All of this happened just as related, only the names have been changed. Twenty years after it happened, I was at a squadron reunion listening to then Air Force Captain Davenport, now turned Delta Airlines Captain Davenport, retell what has become "The Tale of Four Bruces."
— James Albright
When he got done I shook my head and said, "I find it hard to believe that we used to spend hour upon hour back then doing crossword puzzles, listening to cassette tapes, doing everything but pay attention to the aircraft during cruise. Nobody was flying the airplane!" My squadron mates all looked at me like I had two heads. "What are you talking about, 'used to?' We still do!"
Not me. If it distracts you from the job at hand, it isn't allowed on my flight deck. But that isn't how I grew up.
Oh yes, six months after our reunion, two pilots in Captain Davenport's airline weren't paying enough attention to their airplane and forgot to descend for landing until the flight attendant came forward to ask, "shouldn't we be on the ground by now?"
The tale of four Bruces
The rest of the crew was asleep and probably wouldn’t stir until noon. I was brand new to the squadron, the only lieutenant, and maybe the only guy on the jet south of 25-years of age. Give the old men some jet lag slack.
It’s not that the jet lag from flying all day from Hawaii was bothering them, these guys tended to sleep all morning anyway. Nothing for me to do but get my morning run out of the way and then wander downtown.
Downtown? I guess you could call it that. Osan Air Base sits about thirty miles to the good side of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. While I am sure there was a self respecting Korean town there at one time or another, this base has pretty much taken over since the early fifties. The United States Air Force has had a squadron or two of fighter interceptors since the Korean War and tensions were such that those airplanes sat here on alert even today, more than thirty years later.
Of course there was nothing so serious for us, flying the EC-135J, a Boeing 707 outfitted with several tons of communications equipment and a few more tons of almost inert Navy officers who sat in back thinking they controlled the U.S. Pacific submarine fleet from our aircraft. In front, we in the flight crew sat in boredom between takeoff and landing either doing crossword puzzles or playing cassette tapes of whatever comedy routine someone had found. Yesterday’s entertainment was from Monty Python and was all about the faculty of the philosophy department of the University of Hullabaloo, where everyone’s name was Bruce. For the rest of the flight we addressed each other as Bruce and reminded each other, “No puftas.”
Video: No Puftas
I got out of the shower and into my civilian clothes and walked the ten minutes to the main gate. Just on the other side I would try to visit my normal shopping spots before the real crowds began. Later in the day I would be back with the rest of the crew for dinner. They would chow down on the bulgogi while I would dine only on the local vegetables. I was just a month from the next marathon and had to keep an eye on my weight. At just over 140 pounds the rest of the squadron was calling me the Ethiopian copilot, but screw them. I knew what I was doing.
In less than an hour I got fitted for my new mess dress uniform, bought four pairs of fake Nike running shoes, and considered but decided not to get two leather jackets. The Lovely Mrs. didn’t have to know I was too cheap to spend thirty dollars on a leather jacket for her. It was too hot to think about leather anyway. “It’s hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum,” one of the Bruces said to another of the Bruces. It was that hot, a bit unusual for Korea.
On my way back I stumbled into another tailor who was our favorite for embroidering squadron patches and pilot name tags. These tailors could sew a set of pilot wings in less than a minute, every bit as detailed as the real thing. In another minute they could add your name or anything else you wanted. Everyone in the squadron had their own “TDY name tag,” one they would only wear on their flight suits while away from the home base. Everyone except me, that is. Well now was the time to fix that. But what to get?
Bruce! That would be it.
I kept the contents of my first and only gag name tag to myself, only telling the crew that I had finally given in to the peer pressure. Nick, the aircraft commander, said that he too had a fabulous name tag. “No Puftas,” I reminded him. Not to be outdone, Dave the navigator rushed out the night before our departure and said we would have crew solidarity on the next flight, down to Yokota Air Base, just south of Tokyo.
I showed up at the billeting desk the next morning at O’Dark, thirty, dressed in a freshly laundered flight suit and brand new name tag. The enlisted members of the crew started to file in and none seemed to notice. Finally Dave strolled in and went to the front desk to pay his bill. I pretended not to notice and busied myself with the Stars and Stripes.
Dave sat to one side of me and Nick to the right. In unison they both said, “G’Day Bruce.” I looked over and they each had their own Bruce name tags. I wasn’t quite the creative genius after all.
The flight over to Yokota was routine. Our call sign for the day was “DOUBT 21” thereby setting a tone I wasn’t too happy about. Whenever we flew with the primary Navy Admiral, our call sign was chosen from a classified list known as the AFKAI. It was supposed to be a random five letter word good for only twenty-four hours and classified secret until the moment we filed the flight plan. Dave was supposed to check out a copy of the AFKAI when we left the squadron in Hawaii, but that would have meant having to secure the thing wherever we went. Dave simply wrote the call sign down on his personal calendar in a code of his own making. It was easier that way. So we were DOUBT 21 for our one hour flight from Osan to Yokota. We were greeted on the ramp by the base’s top brass, as would be fitting for our senior passenger, a Navy admiral. As we finished our checklists and paperwork the passengers filed down the stairs. Even from my seat in the cockpit I could hear the Admiral introducing the base commander, an Air Force colonel, to each member of his staff. When it was our turn to leave I turned the corner behind the nav and aircraft commander and was surprised to see the Admiral still at the bottom of the stairs, still introducing members of our crew now to the Air Force base commander.
“And this is our navigator, Captain Webber.” The colonel looked at Dave’s name tag and then at Dave.
“Welcome to Yokota Bruce,” he said with a smile, “I hope you have a good time during your stay.”
“And this is our pilot, Captain Davenport,” the admiral said without missing a beat.
“Welcome to Yokota Bruce,” the base commander repeated with another smile, “I hope you have a good time during your stay.”
“And finally, this is our copilot, Captain Haskel,” the admiral said, this time with a little hesitation I thought.
“Welcome to Yokota Bruce,” the base commander said for the third time, “I hope you have a good time during your stay. You let me know if we can do anything for you.”
“Yes sir,” I said and slowly walked away.
“That’s kind a rare,” I heard the colonel say to the admiral, “all three guys from the cockpit named Bruce.”
After a few days of touring Tokyo we were ready to go home. Unfortunately the airplane was not. With a broken hydraulic pump we had to wait another day for a new one but the replacement was routine and twenty-four hours later we were set to depart again. I watched as Nick finished the last line of the flight plan, signed it, and turned it over to me to check for errors. I spotted the first one on the first line, he left out the call sign.
“Dave,” I called over to the navigator, “what’s our call sign today?”
“Standby one,” he said while reaching into the left leg pocket of his flight suit. He thumbed through his pocket calendar and said . . . he said nothing.
“Well?” I asked.
“Uh,” Dave stammered, “I don’t have it.” I just stared at him. “I wasn’t expecting to be here today, I only recorded enough call signs for the scheduled trip. I didn’t know we were going to be delayed a day.”
“Now what?” I asked. Nick kept quiet, hoping Dave would rescue us. Without a call sign we were stuck.
“I suppose I could call the squadron,” Dave said, “and find another navigator who can keep it quiet.”
“It’s Sunday back in Hawaii,” Nick noted. “There won’t be anybody there.”
We each stood at the mission planning table and stared at the blank line of the flight plan. Now what?
“Relax,” Nick said, “all we need is a five letter word than nobody else is using.”
“Bruce!” we all said in unison.
So there it was, BRUCE 21 for the flight from Yokota Air Base, Japan, back to Honolulu, Hawaii. Who could possibly notice?
We coasted into Hawaii without incident and all was normal when the passengers left us. We put the airplane to bed and sauntered over to the squadron, another successful mission under our belts. We walked into the scheduler’s office and were greeted by the all too familiar sight of our crew lined out in red grease pencil. We were grounded. Again. “See commander Monday” was written on the far right column. Now what?
“You got any idea,” Colonel Gutlach asked from behind his desk the next day, “how much it costs to scramble the Hawaii air defense network?”
“No sir.” Nick said as we stood at attention.
“Well you are lucky they called me at home then,” he said, “and asked if I could identify an unregistered call sign, Bruce 21.”
Now our new fate was starting to make sense, but how did he know?
“I was already getting ready to give you the ass chewing of your life,” he said, beak-to-beak with Nick, “for leading a flight crew into a high profile base wearing illegal name tags. Admiral Toms was pretty upset, I can assure you.”
“Bad enough you pissed off a high ranking flag officer of a sister service. Bad enough you pissed off the commander of another base. But you almost got yourself, your crew, and your passengers intercepted. I don’t know if we can use your services around here anymore. Let me think about it. Dismissed.”
We saluted, spun on our heels and left. For the next day I loitered around the squadron looking for things to do and answering to the name “Lieutenant Bruce.” Three days later another west pacific trip came up and the squadron ran out of qualified crews. The red line on our crew disappeared and we all forgot about it. The name tag ended up in my Tupperware bin of stuff to never again see the light of day.