A Full Retaliatory Response

When President John Kennedy contemplated nuclear war, what went through the minds of the U.S. bomber crews?

View inside the cockpit of a U. S. Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress, en route to Australia in 1982. (NASM/ USAF Photo by Tech. Sgt. Alex R. Taningco)
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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.”

Orbiting at their positive-control turnaround points, the crews monitored radio traffic, listening for the Emergency War Order from SAC headquarters in Omaha to come crackling over the bombers’ long-range, high-frequency sets. At least two crew members were to copy the message, then compare its numbers and letters to onboard decoding documents. The voice messages would either recall them or commit them to strike their targets.

“As a 21-year-old I was very confident in the B-52H,” recalls Lee T. McCoy Jr. of Endwell, New York, who was an Airman Second Class tail gunner in the early 1960s. “My aircraft commander had survived World War II—and I thought he was the best—our EW was good, the navigator was excellent, the radar navigator [bombardier] never missed, and I had a Gatling gun in the tail that could take out air-to-air missiles. I had extreme confidence in the aircraft and the crew. Looking back, I was probably very naive. I thought I’d be coming home.”

Just One Reason
Bombs on target: For every member of a SAC crew, that’s what mattered. The plan was to penetrate Soviet airspace at low level and high subsonic speed, to stay below Russian radar, and to skirt known defenses. Approaching the target, B-47 crews would zoom upward, toss their H-bombs toward the aim point, and complete a 180-degree Immelmann maneuver to escape the blast (see “Exit Strategy,” Apr./May 2003). In the less agile B-52, crews delivered their weapons from 400 feet or lower, running in at 400 to 440 mph. With the bombardier fixing his radar scope cross-hairs on a nearby building or terrain feature—an “offset”—that gave a bright return, the B-52’s analog bombing computer would crank in the offset-to-target distance, speed, heading, and weapon ballistics, then send steering signals to the pilot data indicators on the flight deck instrument panel. Upstairs, the aircraft commander flew the airplane so as to keep the PDI needle centered at the top of its instrument case. Twin second hands on either side of the needle ticked off the time to bomb release. At 10 seconds to go, high-pressure hydraulics snapped the bomb bay doors open into the slipstream.

It happens very fast: You can hear and feel the subdued roar of extra drag in the slipstream, confirming the gleaming yellow warning light on the pilot’s panel: “Bomb Doors Open.” The radar-nav’s call of “Bomb Away!” is followed quickly by the thump of the doors closing, and the Stratofortress once again slips smoothly through the dangerous air, racing over—and away from—the target. The bomb’s delay fuse would allow the B-52, running flat out at 400 mph, to escape the fireball, blast, and intense heat. At least that’s what the tactics manual promised.

“I felt it would be a one-way trip,” says Clyde Ketcham. “Even if not shot down, after flying through all the radioactivity, I don’t think we would have lived very long, and on most missions, we had very little fuel left and really no friendly places to go after the last target. I think most crew members held down at the very bottom of their soul [the thought] that God wouldn’t let this happen. That’s how I kept my sanity.”

Buck Shuler remembers four main target “sets” in the SIOP, designed to erode the Soviets’ ability to cause further damage to the United States. “We would strike the leadership, their strategic retaliatory capability, general military [targets], and then their industry and ability to reconstitute. I can remember vividly the aiming point of the first weapon was the southwest corner of the Kremlin.”

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