A Hard Day's Night
Cold war B-52s flew an icy northern route on alert for a Soviet missile strike.
- By Bill Robinson
- Air & Space magazine, September 2006
NASM (SI NEG. #00129297)
(Page 2 of 3)
To solve the problem, grid navigation necessitated reorientation of the aircraft’s heading reference to a false north, what we referred to as “grid north,” by replacing the polar chart with a chart containing a square latitude and longitude grid. Because the meridians on the new grid chart were parallel to the Greenwich Meridian, the angle between grid north and true north could be calculated and a new geographic heading reference established.
Once this new heading reference was resolved, the aircraft’s primary compass was switched to a gyro-stabilized, free-running mode, then simply reset and maintained on the new grid heading.
After passing Thule, we were ready for “coast out” over the ice. It was 400 miles to our turn point at 89 degrees north latitude, where we would begin the 1,000-mile southbound leg headed for “coast in” at Point Barrow. At this point, the only reliable means of navigation was celestial, done by taking star sightings and plotting fixes while flying at seven miles per minute.
Flying over the Arctic had an element of the mystical. Undulating, curtain-like displays of the Aurora Borealis—the Northern Lights—seemed close enough to touch. Every so often, St. Elmo’s Fire gave the engine nacelles, wing leading edges, and windscreen pillars a spooky blue glow. Occasional commentary among the pilots and gunner on the marvels of the Arctic night at 41,000 feet were interspersed by the radar navigator’s reports of possible polar bear and seal sightings as he surveyed the ice through the optical bombsight, cranked up to maximum magnification for enhanced sightseeing in the bright moonlight.
As riveting as the Arctic show was, I was occupied with making three-star fixes, heading shots, and gyro compass precession corrections. The routine was to shoot and plot each fix, adjust airspeed and heading to stay on time and on track, take a heading shot and reset the heading on the gyro compass, calculate and plot the new assumed position for the next fix, then begin the process all over again every 20 minutes.
After our turn at “89 north,” the electronic warfare officer detected friendly and unfriendly Distant Early Warning radars tracking us. He briefly tuned his receiving gear to listen in on the Soviet DEW line guys talking to one another and wondered out loud if they were discussing us. Since I spoke a little Russian, I listened in via an intercom jack to see if I could get the gist of their conversation. Everyone got a chuckle when I told the crew that the Soviet operators were playing chess.
At 200 miles from Alaska’s north coast, I took my last celestial fix and the moment of truth—landfall—was upon me. Squinting over my oxygen mask into the orange sweep of the radar scope, I knew that Point Barrow’s little cluster of buildings would give a small but distinct return. Although I had been this way before, a twinge of apprehension reminded me of a kinship with maritime navigators of old, who surely had similar feelings as they made landfall after long voyages.
In a few minutes, Point Barrow popped up right where it was supposed to be. When the copilot tuned the radio direction finder's receiver to the local radio station for a confirming bearing, we heard The Mamas and the Papas welcoming us to Alaska with “California Dreamin’.”