The Wheel Hat Check Ride

As a young Lieutenant in 1962 I was a trained Navigator Radar Bombardier for the B-47 and sent into a C-124 unit. The day the C-124 taxied up to ops at Mather AFB, California, I could hear my classmates chuckling in the background as they strode off to their big shiny, new, jet bomber assignments. SAC and General Curtis LeMay in 1962 ruled the Air Force.

I was headed off to a C-124 unit newly called the 7th Logistic Support Squadron, which had been the 7th Air Transport Squadron (Special). The 7th LOG had a somewhat soft warrior insignia, in that it was a Disney like mouse (really a pack rat) with a wooden log atop his shoulder. It sorta looked like a 7. The soft and touchy patch was a good cover for a top-secret mission. The mission was to be the nuclear weapons transport system for DOD and Department of Energy, then the Atomic Energy Commission. I was to become a nuclear nav. 

Side note: The mission of the Nuclear Nav dates back to the 1944-45 509th Composite Group and the 520th Air Transport Squadron called the Green Hornets which flew C-54s. There were two squadrons in the 509th CG, one composed of the atom bomb dropping B-29s, which we all know well of, and the other known, not so much.  The not so much known Squadron was the 520th ATS, which had the duties of transporting crews, scientist, nuclear components, test gear, and toilet paper to all of the far flung nuclear weapons units and test sites all over the world. Later these units became SAC Transports.  The nuclear-navs flew support missions in C-118s, C-119s and C-124s. The support missions were global. There is no USAF history yet of these squadrons.

The 7th s crews were all TS-Crypto, nuclear cleared two-man-concept trained crews so we all knew each other well and in many cases were trained in each other s jobs. I loved it and the low altitude navigation, as the C-124 was not a pressurized plane and we never flew over 12,000 ft in altitude,,,, anywhere! And we logged over 1,000 hours of flight time annually.

Needless to say all of us that flew these top secret missions did it with great thought of what we were transporting. Looking at a load of nuclear bombs chained down on the cargo deck, as you were navigating through a line of thunderstorms was a very maturing sight. I had already spent over 3,000 hours as a nuclear nav, so when I was told a MAC Check Nav was going to give me an unannounced check ride on my mission across the wide Pacific Ocean, I gave it little notice other than to verify that he had the proper clearances to get on the plane in the first place. I did however notice he wore a wheel hat. A wheel hat? What the h & was that about?

The pilots fired up the big Pratt 4360s, and the four, 3,800 horsepower radials pulled us into the hot island air and away we were headed to another island. As the Mission was TS I had not briefed the MAC Check Nav on our yet to be announced destination until we got into the air, he acted a bit put out that it was not going to be a fun place. We arrived at our 8,000ft cruise altitude, leveled off, and I quickly threw a radar departure fix down on my chart, made my log entries and got coffee. We had ten more hours of flying ahead of us, and in the 7th we flew with single navs, no matter the mission periods. Missions were normally two to three weeks long.

Suddenly the wheel hat d Captain, stood up and exploded and yelled at me, Is that the way you navigate?  Is that the way?  I was a former obedient, aviation cadet, so I quickly answered, Yes sir.  He plunked his wheel hat down on the floor behind the nav position, told me to get out of the way and abruptly took my seat! The flight engineer and copilot who watched all this, looked on incredulously. Wow, I thought.

There is on the C-124, right behind the Nav s position a radio operator s seat. It faces the left wall. The nav s position is down a step and just forward. The nav s seat faces forward. I was a bit put out by what I thought was an overbearing behavior, and the wheel hat.

So I proceeded to open a can of chicken and rice soup and placed it on the edge of the radio operator s table, as I needed to get the crackers out of the bottom zippered pockets of my flight suit. I kept corn chips and pretzels there too. Flights were long, so I carried three to four bags of goodies in my flight suit &rather like a chipmunk. So it took a bit of digging.

The Flight Engineer looked over at me just as it happened! Oh no I about cried out. Oh nooo! The C-124 was affectionately called Shaky. For a good reason. It shook a lot. Well, the opened can of chicken and rice soup had vibrated off the radio operator s table and, yes you guessed it. Right in to the stowed wheel hat, filling it up with a golden broth. Right above this blue wool bowl was the aggravated Check Nav s butt. I stared at his hat full of soup. The only good thing I could see at the moment was, he had not noticed what had happened.

The Flight Engineer gave me a hidden hand wave, like saying, out of here.  Oh, yes good idea, get the hat out of here. So I slowly slumped down in my seat, lifted the wheel hat full of soup, and carefully snuck away to the flight deck hatch, went down the ladder to the cargo bay full of nuclear weapons, doing a balancing act trying not to spill chicken soup on a nuclear bomb, and make my way, all the way aft to the Load Masters playing a good game of hearts.

I explained to the junior enlisted men on the crew my plight and showed them the hat full of soup. This Check Nav guy already is mad at me, what can I do?  And in a flash of genius one of the young airmen suggest I ditch the evidence. I quickly responded, Huh?  He explained, there is a hatch in the bottom of the plane, at the Loran antenna, open it up and ditch the wheel hat, throw it out, and don t admit to anything! What a great crew.

Out through the hatch went the wheel hat full of chicken and rice soup. Down 8,000 ft to the ocean below. Was I ever relieved. I told the crew I would come over to the Enlisted club that night and buy drinks.

With a smile on my face, I slid back into the radio operator s seat. We had been flying now over 8 hours, a few more to go. The Captain Check nav looked over at me and asked if I thought it was my turn to take the seat. I politely said, No sir,  and picked up the PlayBoy magazine the pilots had been sharing. The FE rolled his eyes.

We landed. The Check Nav huffed, rooted about, stuffed his plotter, dividers, and pencils into his nav kit. Then asked us with fire in his eyes, Have you seen my wheel hat?  We all chimed in and answered kindly, No sir. 

That was the truth as we had not seen it for over eight hours at least. He stomped away and in to the Area Command Post. We never saw the bare headed Captain again.

That was the first, last and only Check Ride I ever had by a Check Nav wearing a wheel hat. I was never a beer drinker, but happily, I bought a lot of beer that night. I never was told if I passed that check ride. I retired in 1999.