shocking answer came back - "KC-135 to Barksdale "! I was in shock. "No, this Willie 14, you must have the wrong name"...as I slowly spelled my name for the SOF. "No, I know who you are", said the SOF - "KC-135 to Barksdale".
Luckily we were in straight and level cruise flight, since I was stunned. Kel tried to console me with "KC-135s aren't that bad, and they're great airline lead-in". I quickly responded with "I don't want to fly freakin' airliners, I want to fly fighters". My worst fears were realized, SAC had chosen me for a Tanker, and to Louisiana to rub in the bad news! Kel later stated that I flew 5 excellent ILS approaches back at Willie, but I didn't remember a thing. After landing, we customarily walk back to the squadron building with our chutes, and discuss the flight. Instead, after I climbed down the T-38 ladder, I threw my chute at Kel and ran in to check the real status of assignments.
As I walked in to the squadron building, I noticed most of the class gathered around the giant chalkboard in front of the briefing room. There, in alphabetical order, was the entire list of assignments. At the top, Scott Anderson - F-15, and there was my name - KC-135 to Barksdale. It was real, and I was hosed.
With a breath of resignation, I accepted my fate, and headed to my locker to take off my G-suit and stop in the restroom. While in the restroom, Chip Claughsey, our Guard representative who had an F-100 assignment locked, came in to check on my status. Seeing my dejected state, he finally said, "Sundance, it's all a giant joke! Assignments aren't coming in until tomorrow". Even though Chip weighed almost 200 pounds, I slammed him against the wall and lifted him off the ground with a "What"?!?!? Relief felt awesome!
Walking back into the squadron ops room, I got a great welcome as the object of the prank, and then started to give grief back to the instigating parties. My friend Scott had planned the ruse, and had coordinated with his instructor and the SOF to play along, and even got the entire bogus list of assignments posted for all to see.
When assignments finally did arrive the next day, my only concern was NOT to get an assignment to SAC flying a KC-135 in Barksdale! Through the morning, we waited as assignments still did not appear, gathering for a long lunch with rumors again flying about SAC, and the conclusion that no F-15s were available for our class pool. Our class section, called Skitter, finally gathered right after lunch in our main squadron room, with all the students and instructors present. My friend Scott, who had orchestrated the ruse the day before, was given the task of writing down the assignments on the large squadron blackboard, with all names previously written from the day before. Our Chief Flight Instructor and Flight Commander began reading the names alphabetically, and when Scott Anderson was announced with an F-4 Phantom to MacDill AFB, I had visions of my chance of an F-15 Eagle disappearing and SAC raising its clutches!
There were a lot of surprises as names were read and assignments announced, and when my name was reached, the Flight Commander paused dramatically, and said "KC-135 to Barks..." and stopped as I covered my head in my hands. After a short pause, he announced "No, No, actually an F-15 Eagle to Luke"! The relief, after a year of anticipation and hope, was amazing. The selection that would determine my flying path for many years was finally made in my favor, a new F-15 Eagle!
In 1979, while flying F-15s out of Tanagra Air Base in Greece, I was on leave for a couple of days in Athens and met an Air Force Academy '76 classmate, Jeff Whatley. Jeff was flying KC-135s out of the Hellenikon Air Base, which at the time served also as the Athens International Airport. When Jeff offered me an opportunity to fly with him on a KC-135 mission to refuel F-15s, I took him up on his offer.
I was given the jump seat for takeoff from the Athens runway, and the exceedingly long takeoff roll of the KC-135 with a full fuel load on the hot day almost made me regret my decision. We finally lumbered off with only a couple of thousand feet remaining on the 10,300-foot long runway! After getting used to extremely short takeoff rolls in the Eagle, it was an eye-opener! The KC-135 crew gave me 30 minutes in the right seat to get used to the heavy flight controls on the tanker. I wouldn't say the KC-135 was ponderous, but stately might be a more apt description. We cruised out over the Mediterranean and I was able to take in an air-refueling mission for F-15s from the opposite point of view. Seeing the Eagles from the inside of the KC-135 made me appreciate even more the assignment choice from pilot training a few years earlier. Silent 'thanks' were spoken as I descended back to Athens after the 4.4 hour refueling flight.