Skyway’s, Inc. was a company formed in the mid 1970’s to ferry military aircraft worldwide. It was headed by a Mr. Dennis Taylor and was headquartered in Newport Beach CA. In June of 1974 a contract was signed between Ling-Temco-Vought (LTV) and the Hellenic Air Force for the purchase of 60 A7H aircraft. In May of 1975 the first A7H BUNO (Navy Bureau Number) 159662 made its first flight. The US Navy and the State Department did not want any direct US Military involvement in the delivery of the aircraft to Greece, so a contract was signed with Skyway’s, Inc. to ferry the A7’s from the LTV factory in Dallas TX to Greece.
The A7H was somewhat of a cross between the Navy’s A7E and the Air Force A7D. The State Department at the time did not want to sell the airplane with an air-to-air refueling capability and therefore it did not have either the Air Force boom receptacle or the Navy refueling probe installed. For ferry purposes this limited the airplane to carrying two 2000 gallon external fuel tanks and making several stops across the North Atlantic and Continental Europe.
Skyway’s, Inc. put out the word to the West Coast Navy Reserve Squadrons, flying the A7A at the time, that they were looking for pilots to ferry the A7H’s and wanted pilots with previous A7E experience who were current in flying the A7. A meeting was held in Van Nuys, CA in early 1975 for those interested to attend. Ten pilots were chosen from VA-303, 304 and 305 to ferry the airplanes to Greece. The first ferry was set for 11 August 1975.
On the 11th of August, as planned, the first delivery of the A7H began from the LTV factory at NAS Dallas TX. The three pilots chosen for this flight were Tom Hearn, Pete Nichols and myself. Since this was the first delivery flight, the plan was to just fly one leg per day. The first day we flew from NAS Dallas to NAS Patuxent River Maryland. I was flying BUNO 159664. Upon arrival at Pax River, when I lowered my landing gear, I lost all electrical power and had to extend the Ram Air Turbine (RAT) to regain electrical power. I informed the tower of my situation and that on landing rollout I would lose my radio and they informed to just follow my wingman to parking.
This being the first trip, LTV had prepositioned Technical Reprehensive (Tech Rep) Mr. Jim Kaufmann in Pax River in case there were any maintenance issues that needed to be dealt with. The electrical problem was fixed and we were ready for the second leg of the trip the following day from NAS Pax River to Goose Bay, Newfoundland, Canada.
Just as we were about to enter Canadian airspace in the northern part of the state of Maine, the lead airplane flown by Pete Nichols suddenly went shooting to the rear of the formation. He announced that the engine had gone to flight idle and that he had selected the manual fuel control and regained limited use of the throttle. At this point it made no sense to continue the flight to Goose Bay and an emergency was declared. Center was asked to vector us to the nearest military base which turned out to be Loring AFB in Limestone, Maine.
We were on top of some very large thunderstorms as Pete’s emergency developed, so Center was vectoring us around the storms where we would be handed off to Loring GCA for the approach. At this point I was separated from Pete and Tom so they could continue as a section. I was finally handed off to Loring Approach and was being vectored for my GCA. When I lowered my gear, the generator again dropped off the line. Having been through the drill the day before, I extended the RAT and continued the approach. At this point I did not feel that I needed to inform the GCA controller of my situation, but that I would again inform the tower controller of it when I was switched for landing.
About this time the GCA controller came up and said, “be advised that Loring has cancelled your landing clearance, what are your intentions?” With the electrical issues I had with my aircraft, the last thing I wanted to do was look for an unfamiliar alternate. Any additional time spent in the air and separating from the rest of the flight was not desirable. So, I came back to the controller and declared an emergency of my own. He of course asked “what is the nature of your emergency?” I explained to him my electrical problems and he said “stand by”. Several minutes later he came back and said that I was again cleared to land at Loring.
As I approached the runway, I began to see the airport through the haze and I could see that every B-52 and KC-135 based at Loring was lined up on the taxiway waiting for takeoff clearance. The black smoke from all those jet engines had caused a large black cloud to hang over the base. About then I was handed over to the tower controller and I once again explained my predicament and that on landing rollout I would lose my radio and be unable to communicate. Not having any experience with the Air Force, I had no idea what was going on, but figured it must be something big. As I rolled out on the runway, I saw that the other two airplanes had each taken a high-speed exit so I continued down the runway to the next and last exit. Just as I cleared the runway, all those airplanes waiting for takeoff began to depart. It must have taken 30 to 45 minutes for them to all get airborne. What a show I was getting from the end of the runway! Huge black clouds of jet exhaust filled the air as each airplane rolled down the runway and lift off.
As I exited the runway, a blue Air Force pickup truck was waiting for me. Not having a radio I missed all the conversations taking place on the ground frequency. Once all the airplanes were airborne, the blue pickup trucks started to move and directed us to a remote ramp where we shut down. Once we came to a stop, the occupants of the blue pickups exited their vehicles, MP’s with M-16’s and a K9 for back up. As I opened the canopy, I was directed to exit the airplane, with my ID handy and spread eagle on the tarmac. Welcome to the hospitality of the Strategic Air Command!
Now the fun really began. Then here we were, three Navy Reserve Pilots with our pink ID’s, two in international orange flight suits and one in the standard green. We were flying airplanes with SEA camouflage and no markings other than the standard, but small, US star and bar and a USN BUNO. We were civilians with long hair working for a civilian corporation who had a contract to deliver Navy airplanes to the Greek Air Force. We had no orders. We were in deep shimsky! All this was more than the Air Police could handle. They didn’t know what to think of us. Pardon my pun here, but it was all Greek to them. All they knew was that the Wing Commander was one very upset Colonel who wanted our hides in his office pronto! We were taken to his office, told to stand at parade rest and await his arrival. Wait we did. He was in no hurry to see who these renegade pilots were that had just disrupted and ruined the most important Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) of his career.
When the Wing Commander finally did arrive, he walked in, sat down and just stared at us as if he was waiting for one of us to do or say something. Finally, Pete Nichols, who just happened to remember that in the Air Force you salute indoors uncovered, came to attention and said, “Lt Peter Nichols, USNR reporting as ordered sir”. The Colonel returned the salute and asked us why we had just arrived in the middle of his biggest ORI ever and that it would probably keep him from making General and force him out of the Air Force. Pete, now our spokesman, proceeded to explain to him who we were and what had happened. Pete also dropped a phone number on him that we had been given for just this kind of eventuality, a direct line to Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State. The Department of State was very interested in the progress of our delivery because it was the first-time they had used civilian pilots to ferry military aircraft to a foreign country and the Secretary wanted to be kept informed as to the progress of the operation.
The reason why the contract was given to a civilian contractor was that the State Department did not want any direct military involvement in the transfer of the airplanes because of the tense political atmosphere at the time between Greece and Turkey. Once hearing our story, the Colonel became our best friend. He told us that he had the finest Maintenance Squadron in the entire US Air Force and that they were at our disposal. He also told us he would arrange for our billeting in the BOQ and that if there was anything else we were in need of to contact him personally. Fortunately, we never had to do that, but now we needed to get word to Jim Kaufmann ASAP before he boarded the one and only flight a day to Goose Bay, Newfoundland. Somehow, we were able to intercept Mr. Kaufmann and get him to fly into Limestone, Maine. We spent two wonderful days at Loring AFB before we were able to get under way to Goose Bay.
The rest of the trip went without further mechanical issues. After we got to Goose Bay, the next leg was to Keflavik, Iceland across the North Atlantic and the very southern tip of Greenland. Flight time was 3 hours 20 minutes for that leg. The Navy had a detachment at Keflavik who would handle us there. When we arrived it was dumping rain and quite windy, I do not remember the ceiling and visibility, but I do remember being able to look straight down and see the ground before I was able to see the runway; it was one of those times where you flew the GCA all the way to touchdown, as there was no place else to go. The runway we used that day did not have a parallel taxiway and the last exit was 500 to 1000 feet prior to the end of the runway. With all the rain, I missed the turnoff prior to the end. All of a sudden I noticed one of the other airplanes going the opposite direction on the runway having turned around at the end as he headed back to find the exit.
The next day we flew from Kef to Ramstein, Germany a 3 hour 45 minute leg which took us over Scotland, England, the Netherlands and in to Ramstein. As I remember it was raining there also causing us to shoot individual GCA’s there as well. The final leg was from Ramstein to Androvida Greece, a 3 hour 25 minute leg. Androvida is North West of Athens in the Peloponnese region of Greece, not far from Olympia where the Olympic Games originated. Skyway’s was unable to get us diplomatic clearance through Switzerland, which would remain the case for the remainder of the deliveries, so after departure from Ramstein we had to go west into France before we could turn south into Italy. The home base of the A7 was to be Souda Bay, Crete. We were not able to land at Souda this trip because the runway was under construction but all other deliveries arrived in Souda Bay. When we started the deliveries to Souda Bay, that leg was also 3 hours 45 minutes or more.
Before the contract ended, I ferried seven single-seat and two TA7H’s to Greece. The last delivery was a TA7H in October of 1980. Once again, on the last delivery we wound up making an unscheduled stop at Loring AFB, but that is another story.
Over the years I would see pictures of the A7’s the Greeks were still operating. I was amazed that after 39 years since its first delivery the airplane was still in service. Through the A7 Corsair II Association, I had become acquainted with Major Papilos Papadopoulos, the last Commanding Officer of an A7 squadron in the world. Shortly thereafter he informed me that the General Staff of the Greek Air Force had decided to retire the A7 from service. When the date of the 17th of October 2016 was set, he invited me to attend the ceremony. Little did I know what an amazing experience that would be. The pilots of 336 Squadron, the last operational A7 squadron, loved the airplane and its mission. All the men in the squadron were sad to see it go. They too, like those of the US Navy, Air Force and Air Guard, have many fond memories of flying one of the last great attack airplanes. It was a very emotional day, one that I will not soon forget.