LIMESTONE, Maine — While revisiting northern Maine last week, a former Loring Air Force Base airman recalled how he and his KC-135 Stratotanker crew were involved in a dramatic rescue mission over the Atlantic Ocean three decades ago.
Ron Craft, who was stationed at the base from 1981 to 1985, is finishing a book about the rescue and is negotiating to have it adapted into a screenplay, with hope that portions of the film could be shot at the former base one day.
Craft, the guest speaker at the annual open house dinner for the Loring Military Heritage Center on July 26, said he was only 23 years old when he got his first chance to travel off base on a trip escorting 24 F-4 Phantom fighter jets across the Atlantic on Sept. 5, 1983.
The fighter jets didn’t have the capacity to fly long distances without refueling, so the trip to an Air Force base in Germany required six Boeing KC-135 tankers to escort them.
Craft, the assistant crew chief on the tanker loaded with 70,000 pounds of fuel, said that about midway across the Atlantic one of the fighter jets started having mechanical issues.
The crew made the decision to reroute the tanker and jet to make an emergency landing at the Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada.
“We turned for Newfoundland because this was the closest piece of dirt to us,” Craft said. “We were hovering over 30-degree water with 60-foot swells. We could see the foam coming off the water at 1,600 feet in the air.”
As the fighter jet made its way toward its target, an oil leak forced an entire shutdown of one of the jet’s two engines. Capt. Robert E. Goodman, the tanker’s commander, told the crew to try to hookup the refueling boom to the fighter jet to help pull it along, according to the U.S. Air Force’s account of the incident.
At this point, because of the engine problems, the fighter jet was tilted at a 45-degree angle, Craft said, struggling to keep its altitude as it slowed down. The tanker slowed down to 230 mph — 50 percent slower than normal flight speed — to try to connect to the disabled aircraft.
The fighter pilot “had a little bit of lift, and he’s going so slow. A fighter can’t go that slow,” Craft said. “The slow speed put the jet in danger of losing the lift needed to stay airborne, which would have sent the plane plummeting into the Atlantic.”
Craft explained that by this point, the F-4 had lost all its hydraulics and couldn’t turn right. Craft recalls that the F-4 was flying at a virtual crawl, as it attempted the 500-mile journey toward an emergency landing in Newfoundland.
The refueling tanker that Craft was on had its landing gear down and its engines at idling speed in an attempt to slow down enough to match the jet’s speed and perform a midair tow.
“If the tow, which was actually a refueling boat used as a dive bar, didn’t hook on to the jet, the two pilots inside would have had about 90 seconds of consciousness after hitting such frigid Atlantic,” Craft said.
Despite all the challenges, the crew managed to safely assist the fighter to Gander.
Craft is attempting to capture the imagery and emotions of the midair rescue over the Atlantic Ocean in his book, “Hell Over High Water.”
Craft said he was so young and inexperienced at in-flight missions at the time that he thought this kind of activity was routine.
He later realized the magnitude of what had occurred: The flight crew saved the lives of two F-4 pilots, completing a rescue attempt that had never been practiced.
He has teamed up with Mark Roemmich, CEO and president of Noble House Entertainment, to finish the book and adapt it into a screenplay that Roemmich will write. Roemmich will also be directing the film once it is ready for the silver screen, Craft said.
Craft said he also has been in discussion with members of the Loring Development Authority and hopes that a large portion of the adaptation can be filmed at the former Loring Air Force Base.
He plans to dedicate the book to all service men and women for the heroism they display on a daily basis. Craft will distribute copies of the book to veterans recovering at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center, to thank them for their dedicated service.
“With this book, I’m just trying to show that this was just one of the millions of incredible acts of bravery performed by our service men and women every day,” Craft said. “It’s just their job.”
After the 1983 incident, the crew of the KC-135 received the Mackay Trophy, given by the U.S. Air Force for “the most meritorious flight of the year.”
Craft is currently accepting donations to help with funding the film project and can be reached at (203) 305-0412. More information can be found on Craft’s Hell Over High Water Facebook page.