Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Stranger than Fiction: The Phantom Aviator

Stranger than Fiction is a series of excerpts from an upcoming non-fiction collection of the strange and unusual encounters I, or people I know, have had, gathered into one collection. Look for Stranger than Fiction: A Skeptic's Journey, Black Friday, 2018...


After Germany, I was assigned to McClellan Air Force Base, in Sacramento, California. A repair depot for A-10s, F-117s, and occasionally other aircraft, McClellan was home to a Coast Guard Squadron of C-130 weather planes, and an Air Force Reserve Squadron of KC-135 refueling planes. The base was primarily manned by civilians, who all went home at night. As such, when the sun went down, McClellan just about shut down itself, with no traffic on the runways and little life on the base. It made for really long, quiet shifts—perfect for ghost stories. 

Of all the spooky tales I did hear at McClellan, my favorite was told to me by another SP who had formerly been stationed in England. As the story went, an Airman who’d crashed and died on the base in World War II hadn’t moved on, but would regularly return to the base and try to get back on the runway. 

This spectral pilot, reportedly burned alive when he crashed, would return periodically, at night, approaching a gate shack, in outdated, period-correct uniform, and present his ID card. The ghostly airman didn’t appear ghostly, though—he looked as solid as anyone, and his ID, while not current, was tangible as any ID card. Of course, when a confused airman would take the card, then turn to his radio or gateshack’s phone to call in the strange visitor, when thy would turn back, the visitor would be gone, without a trace—save for the ID card left behind. 

I scoffed at this story when I first heard it, angering the Sergeant who was telling it. My pal, Cooper, or “Coop”, as we called him, insisted it was a true story. He insisted this not because he’d seen the spirit, but because he’d personally seen the ID.

According to Coop, one night, while he worked as the Security Controller for the base, one of the gate shacks called in they had a suspicious person stopped. A patrol was sent out, but the Airman on duty reported that when he looked away to call it in, his visitor vanished without a trace. Coop didn’t believe it until the ID card was brought to him and he had to start making calls to report the unusual occurrence.

More intriguing was the fact that when Coop called the local on-duty Agent for the OSI (Office of Special Investigations, the Air Force’s version of the FBI) to report the incident, they weren’t skeptical or surprised in the least. They came out, got the ID, and reported they’d “put it back in the safe”.

Perplexed, Coop had asked what this meant. The Agent taking receipt of the I.D. nonchalantly reported that this was a regular occurrence at the base—the spirit would appear, hand over an ID, then vanish. The ID would be locked up at the OSI office, but would vanish overnight, only to once again be presented to another gate guard a few days later. 

Coop was more than convinced this was a real event—like most SPs, he’d heard a great many ghost stories at his various duty stations. I was more than a little skeptical.
Night time training exercises were a big part of the Security Police. We regularly staged them, notifying everyone ahead of time we were going to do a scenario. These ranged from fake bombs on cars to see if the gate guards could find them during vehicle inspections, to people climbing fences or entering secure areas without permission. It was all a way to test and train us on how to respond to these threats. 

For any exercise, the Desk Sergeant or Security Controller were well aware of what was going on—they made the alerts over the radio, and they logged the training events in the nightly log. In Coop’s case, he’d had no such warning. I suggested this had been to test him--that OSI was in on it and had dressed up like a WWII Airman and presented the replica ID. 

Coop did not share my skepticism. 

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