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First Contact with ARIA

George Kamburoff

I was an E-3 (A2C), at Edwards AFB in October of 1966 when it came in just after sunset - the strange profile apparent even in the dusk. I was out on the ramp at dusk because that was the time of day that the interesting birds came out.

Test Pilot School and the projects were fun to support at EAFB. Even our transient A/C were interesting, but that one was most unusual. I was the radio communications fixer on night shift, and expected work orders to come in that would get me inside to see it. Nothing came from Maintenance Control.

Later, I was told that even though it needed repair, we were forbidden to work on the aircraft because that project had no money left in the budget. When the end of the week came, and it had to fly, the project would be scrapped. It didn't make sense to me, and I argued with my civilian boss about it – to unsurprising end.

Next day or so, it was too much to learn that the Nav guys were looking it over, so I snuck out and met the crew chief. He and his crew were from Douglas Aircraft, but the plane was a Boeing. Somebody decided to throw Douglas a bone, and probably thought the DC-8 and C-135 looked alike and must be built the same. Big mistake. The crew had a hard time, because the bird was not only unfamiliar, but also substantially modified.

The A/C had landed with all six radios on the blink (2 each, VHF, UHF, and HF) and some interphone problems. Some Nav trouble, too. The aircraft had to fly by the end of the week to fulfill the obligations of the project, so the Nav guys and I decided we'd do it - we were alone at night, who would know?

Since we couldn't leave a paper trail, we couldn't remove and replace anything. We had to bring any suspected units into the shop, troubleshoot and repair them using spare tubes and parts squirreled away in personal drawers and unauthorized bench stock. Then we could reinstall and test. We started with about five days to test flight. Nav got their stuff done in about two nights. It took me a lot longer.

After a couple of night’s work, I was pulled aside by our civilian shop chief and told that he found out we were supporting the project. It was not permissible – even if we were in the same Air Force.

It was hard to go back to the A/C that night. I had great respect for my boss. So I went back to work even more surreptitiously, so I wouldn’t get him in any more trouble. It was slow going. Toward the end of the week all systems were working but one of the UHF radios. I spent most of the final night trying to figure out why I couldn’t get any signal out of the system. The transmitter looked okay, power out and modulation, but nothing was being transmitted. Down to a few hours, it seemed like a cruel hoax played by fate. We all busted our humps for a week to get the plane into flying condition, and now this (and an engine problem) were going to foil us after all, in the last hours.

It was too much. I was spent and depressed. Wandering around the empty shops that night, I found the autopilot and Nav guys had broken into a storage locker, retrieved an big box left over from the B-58 project, and were prying off the lid. I wanted nothing to do with it. Looked like an Article 15 to me.

Bad night – I had failed. What I needed didn’t exist, as far as I knew - something to tell me the impedance all along the cable from the radio to the antenna. Going back to the Nav shop, I saw they had opened the case, and powered up some instrument that looked like an HP oscilloscope, and were trying it out. It was a Time Domain Reflectometer. It sent pulses down antenna cables, and mapped out the impedance at RF. It was the first and only time I had seen one, and it was exactly what I needed right then.

Grabbing the set and Autopilot’s 100-foot extension cord, I raced out to the aircraft at midnight, hooked up the unit, and found an impedance aberration in the cable just past the point it disappeared into heavily-modified airframe. Realizing we might be able to re-route another cable, I notified the crew chief about the finding. Looking into the conditions in that part of the airframe, they also found the trouble with the engine; a bleed valve, installed backwards was dumping hot air into that small section of closed airframe. As they reinstalled the bleed valve, we found another way to reroute a new cable, and we all got busy. It had to be in the air in about an hour.

It was a darn cold windy night, and I had to bring the coaxial cable end into the extended hood of my arctic parka to solder the tip onto the connector. Time was up. The plane had to perform. I hooked up the antenna while they ran up the engines, still not knowing if the system would work, dragged my stuff out of the A/C, and was coiling up the extension cord as the plane taxied out. I didn’t even have time to ops check the system. I guess the crew chief or pilot did it.

The plane taxied into the pre-morning darkness. I shuffled back to the shop, put the stuff away, and trudged to the barracks as the sun rose. Nothing was ever said by my boss, but it was my last hurrah on the flight line. I was immediately taken off flight line duty and put into the shop, where I could be watched, I suppose, and do the homework I had neglected in order to get my 5-level skill category (I was still a 3-level at the time). Getting to do that was a great treat for me, even though we didn’t talk about it. I miss the excitement.

George Kamburoff