Back in 1977, Airman 1st Class Mike Thompson was part of the first mission that flew a Dover AFB C-5 to Moscow.
Back in 1977, U.S. Air Force security policeman Airman 1st Class John M. “Mike” Thompson was walking down the hall at work when his boss offered him an unusual assignment.
“He told me a mission was coming up where we’d be going to Russia,” Thompson recalled. “He told me, ‘We’d like you to go.’”
In the midst of the Cold War, this would be a peace mission, and Thompson’s sense of adventure couldn’t let him turn it down.
And there was an extra twist: “For some reason, they wanted someone from Delaware,” Thompson said, “I never found out why.”
Today, 41 years later, the Newark native is glad he took his flight chief’s offer. The crew flew an electromagnet deep into the heart of the world’s largest Communist nation. Thompson considers it a highlight of his military career.
The mission, flawlessly carried out between June 17 and June 22, 1977, earned the aircraft and its crew the Clarence H. Mackay Trophy for 1977. That was one of the few occasions a Mackay recipient has not been an aircrew member.
Thompson was on hand at the Pentagon a year later as Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen Jr. presided over a ceremony. He received an award plaque.
In July 2017, Thompson donated his plaque and other memorabilia to the Air Mobility Command Museum.
A little apprehensive
Thompson, now 60, still lives in Newark. Except for his father, who was a Marine during the 1950s, Thompson believes he is one of the few members of his family to sign up for the military.
He joined the active duty Air Force in February 1976, following a short stint as a roofer.
“It was out of the blue,” Thompson said. “I just went out and joined. I never really thought about it.”
Thompson was delighted with his assignment as a security policeman and found himself stationed at Dover, 48 miles from home. As a junior airman, he spent a lot of time walking a perimeter on the flight line or guarding airplanes.
“Working out on the flight line was the first time I learned to love coffee,” he recalled. “I still love it.”
Thompson was a little apprehensive about the proposed trip to Moscow. But he was 20 years old and felt ready to take on the world.
No weapons, no uniforms
During briefings, he learned how special the mission would be.
Although the United States and Soviet Union had been at political odds for years, there still was scientific cooperation. One of these was a project to generate electricity using the superconducting magnetohydrodynamic, or MHD, generator.
The cargo was so heavy it only could be airlifted by the workhorse of the air cargo fleet, the C-5A Galaxy.
A Dover C-5, manned by crews from the 436th Military Airlift Wing and personnel from the Reserve’s 512th MAW, would fly to Chicago, pick up the device and associated equipment, and fly more than 5,190 nautical miles to Moscow’s Sheremtyevo Airport.
There were other, unusual requirements. Thompson’s weapon and that of a second security policeman were kept in a secured locker aboard the aircraft. The men were required to wear business suits.
“I didn’t own a suit, so my mother had to take me to JC Penney’s to buy one,” Thompson recalled. “Someone else had to show me how to tie a tie.”
The American flag and Air Force lettering were supposed to be removed from the C-5, but he doesn’t recall that being done.
When Mission AAM 1962-01 lifted off from Dover, it carried 13 airmen and members of the media. At Chicago, the magnet, built by Argonne Laboratories, was carefully loaded.
The flight also was joined by a Soviet navigator and radio operator and 24 scientific and support personnel from Argonne and other agencies.
In an article in the base “Airlifter” newspaper, loadmaster Chief Master Sgt. Ronald Euscher said it took a lot of ingenuity to load the magnet and its 26-wheel tractor trailer aboard. During the work, they realized the trailer sat too low to the ground and would not clear the C-5’s loading ramp by three inches. The loadmasters shored up the ramp and finished their work in about four hours.
The magnet weighed about 80,000 pounds, and all the extra equipment meant the C-5’s load tipped the scales at 125,000 pounds.
In addition to guarding the plane in Moscow, Thompson was not to let the Soviets see any of the newly installed cockpit navigational equipment, nor could they inspect the C-5’s complicated landing gear system. The latter proved a problem later.
‘No problem at all’
Once the C-5 left Chicago, there was little to do during the 16-hour flight. The aircraft underwent two refuelings en route, one over Nova Scotia and the second over Scotland. Thompson napped and occasionally went down to the cargo deck, where the 14-by-6.5-foot generator was secured.
Once the Galaxy entered Soviet airspace, it was joined by a MiG fighter escort, which accompanied the aircraft to Moscow.
Aircraft commander Capt. David M. Sprinkel later admitted to a little apprehension when crossing the border, but said flying over Russian territory was, “No problem at all … just like flying over any other country in Europe, giving position reports and following airways.”
Having the two-man Soviet crew along was more of a comfort than necessity, Sprinkel added. The landing was uneventful, but what happened afterward shook up the young airman.
“Once we were on the ground, we were supposed to cordon off the aircraft and not let anyone near,” Thompson said. “But as soon as we got off, about 30 to 50 people ran up and started taking pictures in the wheel wells. I was starting to panic, wondering what to do.”
Asking Sprinkel for direction, Thompson was told he shouldn’t interfere. Frustrated, he had to let the photographers snap away.
“To me, it was a mess,” he said. Years later, he speculated the Soviets wanted to copy the complicated landing gear system because they couldn’t design one on their own.
The plane was met by a phalanx of VIPs, including American Ambassador Malcolm Toon. They were given a tour of the aircraft by Sprikel and his crew.
Workers unloaded the MHD generator and its huge, red-white-and-blue painted tractor trailer, taking just nine minutes to pull it out of the C-5’s belly.
Cheeseburger and fries
Sprinkel and the crew had a chance to play tourist once the plane was secure. While Thompson kept an eye on the C-5, everyone else got a tour of Moscow, including Red Square. They also were taken through the NHD generator’s new home at the Institute of High Temperatures laboratory where, amazingly, they found the generator had been installed less than three hours after being offloaded.
In the meantime, Thompson was guarding the C-5 from the cab of a pickup truck. Except for a single Soviet guard -- at least that was the only one he saw -- he was alone.
He tried a little informal international diplomacy by offering the guard a Coke, but soon afterward another truck pulled up and took the man away. Thompson figured the man’s superior must have seen the friendly gesture and quickly had him replaced.
After several hours, Thompson was relieved by the other security policeman.
“When that happened, I got my own special tour,” he recalled. An English-speaking Russian from the American embassy picked him up in a battered station wagon, but all Thompson wanted was a hot meal. After a quick trip to the embassy for a cheeseburger and fries, they went sightseeing around the Soviet capital.
“To me, it all looked so glum,” he said. “The place just looked sad. No one had a smile on their faces. That really stuck out.”
The trip back home was anticlimactic. The C-5 flew to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where everyone, including Thompson, was quizzed about the trip. He dutifully reported the photography incident but never heard the result.
‘A lot of brass’
Life went back to normal until about a year later.
“One day, out of the blue, I was told we had to go to the Pentagon for the award of the trophy,” Thompson said.
Many of the crew had been transferred, so they and their spouses were flown to Washington, D.C. and Thompson just drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
He had heard President Jimmy Carter was supposed to be there. Instead, he received the plaque and certificate from Allen and later was given a photograph of himself and the chief of staff.
As an airman first class, being honored by so many senior officials left him a bit starstruck.
“There was a lot of brass in that room,” he said.
Thompson left the Air Force Dec. 31, 1979, after an entire career assigned to Dover. Shortly afterward he was hired at the US Postal Service and now is retired after 31 years on the job.
A small corner of his home contains his Air Force memorabilia, including a security police badge, the brown tie he wore to Moscow and a small pendant with the emblem of the Soviet Aeroflot airline. A blank spot on the wall was occupied by the Mackay Trophy plaque, now in the AMCM’s collection.
“We’d visited the museum in 2016 and I thought they might want my stuff from the Moscow trip,” Thompson said. “I talked to [Collections Manager Debbie Sellars] and she said she’d love to have it.”
Thinking back, Thompson realizes he was in the right place at the right time to make history.
“It’s one of the things I’m really proud of,” he said.