Busy on Alert

by Phil Rowe

They managed to keep us pretty busy on our week-long stints in the Strategic Air Command's Alert Facilities, back in the days of the Cold War. Bomber and tanker crews, plus the all-important ground crews, endured the nerve-wracking duty with professionalism and pride. A good measure of humor was also a key ingredient, for sometimes people got on each other's nerves.

Keeping men crowded together, under near wartime conditions, for repeated cycles of a week off and a week on Alert duty was not easy. The requirements of security, with nuclear weapons loaded and strict guidelines for handling and storing highly classified materials demanded 100% all the time.

Pulling Alert duty was not all dullness and emotional stress. Daytime hours were busy and full. Morning roll calls, aircraft preflight checks and training schedules kept us busy. We seldom missed meal times in the Alert Facility dining hall, where the food was usually quite good. Evenings we could relax and were often permitted to meet out families at the base movie theater, the exchange store, the cafeteria or the Officers' Club. We could go to such places only if they were equipped with klaxon horns and certified to be within the rapid response time distances from our cocked and ready airplanes.

One activity that kept us busy was mission planning for our training flights scheduled in the week in between Alert stints. The next week's flying schedule was usually posted by Wing Headquarters on Wednesday or Thursday for the following week's missions. When the schedule came out we knew which of us was to fly, on what day and what kind of training sortie. We knew, for example, whether or not we were to fly a high or low level mission, whether or not we were to include a supersonic leg and against which practice targets. And we knew whether or not we would rendezvous with a tanker, include live gunnery practice and the like.

That was enough to get us started on mission planning. Sometime we could do the planning down at the squadron building, where all the necessary charts and support information was available. But sometimes we did the planning in the Alert Facility dining room, using the tables as workspace. By the time we completed the week's stint on Alert, we were planned and ready for the upcoming training mission the following week.

We never knew, of course, whether or when the klaxon horn would sound and cause us to drop everything to scamper to our waiting and loaded airplanes. Typically we would get at least one practice scramble call, though never did we actually take off. We'd get to the end of the runway, set takeoff power and then pull back the throttles, only to taxi down to the first or second exit to the parallel return taxi-way. A dozen bombers and nearly as many KC-135 tankers doing that each time was pretty hectic. It took an hour more to get the birds back into their original parking spots, refueled and re-cocked for the next exercise . Or the real thing.

I have added this short description of Alert duty in response to questions received from numerous interested people who have sent me email messages. There is considerable curiosity about what it was like back then, in the harsh days of the Cold War.