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Whether to Move the Weather Plane

by Col. Richard “Clem” Clement, USAF (Ret.)

Sometime in 1963, President Kennedy needed to fly to South America. The date, though it needs to be confirmed, as the trip slipped a day, was about March 18, 1963. President Kennedy needed us from the 55th Weather Squadron, McClellan AFB, California to fly weather for him.  

My friend Floyd and I, along with another crew, were selected to fly the mission. Floyd and I were brand new aircraft commanders as lieutenants, so we thought we were invincible!  

The mission started out of MacDill AFB, Florida, on a foggy morning at 0-dark-30. We were determined that we were going, weather or not. Golly we were to lead THE MAN so we had an aircraft tug drag us out to the run-up area. Systems were normal and takeoff time came.  

Tower said “Cleared for takeoff, if you can see the runway. We can’t see you” or something more professional.  
 
We replied something about “We can see all the way to Buffalo!” (I have to tell you this was a lie…) 

In the WB-50, the weather man sat in the former bombardier’s front bubble. We had the famous John aboard (He used to say he was not old, but he claimed he forecast the thunder storms for the Crucifixion), and he knew we were going anyway. If John leaned forward and looked straight down, he could barely make out the centerline.  

I asked John to move his head to the left or right so as to keep over the centerline if I got off the line. His head never moved. Fortunately, we had the wide runway. However, the runway lights were not visible in the soup.  My one and only zero-zero takeoff went well and we didn’t’ break anything (I have one zero-zero landing as well). 

The trip down went well and on schedule. At the preflight briefing we had noted that our return route was directly in the path of the south-bound President and at the same altitude as well. The briefer said he would call Washington and get that straightened out. We were ordered to fly radio silent. Hmmm. 

We went south to somewhere over the Yucatan peninsula and turned around; the weather was fine. On the way back we stayed exactly on course and began to worry. Along the route our controller (a Connie, I suspect) asked unidentified aircraft to identify itself. I remained silent as pre-ordered.  After about two of those calls, we knew we were going to be a bit short on a good OER this go around.   

Silent we remained. Weatherman John is now sitting on his haunches in his seat and scanning the horizon for Air Force One.  About that time, the controller called the flight of F-105’s protecting THE MAN into a different formation.  That got our attention.  

Air Force One was given a heading twenty degrees off course.  Silent and sweaty we were. Then the fighter lead called for guns to be either armed or circuit breakers in; I don’t remember the exact nomenclature. His several chicks responded. Enough silence for us!   

We reported our call sign and location and heading very accurately, and loud and clear. Somebody said “O yah, that is an old W-B66 weather bird, stand down.”   

I was so tempted to fuss that we were not identified as a WB-50, but kept quiet and let the blame go elsewhere.  Home safe. We never heard a peep about being in THE MAN’S way.