He took off his gloves and thrust both hands toward the heater, under the dashboard of that blue panel truck. "Ah .. that's better. My fingers were going numb."
"You wouldn't happen to have any coffee left in that thermos?" Al hopefully inquired. Longingly, Al looked at the two-gallon GI thermos jug on the floor behind the driver.
"Sorry, Major Spivens. Fresh out," responded Master Sergeant Bailey. "My guys are cold out there too and beat you to it, sir." Al smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
In a few minutes Al's other two crewmembers joined him. "Damnit, Walt," Al shouted. "Shut that door." Quickly, Captains Green and Allison jumped into the warmth and protection of the maintenance supervisor's vehicle, usually called the "bread truck".
The ground crew was preparing the plane for its scheduled 6:00 AM takeoff and had been out in the frosty air for two hours already. They had another hour to go. Getting that 160,000-pound delta winged bomber off the ground is a big job, a job made even tougher in winter conditions.
Al's instructor crew, designated S-14, was on duty that January morning, evaluating a student crew's performance during their preflight of the sleek B-58 bomber. Today their students would make their solo flight.
So far the new crew, N-30, had the first four flights necessary to qualify for this solo mission. The student pilot had three rides in the two-pilot version of the bomber and did very well. Al felt that they were ready to solo.
N-30's navigator and defensive system operator(DSO) were ready too, having completed a dozen simulator flights and an orientation ride in the B-58 with another pilot. The student DSO had also flown with his pilot in their TB-58 missions.
The student crew was still in the cockpit while S-14 warmed themselves in the bread truck. "How are they doing, sir?" the sergeant inquired.
"Well, they're about ready to start engines and run their Power-ON checks. I'd say that they're doing about right. No problems so far," Al responded.
"Guess I'd better get this truck clear, before those engines start churning," Sergeant Williams suggested. "Hold on, sir, while I back up." Al tightened his grip on the back of the driver's seat. Green and Allison sat on the small bench, each tucking chilled hands into their parka pockets.
Soon the roar of the air turbine cart added to the din already caused by the electrical generator parked beside the bomber's wingtip. A jumble of electrical cords, air hoses and interphone cables lay in the snow on the ramp. It takes a lot of equipment to support pre-flight and maintenance of that supersonic airplane.
The crew lowered their overhead canopies. Each man sat in his own separate cockpit, the pilot up front, the navigator in the middle and the DSO in the rear. There was no physical or visual contact between crewmembers in flight. Every action between them was coordinated over the interphone system. The DSO read the checklist to his pilot, who responded in prescribed manner to the dozens of items called out.
A ground crewman struggled to move the tall access stand from beside the forward fuselage. It wouldn't budge because of the accumulated snow. Sergeant Bailey unhesitatingly bolted from the truck to help. It was all the two of them could do to slowly push the ladder platform clear, so engines could be started. Then Bailey returned to the warmth and relative quiet of his vehicle.
Soon one inboard engine started turning, as the starter cart fed high pressure air to the little turbine which in turn drove the main engine. The engine turned over faster and faster, and suddenly smoke and hot air rushed from the tail cone. A plume of snow billowed behind the plane for two hundred feet, as high velocity exhaust gases cleared the ramp behind the engine.
In a few minutes all four engines were running. The roar was deafening. The ground crew struggled to remove the maze of hoses, cords and equipment. Soon N-30 would be checking all systems, now running off aircraft-furnished power.
Al jumped out of the vehicle and ran over to the crew chief, standing forward of the airplane's nose. He motioned that he wanted to put the headset on and talk to the student pilot. The chief was only too glad to transfer the earphones and microphone to Al, and in seconds he was inside the truck getting some warmth.
Al talked to the pilot and his crew. They satisfied him that all systems were ready and nothing prevented them taking their first solo flight. It was only a couple of minutes before Al waved for the crew chief to return. The plane would be taxiing out toward the runway shortly.
The crew chief disconnected his headphones, coiled up the long cord plugged into a socket in the forward wheel well, and stepped out in front where the pilot could plainly see him. Then he signalled for his two assistants to pull the wheel chocks, large wooden blocks, away from the main landing gear wheels. The bird was ready to move.
Hands raised overhead, the chief motioned for the pilot to ease the plane forward. The engines roared loudly and soon that sleek machine began to roll. Suddenly, it stopped, as the pilot checked his brakes. The plane bobbed up and down briefly at the abrupt stop. Then once more it began to move, with the crew chief using hand signals to guide the pilot onto the main taxiway and move toward the runway. The chief saluted smartly as he waved the plane clear of its parking spot.
Soon Sergeant Bailey's van was full of people, for the crew chief and his two assistants came aboard for the ride to the end of the runway. One more set of visual checks would be needed before the plane could take off.
The van trailed a few hundred yards behind the slowly moving plane, across the ramp and down the taxiway parallel to the runway. Visibility was poor, owing to the snow billowing behind the roaring jet engines.
At the wide spot in the taxiway, just short of the active runway, the plane stopped. There the pilot would run engines to a higher power setting, just short of igniting the extra thrust producing afterburners. This would be his last chance to check all instruments, hydraulics, electrical and flight control systems before takeoff.
But just as the pilot began to increase engine power, the plane slipped and turned. The brakes could not hold against the increased power, because ice on the taxiway under the left main gear presented a slick surface. The plane began to pivot, until the quick-acting pilot reduced throttles to stop the motion.
The throttles were further reduced to idle setting and the crew chief ran toward the nose of the plane, hooked up the cord to the interphone headset and began talking to the pilot. In a few seconds he motioned for Al to come over. Apparently the pilot wanted to talk to his instructor. Al quickly dashed over to the nose of the plane.
Al and his student agreed that everything seemed normal, so a full power check before taking the active runway could be omitted, or at least skipped for now. Al suggested that the pilot ought to try the engine run-up after getting positioned on the runway. There didn't appear to be any ice over there.
By now the crew chief and his assistants had completed their last visual inspections of the plane, its landing gear, tires and other parts usually given a final once-over before each flight. All seemed normal.
It was a few more minutes before the pilot eased his now-ready bird onto the runway. He was lined up and ready for takeoff. The people in the van could tell that the pilot was again checking his engines, for the roar of the jets increased and this time the brakes held. The plane was on dry concrete out there on the runway.
In a few more minutes the afterburners on all four engines were lit. Flames shot out behind the plane for twenty feet or more as the extra thrust was added to accelerate the plane down the runway for takeoff. The noise rattled the van. Snow blew in great clouds behind the plane.
Slowly the B-58 picked up speed and was soon accelerating down the runway. More than 8,000 feet would be needed before the nose began to lift. Then the plane climbed, up and away from the pavement. It was going over 200 miles per hour at lift-off and gathering speed every second.
Crew N-30 was airborne. Their solo flight had begun. Now it was up to them to safely complete their mission and bring the plane back down. They'd be gone for six hours or more. Al and his fellow crew members could only wait, and hope that their student crew was indeed prepared. It must have been an exciting moment for N-30. It sure was for instructor crew S-14.