The Open Gate
A B-57 crew faced the end of the world.
- By Edwards Park
- Air & Space magazine, January 1994
(Page 4 of 5)
Mugavero had seen his share of action. He knew that he and Clark would carry out their task. They’d make it to a certain unlucky spot on the maps that they studied so closely. Then Mugavero would beef the yoke back at exactly the right second, hold exactly the right amount of Gs, wrestle the airplane through its half-roll, and then scream away from the great sun ball that would rise behind them. There’d still be fuel enough to make it back.
But to what?
“I remember thinking of swimming in the lake back in Michigan when I was a kid,” says Mugavero. “I thought of things I’d always meant to do and never had. Mostly I thought about my family. As we sat there in our cockpit, Frank suddenly said, ‘Jeez, I’d love a cheeseburger right now.’ Remember that, Frank? I thought about that. Sure, we could have a couple of cheeseburgers when we got back. And then I thought, No. No food. Nothing. Nothing left.”
Maybe, he thought, it would be better not to head back after throwing the bomb. Clark could give him an accurate bearing for a desolate area, far from any civilization, where they might bail out, and they’d probably survive—for a while.
But, why survive?
Sitting in their cockpit in the growing light of dawn, they listened to the radio’s military channels and picked up the terse messages of Strategic Air Command bombers refueling midair. “We knew those guys were on the edge, just like us, that one of their planes would also be hitting our target, that it would look like the Fourth of July there,” says Mugavero. “I thought: I don’t want to do this, but I will. It’s my job. And I knew thousands of others were getting ready to do it too, on their side as well as ours. And I thought: Nobody wants to do this. But we all will. Goodbye world.”
And so it went, hour after hour, cramped in tandem seats, sitting on top of a would-be automatic holocaust, eyes ever on the pickup truck that would indicate launch verification when it moved out of the open gateway. “We had special things to consider,” says Mugavero. “The plane, the fuel, the bomb, the course, the tactics—but I knew that really I wasn’t a special person. I was as human as the next guy. I sat in that cockpit and had the same thoughts that anyone would have who knew that life—damn near all life—was about to end.”
After six endless hours, an officer approached the B-57. He told Mugavero and Clark to shut down the electrical switches and come in.