“This Is Only a Test”

Fifty years ago, cold-war games halted all civilian air traffic—long before September 11 did the same.

Air traffic controllers from NORAD take over the civilian positions in the tower at Washington National Airport during the Skyshield II exercise. (National Archives and Records Administration)
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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.

At Chicago’s O’Hare, Eastern, American, and Continental swung open the doors to their Boeing 707s and 720Bs. Trans World Air Lines presented its Convair 880, and United, its new Sud-Aviation S.E. 210 Caravelle twin-jet from France. At Chicago’s Midway, American, United, and TWA displayed Douglas DC-6s and -7s. O’Hare began operating its $4 million communications center. Following Sky Shield II, the cost of calls between Chicago exchanges and O’Hare was reduced from 15 to 10 cents for the first five minutes.

From 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Eastern time, 2,900 commercial flights were canceled or delayed. At the three New York City air terminals, Newark, LaGuardia, and Idlewild, 955 arrivals and departures, affecting 26,800 passengers, were scrubbed.

The release of chaff ended one hour before the conclusion of the 12-hour exercise. Yet it fluttered down throughout the morning darkness, even as airliners began to resume service. Airliners stacked on taxiways conducted preflight checks; tower controllers nationwide directed flights to their runway thresholds to hold for the all-clear. At 1:07 a.m., after verification, a DC-8 departed Idlewild.

As of daybreak on Sunday morning, October 15, Captain Starke’s B-52G from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base remained missing. A vast search triangle was set up 600 miles from New York. As late as 12:15 a.m. on October 17, a Coast Guard cutter chased a reported orange flare. The crew of eight was eventually presumed lost at sea, the only casualties of the three Sky Shields.

General Laurence Kuter was quoted in media ranging from Air Force Magazine to the Chicago Tribune, calling Sky Shield II "the greatest exercise in information analysis, decision-making, and action-taking in continental aerospace defense in all our history." But Kuter deflected calls for a box score, reiterating that Sky Shield’s intent was, "by no means, a contest between offensive and defensive forces. Bombers presented themselves as targets and the object was not to ‘shoot them down,’ but to practice and train personnel in the use of the system." Sky Shield I had seen 1,129 sorties, but Sky Shield II bettered that by 50 percent.

Kuter added, "The many restrictions imposed in the interest of flight safety, and the leaving out of simulated nuclear detonations and other battle damage, served to distort many of the results." The Department of Defense refused to release an analysis or even to acknowledge that it had measured in any detail its radars, intercepts, and systems.

Quietly, NORAD produced an exhaustive report, presenting it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff before filing it in secure archives. A quarter-century later, the defense department ruled that as a bi-national command, NORAD could deny requests generated by the Freedom of Information Act. Finally, in 1997, most but not all of the Sky Shield results were declassified.

Had Americans known NORAD’s conclusions, they might have ducked and remained covered. Nearly one-half of enemy flights at low altitude had escaped detection. Of those initially detected, 40 percent then eluded tracking radar by changing their formation shape, size, or altitude. All told, if Sky Shield bombers had been Soviet bombers, no more than one-fourth would have been intercepted.

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