GOLD DIGGER MISSIONS
BACKGROUND: The 966th Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron (966th AEW&C) was one of the units assigned to the 552nd AEW&C Wing at McClellan AFB, CA. The 966th, comprised of over one-hundred men and approximately eleven aircraft furnished by the 552nd Wing, was located at McCoy AFB, FL (now known as Orlando International Airport). The 966th existed from 18 Dec 1961 - January 1, 1970. The squadron flew the EC-121D model Super Constellation on several type missions.
Missions were flown by the 966th for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to "chase" the rocket boosters as they fell back into the ocean after they separated from the rockets being shot into space. The 966th flew Active Air Defense (AAD) missions monitoring the movement of Cuban aircraft off the Florida Keys and performed AAD missions off Iceland - monitoring Soviet aircraft that often attempted to penetrate the air defenses of North America.
However, the prime mission of the 966th was to monitor and track the arrival of U-2 aircraft that frequently flew photograph missions over Cuba. It was these Gold Digger missions that reminds one of the early barnstorming days of flying. These huge Super Constellations flew Gold Digger missions at or near, or lower than fifty feet in altitude creating large rooster tails on the Gulf off the Florida Keys from their prop wash. George Merryman was a pilot and aircraft commander who flew those missions and now he tells you about them.
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A typical Gold Digger Mission went something like this: First of all, Gold Digger missions were flown over water between Cuba and the Florida coast. The purpose of the mission was to continuously track- the U-2 camera aircraft which came down from the north, (Washington, D.C.) area. We kept track of the U-2 in case it had problems and the pilot had to bail out. We could pinpoint the recovery. The U-2 usually showed up shortly after daybreak over the straits.
The preparation for the mission was usually a show time of 0200 A.M. There was the usual getting together of lunches, drinks, survival equipment inventory, etc. The navigator did his thing and the weapons controller did his thing. Also same with the radio operator, radar tech and radar crew chief. Everyone had a checklist to run. Oh yes, also the pilot did his thing. The flight engineers did their walk around. The pilot sort of followed the flight engineer around I suppose in case he missed something. I think the pilot had the easiest job of the whole crew.
As the Aircraft Commander, I did not make it a habit to try and learn verbatim everyone else's job. They didn't try to fly the airplane and I didn't try to do their job. They always performed superbly. I know this because I was a weapons controller prior to flying the Connie. If the radar crew had problems, I understood. If the radio operator had problems, I understood If the radar tech had problems, I understood. Because prior to joining the Air Force, I had been a shipboard radio operator. Prior to that I was a Navy radar tech. It all fit into place when I joined the 552nd AEW&C. (I was never a navigator. I also was never a flight engineer). So after all these chores were completed, we sat around, rubbed our eyes and tried to stay awake until take-off time. Unlike McClellan, I don't remember having to abort take-off due to lack of power or whatever. We didn't carry the load of fuel we had at McClellan.
Takeoff was usually routine and we would climb to 4,000 feet and head for Fort Myers. We would turn south over Ft. Myers and descend to a lower altitude and head for Key West. Over Key West, we would turn west and head for Ft. Jefferson. We would establish a loose holding pattern over Ft. Jefferson or over the Dry Tortugas. I'm sure we flew over the Atosha (sunken Spanish gold ship) several times.
While holding over this area and waiting for the U-2 to come down from the north, I would soak up the visual history of this area. Like Ft. Jefferson was the prison where they held doctor Mudd. [see note]. It is a big fort and mostly intact. It also has a moat.
There are a lot of sunken ships in the Key West area and you can see their outlines from the air. We also observed active submarines and ships from the Naval base at Key West (We recovered and refueled there several times).
Eventually the radar crew would pick up the U-2, make their call to Washington, D.C., and we would start following the same track as the U-2. Now the radar antenna is underneath the Connie. So how are you going to get the radar to detect the high-flying U-2? Simple. Adjust the altitude of the Connie (usually about 50 feet) and the signal would bounce off the water then up. The on-board weapons controller would work with me to lower or raise the aircraft's altitude to the best altitude. At 50feet, when we turned, I had to go up a hundred feet or so. Otherwise if l didn't, the wingtip would drag into the water. Also at this altitude the four engines would kick up beautiful rooster tails that would make a bass boat driver envious.
So we have the U-2 in tow and are following his track. Of course shortly he is way ahead of us. While he's shooting pictures over Cuba, we held over certain Cays (islands) that were mid way between Florida and Cuba. Now if the U-2 went east or west over Cuba, we would parallel him over the Gulf adjusting altitude for best returns.
Tracking the U-2 took the better part of the morning and sometimes in the afternoons. Then as the U-2 turned north to go home, we had to follow him until we were released by Washington, DC. One time the U-2 led us over Miami and we're at 50 feet. I found myself dodging skyscrapers and disrupting Miami airport traffic. We upset a lot of people but we couldn't cut loose without permission. Now we flew by this particularly tall building and quite close. But flying at 5O feet, my depth perception became quite good. Keep in mind this tall building. Then suddenly the radio operator said "we're released." I immediately climb out of this jangle of skyscrapers and head for McCoy, AFB.
When we parked the aircraft, there were a bunch of 966th people standing by outside clapping. Apparently American Bandstand was playing atop that building. The cameraman swung his camera around and filmed us passing by. Flying Gold Digger missions was some of the most interesting and challenging f7ying of my flying career.
Some of the things we did while killing time waiting for the U-2 was buzzing little boats and big boats. (I can tell now). We even buzzed the guy who made the Atlantic trip in a reed boat. Remember him? We gave him a real buzz job. He was happy to see anyone and he waved like hell.
We encountered waterspouts, saw big fish, the crew even painted an 1800s light house. The crew would bring along half full paint cans. I marked a gun sight on the windscreen. I would target the lighthouse and say bombs away. That ended up being the weirdest looking lighthouse I've ever seen. (again, now I can tell the story).
We also spotted Cuban refugees escaping Cuba in the little overloaded boats. We would call the Coast Guard cutter and drop a flare near the little boat.
Another interesting event in my life was: It was about 3 A.M. and we were still on station. When you've done something as many times as we did, you get a good feel for things. Well I'm sitting in the cockpit and this "feel" came upon me. I turned to the engineer and said Sarge, it's time to go home. We have been here too long. The engineer said "no, we're got another hour ". I replied, refigure your time and double check it. (You can't trust the fuel gages on the Connie). About five minutes later all four throttles started coming back. He said "Major We're out of fuel - I miscalculated." Now don't get me wrong, anyone can make a mistake and by the book, I'm also supposed to be making time-to-go notes. (No one does). We were at 10, 000feet. I pointed the Connie toward Homestead AFB and put it into a slight glide. (Good thing the fuel boost pumps are in the forward part of the wing because in the glide, that gave us more fuel). We sweated that glide out as we drove into the morning sun. When I got Homestead in sight I asked for a straight in. The tower operator replied, "we can't change the landing runway if it's not an emergency. " I replied this is an emergency. But neither I nor the engineer never told anyone until now. We landed, taxied to the parking spot and started to shut engines down when #4 shut down by itself. I ask the flight engineer if he shut it down. He replied" it was fuel starvation". I've had several close calls like that. Someone up there likes me. God must take care of dummies like me.
4103 Pratt Drive
New Iberia, LA 70563
[Note] Dr. Samuel A. Mudd was the southern Maryland doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's leg after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to Ft. Jefferson prison, Dry Tortugas, FL. He was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for his help in the yellow fever epidemic there.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Activated on December 18, 1961, as the 966th Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron. Two months later the unit was organized at McCoy Air Force Base, Fla., and assigned to the 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing at Otis Air Force Base, Mass. There it flew propeller driven EC-121 Super Constellation radar surveillance aircraft. The first missions of the 966th were flown by TDY crews in late 1961. PCS crews were moved into McCoy in January of 1962, originally assigned to the 551st. the 966th was flying AAD missions south of Key West from January on. On 1 May 1963, the 966th was transferred to the 552nd AEW&C because the 551st was converting their D-model Connies to the H-models.
Initially, four EC-121Ds were converted to EC-121Qs. The only major difference was the APS-45 radar unit which was upgraded to the APS-103. It looked about the same outside, but the radar range was increased from 120 miles to 160 miles and the transmitter power for the radar was doubled. There were a few other minor changes. The EC-12 1Q became the aircraft utilized for Gold Digger missions.
Three of the EC- 121Q aircraft were overhauled at McClellan AFB, CA., in 1973 - 1974. The aircraft had the skin removed from the wings and extensive repair was made due to corrosion, apparently from flying so low over the salty Florida Gulf. Just as the552nd downgraded from a wing to a group, the Q-models were sent to Davis-Monthan AFB at Tucson, AZ., to the aircraft graveyard. George Merryman recalls that he flew escort for four of the aircraft from his unit being delivered to AZ.
Around 1968 pressure mounted for the 551st Wing to assume some of the College Eye deployments to Southeast Asia. There was even more pressure when the 552nd Wing had to deploy to Itasuki, Japan, after a US Navy EC-121M was shot down by MIGs over the China Sea. Soon afterwards some of the EC- 121H aircraft used by the551st Wing were modified for Gold Digger duty. The modification consisted of putting a radar scope behind the APS-103 radar, where the positions for the plotter and the teller were located. That modification gave the H-model a total of three radar scopes.
On January 1, 1970, both the 551st AEW&C Wing and the 966th AEW&C Squadron were deactivated. Some time later a Cuban MIG landed at Homestead AFB, FL., and parked near Air Force One. Detachments 1 and 2 were activated at McCoy AFB and Homestead AFB to fly "Family Man" support missions. Those missions were flown whenever President Nixon was in Florida, which meant there were always several crews deployed over the Holidays while Nixon was in office.
The above additional information was provided by Retired Master Sergeant Dean Boys, a former Radar Technician with the 551st and 552nd who flew as a crew member on several models of the Connies. He also flew numerous combat support missions on College Eye (covered elsewhere in this book). Additionally, he had temporary duty assignments to Korea and Iceland and ended his Air Force career as a crew member on the Boeing E-3 AWACS aircraft.
Copyright George Merryman
Photos Copyright George Merryman