B-58 Crew Days

B-58 Alert Duty

by Phil Rowe
Fictionalized, but close to reality

Beep, beep .... came the feeble sound of the old Plymouth's horn. Out in my driveway sat my other two crew members, waiting for me to join them. It was 8:30 on a cold Winter's morning.

"Al's here," my wife reminded me. "Don't forget your shaving kit."

"Comin'. I'll be there in a second. Have you seen my night school notebook?" I scurried around the living room looking for those notes to bring with me on Alert. I was taking a college course in the evenings and would be doing homework on yet another week's alert duty.

I eventually found what I was looking for and headed for the door. My sweet wife was waiting there with the door opened. She waved to Al and Walt sitting in Al's ancient gray Plymouth. It spewed a cloud of white smoke that clearly indicated the need for engine work.

"Bye, Hon. Will call you this evening," I said as I kissed her good-bye and headed out the door.

She lingered at the open doorway, despite the near zero temperature, waving at us as I jumped into the back seat of Al's car, already backing out of the drive.

"Morning, guys," I said. "We're still early, you know."

We didn't have to be at the Alert Facility until 10:30 to start the process of relieving the other crew. This was a typical Thursday change-over day for the 305th Bomb Wing at our northern Indiana base. Fifteen replacement crews relieved their fellow crews each and every Thursday noon like clockwork. For a week at a stretch the Strategic Air Commend (SAC) B-58 bomber crews and their fellow KC-135 aerial tanker companions lived in, ate in and endured the boredom of living in the "mole hole" at the end of the runway. This was expected to be just another routine week.

"What's the rush this morning?" I asked.

"Oh. Didn't you hear the news?" Walt, my erstwhile navigator replied.

"No. Hear what?" I asked curiously.

"We've got to stop by Wing Headquarters before going to the Alert Facility," my pilot and boss chimed in. "The old man wants to see us."

I couldn't imagine what our Wing Commander wanted. This was a little unusual, because most communications for crews at squadron level came from our own commanding officer (CO), not directly from Wing level.

"Where's your blue scarf?" Al inquired, looking at me in his rear view mirror. "Better get it on before we get there.

To conform to the uniform policies for flight crews, each of us wore blue cotton scarves, actually more like dickeys that snapped around the neck. Our coveralls, flight jackets and baseball caps were color coded with shoulder patches, cap logos and other insignia to differentiate our crews from those in other squadrons. I hadn't completely dressed yet, in my rush to join my crew.

"It's here in my pocket, Al. I'll get it on before we get to headquarters. Big deal." We rounded the corner, turned toward the flightline and pulled up to the guard post at the access gate, just a block short of reaching the headquarters building. Al stopped and rolled down the window, as the military policeman come over to check our badges.

"Good morning, major," the guard greeted. Al reached inside his jacket to hold up the flightline access badge for the guard to see. The rest of us did the same, as the guard peered into the car.

"Very good, sir." The guard saluted and waved us inside the secure fenced area.

Al pulled into one of the reserved parking spots in front of the building, despite the fact that we were not in an official alert vehicle yet. We'd soon be taking the blue government station wagon, with flashing red light on top, upon relieving the other crew. But there would be little likelihood anyone would object, for we were going on Alert in just a short while.

"C'mon," Al urged, as we each climbed out of the car. "Leave your stuff. We won't need it now."

Walt and I followed Al up the steps and into the headquarters building. We were both captains, Walt the B-58 radar navigator and I the defensive systems operator on the crew. Al, a major, was our aircraft commander, the AC or boss on the three-man crew. We'd been together for 18 months, since going through training in Texas. Now we were an instructor crew, crew L-14. We'd progressed from student status, and the designation on N-14 ( non-ready crew number 14 ) to R-14, meaning we'd passed the checks and training rigors to be combat ready. Then we were chosen as a lead crew, hence the designation as L-14.

We reached the open doorway to the wing commander's outer office. Al walked in first and struck up a conversation of light banter with the secretary. We all knew Lucy, the delightful lady who really ran the "front office" of the 305th.

"You can go right on in. He's expecting you," Lucy said smilingly.

I followed the other two, making some effort to straighten out my twisted blue scarf and combing my hair with my fingers. We stopped in front of the colonel's big desk, saluted and stood at attention, lined up side by side before the gray-haired leader of the second of just two B-58 bomber outfits. Colonel Bryan commanded a proud outfit with a history going back to World War II and its days as a B-17 unit.

"Hello, Al," Colonel Bryan began, a big smile on his weather-worn face. "Good morning, Walt. How's that new baby of yours?" he asked my navigator. Walt had become a proud papa just two months ago. Then Bryan said hello to me and told us to stand at ease. We all relaxed a bit, but maintained a proper military posture.

"Got some good news for you fellows," Colonel Bryan continued. "You're no longer Crew L-14, I'm proud to say. Effective immediately, you three are known as Crew S-14. Spot promotions came through for each of you last evening." Bryan stepped forward to shake our hands.

We three looked at each other, stunned by the affirmation of the rumors. We knew that the 305th was about to get some of SAC's coveted spot promotions, but doubtful that we would be the lucky ones. An incentive program, for eligible bomber crews, the spot promotion system meant getting an immediate promotion in rank, with the accompanying pay raise. As of that day our crew now consisted of two new majors and a lieutenant colonel.

"Thank you, colonel," we responded nearly in unison. "That's terrific."

"Don't thank me. You fellows earned it," Bryan responded. "But don't get too comfortable with your new ranks. Spots can go as fast as they come, you know. The total number of spots command-wide is limited. The B-52 wing at Patterson AFB didn't do well on their recent inspection. They lost all of theirs and that's why the 305th became eligible for a few slots. So don't screw up, you guys, or some other outfit could get your promotions."

Colonel Bryan referred to the competition for such coveted promotions. SAC flight crews were rated on a "totem pole" system, based upon many factors relating to performance, both the individual performance of crews and that of the unit collectively. Failing an Inspector General's evaluation of the wing, or any crew member's testing or flight performance evaluations, could cost us these promotions. The pressure to excel was unrelenting.

As we left the colonel's office, Al being the last to leave, Bryan remarked, "Al, you're out of uniform. Get that new rank insignia sewn on pronto!"

We fairly skipped down the steps of headquarters as we headed for Al's car. "Yah -hoooo," we collectively rejoiced.

"How does that feel, colonel?" I asked Al. "What are you going to do with your pay raise?"

Al didn't answer right away, but Walt was quick to say, "Well, this means that new set of golf clubs. I'll tell you. Oh, Boy!"

As we piled into Al's car and headed down the flightline toward the squadron building, Al finally answered the question about his plans for the pay raise. "Rear end," he said. "This means that I can afford that two-speed Columbia rear end for my Ford. Yes, yes indeed."

Practically everybody on the base knew that Al was re-building a 1939 Ford coupe. It was his pet project and he had been working on it for several years. He poured a lot of time and money into his "black beauty", that shiny black car with custom upholstery, new engine and the works. Adding that Columbia gear box would finish the project.

"We've still got time," I suggested. "Let's stop by the squadron and call our wives. Boy! Are they going to be surprised."

And that we did. We burst through the door of the squadron operations office and headed for the nearest telephones. Other crew members, working on their mission flight plans for upcoming training flights, looked up somewhat startled as we came exuberantly upon the scene. Big Robbie, Lieutenant Colonel Roberts, our CO, came down the hall to see what all the commotion was about.

He stopped at the edge of the room and just stood there smiling. "Guess you fellows got the news. Eh? Well, congratulations. Well done."

It seems that the squadron leaders knew about our good fortune earlier in the morning. We didn't care. This was our day, and we headed for the closest phones to call home. "Hey, don't forget that you're still going on alert this morning," Robbie reminded. "Nothing's changed about that. So get your butts out of here and don't be late for change-over." We each took about five minutes to pass the news on to our wives. They were, I think, even more delighted than we were.

"Aww-right, you two. Let's get a move on," Al barked, as he motioned for us to get out of there. We headed back out to Al's waiting car. "Your know, Al," I suggested. "This is the clunker you really ought to be fixing up. Look at it. It's a disgrace. It smokes, it rattles and look there, you can even see through the floorboards. Yep. This is the one to spend your money on," I kept on chiding. We arrived at the inner gate, at the entry to the Alert Facility. It was an even more secure area than the outer perimeter of the flight line itself. Surrounding the half-buried building complex at the end of the runway, and the parked alert airplanes nearby, was a tightly guarded zone with access only to crew members, maintenance technicians and a selected group of essential people.

This was the "mole hole", where we were about to spend another week together.

The guard checked us in with special care. This time we not only had to show our photo badges, we had to give the proper access code. Without the proper numerical response to the guard's challenge, entry would be denied, or worse. We could be held at gun point as possible saboteurs or other threats to the armed and ready planes on the apron. This was a deadly serious place, one that was all business, with guards armed and ready to protect the area.

After parking the car and grabbing our gear, about sixty pounds of stuff for each of us, we headed down the covered ramp into the subterranean domain of the alert force. We walked the hallways, past the administrative offices, the mess hall and down to the dormitory. There we dumped our personal stuff onto the beds in our usual room. Each time we stayed in the same three-man room, a 14 by 14 feet space with standard G.I. furnishings. It was a Spartan place, not as comfortable as your average motel room. Here we'd live for the next seven days, until the following Thursday brought our replacements.

Into the room burst Major Evans and two or three other crewmen, all getting ready to be relieved.

"Congratulations, you guys. We heard about your good fortune at this morning's briefing."

Walt turned and replied, "Wouldn't you know it? We were the last ones to learn about it."

Evans patted Walt on the shoulder and continued, "Isn't that just too bad. To my way of looking at it, they'll let anybody wear major's leaves. Where are you gonna get yours tattooed?" Walt mumbled something unintelligible and stuffed his duffel bag down at the end of the bed. We thought he said something about getting the leaves tattooed where Evans wouldn't want to see it.

A few minutes later all crew members gathered in the briefing room, a huge auditorium able to accommodate both the 15 outgoing bomber crews, six tanker crews and their replacements. At the podium was Lieutenant Colonel Henderson, affectionately known as "Mother Hen" Henderson, administrator of the Alert Facility. Henderson's job was riding herd on a group of perpetually disgruntled, and sometimes unruly, flight crew members. He was also the one everybody griped to when things weren't right. Even trivial complaints about light bulbs being out or paper towels missing in the latrines were aimed at Henderson.

Henderson held up his arms, urging the group to come to order. Then he read the roster of crew numbers, expecting the AC's for each crew to respond.

Al spoke up when L-14 was called. "That's S-14, sir. We're all present," he responded. A murmur spread through the room. Someone was heard to say in a surly mimicking tone, " That's Sssss-14. Well, lah dee dah." Al ignored the jibe.

The briefing included the usual formalities of announcements about what airplanes were scheduled, along with crews, to come off alert duty. Tail numbers and locations on the flight line of replacement birds were read to the crews involved with these changes. Airplanes were put onto alert status for 30 days at a time, unless some maintenance problem required an earlier change. That also meant that a particular plane could be used by the same crew twice in any month, because sometimes crews cycled one week on and one off, spending every other week on alert duty.

Changing airplanes on alert meant extra work for the flight crews, as well as the maintenance folks. The replacement birds had to be up-loaded with weapons and tail gun ammunition, and then the off-going planes had to be down-loaded. Timing was critical, because the total number of planes committed to alert missions could not diminish during change-overs. SAC headquarters was a stickler about such matters.

Soon it was time to head out to the alert aircraft, just a few hundred yards from the runway side of the alert facility. Our crew joined the off-going crew at the plane. More guards checked the identification of both crews, before allowing access. Since neither crew was responding to the klaxon's call for an actual scramble, security remained tight. When an actual scramble brought crews on a dead run to their cocked and ready planes, the guards got out of the way.

The off-going crew "uncocked" the plane and then removed their flight equipment, which included helmets, briefcases, checklists and a few personal items. Soon it was time for us to climb the ladders, settle into the cockpits and stow our own gear. That done, we started the checklist procedures to re-cock the airplane. That's a procedure where cockpit switches are pre-set for a speedy engine start-up. We radioed our status to the Command Post before shutting systems down. Aircraft 080 was cocked and ready, and crew S-14 had assumed alert duty. Fortunately, we didn't have to change airplanes, or that process could have taken a few hours instead of a few minutes.

We ambled back into the Alert Facility, headed for the mess hall and lunch. The cafeteria-style dining room was first class. Special care and attention was given to the quality of the food and the presentation. Good grub has long been known as the key to contented men. For SAC alert crews and ground support people, this was more important than ever.

Looking around the dining room one was greeted by a tastefully decorated, well-lit room. It encouraged leisurely dining, an unhurried or hectic pace, somewhat belying the overall tenor of an alert facility with security tight, tensions high and pressures for excellence on flight crews unrelenting. The mess hall ( military jargon for a dining room ) was called the Bunker Hilton, a reference to the donations of decorations by the Hilton hotel chain that adopted the place as a gesture of good will and savvy advertising. The crews didn't really care who donated the stuff, but they were appreciative.

After lunch it was time to devote the remainder of the day to target study, the detailed review of our war mission, the reason we were on alert in the first place. We piled into our assigned blue Ford station wagon, backed into the reserved spots just outside the facility. Each vehicle was radio-equipped, enabling us to stay in continuous contact with the Command Post. Without a working radio we would be restricted to the alert facility where the klaxon's call could send us scurrying to our airplane. The freedom to move about the base was important to us and greatly improved morale. We were limited to places on the base that had klaxon alarms, however.

The wing headquarters Intelligence and Target Study office was klaxon-equipped, a place where crews spent many hours pouring over flight charts, target pictures and intelligence reports about enemy threat areas. Crews were expected to memorize a great deal of information about their alert missions, America's responses to nuclear attack by the enemy. The bomber force was but one element of the nation's strategic retaliatory power. Submarines with nuclear-tipped missile warheads, inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM's) in underground silos and bomber aircraft comprised the total strategic force which could be launched in just minutes.

Periodically, flight crews were interrogated and given written tests on their knowledge of alert mission profiles by senior officers of the commander's staff. The only acceptable score was 100%, anything less could result in downgrading of crews to non-combat-ready status, a situation sure to be reflected in individual efficiency reports. Careers were on the line and crews felt the pressure keenly. Crews like ours with more to lose, like spot promotions were even more sensitive to the stakes. Crews sometimes jokingly said that the SAC motto was : " To err is human, but to forgive is not SAC policy."

Sunday afternoon our crew scheduled a get-together with our families at the Officers Club. It would be our first chance to celebrate or good fortune, albeit in a subdued way. Alcoholic beverage drinking for alert crews as prohibited. We'd have to toast the affair with "Shirley Temples" ( ginger ale with a maraschino cherry garnish ), but at least we'd be with our loved ones.

We were pleased and surprised to be greeted by our wives who had gotten their heads together to present us each with freshly laundered and pressed flight suits, each adorned with our new rank insignia sew on the shoulders. "I guess that makes it official," Walt said to his wife. "Thanks."

We went into the dining room and sat together, three couples with four children gathered around a linen covered table. This was to be a festive occasion indeed. Well, it started out that way.

The whole Officers Club suddenly reverberated with the shrill blaring sound of the alert klaxon.


Our crew and several others grabbed their flight jackets and headed for the door, pausing only briefly enough to pat the heads of our kids and a quick kiss to the wives. For a few seconds it was bedlam in the club.

Our the door and into our waiting station wagon we scurried. I had barely closed the door and settled into the back seat when Al shouted to Walt, behind the wheel, " GO! GO, let's get going."

Walt didn't need any encouragement. He'd already put the vehicle in gear, flicked on the flashing red light atop the vehicle, pulled out into the street, and headed for the flight line. We sped across intersections without stopping, our red light assuring our right of way. Past the startled guard at the first gate to the flight line's outer perimeter we sped. Then, taking the most direct route, Walt drove along at about 50 miles per hour, straight across the ramp and down the taxiway toward the alert area and our waiting planes.

In practically one motion he screeched to a halt, just off the starboard side of our plane, cut the engine and bolted out of the door in a dead run for the plane. The ground crew was already there, having remained in the alert facility that afternoon and simply run across the tarmac. The engine starter cart were roaring to life, those turbine high pressure sources of air to provide initial rotation to the jet engines. Canopies were open and up we scrambled, each headed for his own cockpit. The AC jumped into the front seat, Walt into the second and I took mine in the rear.

I'd barely gotten my foot off the elevated access stand when one of the ground crew pulled it away and pushed it aside. We each donned our flight helmets. In seconds the crackle of static on out radios came through the earphones. We closed our canopies and awaited the message from the Command Post. Was this an exercise? .... or was it the real thing? We couldn't know until that message came. Seconds seemed like hours.

We watched other crews in adjacent parking spaces race to their own planes. Even though we'd been halfway across the base at the Officers Club, we weren't the last ones ready to go. Soon all fifteen B-58 flight crews were in their cockpits, anxiously awaiting the word. None had started engines yet, because this could have been just a BRAVO Alert exercise, the lowest level of practice. Bravo exercises didn't involve engine starts of taxi-out to the runway.

At last the message came. The duty officer in the Command Post read from a script in careful measured tone, " ...... I repeat. This is a COCO exercise for all crews. Authentication Juliet, Echo, Tango, Romeo." Those phonetic names for a series of letters were a code.

The flight crews began to acknowledge receipt of their coded message, each responding with their respective call signs. The duty officer at his console in the Command Post marked them off, one by one as they checked in. Al responded, using our radio call sign, "Albert 33, copy." That meant only that we had received and copied the message, not that we'd yet authenticated it with our code books.

I called to Al, on the inter-communication system, "It's a valid Coco. Authentication is good, Al."

Soon Walt echoed his independent confirmation. This was an exercise directing us to start engines, taxi to the end of the runway, set takeoff power, and then proceed to the first taxiway and return to the alert area. This was only a drill.

Al gave the crew chief a hand signal that we were starting engines. He held up his left hand and moved it in a circular pattern, indicating it was time to turn over the engines. Within seconds the first J-79 jet engine roared to life, followed quickly in succession buy the other three. Soon our supersonic craft came alive, systems came on line and all three radios crackled with background static. Walt's radar came to standby mode and would soon be ready to transmit. What had been an inert form of aluminum, fiberglass, plastic and glass was now a vibrant, roaring machine ready to go.

We completed our individual checklist items to make ready for taxiing out. I read the checklist items aloud to Al, calling out the many steps and procedures necessary to ensure things were ready for taxi out. He responded with the appropriate acknowledgments. The crew chief stood in front of us, both hands held high, ready to signal Al to start forward. The two planes ahead of us were already moving. Now it was out turn.

Albert 33 began to roll forward, out of the alert "Christmas tree" parking area and toward the end of the runway. Fifteen sleek and shiny delta-winged bombers, each loaded with nuclear weapons and full fuel loads, began to leave the branch-like parking spots and head down the main taxiway, analogous to the trunk of a tree, to the hold line at the edge of the runway.

The roar of the engines of each plane up ahead, belching orange and black flames behind engines set to maximum afterburner, was deafening, even within our enclosed cockpits and muffled by the helmets we each wore. Next it was our turn.

Al lined us up down the runway centerline. He eased the four throttles forward, as the plane shook and roared. Then he moved the throttles forward to the afterburner position. We too were belching flames and smoke, while accelerating down the runway. If this had been the real thing we would have continued more than 8500 feet and reached 200 knots before lifting off. But today we went barely 2000 feet before cutting the engines back to idle and reaching 80 knots. We slowed to barely 20 knots as we turned off the runway and headed for the parallel return taxiway. It had all been just sound and fury, no actual launch of the alert force.

We eased into the line of returning bombers, each headed back to the alert parking area. The ground crews now faced the task of refueling each plane and getting us back into the ready mode once again. Flight crews used the opportunity of having all systems up and running to check out their equipment. Then we shut down engines and awaited the fuel trucks. Until our planes were refueled, again parked in their designated places and re-cocked, flight crews remained with them. The whole process took over an hour.

It was after 4:30 in the afternoon before we returned to the Alert Facility. It was time to call our wives and explain our sudden departure from what was to have been a celebratory dinner at the Club. No explanations were necessary, for our families knew well what this was all about. We'd just have to postpone things until after alert was over. There was a general sense of relief that we had raced off on just an exercise and not the real thing, but neither our wives nor the crew members ever knew what it might be.