Wing-Tip Willie

by Phil Rowe
Alert crews were relaxing in the "Mole Hole", their home away from home at the end of the runway. It was a Sunday evening and things seemed pretty quiet.

Some of the fellows were in the dining hall, playing bridge and other card games. Down the hall in the television lounge a few were watching Gunsmoke or other classic programs. And in the lower level, in their three-man rooms, men gathered to swap stories, read or just relax. It was a typical night in the Alert Facility.

It must have been 9:00 P.M. when all hell broke loose, started by the repeated AAHOOOGAH, AAHOOOGAH blare of the klaxon. No sound in the world is more disturbing, though it can be all the more so when the possibility exists that the noise is prelude to nuclear war.

Frantically flight and ground crewmen donned their clothes, slipped into boots and grabbed the things they'd need aboard their nearby waiting and ready B-58 bombers. Fifteen of those sleek and shiny supersonic planes sat at the ready, each parked within its own peaked-roof metal shelter.

Most of the crews ran across the ramp to their respective airplanes. The blare of the klaxon ringing in their ears. Some came streaming by government station wagons, each flashing red rotating warning lights atop the cabs. A few of the crews had been at the Officers Club across the base, but all could reach their cocked and ready planes in barely eight minutes.

Up the fifteen-foot-high entry stands they scrambled, barely reaching the opened cockpit canopies before alert ground crewmen pulled the heavy wheeled platforms away and pushed them off to the side of the shelter. The scream of ground power carts, air starter carts and rattling metal entry stands even drowned out the last few klaxon alarm calls. Lights within the airplane cockpits quickly changed the scene, as crewmen donned their helmets, grabbed their checklists and stood by to copy the radio messages that could indicate whether or not this was another practice scramble exercise or the real thing.

Willie's crew was in the airplane closest to the exit of the alert airplane parking area. Each shelter was angled to make a quick taxi-out possible, though there was barely five feet of wingtip clearance to the left or right.

Soon the radios crackled with the sound of static. And then a voice from the Command Post began the methodical reading of the alphabetical code, the message which would declare whether the crews were to start engines, taxi out and perhaps even take off on their retaliatory war mission. The navigators in their middle seats and DSO's in the rear seats of the tandemly arranged cockpits were poised to copy.

Willie, the aircraft commander, in his front cockpit of airplane number 856, was anxious to hear the results of the decoded message from his fellow crewmen. Was he supposed to start engines? Taxi out? Or was he to take off and actually launch on a war mission, the worst possible scenario? His nerves were on edge, his hands gripping the throttles, ready to start engines.

"Hey Willie," his excited DSO blurted on the interphone. "It's a COCO message, a practice taxi out alert."

""That's right," confirmed the navigator. "Start 'em up and stand by to taxi."

Willie was a split second ahead of them, for he had already heard the engines starting in the plane across the way. By the time his crewmen had told him the message was authentic and engine start was approved, Willie was already cranking them up. In seconds all four J-79's were alive and ready. Exhaust fumes and the roar of those powerful jets permeated the whole alert area.

The crew chief, on the ground out in front of 856, was standing by to motion for taxi out. The assistant ground crewmen had pulled the wooden chocks. All the ground support carts and accompanying hoses and cables were clear. Willie could taxi out when ready.

Normal procedure, on alert scramble responses or even daily training missions, called for the pilot to flash his nose gear lights to indicate his readiness to move the airplane forward. The ground crew would guide him with hand signals. Shortly after getting the plane in forward motion, the pilot would test the brakes, stopping the plane after just a few feet of motion. Then he would test nose gear steering, left and then right slightly, before straightening out the wheels for forward taxi out.

But this night Willie was a bit flustered or just over-anxious. He began his nose wheel steering check before 856 pulled forward out of the metal shelter. And in so doing brought the left wingtip too close to the shelter's side wall. Oooops!

Before the ground crew chief could react and give hand signals for the pilot to stop, it was too late. The crunch of metal soon followed, but most of the crunching was to the aluminum skinned B-58. The sturdy steel frames and galvanized metal of the shelter was barely scathed. The outer two feet of 856's left wing was seriously damaged. Arrrrgh!!

Of course there was a formal investigation, a hearing and the embarrassing scrutiny of several layers of higher headquarters officials. Poor Willie was under the gun for some time, his flying career in some jeopardy. The ground crew was questioned as well, though they were fully exonerated. It was determined that Willie alone was at fault.

But perhaps the most embarrassment and ridicule that Willie had to endure was the razzing and heckling of his fellow pilots. Willie was forever dubbed "Wingtip Willie" and referred to in several safety procedures lectures in the years ahead.

Author's note: An incident like this really happened, though Willie was not the pilot's name.