B-58 Days

SAC "First Team" Briefing

by Phil Rowe
In its heyday, Strategic Air Command (SAC) was the prima donna Air Force unit. It demanded and got the cream of the crop of personnel for practically every discipline needed, from flight operations to maintenance and support. And there's no denying that SAC got most of the money it wanted from a Congress anxious about the Cold War and our defensive posture vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

A string of generals, several in the mold of Curtis LeMay, kept the world's number one strategic strike command in top shape. They lobbied for and got the best equipment, facilities and airplanes that the aerospace industry could produce. But most importantly, the generals got the money to take care of the officers, men and families of SAC. Few organizations up to that time ( or since ) placed such emphasis on the welfare of its people.

Even the rival U.S. Navy, with its feisty and influential Admiral Rickover and the evolving nuclear fleet, did not garner the dollars and support that favored the Strategic Air Command. SAC's acquisitions include hundreds B-36 and B-52 heavy bombers, and even more B-47, B-58 and FB-111 medium bombers. Supporting both were KC-97 and KC-135 aerial tankers, not to mention a fleet of transports, utility and courier planes. No Air Force on earth had the power of the Strategic Air Command. And that was but one part of America's total deterrent arsenal. But history has proven the merits of that investment. We endured and triumphed the long cold war without getting into a hot one.

The life of SAC airmen was not easy. The generals were tough task masters and demanded the highest levels of dedication and professionalism from the top down. Training and rigorous testing molded a highly professional force. Frequent inspections and no-notice simulated deployments of crews and planes kept the pressure on all personnel. Even special security checks and exercises were made to evaluate military police, guards and flight line mechanics to keep them on their toes to the threats of saboteurs and spies. Everything was taken seriously and foul-ups were not tolerated.

But those who shared the goals of professionalism and worked hard to maintain the highest state of readiness were not forgotten. The rewards were there for those who aimed for excellence. There was a system of "spot" promotions which fortunate flight crew members could attain for being the best. Some people even got double promotions, spots on spots. Winners were rewarded, but losers were quickly transferred elsewhere, though that caused problems, especially for other Air Force units.

One form of reward and motivation was known as the "First Team" briefing, hosted by the Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Air Command ( the CINCSAC or CINC, for short ), held at SAC headquarters near Omaha, Nebraska. This writer participated in one such affair during his days on a B-58 flight crew. It was a memorable experience.

Once or twice each year crewmembers from each of SAC's bomber and tanker units were invited to attend the First Team briefings. SAC commanders believed in getting closer to their air crews and devoted a whole day to host the memorable events. The year that I attended there were perhaps one hundred of us brought to Omaha from all across the country. The sessions with the CINC began at 0800 hours sharp, with an orientation in a briefing room attended by the entire top level of SAC's organization. The room was full of headquarters colonels and generals, all playing host to visiting aircrewmen. In later years missile crewmembers were added, as SAC's nuclear arsenal included those key players too.

Lunch, following a morning of presentations by nearly every headquarters division or specialty, was held as a mingling of staff and crewmembers. Dialog was easy and relaxed, with free expression of ideas, open critiques and even gripe sessions encouraged. For many it was a chance to renew old friendships with headquarters people and other airmen.

The afternoon was devoted to a kind of one-on-one discussion between the CINC and his "boys". The general sat casually on the edge of the auditorium stage, coat unbuttoned and up close to the attendees. He discussed the current and future challenges facing SAC, as well as previewing new airplanes and systems the unit was destined to receive. He pulled no punches in addressing the budgetary, congressional and political issues. And he chided rival services and organizations who did not measure up to his own standards. It was all a giant pep rally, of course. But it was heady stuff for those of us who felt we were getting very special treatment.

A cocktail hour and formal dinner rounded out the day. Held at the Officers' Club, of course, it featured a meal to be remembered. Flaming baked Alaska for dessert, cognac and special cigars capped the affair. We were hosted by our CINC in first class style. To a man we were impressed, and pleased to have been among the chosen .

Few people are neutral in their opinions about SAC, its leadership or way of life. Those who agreed with the high standards, the discipline and systems of rewards will probably feel proud to have been a part of it. Others, and many are quite vocal about their views, disparage the whole organization and its seemingly excessive demands. I guess I am among the former, proud of my eight years on a SAC flight crew.