A Hard Day’s Night

Cold war B-52s flew an icy northern route on alert for a Soviet missile strike.

Cold war B-52s flew an icy northern route on alert for a Soviet missile strike. (NASM (SI NEG. #00129297))
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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.

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