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“DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY” 

[Extract from FIGHTER PILOT, by Mac 'Serge' Tucker, p221-226]


During September 1996, 77 Squadron RAAF deployed to Kuantan, Malaysia, for a three week air-combat exercise called Churinga ‘96.  This was the first time that RAAF fighters trained with MiG-29N aircraft. The last week involved participation in “large-force employment” Exercise IADS 96-4.  
The author, callsign “SERGE”, was at that time a senior “B-Category” pilot, posted to 77 SQN to work as an understudy to “PROUDY”,
whom SERGE describes as: “a fantastic Fighter Combat Instructor who was going to groom me for my own FCI course the following year”.

[IADS 96-4] …was when we Aussies came into our own, with our ability to mass force well and, conversely, break-up large forces well.  The exercise was held over the South China Sea and we were required to hold an ALERT 3 posture at the end of the runway, with one engine shut down while awaiting the scramble order.

SCHLOPPS* was my wingman for the exercise, as he had just arrived at 77 Squadron and was one of our new Bograts.  He fitted-in well and was learning the ropes quickly.  By the Thursday of the last week, SCHLOPPS and I hadn’t had a single scramble, but had simply taxied out to the runway threshold for three hours and then returned.  Over and over. 
- I was filthy!  I was in the middle of a large exercise and SCHLOPPS was a sponge - I wanted to get him out there among the shit to start training him.  (His taxiing was very nice, however.  - Which was good, because it was about the only thing we did for the first three days of the five-day exercise!)

I’d had enough, so I’d started flicking through all the fighting frequencies that the airborne aircraft were using, trying to find a fight anywhere over South-East Asia that we could go and get into.  Eventually I found one …sort of.
[Radio chatter] “HERMES / VIPER:  Bingo fuel, departing for the tanker.”  - VIPER were a pair of Singaporean F-16s who had been airborne long enough to run out of fuel and were now heading to the tanker.  This was bullshit.  I was sitting here in my 60-degree Celsius cockpit, wearing plastic jeans, life jacket, helmet and gloves, while the F-16s were swanning around, doing nothing but filling up their logbooks…
- Not if I had anything to do with it! 

I pushed my radio to the scramble net:
“HERMES / DESPOT:  Request scramble.”

“Negative, negative, DESPOT.  Remain ALERT 3,” came the reply.  The role of HERMES was to efficiently manage resources so that we always had aircraft up and aircraft on alert.  They would manage the assets like grand champions of chess. 

Trouble was, today one of the pawns was a little froggy:
“HERMES, VIPER have departed CAP [Combat Air Patrol] BRAVO 3 for the tanker, leaving the eastern sector exposed.  Suggest strike will ingress via eastern sector.  Request immediate scramble.”

I could imagine the Controller.  Pause.  Think…
Does DESPOT know what he's talking about?  He's an Aussie.  They generally know what they are talking about…
“DESPOT - scramble, scramble, scramble.  Vector 090.  Make ANGELS 30.”  


We had our scramble order to head east and climb to 30,000 feet.  “Roger.  DESPOT scramble!”  I replied and gave SCHLOPPS the windup signal.

We lined up, with SCHLOPPS on my right wing, and I nodded my head, signalling him to release the brakes.  Slowly lighting the burners, I made all movements as smoothly as I could to help SCHLOPPS stay in close formation.  Once airborne, we checked our weapons systems and were vectored out over the South China Sea.  There were huge isolated thunderstorms that stood tall and vertical over the water, making it feel like we were flying through a mega-city of massive cloud skyscrapers.  
We jumped onto the VIPER CAP-Point, which probably required them to return to base.  (I wasn’t concerned for them - we hadn’t flown all week.)  
SCHLOPPS and I sat CAP for two hours, without any activity, before we headed to the tanker to refuel. 

[After another hour on patrol] …The tanker had returned to base and we had started to run low on fuel when HERMES called us, to advise that our airfield had closed due to unforecast bad weather.  I immediately went across to the tower frequency and could hear a C-130 conducting a missed approach, due to low cloud.  I then contacted our Operations Desk and had the weather reports of all the diversion airfields read to me.  Although we still had enough fuel to fly to our base at Kuantan and fly an instrument approach, we didn’t have enough fuel to attempt an instrument approach and then divert to Kuala Lumpur, which was our nearest airfield with suitable weather.  I explained to our Ops Desk that we would immediately divert to KL, the capital of Malaysia. 

Suddenly the voice changed and my Flight Commander was on the ops radio: “DESPOT, this is A-FLIGHT.  You will RTB [Return to Base] to Kuantan immediately.”

[SERGE:] “Copied OPS.  I just heard a C-130 go around.
- We don’t have the fuel for that.  We need to have the field open now, or we have to divert.”


“The weather is improving and should be fine by the time you get here,” replied my boss.  
- I could hear a slight irritation in his voice.

“They said that before we left, and now the field is closed.  
- I think the weatherman is having a bad day and I'm not going to risk it”


“DESPOT - this is a direct order.  You will land at Kuantan.  You do not have Diplomatic Clearance for KL.”  

While I sympathised with my boss, knowing the amount of paperwork that SCHLOPPS and I were about to generate,
I really didn’t feel it was worth throwing a couple of jets away for.  “Copied OPS and understand.  However, as captain of this aircraft and the formation lead, I'm making the call.  DESPOT - Channel 12.  Go!”  And with that we changed frequency and started our diversion to KL. 

The weather was fine at KL and we flew a close-formation arrival in order to minimise our impact on the civil traffic (which there was a lot of).  I had trouble concentrating on the approach, knowing that I was probably about to be demoted, kicked off FCI Course, de-qualified, and God knows what else, by the Australian Embassy staff in KL.

On landing I requested an immediate refuel and advised Air Traffic we would be returning to Kuantan in 1 hour.  The control tower sent out a 'FOLLOW ME' car and SCHLOPPS and I taxied into the refuel area.  Not long after shutdown, the refuel truck arrived and we started refuelling SCHLOPPS' jet.

We noticed some Thai F-16s parked a little further along the ramp, so I wandered down to develop the Thai-Australian military relationship.  I broke into my best Thai.  “Sar wah dee cup, mate!” I said, reaching out to shake the hand of one of the pilots, as I said hello in my strong Aussie accent.  The Thais are extremely friendly, and we have good aircrew relationships with them.  It wasn’t long before I had swapped some of my flying suit patches for Mekong Whisky and returned to SCHLOPPS with arms full of bottles of the addictive rice spirit.  I opened the gun bay of my jet and was filling it with my Golden Triangle contraband when the Malaysian Military Police turned up, lights flashing, and circled our jets.  This doesn't look good, I thought, and started wondering if ejecting in the missed approach at Kuantan might have been a better option…

 - I had heard some bad stories about Malaysian prisons!

The senior MP approached me, asking for ID papers, flight plan and diplomatic papers - none of which I had.  
- What about this Kangaroo roundel and Aussie flag on the jet?  I thought.

“Our Embassy has all the paperwork.  - What?  They didn’t send you a copy?  I’m sure the paperwork is at your office right now.”  I said in my best ‘you’d better have your facts straight, mate, or you'll be in the shit' voice.
The MP told me not to go anywhere and promptly led his convoy off the ramp, no doubt to check out my story. 

As soon as they had driven off, I disconnected the fuel hose from SCHLOPPS's jet. “Mate, strap in and start.  Be ready to move ASAP.  You have 2,000 litres - that's enough to get us out of here.”

I then attached the hose to my jet, asked the driver to increase the pressure and started putting on my G-suit and Secumar [life vest] as quickly as I could.  I raced over to SCHLOPPS' jet, stowed his ladder and gave him the windup signal.  I then disconnected my fuel hose, signed for the fuel, telling the driver that the MP would be back with the authorisation shortly, and then climbed into my jet.

I immediately cranked the engine and lowered the canopy to make it look like we were a lot closer to taxiing than we actually were.  Then I got a glimpse of the MPs coming back along the taxiway with their lights flashing.  

I pushed up the throttles, released the park brake and started to taxi - not even strapped into the jet yet.  I called up the Ground Controller, asking for permission to taxi, and somehow had both SCHLOPPS and I moving when the MPs arrived.  They pulled alongside us and I kept my eyes looking forwards, as if oblivious to the guards waving their arms (and guns) around.

It was a long taxi to the far end of the runway, during which I had ample time to complete my strap-in and ‘after-start’ checks.  I checked with SCHLOPPS and gave him a look-over, to make sure his canopy, flaps and trim were set correctly. 

By now the weather had improved back at Kuantan and we were soon airborne and on our way back to base.  
(I never did hear anything back from the KL Australian Embassy…)

I think the boss was more upset at me transporting Mekong Whisky than disobeying his order, as the Mechanics had started a rumour about me: that I was running some sort of contraband trade across South-East Asia…  
 



Note: SERGE has heavily-disguised all of the pilot names used in his book, so there’s no way of ever knowing who the young keen pilot *SCHLOPPS* really was; or how this ‘training’ experience might have influenced his career; of if he ever had anything to do with 3SQN. 

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