“This Is Only a Test”
Fifty years ago, cold-war games halted all civilian air traffic—long before September 11 did the same.
- By Roger A. Mola
- Air & Space magazine, March 2002
National Archives and Records Administration
(Page 4 of 7)
At Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, Captain Roland C. Starke Jr. reviewed the crew assignment. The B-52G was filled with 215,000 pounds of fuel while his seven crew members boarded. As Pogo 22, Starke would flank Pogo 13 for three hours of flight in radio silence as part of the code-named White Cell in order to rendezvous with one of three KC-135 Stratotankers, east-southeast of Newfoundland. Once refueled, the aircraft were to fly south toward Bermuda, then west for a simulated Soviet bomber run.
At McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, the war came down to single letters. Beginning at 1 p.m., the letters F for Friendly and K for Faker waltzed across the dull red of 106 cathode-ray tubes within the bunker’s two-foot-thick walls. At full tilt, the Whirlwind II computer tracked 400 aircraft at once, sputtering 65,000 calculations every 15 seconds. Controllers pointed an aluminum light gun at each blip and squeezed, marking the blip P for pending. If the blip’s track matched the expected flight plan, the P changed to F or K. "We’ve had it pretty heavy," Brigadier General Gilbert L. Pritchard, commander of the New York Air Defense Sector, told a cluster of reporters invited to McGuire. Pritchard said the simulated attack flown by B-47s, B-52s, and RAF Vulcans had been "pretty near continuous" since radar first detected an enemy at 1:45 p.m. "The attackers are coming over the top [the Arctic] and making end runs in off the Atlantic." Detected but unseen: Dark rain clouds enveloped New York City.
The wave of B-47s at low altitude showered pods of chaff—filaments coated with aluminum or zinc designed to overwhelm radars—while B-52s between 35,000 and 42,000 feet swept from the north through central Canada and diverged to the northeast and midwest population centers and along the West Coast as far as San Francisco.
In Colorado Springs, British Air Marshall Sir Kenneth B.B. Cross of the Bomber Command and Sir Wallace Kyle, chief of the Royal Air Force technical training command, sat with General Kuter. The Royal Air Force had provided eight delta-wing Vulcan bombers to mix with NORAD forces, posing as Russian heavies. They topped the attacking force at 56,000 feet.
Shortly before 2 p.m., interceptors had sprung for the B-52s. Only the first Vulcan in the cell of bombers was detected by an F-101. At 2:02 p.m., the voice of an Air Force colonel reached the Boston Sector: "Gentlemen, we shot down our first enemy." Near Goose Bay, Labrador, the Vulcan became the first "kill" of Sky Shield II. The remaining Vulcans swept unmolested through eastern Canada to land at Stephenville, Newfoundland, for debriefing and bragging rights.
Captain Starke’s B-52G and his cell of bombers refueled at 3 p.m., then turned southwest, toward their strike zone, a corridor between New York City and Philadelphia. The bombers flew in lateral formation, 10 miles apart, with Starke most northerly. He made radio contact with his left flank as late as 4:15 p.m. as the formation descended through clouds to 1,000 feet above the water.
On the east coast, jet fighters scored kills as far as 350 miles out in the Atlantic, the presumed maximum range for a Soviet release of air-to-surface missiles. But most engagements were over or near major cities. "Sonic booms caused the customary surge of phone calls to newspapers, radio stations and police," reported the New York Times. Chaff fell on thousands of houses, fields, and factories, prompting more panicked calls.
At the airports holding open houses, the public and airport staffs partied on. Los Angeles International hosted 40,000 visitors by day’s end, while workers seized upon the lull to complete the installation of a new air traffic control tower. At San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, maintenance workers shut down terminal power to perform 12 hours of repairs in the dark corridors, while outdoor temperatures broke 107 degrees. Across San Diego at the Mission Valley Inn, Pacific Southwest and American Airlines held a crew luncheon and pool party.