MITO Exercise

by Phil Rowe
What do you do when a MITO goes awry? That's a question bomber crews face when responding to a scramble on alert duty and on those few times each year when they practice MITO's.

MITO stands for Minimum Interval Take Off, the technique for getting a bunch of airplanes off the ground as quickly as possible. The reason for such a requirement was the Soviet submarine launched ballistic missiles, which could strike our airfields in just minutes. Often there would be barely 15 minutes to launch the planes to save them from destruction on the ground.

Let's go along with one crew to get the flavor of the MITO launch. It's about 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon. Seven B-58 Hustler bombers are ready to go. They have moved from the ramp to the parallel runway and soon the first of the group will taxi into position at the Hold Line short of the active.

Each of the sleek planes weighs about 164,000 pounds. Each has four after-burner equipped jet engines, now running at idle speed, yet spewing clouds of black exhaust smoke. Soon the number one pilot has tower clearance to take the active runway and get ready to take off. The others follow, crowding behind one another like school children in line for the bus.

It's a sunny day. Temperatures are in the low 70's. The winds are light and the smoke and fumes quickly permeate the air around the planes. All crew members are on 100 percent oxygen to be able to breath without being overcome by the exhaust gases.

The lead pilot announces that he's ready. He brings his throttles forward to military power setting, just short of firing his afterburners. That's the signal for the other pilots to get ready. Suddenly, the first B-58 starts down the runway, afterburners are lit and a plume of flame shoots aft of the four roaring jet engines.

"Okay guys," your pilot declares. "Here we go."

Your plane is in the number five slot. You'll be on the left-hand side of the runway, behind the left-right staggered planes ahead. You will be directly behind the number three bomber, with number four slightly ahead and on the right side of that 200 foot wide strip of concrete stretching 12,000 feet before you.

Your separation will be just seven and a half seconds behind the number four plane ahead, and just 15 seconds from number three in your same lane.

By the time the first three planes roar down the runway in front of you the noise becomes deafening, the smoke and fumes have become a hot cloud of exhaust gases. The visibility gets progressively worse for each following plane. And the turbulence from those high velocity jet plumes shakes each plane a little worse.

Soon there is a steady flow of rapidly accelerating planes. The lead pilot has it the easiest, for there is no one in front of him to mess things up.

"Damn," your pilot mutters. "This is going to be rough, boys. Sure wish we had a crosswind to clear things away."

Your rapidly accelerating bomber has reached 95 knots, that normal speed check to decide whether or not to continue the take-off roll, is moot. You've got to keep going, even if your engines sputter. Ordinarily you'd check your speed at some point down the runway, when you still had the opportunity to stop if things didn't seem right. Not today. It's strictly a "go for it" situation.

One thing you hadn't counted on was the hotter than normal air that your engines were sucking in. The efficiency of your engines is less than you predicted, because the hot exhausts from those up front have degraded your engine performance. That means that you'll take more distance to get to flying speed.

"Oh shit," exclaims your pilot. But there's no time to explain. The aircraft just ahead has blown a tire, or maybe more than one. Rubber begins to scatter everywhere and the number three bomber begins to weave left and right.

"Number Three's in trouble," is all you hear from your pilot. You can sense the tension and anxiety in his usually calm and deliberate voice.

"We're going anyway, boys. It's going to be bumpy, so hang on."

The number three plane has suddenly veered off to the left of the runway, quickly slowing down as he tears into the grass. Your plane whizzes on by, continuing down the runway and accelerating for takeoff. You've still only reached 190 knots and there's barely 2000 feet of runway remaining.

You feel the nose of the plane rise, and the rotation for lift-off is a comforting sensation. It looks as if your plane made it. Just as the last few feet of the runway slip past, your aircraft lifts into the air, accelerating past 210 knots and reaching skyward.

"Checklist," calls your pilot, as he awaits your reading of the after-takeoff things to check.

"Roger pilot. Gear Up. Elevator available lever to automatic," you respond. Your pilot acknowledges the several post-lift-off things that have been done. The climb out now seems normal.

"What the hell happened?" the navigator inquires.

"Not sure, Nav. I think Number Three lost some tires and had to veer off the runway about halfway down. We were going about 100 knots so he was just a little over that when he hit the grass with his wheels slicing things up pretty bad."

What none of the crew knew was that Number Three went off the runway and down an embankment into a drainage ditch. The plane slammed into the opposite bank and burst into flames. Nobody got out.

MITO's gone awry can be pretty messy. The dangers were known by all, but that doesn't make it any easier to accept. It could have been your crew.

This time it wasn't, but then this was only a "What if?" story.