EC-97 Night Lark Chapter V

Time to back up just a wee bit to cover some of the stuff I left out about this project. The kit is Academy’s 1:72 Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. The kit is of fair quality for fit but lacks detail. Academy uses these same sprues to do the various variants of the airframe. So you’ll find pieces for other aircraft included.

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100_3881cxThe aircraft features several blisters and domes, which contain sensitive transmitters and receivers. On the underside of  the fuselage there is a large radome type blister which is from my spares stash. It fit almost perfectly though I did need to insert a styrene (.020) piece of card stock in between the two halves to get it to better mate with the fuselage curvature. The other small blisters underneath the belly were also sourced from the stash, though you could use fuel tank or bomb halves in a pinch.

boompair2Out the tail you’ll see a boom antenna aka a stinger. On naval patrol aircraft this would house a magnetic anomoly detection device (MAD) for hunting submarines under the surface of the ocean. In this case it is a highly sensitive stereoscope receiver used to measure multiple targeting radars. I made my stinger from a piece of oval and square brass tubing, which I roughened up with some course sandpaper and glued together using CA. To give a uniform shape I then covered it liberally with Acryl Blue glazing compound and left to cure for several weeks as the project took a backseat for a while. The stinger also houses a reel mounted HF antenna, which has a cone shape device on the end to cause sufficient drag to unreel the antenna and keep it taut while in flight. This antenna (a heavy reinforced wire) when fully deployed stretches 500 feet.

blisterwindowsPicking through my spares I found two window blisters from what I believe to have come from an old 1:72 B-29 model, probably the old MPC kit. These fit nicely in the lower deck windows just aft of the wings. Here a pair of observers would sit (one on each side) to observe for any SAM and enemy aircraft should they be encountered while on a mission. In the case of the Night Lark, these positions are manned by the assigned crew chief(s).

Once the model nears the end of its completion, several dozen pointy and blade antennas will be added. These will be for eavesdropping/navigation/communication and electronic countermeasures. These will get added after any decaling…which will be very minimal.

As the landing gear found their way into their wells the three landing gear indicators indicated  them up and the doors closed as the Night Lark was swinging onto a due south course. Every step of their journey tonight was preplanned down to all but one variable. One that could change everything, the departure of the aircraft they were to shadow. If it failed to depart, the primary mission would be scrubbed. Should that happen then the crew was prepared to do a little snooping along the China and North Korean coast lines. A triangle orbit from Weihai to Dilian to Inchoen circumventing North Korean and China’s airspace. Knock on the door but don’t bust through it. Save that for the primary missions.

“Level at nineteen thousand skipper.” The copilot reported. He was flying the “peaceful legs” of tonight’s mission.

“Radio, you have any word yet on our friend?” The pilot asked.

“Not yet, sir.” He replied.

“I’m taking bets he’s late and we’re going to be zigzagging until we hit the magic time window to abort and proceed on with our secondary.” The navigator stated.

“No bets from me on this first one, I’m just glad to be up here instead of back there in that closet they call a barracks.” The copilot retorted.

“Radio to pilot.” A voice broke in.

“Go ahead.” The pilot answered.

“Sir, looks like our target has departed, we’re just now able to pick up their side of the conversation. They are switching frequencies to another radar controller…one of ours believe it or not.” The radioman reported. Apparently the target asked for a special clearance departure, which put him in the airspace controlled by one of the military radar stations at a nearby base. “He’s, he’s asking.” There was a long pause. “He’s having some sort of trouble getting his landing gear up. Looks as if they are going to fly a couple of laps  in the bases IFR holding area to see if they can solve the problem.”

“Good thing you didn’t take that bet.” The pilot laughed.

The navigator was busy with his whiz wheel plotting out a route to eat up time until the target resumed its course heading towards its destination. Meanwhile the copilot set the big Boeing on at a cruising setting to minimize their fuel consumption on the off chance they were going to be running the full circuit of the primary mission tonight. The Night Lark really didn’t like this anymore than the crew did but it was necessary.

The rest of the crew had all of their equipment up and running, some were listening to radio chatter from China and North Korea. The radar operators were were not allowed to power up their radars, so they tinkered with the auxiliary radios tuning into Armed Forces radio out of Japan to get the latest sports scores. “Think we can pickup KMOX outta St. Louie on this thing?” Asked one of the radar operators to a radio technician.

“Sure, if we can let out some of that trailing wire antenna and switch it over to this box here.” He said pointing to a very sensitive AM receiver. “Atmospheric conditions are pretty good tonight, if we can get onto a southerly heading it would be best though. Guess we have to wait to see what happens. Who won today?” Returning to his receiver to listen in on conversations from the Chinese miltary

Each of the radio technicians were fluent in Chinese as well as other languages such as Vietnamese. Everyone had graduated from a Defense Language Course after completing Radio School. One even knew Russian, something that was going to prove useful before the end of their time in the region.

The radio operator who was monitoring the air traffic conversations was having some difficulties, something was bleeding over onto the signal. “Radio to pilot, I’m having a hard time picking through the noise to hear what they are saying…can you give me a fifteen degree turn to the port? I need a better angle on the antenna.” He requested.

“How ’bout it nav, or will that cause you to wear that little wheel out too soon.” The copilot asked.

“You make the turn, leave the rest to me.” Said the navigator.

The copilot didn’t even turn around to see the look on the navigators face. He knew he was the best in the business and much more experienced than he. He did catch the pilot exchanging glances with the nav out of the corner of his eye, even in the dimly lit cockpit. As the Night Lark steadied on the new course the radio operator was happy as it helped clear up the signal.

“He’s cooked. Gear will not retract, they just made a low pass over the base so the tower could visually verify. He’s being given vectors for an landing back where he started.” The radio operator reported.

“Well keep orbiting here for a while, just to make sure he doesn’t do a fast turn and head back out again anytime soon.” Stated the pilot. “Think I’ll go get some coffee, anybody want a cup?”  The nav shook his head no, he was busy working his wheel to set up an orbit plot for them to use. The copilot held up his empty cup for the pilot to refill. “I guess I’ll just bring back a full thermos instead.”

After two hours of waiting the pilot decided it was time to head for their secondary mission route. He also had the radioman send a predetermined coded message to his superiors advising them of his intentions. “Okay crew we are going to proceed on with our secondary tasking, we’ll spend a few hours flying our preplanned route then slip back into Suwon before the sun starts to rise. Go ahead and get your gear warmed up, we’ll be starting out track in fifty minutes.” The pilot advised the crew.

“Steer a heading of two nine five and lets drop our altitude down to seventeen thousand. Keep you airspeed at two seventy.” The Navigator directed. “That will put on the IP on the top of the hour. “

“Turning to two nine five, descending to seventeen and hold at an airspeed of two seventy.” Answered the copilot.

“You noticed the oil temp on number three?” Asked the pilot as he sipped his coffee.

“Yes, it seems to be running about fifty degrees hotter than normal. Cylinder head temps are normal. Pressure is good.” He replied as he tapped the gauge faces to see if maybe the needles were sticking.

“One of you whiz box operators want to take a stroll down stairs and peek at number three from the right blister?” The pilot asked in a suggestive tone.

“I’ll go. I need to take a leak anyway.” One said.

The radio operator made a quick stop at the lavatory then headed down the ladder to the lower cabin where there was just barely room for the two observers positions. It was noiser down here but tolerable. First he looked out the left window, scanning the forward watching the exhaust plumes twinkling from engines one and two. Then he climbed over into the right observation blister and glanced at number four but what really caught his eye was three’s longer yellow white flames instead of the yellow blue that the others were emitting. He quickly ran back upstairs to brief the pilot.

As he reached the flight deck standing behind the navigator he reported his findings. “Sir number three is kicking our some really wierd looking exhaust flames. They are lighting up the whole right wing.”

“Check the mixture.” The pilot commanded as he too reached for the levers. He and the copilot both checked and it appeared to be set properly for the altitude they were at.

“What do you think?” Asked the copilot of the pilot who was rubbing his chin in thought.

“I have the aircraft.” He stated taking the yoke. He took the aircraft off autopilot and increased the power on all four of the engines. The big ship gave a slight shudder. All four engines started to roar as their propellers sang indicating they were biting hard into the air. With the airspeed building to its near maximum the pilot pulled back on the yoke to convert some of that speed into altitude. At first the big Boeing climbed quickly but as the air continued to get thinner and the airspeed slowed it loss its momentum to climb.

The pilot eased back the power slowly back on all four watching the gauges as he did. The nose began to drop. For a brief moment they were level again but the nose slowly started pointing down and the airspeed despite the lack of thrust from the four large propellers started to increase.

The crewmen in the main compartment were not ready for these sudden aerobatic maneuvers. Paper, cups of coffee and even crewman were flung around the cabin. A guy in the lav felt the aircraft change pitch suddenly he raised both hands to brace himself leaving a bodily function in progress. Needless to say it was an unpleasant and messy experience from that point on.

As the Night Lark increased her descent rate and speed everyone on the flight deck was watching the oil temp on engine three. It didn’t keep pace with the other engines as they slowly indicated a slight cooling due to the lack of power and increase airflow through the individual oil coolers.

Pulling back on the yoke as he push the four throttles forward he asked. “Give me a course for home. Get ready to shut down and feather number three.” He instructed.

“Engine shut down checklist…lets see…here it is.” The copilot replied flipping through his checklist binder.

“Suggest a heading of zero three zero and contact Osan approach for vectors. We’re just west of the Kunsan beacon.” The nav stated.

The copilot did just that while the pilot tweaked the aircraft’s control trim to ease the yaw to the right due to the lack of thrust from the now idle engine.  At every radar control center on the South Korean peninsula sat a nondescript observer whose job it was to ensure aircraft such as this were given no notice as they flew in view of the radars scanning the skies. Should an emergency arise a generic call would be broadcast to warn such “nonexistent” aircraft of a problem. Tonight was no exception. “Dark Star control to Dark Star lead, suggest immediate break left! ” The observer called over all frequencies.

Inside the Night Lark the pilot reaction was lighting quick, rolling the control wheel hard left to initiate a forty five degree turn to the left. Again those in back were not ready, but several did have the foresight to buckle their seat belts while sitting at their stations. “Radar light ’em up I want to see what is out there.” The pilot commanded.

These old tube sets were slow to warm, but in a matter of a few minutes the scope came to life and started painting radar returns in nearly every direction. Some were surface contacts while the rest were aircraft. Most were within specific approach and departure corridors over the Korean countryside, but a few others were “free” ranging. Probably military fighters patrolling or on night training exercises. Either way it was a busy night in the sky.

The mysterious gentleman that night at the Osan radar approach control issued instructions to the controllers on duty. “Clear them some airspace, I want a clear lane into Suwon for them to fly.” He ordered. He then transmitted another message over the air. “Dark Star observes no problems, resume previous course.”

No sooner had the radar come up and began painting returns, the pilot ordered in put into standby mode. This would cease any radiate energy from leaving the aircraft, but still be alive should it be needed again. Fifteen minutes later the Night Lark was turning final, lining up with Suwon’s runway which was minimally illuminated, unlike Osan’s  and Kimpo International airport which were clearly visible and brightly lit.

Again the big aircraft met up with the Follow Me truck and taxied back to its lair on the west side of the field. As it was shutting down its engines the canvas tent like hanger was being raised into place over it. The support team was already there waiting to learn why the aircraft returned early. Their only indication it was returning was the call from Dark Star who called on a secure phone line to advise they were inbound. The line chief, flashlight in hand was inspecting the aircraft once the tent was securely closed. Immediately he knew why, the number three engine’s propeller was feathered. He and his crew would now spend the next several days resolving this problem.

To be continued…





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