The Open Gate

A B-57 crew faced the end of the world.

Air & Space Magazine

(Continued from page 2)

Mugavero stared into the night and saw the impossible: the gate was open.  An Air Force blue pickup truck had driven up and parked inside the gate.  Its engine was plugged into an electrical heater to keep it from freezing and the driver stayed inside.  “When he moves it, we take off for our target,” said Clark, settling into his seat.  “No one will tell us.  We’ve got radio silence.”

“What’s happened?” Mugavero wondered aloud.

“I have no idea.”

The two men sat silently, trying to keep warm in their winter flightsuits.  As the hours passed they watched the sun brighten the sky.  It might well be the last sunrise they’d see.  Mugavero thought of his wife, who was probably just now waking.  Soon she would be getting the kids up, starting breakfast, and planning a trip to the commissary.  Thinking about it now, he searches for words: “The world was going on as usual right then, and there I was, waiting to end it.”

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.”

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