In 1992 I was offered a special duty assignment at Air Force Special Activities Command (AFSAC). It was to serve as a Russian Flight Escort Officer for Operation CONSTANT SHOTGUN.
At the time I was a young Captain (O-3) flying C-21’s (Lear 35A’s) out of Norton AFB, CA, and it was a bolt out of the blue. Granted, I was a Soviet Studies major (Russian language minor) from the Air Force Academy and drawing Russian language pay, but it still took me by surprise. I’d never heard of this program.
Mainly out of perversity (this was STRONGLY against the advice of the ‘airlift career manager’ at Air Force Personnel Command), I accepted the assignment and PCS’d to Washington, DC.
It turned out to be the craziest, weirdest ride of my career. It delayed my eventual exit from the AF a few years and probably cost me a few thousand seniority numbers by the time I eventually left active duty and joined the airlines, but it was a one of a kind experience.
The gist of the job is that Russian/former Soviet aircraft military and diplomatic aircraft were required to have an Air Force Pilot or Nav in the cockpit when flying in US airspace. Our role was mainly to ensure they flew their assigned routing (cleared by AF reps at the FAA and State Dept to avoid ‘sensitive’ areas). The (then) classified part of the job was that we were actually Intel officers and trained to observe and report items of interest. That part of the job faded a bit as the Soviet Union broke up and, in reality, our main role evolved into being translators and flight safety advocates (many more stories on that in the future).
The standard practice for the escorts was to join the Russian crew at their last point of departure prior to entering the US and leave at the first landing out of the US. In this case I had to pick up an AN-24 leaving Tijuana and flying through the US to Vladivostok, Russia.
This mission was unusual because it was an Antonov factory aircraft and crew coming off a six-month ‘wet-lease’ to Peru. Why they were flying under a diplomatic clearance, I never found out, but the AF rep in the FAA wanted me on board so off I went.
I met the crew in Tijuana and they looked ROUGH. I was used to flying with the very best of the Russian diplomatic (a special division of Aeroflot) and military crews. These guys looked, well, they looked like they’d spent six months in Peru.
All of the aircraft Russian aircraft I’d flown to this point were large transports, AN-124, TU-154, IL-62, IL-76, IL-86, etc. Normally I sit next to the radio operator or Nav in a Russian cockpit and they give me a headset so I can help out on the radios. In the case of the AN-24 that was not an option. It’s a small, two pilot cockpit. After introductions and helping them file the flight plan we walked out to the aircraft. The Captain pointed to the right seat and said, ‘Садитесь, пожалуйста’ (Sit down, please), so I sat down, strapped in and started figuring out where stuff was (flaps, gear, radios). I worked the comms, got the clearance, and off we went to Fresno, CA.
Once we got to cruising altitude I started hearing this horrible screeching and screaming from the back of the aircraft. I looked over at the Captain and he said, ‘Расслабьтесь, это всего лишь обезьяна. ‘
I translated it to mean, ‘Relax, it is just the обезьяна’. What the hell was обезьяна? I was a DLI grad and conversationally fluent, but I was drawing a blank. Then the screeching started again. It clicked. I looked at the Captain and said, ‘Monkey?’.
‘Yes! It is just the Monkey!’
Holy crap! I threw off my shoulder harness and ran back to the cargo box where a monkey was literally going ape-shit. We’re talking throwing-feces-pissed-off. He was bouncing off the walls and the cargo pallets while the Russian mechanics were trying to catch him.
This was long before the Internet and the concept of ‘memes’ began, but I think I was the first to do the ‘double face palm’. Well, at least the first to do it at FL 190 in a Russian turbo prop.
My first thought was, ‘we’re all going to jail’. These guys had just smuggled some random monkey from Peru into the US. Hell, it was probably on some endangered species list. I was thinking about all of the people I needed to call once we landed in Fresno: State Department, Customs and Ag (already scheduled to meet us), FAA, Russian consulate in San Fran, and Animal control? The zoo? PETA?
What a shit sandwich! Then I decided…screw it, let’s try and brazen our way through.
I told the Russians: ‘when we land no one talks in English but me. If Customs and/or Ag ask you a question, look to me and I will translate the question and your answer. You guys have only two jobs: Make sure your paperwork and passports are ready as soon as we open the door and for fuck’s sake hide the damn monkey!’
I did the talking and they hid the monkey.
I flew with those guys for 3 more days as we hopped our way up the west coast, through Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to Vladivostok.
At Vladivostok I waved goodbye to the crew and to my new friend, the Monkey named Ivan. I doubt he survived the Russian winter, but he had one hell of a ride.