Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Obligatory B-52 Tale

By Todd Jagerson

b52.jpg In my flying days half the B-52 fleet (about 300 aircraft) were sitting alert. Serious paranoids of the day, however, wondered if this was really enough: what if a fiendish super secret sneak attack was to wipe out all the planes on the ground? The answer was Chrome Dome, which called for a dozen or so additional fully-armed B-52s in the air at all times. While normal ground-alert duties were the job of every SAC base, these ‘air-alert’ flights were rotated between bases. I had been flying Buffs for a year when our first Chrome Dome flight was scheduled.

Just the logistics were impressive. We would be in the air 26 hours, mid-air refuel twice, and would travel from our base up the Pacific coast through Alaska to the North Pole, then back down and around the Aleutian chain, and finally back down the Pacific coast to Travis. Beyond logistics there were also the so called “black parts,” the combination of bombs, go-codes and other spooky stuff, even wearing shoulder-holstered 38s throughout – and under direct control from SAC HQ from takeoff to landing. Heady stuff. Yes, if you are wondering, I was (and still am) damned intimidated by it all. Most interesting, looking back, was that no one, including myself, outwardly displayed any strong sense of concern or even curiosity about any of it. True, the others had flown these flights before, but the primary reason, I suspect, was that special military tradition which requires a stoic, unemotional, almost robotic response to all things terrifying. It was in this tradition that we spent several days studying the details of the coming flight, and as my knowledge and confidence grew, I too, like everyone else, started wondering what could possibly go wrong. As it turned out, just about everything.

A fully loaded Buff weighs half a million pounds and needs two miles of runway to get off the ground. Actually, if I remember correctly, taking off is one of the more dangerous things a Buff does, and the single most scary moment of any Buff takeoff is when the plane reaches “V1” (vee one),” the speed at which the takeoff cannot be aborted no matter what: particularly when you are carrying six live nukes over San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. And so it was that at 5:00 AM on a lovely summer morning we started our takeoff roll amidst the deafening roar of eight full throttles, and the calm readings of our speed over the intercom as we accelerated. And then, just as we passed V1 and I had announced, “We are committed,” all hell broke loose.

Flashing lights and blaring horns informed us that engine #5 (on the right, nearest the fuselage) had just exploded and was on fire. This was one of those terror-filled situations where the virtues of military professionalism are at their most surreal and heroic. Despite the chaos -- engine shutdown, fuel cutoffs, fire suppression, thrust imbalance, emergency squawks, all while continuing the takeoff itself -- the demeanor inside that cockpit was one of shocking calm and detachment as dozens of long-practiced emergency procedures were executed flawlessly. A process remembered as frightening to watch, and amazing to be a part of.

Ok, ok, so we’d lost a lousy engine. But we still had seven more, the fire was out, central California was still down there snoring, and we were finally airborne and stable. The only elephant in the cockpit with us was the unasked question: Now what? Under the circumstances the answer may seem obvious: “Get this fat fuck on the ground immediately!” Nicely put, but with Buffs that was not precisely how things worked. We took off weighing half a million pounds, but the maximum landing weight was 150,000 pounds less than that, and Buffs had no way to simply dump fuel. Thus, we could not land until we had flown around at low altitude burning off fuel for six or seven hours.

Thus it was not a complete surprise when, over the radios, we received a command that -- in the fog of my 50-year memory -- could only have been the voice and heavy breathing of Darth Vader, who said in his raspy voice: “Continue your mission.” Silence and some nervous coughs over the intercom -- nobody laughed. The order to “continue” was not a surprise, but it was not a command welcomed by those of us packing the 38s. Our tiny concern -- certainly not important enough to bother General Vader about -- was that Buffs consume electricity the way black holes eat planets. And the engine we had just lost, engine #5, powered one of this plane’s two large electrical generators. But, hey, why be worry warts? What could possibly happen to the other one. And on we flew.

Once we climbed to altitude the flight itself became, as they say, boring. We were heading north, it would be daylight all the way, and the views of the Pacific coast and Alaska from altitude were breathtaking. It wasn’t long – about five hours – before we reached the first checkpoint, our first refueling over central Alaska. The hookup and refueling went well (my first while carrying nukes) and then, just as we were preparing to disconnect…

Loud Ka Boom!... “Breakaway! Breakaway! Breakaway!”

Another engine had exploded and was on fire, but this one was even trickier because we had to shut it down while scrambling to separate from the tanker just a few feet away. And while attending to this, the worst of all possible shit hit the most vulnerable of all proverbial fans: When the engine shut down all the lights went out! The engine just lost, #4, powered the remaining generator and everything electrical was suddenly gone; no lights, minimal controls, no instruments and only battery-powered emergency radios -- immediately filled with the voice of General Vader, as if he had been watching us all along.

A nuclear emergency was declared and down we went, watched, we later heard, on every military radar scope from Omaha to Minsk. Once again, however, landing was not an option. Having just topped off from the tanker above, we spent the next six hours with gear down, full flaps and full throttle thundering across the Alaskan wilderness at 1,000 feet.

We finally got down but there was no survivor’s welcome waiting. With six nukes on board no one on the base was cleared to get near us. So once on the ground we taxied to the most deserted and isolated part of the base. The Spooks who were coming to relieve us were still on their way up from the south, so until they arrived the seven of us did, well, what B-52 guys do. We closed down the aircraft (for the first time I realized there are no locks on B-52 doors) and made a circle around the plane facing outward. Then we self-consciously drew our 38s from our shoulder holsters, pointed them skyward, sat down on the prickly runway ice, and waited.
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