Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

An Early Memory

By Jack Sullivan

My first assignment following pilot training was to B-52G unit, the 416th Bomb Wing, at Griffiss AFB, NY. My wife Gloria and I arrived from sunny California to Rome, NY shortly after a 45 inch snow fall.

Shortly after becoming combat ready our unit was tasked with flying airborne alert with nuclear weapons for two purposes. The first was to provide airborne radio relay over the Thule Air Base, Greenland, a primary northern base in the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line communication network. Following the Cuban crisis in the early 60s, Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept a nuclear airborne presence into the late 60s. Our second purpose was airborne alert with designated Soviet targets.

Our missions entailed flying to Thule Air Base, Greenland, orbiting over the base for 8 hours and completing two air refuelings, each with onloads of 80K lbs. The second refueling was with a KC-135 from Eielson AFB, AK over the North Pole. Finally after 18 hours, there was short flight (?) back to Griffiss AFB for a total flight time of 23 hours. Flying several of these long missions and accruing over 150 hours in a short period gave me the opportunity to build my flying time which for a new guy was quite an accomplishment.

Now I have the personal side of this rather routine story for a new B-52 pilot. While at the Academy, I tried to go to daily mass in Fairchild Hall prior to breakfast. Over two years, one individual with whom I became acquainted was Len Svitenko, Class of 62. After mass and shortly after the cadets arrived, I would go to Arnold Hall and sit at his table.

As I learned later, Len was assigned to a Bomb Wing at Plattsburg AFB, NY, the unit that picked up our airborne commitment over Thule. On a flight Len flew there was an airborne fire and subsequent crash where all the crew members survived except for Len. He was a third pilot, as I had often been, and tried a high speed bailout from the navigator’s escape hatch. The other crew members had ejection seats, and he was the only fatality on this mission that also put four nuclear weapons in the ice pack near the base.
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