by Phil Rowe
So much togetherness frayed the nerves, but the real culprit was the klaxon horn. It could sound any time day or night to send these men off to fight a nuclear war. Or that klaxon, which rattled nerves and sent adrenaline flowing, could merely indicate another inspection and evaluation exercise was about to be kicked off, an Operational Readiness Inspection. Strategic Air Command (SAC) was relentless in testing the system and the crews.
For members of all SAC bomber wings the ORI was an onerous challenge, usually faced just once a year. For those on alert duty when the exercise kicked off it was worse, for they were the ones subjected to written and oral testing, where the only passing score was 100 percent. Then they had to fly a graded mission resembling the profile of an actual wartime sortie. It was grueling and the stakes were high.
For the ground and maintenance crews it was no less of an ordeal. Planes had to be downloaded from alert status, replacements uploaded and configured and all of that under tremendous pressure to hurry, hurry, hurry. Yet no mistakes were allowed for them either. The combat readiness of the entire bomb wing was under the close scrutiny of unforgiving inspectors from SAC headquarters. The possible stigma of failure was uppermost on the minds of unit commanders, who pressured their men to the limit.
The 59th Bomb Wing was a proud unit, its heritage going back to World War II when crews flew B-17's over Germany. Later they converted to B-50's, then to B-47's and just two years ago to the Mach 2 B-58 Hustler, America's first supersonic strategic bomber. Crews were deservedly proud of their unit and for being chosen as but one of two wings selected to fly the most glamorous and exciting airplane in the SAC inventory. The 59th was certified combat-ready in 58's just one year ago and that represented a lot of hard work, study and exhaustive testing for ground and flight crews alike. B-58's now joined their brethren B-52, B-47 and tanker units in pulling alert duty. All were part of the USAF's deterrent forces protecting the free world.
Out on the flightline, just 100 yards from the half-buried Alert facility known as the "mole hole", sat 15 B-58 strategic bombers, each loaded with bombs, fuel and ammunition, ready to go to war. Surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence and guarded by armed military policemen with highly trained guard dogs, this contingent of strategic bombers was cocked and ready to go. Both flight crews and ground support troops worked diligently to maintain the highest state of readiness demanded by national security requirements.
When the klaxon horn sounded, as it often did more than once for each week-long tour of alert duty, crews never knew whether the call meant the real thing. The state of international tensions, reported to crews in daily intelligence briefings and carried in the media, usually indicated how terse relations were between the two sides of the Cold War. During especially tense periods the practice klaxons were curtailed, but only during periods of greatest international uncertainty.
Whether the response to a klaxon was real or for practice, crews were expected to be able to get their planes ready for take-off in less than 15 minutes. That included those who might be across the base, training in the flight simulators, working in the target study shop or just meeting family members at the Officers' Club or Base Exchange for a personal rendezvous.
Special alert response routes, throughout the base, allowed crews to drive their radio-equipped blue station wagons directly across the ramp, down taxiways and thence to the alert area. Flashing red lights atop the vehicles warned others that crews were responding to a klaxon call. All others must make way for these jet-age gladiators.
Crews on alert did everything as a team. They shared the same below-ground sleeping quarters, ate meals together, checked their airplane together daily, trained together and went everywhere on base as a single unit. It was even joked that when one crewmember had to go to the latrine, they all went.
The leader of each flight crew was the pilot, called the aircraft commander or AC. His two colleagues included the radar navigator and the defensive system officer (DSO). Just three, all officers with thousands of combined flight hours between them, were merged into a single fighting team capable of delivering nuclear weapons anywhere in the world that the President ordered. From their northwestern Illinois base, just 100 miles from Chicago, these crewmen were assigned targets in the Soviet Union. With the aid of aerial refueling from KC-135 tankers over the North Atlantic, they could reach their targets in under eight hours.
It was just before 8:00 A.M. on this particular Wednesday morning that crews of the 61st gathered in the alert facility auditorium for the daily briefing. All had been up for an hour or more, dressing, shaving and eating a better-than-average mess hall meal. Alert crews were not exactly pampered, but they were well cared for. This routine morning meeting was called by the man affectionately known as "mother hen", the alert facility's full-time manager responsible for the care, feeding and management of flight and ground crews pulling their stint of alert duty.
Lieutenant Colonel Harvey Bell stepped up onto the stage, moved behind the rostrum, just to the left of the large projection screen. The inspiring symbol of the 59th Bomb Wing adorned the podium.
"Good morning, gentlemen," began Colonel Bell. "Ten seconds to 0800 hours. Four, three, two, one .. Hack."
Just as Bell declared "four", Major Al Spivens eased into his seat, a half-filled cup of coffee in his hand, which he deftly slipped under the seat. His two crewmen, Captains Fred Thomas and Ben Wilson were already in place and checking their watches. Al grinned at the other two, who knew well that their AC was typically the last one to arrive. Ben just shook his head, bemused but not surprised.
Roll call came next as each crew was polled. Al responded, "Present", as crew number S-16 was called. AC's generally responded with the word "present", though by the sixth day of alert there were occasionally wise cracks added. Some pilots and other crewmen were senior to Bell, but in the Alert Facility he was boss. None of the crewmen wanted his thankless job.
Next came the daily weather briefing, remotely presented over an communications link with the forecaster across the runway in Base Operations. A television monitor mounted high above Colonel Bell's podium displayed weather data, winds aloft charts and other information essential to the flight crews. Bell moved over to adjust a speaker volume control and instructed, "Okay, Captain Amos. Proceed with the weather. The monitor is working."
Jim Amos, well-known to the crews from his briefings for all training flights and many alert roll call sessions, began with a synopsis of current weather conditions. It was typical for northern Illinois in January with snow, high winds and chill factors to make a polar bear wince. This part of the briefing was of greatest concern to the maintenance and police security crews who would spend much of their day out of doors around the airplanes.
"The worst of this blizzard is not expected until late this afternoon or early evening," continued Captain Amos. "Snow accumulation will be about ten inches by this time tomorrow. Then we forecast a rapid clearing, with temperatures dropping to about zero by dawn. Any questions before I move on to your target area forecasts?"
Colonel Bell looked over the audience and detected no special interest or questions, so he responded," No questions. You may continue, Amos." An upper air winds aloft chart depicted the pressure contours and vectors indicating the direction and velocity of winds. The first chart covered the region from the north-central U.S.A. to eastern Canada. The charts also depicted layers of clouds all the way to the mid-Atlantic.
"Looks like those tailwinds will save us some fuel, Al," Ben whispered. I'll calculate it later, but we'll probably be 1500 pounds ahead by the ARCP (air refueling control point) .. and maybe five or ten minutes ahead of flight plan, if that holds."
Al nodded, as Fred jotted down the wind direction and velocity data for several points on the route of flight from Illinois to Newfoundland. He and Ben checked each other's numbers.
"And from the ARCP's on to your penetration corridors," Amos continued, "It looks like skies will be clear, with winds remaining favorable. You shouldn't have any problems. Any questions?" he again asked.
Fred muttered to Al, "Sure, no problems for him, but we won't have any help. No clouds means the Ruskies will be able to see our contrails. The only good news is those tailwinds, but I'll have to compute the enroute times to refueling again." Al nodded.
After the weather briefing ended, Bell read several announcements and then a few notes from the intelligence reports. Nothing special was afoot on the international scene. The Free World could rest easy, with the 59th on alert this day.
Bell's final remarks included a reminder that the wing was vulnerable for an ORI, noting the their sister B-58 unit just completed theirs last week. "We're ripe for inspection, gentlemen. And if the weather report is true, it'll be a repeat of last year's messy conditions. Stay sharp, fellows."
Then Bell turned to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Hendricks, seated in the front row. Hendricks was the senior AC, an instructor pilot and a respected member of the 61st squadron. He was the oldest B-58 pilot, but despite his graying hair and slow, deliberate manner, without doubt the most qualified AC in the room, a pilot's pilot. He was liked and respected by every man there.
"Any special words this morning, Dave?"
Hendricks stood, faced the audience and flipped through his note book. "With that weather moving in, it's possible that we'll be restricted to the Alert Area this afternoon. I'll keep you posted, but check with me before any of you goes across the base. And don't forget to use those covers on your vehicle windshields."
"Captain Gregory, your crew has an airplane change this morning. You'll check out number 884 and bring it across. Check with the Alert Maintenance Desk right after this briefing."
Hendricks continued, "S-16, Major Spivens. Your crew is scheduled to brief the Wing Commander on your new alert sortie at 1400 hours. Better head over to Target Study right after morning preflight." Al nodded in acknowledgment, and turned to look at his fellow crewmembers. It was standard procedure for all flight crews to be grilled by their Wing Commander on the details of assigned alert sorties, and they'd better be ready.
Last remarks ended with an announcement that next week's flight schedule was on the bulletin board. Routine training flights were squeezed in between turns on alert for crews of the 61st. Two flights a month was about average, unless crews were in the upgrade process to become combat ready.
Following the briefing, crews drifted downstairs to gather their heavy jackets and other items needed for the daily preflight checks on their airplanes standing out in the cold.
"Meet you guys in the hall," Al declared to his crewmates. "Gotta get some more coffee." It seemed as if Al never went anywhere without carrying his cup of coffee. We kidded him about having a ten-gallon bladder.
Crew S-16 was walked across the ramp toward their chilly airplane, tail numbered 866. It was this very same bird that they had flown on a routine training flight just last week, but now the bird would be doing its stint on alert, but unlike crews the airplanes were there for a month at a stretch.
The crew chief greeted the crew. Returning the salute, Al asked to see the airplane's maintenance log book, the continuous record of repairs, servicing and flight time for 866. "We gonna get the ORI today, sir?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, Sarge. And, Oh yes, we'll run up the engines this morning," Al added, after noting that a fuel transfer valve had been replaced yesterday. "We'll move fuel around a little to check that valve, and then let's get the tanks topped off. Okay?"
"Yes, sir. And we'd better pull the ship forward a bit to rotate the tires," Sergeant Clifton suggested. Heavy, fully loaded airplanes sitting out in the cold on alert tended to get flat spots on the tires, unless periodically turned over by moving the plane now and then. Flat spots made the ship thump, thump, thump noticeably on taxi-out and especially at high speeds.
Al and Ben started their routine exterior walk-around checks of the plane, each taking one side. They had to step over a maze of electrical cords and air hoses from the ground power carts needed to start the engines. There was talk of modifying the engine starters to include cartridges, but none yet.
Fred made a visual check of the huge external bomb pod and the four smaller weapons suspended under the wing. He paused at the forward end of the pod, reflecting that this hunk of hardware has the capability to flatten any city in the world. It's power was several megatons of explosive, a far cry from the few kilotons of the Nagasaki bomb. And four smaller ones under the wing were also megaton types. Awesome, he thought.
That done the crew headed for the access stand, a wheeled metal platform required to get up to the cockpits. The crew chief anticipated their actions and was ready in the nose wheel well to operate the pneumatic canopy-opening lever. The only way into or out of the crew stations was from the top. Each of the individual tandem cockpits had its own pivoting hatch.
Since the crew was planning to start engines on the morning's preflight, the ground crew pulled the entry stand away as soon as the last man was aboard. Moving that heavy, 12-foot tall stand, was a two-man job.
Once inside their respective cockpits the crewmembers were physically isolated from one another. Only the interphone provided communications between them. Well, there was the infamous clothesline system, a "Rube Goldberg" apparatus added to enable exchange of papers and written messages. A small leatherette pouch on that line could be pulleyed fore and aft from the pilot's front seat to the DSO's in the rear, passing by the navigator seated in the middle. It was added when multiple crewmember confirmation of the decoded authorization to go to war became necessary. All three men had to compare the message that would send them off to war.
Ben often criticized this clothesline system, joking that here they were in a $12 million dollar airplane and dependent upon a five dollar rope and pulley. But it did work, he had to admit.
After the engine run-up and the subsequent brief refueling to fill the tanks, the crew once again pre-positioned the numerous cockpit switches to "cock" their war-ready bird for rapid start-up and take-off. Things happened in a hurry when they responded to the klaxon.
"We've just got time to grab a bit of lunch and head over to target study," Al reminded. They'd already spent hours studying and readying the mission folders for the newly assigned target.
The procedures they knew well, but there were a few new wrinkles about this particular target set and the Soviet defenses they must deal with enroute. Every last detail was subject to the Wing Commander's scrutiny. And his senior staff would be on hand to make things even tougher.
It was 1230 hours when the crew arrived at the Intelligence and Target Study building. They passed the necessary security checkpoints and then went to the vault to draw out the three mission folders. Each folder was tailored for the needs of each crewmember, including navigational charts and target information.
Similar materials were already aboard 866, back in the alert area. But they were for the old mission. Next time on alert the crew would be switched to the new one.
A similar set of materials, without the highly classified enemy threat data, also existed in folders readied for the ORI mission, when and if it was to be flown. The crew had to be ready for that contingency too. There was a great deal to learn and master.
By 15 minutes to 2:00 o'clock, the crew was as ready as they were going to be. They packed up the mission folders and signed for them at the vault, ready to carry them to the Wing Commander's briefing in the headquarters building just across the street.
The captain at the sign-out desk wished them luck, knowing that his boss, the head of the target study section would be one of those grilling the crew.
At 1400 hours exactly, the Wing Commander sat down across from the big table where crew S-16 had spread out their materials. The senior staff also sat opposite the crew.
"Good to see you, Al," the C.O. greeted with a handshake, and a tone belying the seriousness of what was about to begin. He nodded to the other two crewmen standing beside their AC.
"Please be seated. Are you ready major?"
Al reached across the table to arrange his mission charts and materials in front of the wing commander, when all of a sudden the room reverberated with the deafening sounds of the klaxon horn. AHOOOGAA, AHOOOGAA, AHOOOGAA!
"Sorry, Colonel," Al calmly declared. "Gotta run." He started to gather up the materials and stuff them back into the folders, when the Intelligence Officer said, "You guys get outa here. I'll take care of this."
The crew bolted from the room, grabbing and donning their jackets and caps as they ran down the hall and toward the door. Their station wagon was parked right in front of the building, backed into spaces reserved for alert crews.
Ben grabbed the windshield covers and threw them into the back of the vehicle. Al was already starting the engine and pulling out as the other two slammed the doors. Fred reached down to turn on the overhead flashing lights. At the nearest flightline gate Al drove right past the waiting guard, who already knew that crew vehicles would be zipping past. He waved them on by.
Fred couldn't resist mentioning that this could be the start of that ORI. "Just look at the snow coming down. Ain't it always the way. Just like last year. Damn!"
Al drove straight across the ramp, down the parallel taxiway and turned off onto the "Christmas Tree" area where the birds were parked, adjacent to the alert facility. He parked the vehicle off to the side of 866, shut off the engine and set the parking brake in one continuous movement. The ground crew, who had been in the nearby alert facility, was standing ready to get 866 started and rolling.
As the crew raced up the steps of the entry stand, headed for their respective cockpits, the fellows on the ground were ready to pull it away. Ben barely got his foot off the stand before it began to move. Even before strapping into their ejection capsules, they each individually closed their canopies. Ground power carts were already started and the radios quickly came to life with the crackle of static.
According to the rules and alert procedures, all the crew could do now was await radio instructions from the Command Post. They were not permitted to even start engines without a proper message. If this was just a practice scramble, and not the start of the ORI, it could be simply the lowest form of response, and Alpha-type exercise. They'd know soon.
S-16 was not the last crew to arrive at their airplanes, even though they'd been way across the base. Al watched as three others drove up after them. Now all 15 crews were in their planes, awaiting the radio message.
"Ben, you sure the radios are on and properly channeled?" Al inquired. All he'd heard so far was the crackle of static.
"Yep, they're on and set. Number One is on the Command Post and Number Two on Tower," Ben retorted. "Any sign of a stranger parked on the Base Operations side, Al?" Ben was hoping to learn if the SAC headquarters inspection team had arrived. They typically did that in a transport or tanker airplane whose tail number wasn't one assigned to this base.
"Can't see any, Ben. But they coulda put visitors in the big hangar, you know. Wouldn't want headquarters weenies to get wet," Al sarcastically replied.
Two minutes went by, though it seemed much longer, and still no message from the Command Post. "Well, where the hell are you guys," Al muttered. Still only the crackle of static could be heard on the radios.
Standing out in front of 866 stood the crew chief, ready to help get the engines started and his airplane ready to roll. Al's hand signal to the ground crew would be a quick rotation of his left hand, when engine start was next. It was hard for the crew chief to see, with the blowing snow. He peered intently at Al, but saw no signal.
Then over the radio's static came the message, "This is Kingpin Control with a Blue Flame message ....", interrupted by more and louder static. Every crew listened intently for the remainder of that message, but it never came. Only static.
"Damn," muttered Ben. "What the matter with these radios? I'll switch the number two over to the Command Post to see if that helps." Al replied in agreement.
Fred added, "Did you guys catch that Blue Flame part? That's not what's normal for a practice scramble, but that's about all I got."
The crew still didn't have the word to even start engines, but they sensed that something wasn't right. They didn't know just what the problem was, but this was out of the ordinary. But they were soon to find out.
Suddenly, in the southeastern sky there came a near-blinding flash of light. It was much brighter than any lightning. Only the heavy cloud cover and the blowing snow lessened the brightness, though it was something they'd never witnessed before.
"Did you see that?" Al blurted over the interphone. His hand automatically raised to shield his eyes. "That's down toward Chicago."
Al turned and saw Hendricks' bird, with the front canopy just being raised. Colonel Bell approached in a dead run. He was carrying a long pole with a piece of paper clipped at the end. Al saw him pass what must have been a note to Hendricks. This was a backup procedure, if the Command Post or Tower radios were inoperative. The Command Post would telephone a message to Bell, who would in turn carry it to the senior AC. That's exactly what was happening.
"Now Bell's moving out of the way, and Hendricks' canopy is closing," Ben commented over the interphone. Still the radio's only crackled.
Soon over the #1 radio came Hendricks' voice, in a calm steady tone, saying, "This is Kingpin One. All aircraft start engines, NOW. I have a Message from Kingpin Control that we're still decoding. I say again, Start Your Engines and stand by."
Without hesitation Al gave the hand signal to the crew chief and hit the switches to start engines. In seconds all four J-79's roared to life. The ground crew disconnected the air hose and electrical power cables, but didn't pull the wheel chocks just yet. Al's next signal to the ground crew would be to flash the taxi lights, if the right message came.
"Kingpin One to all crews. Stand by to copy a Blue Flame message in four parts. I say again, a Blue Flame message in four parts."
Crew S-16 was stunned at what they heard. That was not the start of a message for a practice, or even for the ORI. This was for real. "That's gotta be wrong. ORI's don't start this way." Fred muttered to himself, but he kept his pencil poised to copy, as did Al and Ben.
Hendricks continued, "This is Kingpin One, Stand by to copy. Part one, Alpha Echo Sierra Golf. Part two, Romeo ....," and so on until all four parts were transmitted to his fellow crews. Fred and Ben copied the message and reached for their code cards.
Soon they both decoded the instructions relayed by Hendricks. But before they could tell Al what they had learned, the radio once more carried a message from Hendricks in the clear, "Kingpin One to all crews. Start your engines, fellows. This is it."
Al circled his left hand rear the windscreen, telling his crew chief that engine start was next. Within seconds all four of those after-burner-equipped J-79's roared to life. Soon the lights flickered, as Al switched from ground power to engine alternator electrical power.
Ben hurried to catch up with Al on the checklist items which came before taxi out. Al was not ready to move his airplane yet, because Fred and Ben hadn't fully decoded the message from Hendricks yet.
"Al, pull the clothesline," said Fred. "The decoded message is in the pouch. You gotta see it. We're cleared to take off and proceed to the Go-No Go control point."
Al turned to his right and reached down to the side of his cockpit to grasp the cord. He pulled it forward and soon pulled out a slip of paper. "My god, you're right. This sure ain't the ORI." he declared.
Before he could raise his eyes back to the front, yet another brilliant flash in the southeast turned the sky a white hot color. This time it was brighter than the last one, and Al knew what it meant. Chicago has taken a hit from a nuclear missile.
Hendricks was soon on the radio again, "866, get the hell outa here. Taxi out NOW! We're right behind you. The next one's liable to be right on top of us."
Quickly Al flashed his taxi lights. The ground crew responded to pull the chocks and get the ground power carts out of the way. In seconds the crew chief raised his hands to signal Al to move 866 forward. Then he saluted, and Al pause ever so briefly to return the salute, knowing well that that may be the last communication with his reliable helpers.
He eased the throttles forward and 866 began to move, slowly at first and then gradually at normal taxi speed toward the runway. It was difficult to see exactly where the taxiway edges were, much less the hold line and start of the runway. Al paused briefly before turning onto the active runway, noting that he was getting a steady green light from the tower operator, despite no radio signals from them or the command post.
"Ready guys?" Al asked his fellow crewmen. "This will be a rolling takeoff. I can't stop because of the snow and ice, so here we go. Takeoff checklist, Ben."
"We're right behind you, 866," came Hendricks' voice. "Check in with me after climb-out, fellows."
Al shoved the throttles full forward, into afterburner, and 866 roared and shook as it rapidly accelerated down that snow-covered runway. It wasn't easy keeping lined up with the centerline, for the snows covered the edges and the runway lights were now buried. Al was sure that the planes behind him would have even more trouble with the snow blown by his engines.
"Comin' up on S-1 speed, Al. 1-6-2 knots," Ben reminded. But that was almost academic now as Al was determined to take off. He knew that the drag of that snow on the wheels would extend the roll somewhat, though how much he didn't know.
"Rotate at 2-0-1," Ben next reminded. The huge black and white 1000-foot markers whizzed by. Al noted that there was only 3000 feet left. Still the airspeed was only 195 knots. At just under 200 Al pulled back on the stick and 866 struggled to become airborne. Lift-off, finally, and the end of the runway slipped beneath them.
"Gear UP. Pressure release," Ben continued. "Elevator mode switch to AUTO." Al and Ben worked as a closely-knit team as the various after-takeoff-checklist items were routinely accomplished.
"Come around to heading zero-eight-zero, Al," Fred added. The sleek delta-winged wonder banked right at 30 degrees and the gyro-compass gradually came around to the climb-out heading.
Al continued to follow the prescribed departure pattern and 866 accelerated toward Mach 0.91 and the level off altitude of 25,000 feet. They were crossing Lake Michigan now, headed for Houghton Lake, not far from Burnham Air Force Base. It was the home of a B-52 outfit.
About 80 miles short of Burnham, 866 and the other B-58's now coming up into a trail formation, suddenly there was another tremendous flash of brilliant white light. But this time there was an accompanying gust of wind blast that rocked all of the Hustlers. 866 was tossed over onto its back, flying inverted and losing altitude rapidly. With all the flying skill he could muster, almost instinctively, Al managed to right 866 and level off. They'd lost 10,000 feet in barely seconds. But they were still flying.
It's a good thing that we had those flash curtains installed, the crew collectively thought. It sure beats being blinded by the flash of intense white light.
Before Al could even comment over the interphone, everyone knew just what it was. A nuclear fireball up ahead, about where Burnham should be. "My god," Al finally blurted. "Burnham's had it." Then he thought to ask, "You guys okay back there?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," Fred acknowledged, but this cockpit is sure a mess. All my stuff is on the floor, charts, plotters, calculator and everything. But I'm not sure what the status of the radar is. My picture is skewed about 60 degrees. Musta dumped the gyro on that wild maneuver."
Ben chimed in, "Same story here, Al. We'd better get back up to cruise altitude, though. Climbing back up will cost is fuel."
Al was glad to hear that his colleagues were okay, but he was having his hands full just flying the bird. He knew early in the incident that the primary gyro had dumped and quickly shifted his instrument flying attention to the backup. "Hey Fred, what do you think about the primary gyro? Can you get it back up again?"
"Yeah, I think so. And I sure need it, 'cause the way it is now my radar is useless. The only map info I see is a small sector at 9 o'clock on the scope and I don't know what it's showing me. I'll go through an inflight alignment, but that could take a half hour or so."
"Well do what you can. At least we're still flying and I can manage with the backups. What's the status of your equipment, Ben?"
"The good news is that the fuel system appears to be okay, and my tail radar and ECM gear is working. But the bad news is that we don't have any radios. Both UHF sets and the high frequency radio are completely dead. I don't even get static."
"Let me take control of the radios up here," Al declared. "Maybe I can get them running." Al switched the two UHF radios so that he had control. He tried them both, but no luck. Then he remembered that he couldn't do the same with the HF radio.
"Mine are dead too, Ben. Isn't that interesting. No we can't talk to anyone or get any messages. We've gotta find a way to get the GO CODE, or we're just burning off fuel for nothing," Al continued.
Ben though a minute and then offered, "You know, Al, if we find our tanker, perhaps we can talk over the boom communications link to the tanker crew. They could get our messages to us."
Al thought a minute, and then asked Fred, "Fred, how's it coming? Can you get the gyro aligned and your radar stabilized? Because if you can and you can get us to the tanker, we just may be able to get the word."
What crew S-16 also did not know was that Hendricks' plane didn't make it past that nuclear burst at Burnham. They too were knocked this way and that by the shock wave, but then lost two engines and couldn't recover. His crew went down with the plane over central Michigan.
S-16 also didn't know that they were now way off course, paralleling the proper course, but now over 100 miles too far south. Until Fred's systems came back up, they might never know.
"Radar's coming back up, Al," Fred announced. "Looks like the primary gyro is just about aligned now."
"Well, that's a relief," Al acknowledged. "But let's be sure to be in the right spot to meet our tanker. They're our only hope for getting communications with somebody. Ben, are you sure you checked the fuses on those radios?"
"Yep, checked 'em twice. The UHF radio fuses just keep blowing. Somethin' musta shorted when we experienced that nuclear pulse. And the HF is just plain dead." Ben had tried everything he could think of. Then he added, "The pods are empty now, Al. Let's shut of the fuel transfer and stay on split feed." Ben was referring to the choice of burning both from the forward and aft main fuel tanks, keeping the center of gravity about stable.
"How long to the ARCP, Fred?" asked Al. "I just pulled my flash curtains back to see what the clouds are like. It appears that we're between decks of solid clouds. It'll be hard to see our tanker, unless you put us in the right spot. And I think it's okay to leave my curtains back, as we're well clear of any cities that might get blasted."
"Yeah, I know. My estimate to the ARCP is 33 minutes from now. Stay on this heading."
"Okay, got it, Fred." Then Al suggested that they ought to climb and try to get on top of the clouds, in the clear to help locate the tanker.
Ben said that was all right, but at their current gross weight, "Better not go above 31,000, Al. We'll be too far above optimum and perhaps hit buffet." He felt Al pull the nose up a bit for a gentle climb above their current 25,000'.
Fifteen minutes went by and Al again asked, "Any sign of that tanker on your radar, Fred? On search or beacon modes?" Al didn't know that Fred's spirits were really down in the dumps. He was worried that their home base might have been blasted too, and not knowing how his family was put a knot in his stomach.
"Nope, not a thing. And I've tried all modes and radar antenna tilt angles, We're getting a decent picture in the ground mapping mode, but I can't tell if the beacon is working or not. I'll keep trying. Sure hope we can get some word from our tanker about things back home."
The time expired for 866 to be at the air refueling control point and still they'd made no radar or visual contact with a tanker, theirs or any others. Al was beginning to worry, and so was Ben.
"Fred, I'm going to make a shallow 360 degree turn to the left. You search with that radar as we go around. Let me know if you see any other airplanes out there, anything that's moving. Okay? There's gotta be somebody out there, other bombers or tankers."
Al eased 866 into a 15 degree left bank, not enough to bother the radar picture, hoping to see somebody out there on radar or visually. At 31,000 feet they were just skimming the cloud tops. It was clear above and getting dark. The shallow turn took about ten minutes to complete. "Nothing, guys," Al observed. "Any luck, Fred?"
"No, Al, not a thing out there. I just don't understand it."
The crew was still about 100 miles south of their intended course. Why Fred missed that was a mystery, but with radar scanning ranges of 200 miles or more they should have still seen the tanker's beacon, if it was on.
Suddenly, Fred muttered, "Damn. Damn, damn damn." That got Al's attention and he responded, " Damn what, Fred?"
"We're off course and I just discovered it. We're too far south, by almost 100 miles. How could I have messed up so badly?"
"Could your navigational computer have been screwed up with the gyro being out? Or what about your doppler?" Al suggested. "Even 100 miles shouldn't be that bad, only ten minutes off your ARCP estimated arrival. So give me a quick heading back to the ARCP and we'll go see."
Fred gave Al a new course, 350 degrees from their present position. "Make that new ETA 12 minutes, Al. And no, it ain't the nav computer. It's the damn navigator. I'm just not with it, I guess." Fred was frantic and distracted by worry about his family and how things were back at their base.
Ben was watching their fuel situation and chimed in, "That's going to put us about 1500 pounds under the curve, Al. No sweat, we can easily make it up when we top off with the tanker."
For another half hour 866 returned to the ARCP and orbited. They didn't see anything, no tankers, no bombers. Nothing.
Ben had been computing their fuel situation. "Al, if we don't find a tanker in the next hour, we'll be down to barely enough to make it to Goose Bay, Labrador or northern Maine. What do you think?"
It was a few moments before Al replied. "Fred, what's the heading to Ellison Air Force Base on the Maine coast. I think we've had it and cannot screw around up here much longer."
Fred unfolded his chart and spread out the southern half. "Well, I'd say 240 degrees ought to be the best course, Al. And roughly it's an hour and ten from here."
"Got it, 240 degrees. Turning now."
"Wait up, Al," Ben interrupted. "What about the funnel point for re-entry to the ZI (zone of the interior)? How will that heading take us with respect to the nearest approved entry corridor? Wouldn't want ADC (Air Defense Command) thinking we're hostile."
Fred chimed in, saying, "Make that heading 195 degrees, Al. That'll put us onto a funnel for coast in."
"Good thinking, Ben, "Al responded. "Wouldn't want some F-106 jock taking us out because we didn't follow procedures. Coming around to 195."
"One other thing, Al," Ben added. "We've got no radios and cannot authenticate any code challenges. And are we sure our IFF transponder is working? If we can't send the right codes or reply to a code challenge, they'll classify us as a hostile, you know?"
"Yep," Al acknowledged. " I was just thinking about that too. But we could make an orbit over the funnel point, proceed to the next check point and orbit again. Surely that would tell ADC watching us on radar that we knew the right corridor, and by orbiting they'd know we were in trouble. What d'ya think?"
"It's about all we can do," Ben admitted. "But that'll cost fuel too, you appreciate. We'll be down to fumes when we get to Ellison. If we do. Better climb, gently now, to 35,000 feet to get us on optimum cruise altitude. And let's slow down to Mach point-88 to conserve fuel."
"Okay," Al affirmed. " Then that's it. We'll orbit once at each checkpoint and then head for Ellison. Sure hope the weather's clear there, or we'll be hurting somethin' bad."
Though they couldn't be sure that their IFF transponder was working, they reset the codes to reflect a "friendly" entering the funnel and then the ZI airspace. They orbited as planned and continued toward Ellison.
"We'll I guess ADC isn't upset by us," Ben declared. Nobody's shooting at us, and I don't see any bogeys on my tail gun radar. So far so good."
"New ETA to Ellison, Al," Fred announced. We'll be over the field in 45 minutes. Are you going to make a straight-in approach, or what?"
Ben interrupted, before Al could answer Fred, " We've for we've got enough gas for one missed approach, Al. That's all."
"Okay guys, here's the plan, " Al replied. " Fred, you steer us in for a straight in approach. Let me know as soon as you've got the field and runways on your scope. And we'll start a slow let-down from 50 miles out. That ought to get us down under the clouds, I hope, before we miss the field. Ben. We'll start the Approach and Let-down Checklist at the 50 miles to go point. Okay?"
Fred and Ben agreed that the plan was sensible, and given their situation about all they could do. They didn't have enough gas to screw around much. It all depended upon Fred getting his radar crosshairs onto Ellison and guiding them in for a straight-in approach. They all hoped that Al could make out the runway, in the dark and under the clouds, in time to land 866.
"Hey, Al," Ben commented. "What do you think the chances are that Ellison is even there? Or if it is, the chances that they'd have their runway lights on? We are at war, I think."
"You're a bundle of optimism. Aren't you?", Al replied. "How the hell do I know? We'll just keep going and find out, I guess." The strain in Al's snappy come-back was clear. And though he knew that Ben's comment was probably valid, he sure as heck didn't need more to worry about.
"I've got Ellison on the radar," Fred declared. "We're about 65 miles out, but I can't make out the runway yet. Does it lie East-West?"
"Yep, their longest runway is 25, just a little southwest, "Al commented. He had been looking up Ellison on his let-down charts and had been attempting to get the VORTAC tuned in. The radio navigational beacon would help him shoot a conventional approach to landing. " Looks like we don't have the VORTAC opr TACAN receiver, guys. That puts the approach strictly up to you, Fred. You'll have to guide me in."
"Ready for the Approach Checklist, Al?"
"Yeah, Ben. We'll be starting down about now." And so in a routine way, Al and Ben went about the procedures for configuring 866 for approach and landing. They'd not lower the gear until the last minute, to conserve fuel. Fred called off the range to Ellison readings and Al tried to establish a proper glide angle. Things were going well, except they were not certain there even was a base ahead to land upon. The possibilities of running into other traffic were present too. They were still wandering around in the clouds, had talked to no one and were strictly on their own.
"I think I've got the runway," Fred excitely announced. " Yep, it looks good and about where it's supposed to be. Range is 40 miles now and MSA ( minimum safe altitude) is 3000 feet, Al."
866 flew on, descending along an unseen glide path according to Fred's instructions. He was making an airborne radar directed approach with Al. The two men worked like a well-oiled machine.
"What the?? What in the hell is that? "Al blurted.
"What's what?" Ben responded.
Al answered, but first asked Fred to check his radar, " There's an airplane just ahead of us. I can make out the shape of someone right ahead of us and lower. Fred, can you tell if there's somebody ahead of us, about three miles? I can see something against the lights of a coastal town or something. We're under the clouds now, just skimming the bases."
Fred quickly changes his radar settings to look for an airborne target. "Yes, Al. I've got something three miles ahead. It's a little slower than we are and we're closing on it."
By now Al could see the target clearly. It was flying low, perhaps just 500 feet above the water. "You guys aren't going to believe this. It's a Badger, a Russian Badger bomber. My god."
Fred and Ben were stunned at the news. "That bastard is probably making a low level bomb run on Ellison, Al," Ben shouted. "What are we gonna do?"
Al knew exactly what he was going to do. Just as Al slowed to stay in right behind the Russian bomber, about 300 feet above him, he waited until they were just crossing the coastline.
"Okay you two. This is an order. No arguments. Both of you bail out NOW! Get the hell outa here. I'm going to make sure that Badger doesn't get to Ellison. EJECT, you two. NOW!!"
And shortly after both of his two crewmates were gone, first Fred and then Ben, Al did the only thing he could do. He rammed that Badger with 866. The skies lit up like a Roman candle, as the two adversarial bombers collided in a ball of flame and falling debris.
Swinging in his parachute, descending toward the coastal waters, Ben could see the falling debris and its trailing flames. He knew now what Al had done. Al had sacrificed himself and 866 to save Ellison and the thousands of people there.
This had been a terrible Wednesday.