B-58 Crew Life

The Mach Crows

by Phil Rowe
(Printed in "Friends Journal", Spring 1996)

There once was an organization called the Mach Crows. No, they weren't birds, but they were a part of a larger and older group called the Old Crows. Both groups were comprised of people who specialized in electronic warfare or electronic countermeasures (ECM).

The Mach Crows were unique members of the electronic warfare community in the U.S. Air Force. More specifically, they were Crows who flew in the back seat of the supersonic B-58 bomber. Hence, the "Mach" ( for supersonic ) modifier of the more staid Crow nomenclature. They were also members of the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Mach Crows were originally limited to Carswell Air Force Base, Texas and Bunker Hill Air Force Base, Indiana. That's where the B-58's were assigned, until the 43rd BW got transferred to Little Rock, Arkansas.

The Mach Crow organization was quasi-professional, with a fraternal or social bent too. They were formed primarily to protect the interests of one group of air crewmen new to the 305th and 43rd Bombardment Wings (Medium), the ECM specialists.

The group was formed in the early 1960's, though the better known Old Crows started in the 40's, during WWII. Several names come to mind as the co-founders of the Mach Crow Association, including Air Force officers: William W. (Bill) Wilson, James Kapotic, Sam Doren, Roche (Rocky) Zefo and Ray Greene. Eventually over 100 members, from both B-58 organizations, belonged.

The B-58 bomber was flown by a three-man crew, the pilot ( aircraft commander or AC ), the radar navigator and the Defensive Systems Operator (DSO). The latter was the ECM officer, but his duties were far more than that.

He was a kind of flight engineer, responsible for monitoring the performance of the B-58 and keeping constant track of the fuel and center-of-gravity state throughout the flights. He was the tail gunner, with the 20mm cannon in the tail of the airplane as his stinger. And he was sort of a co-pilot, working closely with his AC. He read the checklists, did most of the communications work on the radios, and backed up the radar navigator by helping keep track of time with his stopwatch, during the last few minutes of bombing runs. He was a very busy guy.

B-58 pilots and radar navigators on many crews had flown together in the Boeing B-47 before its replacement by B-58's. Those two officers knew each other well, with each having confidence in the other's abilities and professionalism. But the DSO was a newcomer, an unknown element that had to earn his place on the crew. And because the pilot and DSO soon came to work very closely, particularly on matters of aircraft performance and flight safety, some navigators felt a little estranged or perhaps a bit of competition for the attention of their leader. The interloper was the DSO and he was not always welcomed as part of the team, certainly not in the old social cliques of the two bombardment wings.

There was a realization by DSO's that they had special problems and needs, not only for professional cooperation , but also for fellowship and mutual support. The co-founders of the Mach Crows demonstrated keen insight and imagination in developing the organization. It was just the right concept at the right time to fulfill a real need. And it was highly successful.

One of the first things that the newly formed Mach Crows did was initiate special help and training for new DSO's to master their unique jobs. Several DSO's had difficulties with the details of airplane performance. ECM training had not prepared them at all for computing weights, center of gravity, take-off and landing distances, optimum cruise conditions and the special problems of supersonic flight. And added to that was the need to make DSO's skilled in traditionally co-pilot duties. Their primary job as defensive operators was, in effect, subordinate to these other tasks.

Whenever a DSO was known to have job difficulties, usually evidenced by a report from an instructor or flight examiner, the Mach Crow group came to the rescue. It's members made a special effort to encourage and assist the DSO, and even to intercede on his behalf with supervisors at Squadron and Wing level. It was far more cost-effective to bring a struggling DSO's proficiency up to standards than lose the Air Force's investment in his training. It was also a great way to build comraderie and espirit.

So as not to appear to be in competition with pilots and radar navigators in the Wing, special efforts were made to build commu nication links and fellowship. In the 305th Bomb Wing the Mach Crows hosted annual cocktail parties and dinners for their fellow aircrewmen. Those were especially gala affairs, and again demon strated the creativity and resourcefulness of the co-founders.

For example, the Old Crow Distillery, maker of Old Crow brand whisky, was approached to be a commercial sponsor of the Mach Crow organization. That provided funding for the gala dinner parties, and added a unique symbolism opportunity. The distillery company used crow statuettes, crow-like characters dressed in tuxedoes, for advertising and promotion. The foot-tall statuettes became presentation awards for recognition of various accomplishments by DSO's and their fellow crewmen. Many times the awards were humorous and in good fun.

Through activities like the annual dinner parties and special efforts to assure greater professionalism by DSO's, the good will and cooperation amongst all B-58 aircrewmen greatly improved. The cliques and jealousies dissolved. DSO's were soon full-fledged members of the team, recognized and appreciated for their unique role in the B-58 program.

Some career military people will admit to the special bonds that exist among service academy graduates, how they support one another and seem to have closer ties than with others in the broader military community. Well, those "old boy" networks and special relationships that shepherd careers could not compare to the Mach Crows.

In this writer's 23-plus years of active duty in the Air Force, I never knew of a more effective, productive and beneficial association within the military. The real proof lies in the accolades and praise given to the Mach Crows by wing commanders and in the career records of many successful DSO's, some of whom went on to become Air Force general officers.