This was the start of an exercise our Wing Commander would never forget. The Bar None simulation of a nuclear war launch of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber force was under way. The name meant exactly what it said. All airplanes on the base must take part, one way or another, barring none. This was the severest test for both the flight crews and the maintenance technicians. And it came as a surprise.
First, planes on Alert Status responded to the klaxon by racing to the end of the runway, as if to launch during a real nuclear war situation. Then they taxied to the main flight line for downloading of bombs and armament, preparation for actual launch and flight on a simulated mission halfway across the country.
The workload on the maintenance and munitions specialists was daunting, made even more so by the miserable weather. With hands freezing, tools as cold as ice, and supervisors barking "Hurry up", the technicians slaved to get the job done. Getting that first wave of planes airborne was top priority, but so was safety and the caution necessary when dealing with nuclear weapons and live ammunition. Mistakes were not allowed.
Meanwhile, Alert flight crews faced two special challenges, rigorous written examinations on procedures related to deployment of our nuclear forces, where the only passing score is 100 percent. Then they'd fly the simulated war mission, to launch within hours. The pressure was as realistic as the SAC inspection team could make it.
The exercise was not unexpected, for each bomber unit was given a Bar None test once a year. The date and time, however, is never known, so it really came as a surprise. Even the actual start fooled those in Wing headquarters, for the inspection team arrived on a common military transport. Those planes were nothing unusual, arriving and departing at bases across the country at all hours as a matter of routine. One never knew whether an arriving transport was carrying ordinary cargo or bringing the inspection team.
Flight crews received weather briefings and then loaded their gear for the mission. Groups of 15 planes, the same number normally on alert, readied for takeoff. The interval between planes, roaring down the runway into the snowy darkness was 30 seconds, barely twice that allowed for a launch under real wartime conditions.
Just as the first wave was launched, maintenance teams readied the next group of 15, to be manned by flight crews not on Alert Duty when the klaxon sounded. Eventually, every plane and every crew would participate, though there were more crews than planes. That meant that maintenance people would have to turn returning planes around as soon as possible for the extra crews to fly.
The Wing Commander and his senior staff were under great pressure to ensure that things went right, and that safety prevailed. No matter how well the crews and technicians performed, an accident or mishap endangering personnel or equipment could mean instant failure for the entire unit. It would be days before the leaders got any sleep.
The weather got worse, though some couldn't imagine how. Clouds lowered and soon the base neared closure. When ceilings and visibility got below 300 feet and a half mile, all flying would have to stop. Only during actual wartime would the commander order airplane launches under below-minimums weather conditions. As realistic as the Bar None exercise felt, it was still just that, an exercise and not the real thing.
Activity in the Command Post, the communications nerve center for the Wing, was hectic. Messages came and went at a frantic pace. Status boards, reflecting the condition and readiness of each airplane, constantly changed as reports came in from the flightline and Maintenance Control.
Weather reports on the ever-worsening winter storm changed every few minutes. Actions by flight crews were gathered and data posted. Engine starts, taxi-outs and take-offs were recorded. Relayed radio reports from the planes, reflecting rendezvous with aerial tankers, completion of simulated bomb runs at distant targets, and condition of planes and their systems on their way home were recorded. The Commander was kept informed of hundreds of ever-changing conditions.
Getting that first wave of planes back quickly was vital, for those planes had to be put right back on Alert. One measure of the unit's performance was how soon the Alert Force could be "re-constituted". So progress of the first crews was monitored closely.
The weather would not cooperate. It soon became obvious that the planes of the first wave, all 15 of them, might not return to their Indiana home base. The airfield was officially closed just before the first plane was due back over the field, and the Wing Commander was tearing out the last remaining hairs on his already-balding head. Planes would have to be diverted to an alternate air base.
The forecaster predicted no improvement for several hours, meaning that there was no way to have the returning planes hold in orbit, awaiting improved weather.
Reluctantly, the Commander ordered them to divert to the one other B-58 base capable of support and helping them return later, Carswell Air Force Base, Fort Worth, Texas.
Flight crews weren't greatly displeased to receive the word to divert to Carswell, for there it was warm and clear. Crew rest rules dictated that they should have at least twelve hours on the ground before having to take off for Indiana. They were expected to sleep eight of those hours.
Bad weather also precluded launching of the second wave of bombers. Two-thirds of the planes were either airborne or now ready to fly. The others would follow, but getting the first group back was imperative. Tensions rose, nerves frayed and tempers flared as fatigue settled on top of frustration.
It was more than 24 hours after the first plane left before it was able to return. Soon 12 of the 15 landed back in Indiana. Three were delayed by mechanical problems discovered in Texas, not to return for another twelve hours. The Commander was happy to have some planes back home, but frustrated by the things he could not control, weather and mechanical failures.
The Alert Force was re-constituted, piece-meal, at the 49th hour. Fortunately, the SAC evaluation team leader judged that the unit should not be penalized for the weather delays. This, after all, was an exercise and not the real thing.
SAC Bar None exercises truly test every man, plane and resource of the organization. From the lowest G.I. on the flight line or in the shops, to the senior staff and the Commander himself, all performed at their very best.