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Five Air Force reservists have been disciplined after using a military aircraft to make an unauthorized landing at Martha’s Vineyard in March to pick up a crew member’s vintage motorcycle, the Air Force’s 403rd Wing announced on Wednesday.

The crew members are part of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron based at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. Also known as the ‘Hurricane Hunters,’ the 53rd flies modified transport planes called WC-130Js into tropical storms to gather essential weather data for planners across the East Coast. This particular crew was flying in the New England area on March 25 when they made a stop at Martha’s Vineyard, unbeknownst to their leadership at the 403rd Wing at Keesler, to pick up a crewmember’s 1970 BMW R75/5 motorcycle. The aircraft was spotted by local residents eating lunch at a restaurant near the airport, and the story soon went national after being reported first by the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

“Don’t see that every day,” local resident Doug Ulwick told the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Witnesses said the loud turboprop plane was on the ground less than 20 minutes before taking off again and continuing their official mission to Mather, California, according to the 403rd Wing. Located outside Sacramento in northern California. Mather had some equipment that the 403rd Wing needed for its atmospheric river mission, where the Hurricane Hunters track massive bands of moisture over the Pacific that cause large amounts of rainfall and flooding on the West Coast. That tracking enables better forecasts, the 403rd Wing explained in its statement.

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When wing leadership found out about the motorcycle incident, they grounded the crew at Mather and sent another crew to pick up the aircraft and crew on March 28. All five of the crew members “were downgraded on crew qualifications and administrative actions have been served,” the 403rd Wing stated. The wing’s chief of public affairs, Lt. Col. Marnee Losurdo, said Air Force policy is to not release specifics on nonjudicial punishment. The motorcycle remains in California.

“This personal stop was an abuse of government assets,” said Col. Stuart M. Rubio, commander of the 403rd Wing, in a statement. “We hold our reservists to the highest standards of conduct and these actions are not tolerated.”

Gas prices are still too damn high, so it’s hard to blame the air crew members for making a pit stop in the neighborhood. Even so, there’s a reason why Air Force Manual 11-202 compels aircrews to “ensure off-station training achieves valid training requirements … and avoids the appearance of government waste or abuse.” The reason is because aircrews have made far more wasteful pitstops for personal reasons in the past. 

In 2018, the commander of the Vermont Air National Guard was booted from his job after using an F-16 fighter jet to fly to Washington D.C. for an interstate booty call. Even further back, in 2006 two airmen from the New York Air National Guard pleaded guilty to narcotics charges after smuggling more than 200,000 pills of Ecstasy from Germany aboard their C-5 Galaxy cargo jet. There was also that time a Marine helicopter pilot landed his Super Cobra on a baseball field in Bar Harbor, Maine so he could run across the street to a bar and pick up his cell phone that he’d left there. Besides the financial cost of fuel, there is always the safety risk of something going wrong during an unauthorized personal flight.

The crew being downgraded also comes at a tough time for the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, which is just now gearing up for another busy hurricane season. The 53rd is the only unit in the military that hunts hurricanes, providing data on humidity, wind speed, wind direction, temperature, air pressure, dewpoint and other elements that satellites can’t pick up as closely or at all. That data then helps scientists at the National Hurricane Center figure out where the storm is heading and when it will get there.

Sometimes the Hurricane Hunters have to land in unexpected places to accomplish their mission, “thus, aircrews go to various locations to train and operate and these locations are chosen based on training value,” the statement explained. That may have been why the aircrew was at Quonset Air National Guard Base, Rhode Island the day before flying to Martha’s Vineyard.

One thing the press release definitely confirmed was a Martha’s Vineyard resident’s skill at identifying motorcycles. Tristan Israel, a local county commissioner who was eating lunch at the Plane View Restaurant on March 25 told The Martha’s Vineyard Times that he guessed it was pre-1972 BMW based on the logo. 

“I used to own old vintage BMW motorcycles, so that’s how I know,” he said. “I was eating next to the window … We looked out and we saw the plane. We saw people walking a vintage motorcycle up to the plane.”

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