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)
FOUR DECADES AGO ON A MID-WINTER MORNING AT LARSON AIR FORCE BASE in Washington state, a cold war routine was being played out by Strategic Air Command B-52D bombers and crews of the 768th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy). Crews were at the end of five days on ground alert, living together in the “mole hole,” within sprinting distance of their aircraft. It was “changeover” morning, with fresh crews relieving those coming off alert.
My crew and one other 768th crew had a mission to fly before going home for a two-day break, then five days of flying before our next ground alert tour. I was a young first lieutenant who, at the moment, was strapped into the navigator’s seat aboard a B-52D, call sign Ranger 42. It was January 5, 1966, and a 27-hour workday was just getting started.
In 1961, SAC announced that nuclear-armed B-52s were conducting airborne alert missions. Code-named “Chrome Dome,” these flights were a part of SAC’s nuclear alert posture for seven years. B-52 units rotated on flying routes over the Arctic and Mediterranean. The idea was to reduce retaliatory response time in the event of a missile attack. To that end, several two-ship formations of armed B-52s were airborne around the clock within striking distance of the Soviet Union.
Most Larson crews flew an Arctic route, and though it was a complex, challenging, and exhausting mission, we considered it routine. On this morning, waiting for takeoff clearance with engines idling, Ranger 42 sat just off the runway and behind Ranger 41, the other 768th B-52 making up our flight of two. Each aircraft carried two 9,000-pound B53 nuclear bombs. Secured in each cockpit was a sealed metal box containing the top-secret “go codes,” charts, and target data necessary for the execution of a retaliatory nuclear strike.
One minute after Ranger 41 lifted off the runway, Ranger 42 was rolling. As the pilot slowly advanced the power on the eight J57 jet engines, he made his customary takeoff announcement: “Everybody grab a throttle and run forward.” A mile and a half later, we broke ground in the distinctive nose-low B-52 climbout attitude, bumping our way through a patch of the leader’s wake turbulence, then fell into two-mile trail formation.
Over Pennsylvania, the flight took up an east-northeast heading for our rendezvous with a pair of KC-135 tankers in the “Black Goat” refueling area off Newfoundland. Each bomber would take on about 12,500 gallons, enough to carry us over the pole and down to our next refueling, over central Alaska.
At 60 degrees north latitude, south of Cape Dyer and the Arctic Circle, it was time to “go into grid”—an air navigation technique used in polar regions where the unreliability of the magnetic compass and the acute convergence of geographic lines of longitude (meridians) close to the pole rule out steering by conventional methods.
On normal polar charts, the convergence of meridians close to the pole causes one degree of change in true course for each meridian passed. This change occurs more rapidly the closer the aircraft comes to the pole. The practical effect of this is that in order to fly a straight course, the aircraft would have to be placed in a constant turn—not good.
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’.”
Our final refueling was with KC-135s from Eielson Air Force Base in the “Cold Coffee” area, abeam Mount McKinley. We had been flying for 15 hours, covering nearly 7,000 miles. At a pressurized-cockpit altitude of 12,000 feet, everyone was a little dehydrated, the coffee was history, the water stale, and our teeth felt like they were growing fur. Only nine hours to go.
After a final lead change, I could relax a little. Tired but not sleepy, I moved up to keep the pilot’s seat warm, giving him the opportunity to stretch out on the deck for a nap after his refueling exertions. The electronic warfare officer gave our post-refueling report to the SAC Command Post at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the radar navigator monitored Ranger 41’s electronic beacon on his radar scope to maintain our position two miles behind him, and the gunner started another Playboy. I joined the copilot in dining on a couple of semi-petrified pieces of cold SAC fried chicken purloined from the alert facility mess hall 18 hours earlier.
Munching on our drumsticks, we were content. World War III hadn’t started and it was beginning to look like the world, and Ranger Flight, might make it through another day. We cruised out beyond the Alaskan west coast, just north of the Aleutian chain, then reversed course, heading toward a turn point off Kodiak Island for the final leg, along the Canadian west coast and home to Larson.
At touchdown, 24 hours and 10 minutes after wheels up, our squadron mates aboard Soapy 21 and 22 were already airborne, taking our place on their own odyssey across the top of the world.