A Full Retaliatory Response
When President John Kennedy contemplated nuclear war, what went through the minds of the U.S. bomber crews?
- By Thomas Jones
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
Augustine R. Letto, USAF
(Page 3 of 7)
First Lieutenant E.G. “Buck” Shuler, today a retired general, was on alert with his B-52F crew at Carswell Air Force Base, near Ft. Worth, Texas. “We cocked every airplane we had,” he says. “Everybody was target-studied. There were no training flights, no ground training, no nothing. We were ready to go to war.”
Wary of a nuclear Pearl Harbor, SAC had, since 1961, been keeping about a dozen B-52s in the air at all times—armed and ready to strike. At noon on the 22nd, the command began launching additional Stratofortresses, and by the time of President Kennedy’s TV address, 66 B-52s were in the air, each carrying up to four hydrogen bombs, some with a pair of Hound Dog nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. The 66 bombers made up the first wave of a continuous airborne alert posture that was sustained for four weeks.
Flying in pairs, the Stratofortresses cruised to holding zones in the Mediterranean, north of Greenland, and along the Alaskan frontier. Each would remain on station for 24 hours until relieved by a fresh aircraft. The long-duration missions were known by the call sign “Chrome Dome.”
“The mission wasn’t that demanding, believe it or not,” says Craig A. Mizner, a captain and experienced B-52F copilot in October 1962. “We took turns at the controls.” On one mission, Miz-ner’s crew headed across the Atlantic, past Gibraltar, and refueled over the Mediterranean. “We got as far east as Crete. The EW [electronic warfare officer] reported being scanned by radars out of Libya. I remember seeing some aircraft north of there that we later heard were MiG-17s.”
First Lieutenant Gary M. Jacoby, an EW on an Oklahoma-based B-52E, took off on a northern route, his flight lasting more than 23 hours. “We went out over the east coast, up to within two or three hundred miles of the North Pole, then over to Alaska, down, and came in over the California coast,” he recalls. If ordered to attack, “we knew we’d probably encounter hundreds of SAMs [surface-to-air missiles]. We knew we were going to have a job ahead of us if we ever did go to war, but we felt very confident that we could get the job done.”
Jacoby’s crew refueled at least twice during their sortie; aerial fill-ups from SAC’s KC-135 and KC-97 tanker force were critical to the airborne alert mission. By 1978, when I was flying the B-52D, pilots got an assist from the autopilot’s aerial refueling mode, which gave the yoke a “power steering” feel and automatically trimmed the airplane as fuel coursed into my bomber’s wing and fuselage tanks. Still, the intense concentration and hard work left me drenched in sweat.
The B-52s of 1962 lacked that modification, and pilots had to muscle their way through an hour behind the tanker, jockeying the aircraft as they took on every last drop of JP-4 they could carry. (The tankers had wartime orders to keep “passing gas” until their own engines were about to flame out.)
“You were trying to get 128,000 pounds of gas on the airplane, and trying to do it in one gulp,” Buck Shuler remembers. “We went to full tanks over the Med. It was a very physical thing. You were on that boom 28 or 30 minutes. I can recall practically slumping over the column after backing off.”