Air-Minded: A Christmas Story

Well, it’s not exactly an aviation story, or a Christmas one either, but it’s aviation-adjacent and wait, there’s more: it has snow and a happy ending. Best of all, it’s a story I haven’t shared before.

Donna and I, and our children Gregory and Polly, were stationed in the Netherlands from late 1978 to early 1982. I was an F-15 pilot for the only US Air Force unit in the country, the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Soesterberg Air Base. Every winter, squadron pilots and their families would drive to Austria for a ski vacation. Not everyone went, but enough of us did that we had to go in shifts, lest the squadron fail to meet its wartime manning requirements.

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Kitzbuhl, January 1982

The first group of pilots and families would drive to Austria on a weekend in January for a seven-day stay in a hotel near Kitzbuhl; the following weekend the second group would head down while the first group made its way home. That middle weekend was the problematic part, because with so many of us on the road at once the squadron was undermanned — if someone started a war and we had to generate more than a few jets there wouldn’t be enough pilots to fly them. Our commanders hid this fact from NATO higher-ups in Brussels and our own US Air Forces Europe headquarters at Ramstein. We all knew how much trouble we’d be in if NATO and USAFE found out what we were up to, so we did our best to make sure there were no glitches.

Our squadron booked an entire hotel near the little town of Kirchberg in Tirol for two weeks — we had the place all to ourselves (my Hash House Harrier friends should appreciate this detail, knowing how hard such arrangements are to pull off). It was always the same hotel, nothing fancy, just seven or eight rooms and an eat-in kitchen built above a dairy barn on a farm. The farmer and his wife were our landlords, and fed us breakfast and dinner every day; we got lunch at the ski resorts we visited in and around Kitzbuhl. One winter, I think the year before our last trip, our kids got to go downstairs to the barn to watch a calf being born. It was a wonderfully homey and warm place to stay, and the skiing was fabulous. We’d put our kids in ski school the first few days while we hit the slopes with the adults; the last couple of days we’d go together with our kids, who by that point had graduated and could out-ski any of us.

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Glühwein at the inn

Taking autobahns through Germany, even in perfect weather with minimal traffic, it was ten hours to and from Austria. We always took two days driving down, stopping to spend the night in bachelor officers’ quarters at Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base near Munich. You couldn’t do that on the way home, though, at least if you were part of the first group — you had to get back to Soesterberg as quickly as possible so you drove straight through.

Our last winter at Soesterberg, we bought a new car to ship back to the States, a VW Quantum station wagon. Since we took delivery in December, it was our ride for the annual ski trip in January. Our friends and squadron mates, the Flemings, also bought a new VW: they got a Westfalia camper van. Our two families caravanned to Austria, and when it was time to head home started back together. We always drove down and back in pairs and we all had German ADAC auto club insurance, good all over Europe, in case of breakdowns. A wise precaution, it turned out.

The drive home was uneventful until somewhere north of Munich. The Flemings were in front, and as darkness descended I noticed their taillights getting dimmer. Just as it started to snow their lights went off altogether and they pulled off onto an exit ramp. We pulled up behind them. Their alternator had stopped working and they’d been driving on the battery alone until it died. All four Flemings piled into our little station wagon to stay warm, and we drove to the first roadside emergency phone we could find, fortunately not far from where they’d broken down. None of us spoke very good German, but ADAC came through and promised to send help right away, so we drove back to where we’d left their camper and sat in our car until the tow truck came.

When it came we got to work on our German some more. It was about nine in the evening by then; the ADAC tow truck had a crew cab and the driver said he’d take the Flemings with him so we could be on our way; the plan was to tow the camper to a garage in the nearest town, Manching, and put the Flemings up somewhere for the night. The garage was of course closed by then, but would fix their van first thing in the morning send them on their way home, only one day later than planned. It sounded like our friends were in good hands, so we got back in our car and left.

By now it was 10 PM and snowing heavily. Listening to German radio in the car we learned the storm was covering the entire country. I pulled into an autobahn rest area to find a a pay phone and call the Soesterberg command post. The manning issue really was critical, and for all I knew they were counting on me and Mike to get back in time to pull air defense alert the next day. That was now impossible, and I needed to let them know.

The rest area was jam-packed with cars wearing nation plates from all over Europe, and there was a huge line for the pay phones. I heard people speaking German, French, Dutch, Danish, English, and Spanish, all trying to find places to spend the night or calling home to let friends and family know they were stuck in the storm. Our front-wheel drive VW had been doing well in the snow up to then, so I decided to skip the line and press onward to Nuremberg, another hour or two north. Nuremberg was home to several US Army installations; I’d be able to find a phone at one of them and make my call to the Soesterberg command post.

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We didn’t have Google Maps then, or cell phones either

An hour north of the rest area, our son said “Mom? Dad?” His tone of voice said it was serious, so we stopped on the side of the autobahn, thinking he or Polly was getting carsick. That wasn’t it at all. Gregory handed up a bag he’d just found on the floor in the back. In it was a purse with a lot of money in it, presumably most or all of the Flemings’ traveling cash. That was bad enough. Under the money, we discovered their passports.

It was time for Plan B, which was to find Army quarters for the night in Nuremberg. I’d phone home to let the squadron know what was going on and in the morning, with any luck in better weather, we’d drive back to where we left the Flemings.

We pulled into Nuremberg around 11 PM; I found an Army post and was able to make an AUTOVON call to the command post. It turned out they knew about the Flemings’ plight, because Mike had checked in from Manching. I told them we’d be a day late getting home as well, not just because of the storm but because we had the Flemings’ passports and had to double back to return them. I asked them to tell Mike, should he call again, that we were coming to the rescue. They said they would, and passed on the news that everyone else in the first group was stuck in the storm as well. Mike and I really had been scheduled for alert the next day, but they’d managed to find two other pilots to do it, so barring additional trouble we’d be okay.

That was a relief, but as for finding safe harbor for the night, it was not to be. There was no room at any military facility in Nuremberg. Even the civilian hotels and hostels were full, what with travelers waiting out the storm. There was nothing for it but to execute Plan C and start back to Manching, hoping we’d be able to find where our friends were staying.

The autobahn was mostly empty by then and our car was still doing well in the snow. We got back to the town of Manching around 1 AM. I saw lights on in a bar and went in to find help. There were a few locals inside, wrapping up their evening, and taking another stab at German I asked the bar at large if anyone knew where a local tow truck might have taken an American tourist’s broken-down car, and someone did — let’s hear it for small towns! My new German friend called the garage owner at home and woke him up, and he in turn told me where the Flemings had been put up for the night, a gasthaus in the woods outside of town. Someone drew us a map, and we set out on what we hoped would be the last leg of our night’s journey.

The country road hadn’t been plowed and it was still snowing, but somehow we made it to the driveway leading up to the gasthaus. The driveway sloped uphill, with heavy woods on both sides, and Donna had to steer while Gregory and I pushed the car from behind. The owners met us out front and welcomed us in — our new friends in Manching had called ahead to let them know we were on our way, and luckily they had an unoccupied bedroom. It was two in the morning by now and the Flemings were sleeping, unaware we’d come back with their money and passports — Mike hadn’t called the command post a second time, so they had no way of knowing. In fact they didn’t know we’d returned with their stuff until breakfast that morning, when we toddled down from our bedroom, still half asleep. Were they happy to see us? Reader, they were.

I’d say we made their day, but don’t want to take credit for it. We should have checked the car for their belongings before we parted, but things were rushed and confused. And I yelled at Gregory when he discovered the bag with the Flemings’ money and passports, as if he should have found it sooner, and feel guilty about that to this day.

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Gregory, Donna, Polly, and me, Kitzbuhl, January 1982

The Flemings had a wingman that night. Had it been us with car trouble we’d have had a wingman too. ADAC covered their repair and hotel bills, and the hotel owner put us up gratis, it being a rescue mission and all. The storm ended sometime before dawn, the camper was fixed by 9 AM, and our two-car caravan crossed the Dutch border later that afternoon. The next day, if I remember correctly, Mike and I pulled our delayed alert tour together and even got to fly on a practice scramble. NATO and USAFE never found out how far the squadron had hung it out that weekend, and as far as I know, the winter ski trip tradition continued right up the the 32nd’s deactivation in 1994.

Okay, so it’s not as good a story as the one Fredrick Forsythe tells in The Shepherd, where an angelic WWII Mosquito pilot guides a lost deHavilland Vampire pilot with electrical failure safely home one dark Christmas Eve in the 1950s, but it’s the closest one I’ve got, and it’s all true.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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