Back in the early 1980s, I was assigned to Patrol Squadron 45 in Jacksonville, Florida. I was the Plane Commander on a P-3C scheduled for a long-range training flight from Jacksonville, Florida to RAF Mildenhall near London, England. Due to our destination of London, we had a lot of interest from squadron personnel and friends in going along on the trip. I don’t remember the total amount of passengers on board, but we were fairly full, including several nurses from the NAS Jacksonville hospital.
It was a night departure, but fog had rolled in making us delay our takeoff. A couple of hours had passed by the time the fog had lifted enough for us to depart. Once on top of the weather, we were greeted with beautiful sunshine and a great ride across the North Atlantic. By the time we were approaching England, night was settling in. Nearing our destination, we obtained ATIS for our RAF Mildenhall. The weather report stated that the visibility was “naught point naught five”. Whatever it worked out to be, it didn’t sound good to me. The flight crew looked at each other trying to figure out if we had heard the correctly. The weather brief we had received back in Jacksonville had reported that the weather would be VFR. Our navigator talked directly with the airport on another radio and verified that we heard the visibility correctly. Looking for possible alternates, we were told that all of England was reporting fog with restricted visibility. With very few options, we decided to shoot an ILS approach to see if we could get in. As the Plane Commander, I decided to stay in the right seat and let the pilot in the left seat fly the approach. I felt that this would keep me to keep me from becoming task saturated and free to make decisions. At decision height, all we could see was the fog being lit up by the strobes of the approach lights. We performed a go around and tried another ILS. We had the same result. On the third attempt, I decided that the pilot flying was probably getting tired from the effort. I selected another pilot to take the seat; same result.
By this time, we were getting low on fuel and running out of options; not a great place to be. After we leveled off following the last missed approach, I asked approach control if there was any other airport reporting better weather anywhere. We were told Kinloss, Scotland was better, but that was too far away for our fuel situation. Approach then stated that RAF Valley, Wales had weather of 200 and ½. We could not find charts for RAF Valley. Approach gave us vectors and an ILS frequency and approach data for the airport. On the approach to RAF Wales, we were solid IFR all the way to the decision altitude. At decision altitude, we were able to make out the approach lights, then the runway landing area. We touched down and rolled out to great relief. The personnel at RAF Valley were great. They had quarters for everyone and even had some food for the tired crew and passengers. I told everyone that we would spend the night and then try to get to London tomorrow.
The next morning, I was awakened by the maid bringing tea, how English of them! We slowly got up, went to the restroom to shower and clean up only to discover that our female passengers were housed on the same floor and were sharing the same bathroom. It was definitely a little weird to be in one shower stall with a female in the next stall talking to me about our chances of getting to London. Unfortunately, there was no improvement in the weather, and our trip to London was out.
We were asked if base personnel could tour our aircraft since they had never seen a P-3 before. The aircraft was opened up and we entertained people for several hours, swapping patches and stories. The personnel at RAF Valley suggested that we could explore the nearby city of Hamilton and provided us with transport to take us there. They also informed us that the officers club was having a “Norseman” party that night and we were invited. We had a very nice time wandering around Hamilton and then headed back to the base.
That night, we showed up to lederhosen outfits and an umpapa band. The “Norseman” party was on! Beer was flowing and everyone got into the party spirit. Sometime during the evening, one of our lady passengers got into a dance competition with several of the other party goers. She held her own, even when one of the ladies started doing the Cossack dance! The night was highlighted when one of our pilots grabbed a tuba and started marching around the room playing “When the saints coming marching in”.
The next morning, it was time to head back to Jacksonville. We were disappointed that we didn’t get to London, but everyone agreed that we had a good time nonetheless. Our flight back was uneventful. We had to stop by NAS Brunswick, Maine to clear customs and refuel, before heading back to home base.
It’s not the destination, it’s the journey!