By Rob Russell
It was early in June 2013, when we were informed of the visit of President Obama to Cape Town. Having been involved in a few other VIP flights of the USAF, we knew we were in for a fun time.
The first logistical flight started to arrive about 2 weeks or so, before the official visit and was followed by a procession of aircraft. They were mainly C5s and C17s, mainly flying in from Wideawake, in the middle of the Atlantic – middle of nowhere is close enough!. Most of them arrived late at night and left after off-loading their cargo. ACSA had refused to allow them to stay over, as there was not enough parking for all the aircraft. So this steady stream occurred nightly for almost 2 weeks. We gave up counting the number of aircraft. Occasionally one of them would break down – as old aircraft do and they ended up spending a night or two at Cape Town, much to the stress and consternation of ACSA. Or one would run a touch late and arrive during the day! I am pretty sure a few of those crews conjured up faults, to have a night or two down here – but that is a story for another day!!!!
I also remember one of the C17s had an all-woman crew – the first time we had that in the Cape. They left and went flying up Africa somewhere. Mombassa, if my memory serves me correct. I remember asking them why there were not staying over and they did mention, with so many Marines in town, it was maybe not a good idea!
Those flights brought choppers, vehicles, support personnel, spares, operations room equipment, name it, they bought it. They even bought their own toilet paper!
The 5 marine helicopters arrived on the C5s and they hired hangar space from Signature and assembled and disassembled the choppers there. It also became their tactical support operations centre. I remember ambling across on a few breaks and meeting and getting to chat with the marine guys. What a great bunch they were! The lead pilot of Marine 1 had flown in from Afghanistan to fly here. He told me after they flying there, all he wanted to do, was chill, relax and have fun and he could not have asked for a better place to do it! I can remember all the staff were only interested in two things – where could they get beer and women! They certainly enjoyed their time down here.
Of course, the inevitable Air Force 1 liaison office staff, and their less friendly bunch of Secret Service colleagues, arrived and what a sour bunch of whatever they were, with no humour. It became a challenge for some of us to wind them up and we managed to do that. I think by the time they left, they hated us and could not wait to leave. They were so gullible and easy to wind up, as you can read later on! I think the primary requirement to get to that office, is to have no sense of humour.
The flights carried on each night – some nights there were as many as four or five transport planes and the Marines ground staff were slowly assembling the choppers. I remember how pristine those choppers were, despite their age and how proud they were of working on them.
The liaison chaps did a good job of winding up everyone and trying to tell everyone how they like to try and run the show. They came with a serious attitude and in no terms, let us know who would be in charge, or so they thought. But they hit serious resistance down here and they did not like it. They tried to ban all local flights from flying around, whilst the choppers were flying and demanded the airfield close an hour before the 747 arrived and how they would be inspecting the airfield. Little did they realise Cape Town ATC's don’t like being told what to do and how and when. Game on and we accepted the challenge with glee!
The first issue we sorted out was the local choppers flying around. The Yanks said that would not happen, so over a beer, with the Marine pilots, we came to a compromise. They were quite happy to let the local choppers follow them, as long as they stayed behind and not get alongside their formation, or in the way. Cape Town 1, Secret Service 0!. And whilst they flew, the local guys played the game and behaved themselves. I even remember the Marine commander thanking us for ensuring the local guys did well and it was a first for them, having civil choppers flying around them! They treated us to a few good flybys past the tower and I can remember their 6 helicopter formation take-off. From taxiway B. Military precision at its best!
A few days before the Sunday arrival, the Secret Service arrived at the tower complex – gosh they were strange, not normal people and started to install very secret white telephones in the radar room and the tower. We asked what these phones were for and we were told to mind our own business. Next challenge! Eventually, we got it out of them that they were phones linked to Washington and they would have people in the tower for the duration of the 747’s stay. They wanted all sorts of things from us and made some strange requests. In the true tradition of Cape Town ATC's, they got none of that! ATC 2 Secret service 0! Gosh, they hated us!
I remember on the Friday before the visit, these secret people were in the reception area and I walked out of the radar room and told them the white phone had been ringing and I answered it. They could not believe that I had done that! That should not be happening they said. Well, I told them, it was the Mac Donald's in the terminal building phoning, to say their burgers were ready for collection. I'll leave it up to you to imagine the response and what happened. They were back in the radar room going over the phone and wiring etc. We were in hysterics, and they did not appreciate it when we told them we were pulling their piss! No sense of humour in that bunch.
I also remember that Friday afternoon never before seeing so many managers from ATNS head Office in the building. They all needed a reason to justify their coming down here to see Air Force 1 arrive, bring their wives to the Cape and spend a weekend in a fancy hotel! The joys of being a manager in an SOE
So Sunday duly arrived and I was the aerodrome controller. I remember how the USAF wanted the airfield to close an hour before its arrival. That meeting was pretty heated. Needless to say, we won that battle! ATC 3 Secret service 0! Flights carried on unabated but we did compromise and did not let anyone depart whilst the 747 was on final. They also wanted to conduct their own runway inspection. Believe it or not, they even brought their own specialist team to conduct an airfield inspection. Needless to say, again they lost that battle. ATC 4 Secret service 0! We told them the airfield was inspected twice a day, in accordance with ICAO rules and there was no need for them to do it as well. ACSA were happy to let them do it. We weren’t and we won again! We compromised on that one and let them go out in an ACSA vehicle before the jet arrived to do an inspection. But we left them at the hold on D and forgot about them – conveniently – and their inspection was not done!
Gosh those were fun days and they also learnt the hard way – if you going to upset an ATC, don’t expect cooperation!
Slowly the tower started to fill up with all the head office personnel who came out to see this big special aircraft arrive. Heavens it was just another 747 to us. Nothing special. The Secret Service chap manning the phone in the tower gave up having to answer what he was doing and what his phone was for, and quietly slipped out the tower, never to be seen again..
It was a lovely clear day – perfect for an arrival down the ILS on runway 19. Light southerly wind – you could not have asked for a more perfect day! The timing of the jet was perfect. There were one or two scheduled flights due to arrive and those crews were quite happy to fly up and down the Western side of the Peninsula, whilst we accommodated the 747.
It eventually appeared on the tower frequency and all we heard was “Air force one with you twelve-point zero.” No greeting anything. So I just acknowledged this transmission.
They got to eleven miles and all you heard was ‘Air Force one eleven point- zero” I simply acknowledged this transmission. This went on each mile until they got to five miles when you could hear the voice from the jet getting a bit more agitated. I remember saying to him that in Africa it was considered a courtesy to greet the controller, on initial contact.
Mutter, mutter, chew nuts from the 747 and some sore of greeting was mumbled over the frequency. I don’t think they were used to being told what to do.
“Aah” I said, “Air Force one, Good morning and you are cleared to land and the wind was whatever it was if there was any”. It was the most perfect day, who cared about the wind.
“Roger” came the mumbled response
“Er um,” I replied: "Air Force One in South African airspace it is a requirement to read back a clearance, not just acknowledge it!”
Silence, Eventually came a “cleared to land” from the aircraft. I remember one of the Head Office staff asking me was all that necessary. Yes, I replied, laws are laws and we don’t make exemptions, irrespective of who they are.
In the meantime, the approach controller was sequencing the scheduled arrivals behind the 747 on the ILS, much to the dismay of the Yanks, in the tower. I think they thought it best to keep quiet, but you could not help but notice their uneasiness. The Ground controller allowed one or two light aircraft to taxi out to Echo as well. The poor Yanks were on the brink of a group nervous breakdown. ATC 5 Secret service 0
Eventually, the 747 landed and taxied off to the apron. They had some time to spare, as they had to stop at an exact time and they gave us a lesson in how to taxi very very slowly, so you can imagine even the airport snails were complaining about the slow taxi.
We were told, for photographic purposes, the jet would be parked parallel to the apron taxi line, with the press positioned so that when the door opened and the President appeared at the top of the steps, Table Mountain would be in the background. So the Jet entered the apron from the south, did a U-turn on B29 and parked facing south. Gosh so much work and effort, we all thought.
As it passed A14, the Mango aircraft was given push and start and in record time they pushed back, started up and taxied, so when the 747 stopped they were going past it. As a mark of respect, the copilot opened his window and waved an American flag out of the window. Some of us thought it looked like a pair of scants!
It was a normal working day for us and life carried on. But for a few Americans, I am sure they were on the edge of a nervous breakdown and the liaison team realised you can operate an airfield safely when their President arrives, without all their ramp freezes, airfield shutdowns and whatever they wanted. A few days later the jet departed – without any problems and a much friendlier crew, who obviously enjoyed themselves down here.
And then the logistic aircraft arrived and took the whole lot home. What it cost I would hate to guess, but that I suppose that is politics for you!