From Here and Back

Posted on 09/02/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

Cold War Story Nr. 1; Excerpted From Cold War Stories

 This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

During the Cold War period (1947 through 1991), many of the resources of the United States were devoted to Cold War activities. It wasn’t a war in the normal sense. “The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states (the Eastern Bloc), and the United States with its allies (the Western Bloc) after World War II.” Excerpted from Wikipedia “Cold War.”

“The United States adopted a foreign policy of containment of Soviet expansionism threatening strategically vital regions during the Cold War. The Cold War ended between the Revolutions of the Eastern Bloc nations in 1989 and the 1991 collapse of the USSR which ended communism in Eastern Europe. The term
“cold” is used because there was no large scale fighting directly between the United States and USSR but they each supported major regional conflicts.” Excerpted in part from Wikipedia “Cold War.”

People who were involved in aspects of the Cold War may not have associated what they were doing with being part of the Cold War. That was true in my case. Only later in life, after the Cold War was over, did it occur to me that I had spent most of my working years involved in Cold War activities. I spent seven years in the US Navy starting in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, took a four-year break to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, then worked on government defense contracts for thirty-three years before retiring from engineering work at the time the Cold War was ending.

Excerpted from Cold War Stories

From Here and Back

This story is about the Cold War and a reluctant B-47 crew who went through what they believed was a routine training flight that turned into a mission they had trained for but never expected to execute. The B-47 bomber was a plane that played a major role during the Cold War in the 1950s and early 1960s in United States’ efforts to deter Russian aggression. The B-47 plays an important role in this story, but the detailed description of its functions and operations are not to be considered factual.

From Here and Back

I’m the only son, the only child, of Isadore and Janice Ilson. I heard my pa wanted to give me a decent Swedish name like Gottfried, but my ma insisted on naming me Erick. I’m glad she prevailed.

I would crank up the homemade tractor that my pa had cobbled together and use its power to drive a feed grinder that ground a mixture of corn and oats to feed to our chickens and pigs. I started calling the homemade tractor the Ilson. The name stuck. The Ilson featured a flat-head sixty-horsepower V8 Ford motor and a car chassis with a modified transmission geared down for better traction and slower forward speed. The two back wheels were seventy-two inches apart and straddled two rows of corn spaced thirty-six inches apart. It had a single front wheel. The body of the Ilson was jacked up so a cultivator Pa had designed that fit between the front wheel and the back wheels could be used to cultivate hip-high corn.

However, today I was using the Ilson to grind grain. In order to transfer power to the grinder, a belt pulley was attached to the left rear wheel. I drove the Ilson to a well-marked spot, rolled out a belt from the granary, and attached one end of the belt to the grinder pulley. I then loosened a sort of a kickstand attached to the axle near the left wheel. I started moving the Ilson forward. The left wheel lifted off the ground, supported by the kickstand. The belt tightened, and the Ilson’s left hind wheel turned freely. All the Ilson’s power was transferred to the spinning wheel, turning the grinder. Grain began pouring out of two spouts from two overhead grain bins, feeding corn and oats into the grinder. After the grain mixture reached a certain level in the grinder, a prod sensor shut the spouts down until the grain fell to a certain level in the grinder, and then grain would flow again.

The processed grain fell from the bottom of the grinder onto a conveyer belt that carried it into the box of another machine Pa had cobbled together, our yard tractor. I called it the Runabout. It was also three-wheeled; the front half of a motorcycle my dad rescued from a junk yard and welded it to the back half of a car chassis. He used an extended drive chain and clever gear box to transfer power to the rear wheels.

I always considered my pa Isadore something between a tinkerer and a misplaced genius. He had immigrated here from Sweden in his teens. He was not the oldest son, so there would be no place for him on the ancestral Ilson farm, and he saw the United States as an opportunity to better his prospects. He worked as a farm hand in eastern South Dakota near Milbank and ended up marrying the farmer’s daughter, Janice, my ma. They inherited the farm when they were young.

Isadore learned to read and write in Swedish and had a propensity for numbers. He picked up English quickly. He was a tinkerer, always taking things apart and finding new uses for them; eager to learn about all the new mechanical things he was seeing, either in person or in pictures. I understood he was not a particularly good farmer. He would be busy on some project, taking something apart and making it into something different, and lose track of what needed to be done on the farm.

When farmers started converting to combine use after World War II, Pa found a farmer who was moving up to a large self-propelled combine and was anxious to have someone take his small combine off his hands. It needed some work. Pa acquired it in return for fixing some problems with the farmer’s tractor.

To drive its operations, the combine needed a tractor with a power take-off. But the Ilson didn’t have a power take-off—or the power to use it if it had. That didn’t deter Pa. He had picked up a Volkswagen air-cooled motor somewhere. He planned to use it to power the combine, mounting the motor on the combine and using the Ilson to pull the combine through the fields.
A problem with Pa’s plan was that both his oats and wheat were ready to harvest when he started the project. Pa had me to swath the grain crops while he toiled over integrating the motor and the combine. The swathed grain lay in the fields for a long time. It rained. By the time he got the combine and motor working, most of the grain had spoiled. I didn’t say anything about it—neither did Ma. We both knew Pa’s urge to tinker was incurable.

I was amazed by some of the things Pa came up with—not that they worked well or worked better than anything already out there but rather that they worked at all. Though I do have to admit that he had more successes than outright failures.

I went to the Milbank high school. At the time, most farm kids didn’t go to high school. Not that those parents were against education. It was expensive. There was no busing for farm kids. Farmers were recovering from the Great Depression and an historic drought. During World War II they were making money, finally, but they had a lot of catching up to do. However, both Pa and Ma were big fans of education. You wouldn’t think Pa would think like that since he had only spent four years inside a schoolroom, but I think he was even more set on me going to high school than Ma was.

I used the Runabout to commute. Licensing wasn’t a big issue in South Dakota at the time, and the Runabout had no trouble keeping up with traffic. In addition, Pa fashioned a cab for the rider and made it cozy in the winter. Another benefit was that I would deliver the ten-gallon milk cans to the small cheese factory in Milbank before classes started. Pa hated the cows, but they provided the steady income our family needed.

I did okay in high school, especially math. My math teacher, Miss Schwandt, said I should continue my education, go to college. Ma and Pa appreciated my grades but didn’t mention college—for a good reason. Our family didn’t have the means to send me to college. Farmers had done well during the war and since, but Pa really wasn’t a farmer; he was a tinkerer. In the best of times, we just got by.

Miss Schwandt wasn’t ready to concede. She came up with an idea. “At Brookings they have ROTC. If you qualify you could have most of your expenses paid. I can get the forms you need.”

By Brookings, she meant the town where South Dakota State College was, sixty miles south of Milbank. It was a popular college for students from the Milbank area. I knew they had an engineering major, which was what I would want, so the idea appealed to me. I thought it was nice of Miss Schwandt to want to help me, and I told her so. I said that I would appreciate her obtaining the forms.

When I got the forms, I discovered there were both army and air force ROTCs at Brookings. I talked to my folks about the idea. Ma was in favor of it right away. Pa seemed a little hesitant. I suppose he was hoping I would help on the farm after high school. If I was around to do the farming work, he would have more time to tinker. I had thought about that. What was my long-term goal? Did I have one? I pretty much understood that I could partner with Pa. If I really wanted to be a farmer that might not be a bad idea. I would pretty much have a free hand to do what I wanted with farming if Pa was left to his tinkering. Did I want to be a farmer? That was a question I hadn’t figured out the answer to.

Pa listened without comment when I told them about the ROTC option. “It’s not a sure thing,” I explained. “Not everyone who applies is accepted, and there is a physical.” Ma was sure I would be accepted and left no doubt that she thought I should go for it. Finally, Pa opened with a little cough. “Erick,” he said, “if I had da chance you got, I vould yomp all over it. Can’t get too much education. Dat much I know.”

Which would be the best to apply for, army or air force? In the army, they mostly shot people. In the air force, they flew airplanes. The idea of flying airplanes seemed to fit in with studying engineering better than shooting people. I filled out the application for the air force ROTC.

I received the acceptance before it was time to register for the fall quarter at South Dakota State. The physical was administered by our regular family doctor and was kind of a joke. The doctor said the main thing was to see if you were too fat. “Your real physical will happen when you go on active duty.”

I decided I would work for a degree in mechanical engineering, somewhat related to what Pa did when he tinkered, which I could relate to because Pa had me help sometimes, especially when he needed to move heavy things like car motors from one place to another.

I found myself studying harder than I had ever studied before. I received As in my math courses, but I had to work hard to get them. Fortunately, the extra classes I had to take for ROTC were easy, and the physical training and activity involved were good; otherwise I would likely have been going downhill in those categories. In the summer we took two weeks of training at an air force facility to become familiar with some of the things the air force was doing. Upon graduating in June 1961, I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. My orders directed me to report to Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska.
At Offutt I underwent a genuine physical checkup. I guess the physical determined what kinds of things you would be able to do in the air force. If I got into something involving engineering, I would be happy.

After the physical and a bunch of written tests, I was interviewed and then informed of what I was qualified to do. Physically, I was qualified to take pilot training; I was encouraged to go in that direction. I also learned that pilot training was like signing up for a career. Most other skill paths required only two years of active duty and two years in the reserves. Pilot training could require more than two years, so you were obligated to serve more active time. I told the interviewer I wasn’t interested in being a pilot or having a career in the air force. I would prefer to do engineering work with a contractor or in a lab, something like that.

The interviewer seemed surprised. He said most people he interviewed would give their left arm to be a pilot. He went on; they were looking for more than pilots to be airmen. The active-duty requirements for most nonpilot airmen required only two years of active duty.

“We are looking for men like yourself to man large numbers of SAC aircraft coming off the line,” the interviewer said.

He almost made it sound like it would be my patriotic duty to do this. The interviewer described a position as a navigator/bombardier on a B-47 and encouraged me to consider it. “As a navigator/bombardier on a B-47, you would only have a two-year active-duty obligation, and you would also receive flight pay.”

The interviewer showed me pictures of the B-47. In one picture the plane was sitting in a flight line, and in another it was in flight. I’d heard about the B-47 but knew little about the plane. The idea that I would be riding in one of them sharpened my interest. I studied the pictures. In the air, it was a beautiful-looking flying machine, a big fighter plane with six jet engines. In another way, it appeared ominous to me, like something evil. However, I was a farm boy, always wanting to please, so I relented and agreed to take the training to be the navigator on a B-47.

Soon, it seemed I was in a world of quick time. I was ordered to report to the Mather Air Force Base, near Sacramento, California. Six months later I was deemed able to perform the duties of a B-47 navigator/bombardier and ordered back to Offutt Field. I was assigned to a wing stationed there.

After completing navigation training, I saw my first real-life B-47 at Offutt. It was more imposing than in the photos. It looked unlike anything I had ever seen before, with swept-back wings that drooped when the jet was parked and flexed up seventeen feet at the wing tips when airborne. It was a fearsome-looking, delicate flying machine designed to fly higher and faster than anything that would oppose it in the air, high enough to be safe from ground-based weapons. It was developed to B-47 Design Featured Major Advances in Aircraft Technology

Photo available for use without restrictions.

penetrate Russian airspace and deliver nuclear bombs to selected targets. Those goals, faster and higher than Russian fighters and beyond the range of ground-based weapons, took priority over durability, crew comfort, survivability, and everything else.

There were only three crew members, pilot, co-pilot and navigator—a departure from World War II, when heavy bombers often had nine or more crew members. Part of the reason for a smaller crew was the lack of armament. The B-47 had two fifty-caliber machine guns in the tail, which were operated remotely by the co-pilot. The B-47 depended on flying high and being fast in order to reach targets. Each member of the small crew was responsible for tasks that would have been shared with other crewmen in previous large bomber designs.

The pilot and co-pilot sat under a bubble-type canopy. They had a good view of the surroundings, but the space was cramped, reminiscent of a fighter plane cockpit. My accommodations in the nose cone were more ample, but there were no windows. I had a viewing screen that could monitor the outside world, but that was not the same as an unrestricted view. Not that I needed to look out a window to navigate, but it would have been nice.

One thing that unnerved me at first was that, in case of a bailout, the navigator would be ejected down, not up. This required that the plane be at an altitude of at least five hundred feet before a downward ejection would work. Worse yet, in practice, the downward ejection seemed to have problems at any altitude. After a while I got over worrying about it because I figured I would never have a reason to eject from the plane. That might have been illogical thinking, but it worked.

Each crew was a team and would remain a team of three until some event like retirement from active duty or reassignment brought a change. The crews tended to be young, mostly first and second lieutenants. The pilot on our plane was First Lieutenant Richard Douglas. He loved flying and the air force and planned to make a career out of it. He was young, not much older than I was, and this was his first aircraft. He thought he was the luckiest man alive to get to fly the B-47. Second Lieutenant Bill VanVeen was the co-pilot, waiting to complete his air force active duty commitment so he could fly commercial, although the B-47 was not an ideal aircraft for commercial training because it was so different. I hoped his plans would work for him.

When I reported for duty, a second lieutenant navigator/bombardier, in the spring of 1961, the Strategic Air Force was on a high alert. Planes were loaded and ready to take off on a mission to attack Russia.

Every third week, the crews in the section I was assigned to, spent the week in a building near where our plane sat on a hardstand. Three crews shared the building, which had everything needed to accommodate nine crew members for the week. A contractor supplied people to cook meals, wash clothes, make beds, and clean. The crew members underwent training and information sessions. We’d fly one long mission during the week. Otherwise we could do pretty much what we wanted except leave the building or immediate area. I started reading. I read more books than ever before. There was an exercise room, plus a hobby room with woodworking, ceramics, painting, and metalworking where I messed around.

During the week, our section of three planes would fly a mission. Soon after being alerted to take off, the crews sprinted to their planes, which were being run up by ground crew members. Our three-man crew hardly had time to settle into our positions before we joined a line of nine planes moving toward the runway, fully loaded with fuel and nuclear weapons. There was no hesitation, no calling the tower for permission to take off. When the first plane in the line reached the takeoff point on the runway, it immediately started its takeoff run and, with the assistance of JATO (jet assisted take-off) rockets, was soon airborne. The following eight B-47s lined up and took off at sixteen-second intervals after the first plane. My plane was in the middle of the pack. That meant we took off in the wake of the plane ahead of us and had to deal with a lot of turbulence.

The missions normally included refueling over Alaska or north of Greenland. We were to consider every mission a for-real mission to bomb some Russian target. We carried sealed orders onboard to be opened once we crossed a point of no return. If we weren’t recalled and ordered back to base before we reached the point of no return, we knew that we were on a real mission, with orders to bomb a designated target. We never had to open those orders and never expected to open them.

When not on alert, we received extended time off to make up for the one-week confinement in alert quarters, and after that we participated in training exercises and honed our job skills.

Things had changed since the B-47 was introduced to the air force in 1951. Russia had developed a fighter plane and a ground missile that could reach the B-47 when it flew at its service ceiling. So, we were trained to fly low instead of high to limit radar detection and to use a variable track in place of a straight-in approach to the target. When the target area was reached, the plane would regain enough altitude to allow the nuclear weapon to detonate at its intended altitude and for the plane to escape being blown up. The need for a zig-zag approach and terrain-avoidance maneuvers put a strain on the aircraft and on the pilot and navigator. The changes also affected fuel consumption. Flying at a low altitude burned three times as much fuel as flying at the service altitude of thirty-five thousand to forty thousand feet.

In October 1962, we started hearing that Russia was establishing missile launch sites in Cuba. Airmen I associated with didn’t get too excited about this news. We were always hearing about the Russians doing this or that, and this sounded like another one of those Cold War stories that came up and then faded away.
However, this time seemed different. Soon after we heard about the missile launch sites, the whole wing at Offutt went to alert status; everyone was confined to the base until further notice. All the aircraft rated ready to fly were loaded with nuclear weapons. Our three-plane section received orders to be ready to take off at three a.m. on October twenty-second. That was unusual. Normally there would be no warning. The klaxon would go off, and we would race to get to the airplane and take off as fast as we could, like firemen responding to a fire.

Our three-plane section joined six other aircraft and took off as scheduled at three a.m., headed north. Normally we would head for Alaska or Greenland, where we would rendezvous with tankers to refuel. However, this time we were to fly almost straight north over Canadian territory, across the North Pole, and then head south toward Russia before refueling.

Navigating the leg from Offutt to the refueling destination wasn’t much of a challenge. I had LORAN (long range navigation), radio direction finders, a gyro compass, and unlimited use of radar.

The crew was supplied with two C rations each and a thermos of coffee. On this mission, the first C ration was breakfast. I usually didn’t eat the second ration, but if I did it would be during the return to Offutt. There was very little variety in the C rations; if you ate one you knew what to expect.

Refueling was always an exciting part of a mission. No matter how many times we did it, it never became routine. We’d fly a little lower and behind the tanker using the flying boom method. A combination of lights and verbal communication between the tanker boom operator and our pilot put us in position for the flying probe to mate with our plane’s refueling coupling. During the refueling, our plane had to maintain a position that maintained the probe connection. Two planes flying hundreds of miles an hour, connected by a fueling probe, with restricted freedom to maneuver, can cause anxiety. Particularly in the Arctic region, where spending much time considering bailing out was an exercise in futility—the possibility of survival was unlikely. Fortunately, once the connection was made, it didn’t take long to complete the refueling.

Once the refueling was complete on that October 1962 flight, we continued on course to complete the mission. I waited for the recall that always occurred before we reached the point of no return. It bothered me a little that we weren’t very far from Russia when we’d refueled and that we didn’t have much time before a recall would become irrelevant.

Richard, the pilot, was also getting nervous. His voice came over the intercom. “How far to point of no return?”

“Twenty minutes,” I replied.

Bill, the co-pilot, chimed in. “This story isn’t following the script.”

The pilot agreed. “I have no desire to visit Russia this time of the year.”

“Ten minutes to go,” I said.

“We could abort, engine problem,” the co-pilot suggested.

“Everything is purring,” the pilot replied.

“I know, just suggesting,” the co-pilot replied. “Or just hoping.”

“Five minutes,” I said.

At this point I realized that what would never happen was about to happen. School children were being taught what to do when this thing that would never happen, happened. People had become used to the idea that a nuclear war would likely be the end of human existence, but they also knew it would never happen. But as this crew in this B-47 passed through the point of no return, we knew it was about to happen.

“Okay,” I said, “we’ve passed the point of no return. Time to check out our itinerary.” I had a package, and the pilot had an identical package. It identified the target, the route to the target, and the procedure for flying the route to the target before releasing the device. The target was Moscow. We were being directed to end life on earth as we knew it. Strange how my mind focused on how we would accomplish this.

It would be up to our crew to follow the package directions and complete the mission. Everything was in our hands and our B-47, a dot in the sky that could destroy a city. We would be flying low in order to minimize detection by Russian radar. My first task would be to navigate the course to the target—no small task when flying low on a zig-zag course at night with only a gyro compass. We would be running silent. No radar, no radio transmissions, no running lights.

The pilot noted that the forecast was for a clear sky when we reached the Russian coastline.

“I appreciate the help,” I replied. “With a nearly full moon we will be able to navigate visually. There are some low mountains along the coast we will want to avoid”

“Roger that.” The pilot replied.

As forecast, the sky was clear when we reached the Russian coastline, with a forecast for partial clouds two hundred miles in and rain and light drizzle over Moscow. We would reach Moscow at midnight.

We were flying at thirty-five thousand feet but dropped to five hundred feet as we entered the Barents Sea and approached the Russian mainland, where an estuary linked the Barents and White Seas about a hundred miles east of Murmansk. As predicted, there was a nearly full moon, and we could visually navigate the narrow body of water connecting the Barents and White Seas.

“Man!” I exclaimed. “I don’t know how you could navigate through there with instruments!”

The co-pilot agreed. “Some of those hills on either side of that water are taller than five hundred feet by quite a bit.”

The White Sea was a relatively small body of water, but it provided a path through the low mountain range near the coast to the flat terrain along its southern shore. We had been told that snoops continually searched for and identified cracks in Russian border radar coverage; it seemed to work for us. We had easily penetrated Russian territory. Considering the immensity of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), it seemed likely there could be holes in the border security.

We maintained our five-hundred-foot altitude over the flat, dark terrain south of the White Sea. We tracked southwesterly after leaving the White Sea, which pointed us toward Leningrad. We occasionally saw flickering lights but no massed lights like those visible above a village or city. Although it was dark, it was obvious that we were flying over a lightly inhabited forest.

No swarms of MiG fighters rose to intercept us. We seemed to move through Russian air space alone and unnoticed. There had to be other SAC bombers attacking, but everything seemed peaceful and quiet.

We were flying under scattered clouds when we reached the coordinates to change our heading to a southeasterly direction. Those coordinates were based on my best estimates of wind direction and velocity, the accuracy of our gyro compass, and not much else. It would have been nice to have a firm fix on our position before making the turn, but it was not necessary. Finding a bright, shiny target as large as Moscow shouldn’t be difficult.

Our track ran parallel to and about sixty miles to the east of a busy highway that connected Leningrad and Moscow. The terrain remained flat, ideal for low altitude flight. I gave the mission planners a good grade for selecting ideal conditions for a terrain-hugging track.

We saw more scattered lights and the glow of numerous lights from villages and small towns. We flew low, without running lights, so people might think we were a ghost ship in the sky when we flashed by. Still no obvious defensive activity. This seemed easier than it should be.

We encountered light rain and mist, which would make our approach to Moscow more difficult to detect. I alerted the crew to the next course change, which would happen in twenty minutes, at 2245 Greenwich meantime. We would then turn ninety degrees to a heading that would put us south of Moscow in fifteen minutes. After the turn, we made another turn, climbing to thirty thousand feet on a heading that put us over Moscow. As we climbed, the co-pilot and I turned on interlocking switches to arm the nuclear device. When the sequence was successful, a red “ready” light lit up on both my and the co-pilot’s panels. Only two things remained in order to complete the final arming of the nuclear device. First, when the weapon dropped out of the bomb bay, a sensor in the nose cone would determine that the weapon was clear of the aircraft and falling freely. Reaching a specified altitude above the surface was the last step necessary to allow detonation. The nuclear device in the bomb bay was set to detonate at one thousand feet above Moscow.

The cloud cover provided no protection against the intense light and gamma rays that would be emitted when the weapon exploded. I pulled on my eye-protection goggles. All this seemed completely surreal.

We were high above the cloud cover when we reached thirty thousand feet. Moscow could be seen as a pale glow of light through the clouds, a big bullseye—adequate since close is good enough with nuclear devices. We passed over Moscow, then made a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn. I opened the bomb bay doors and released the bomb. It should fall approximately in the middle of Moscow. I didn’t feel the lift normally experienced when an item weighing 7,600 pounds was dropped from a plane.

Neither did the pilot. His voice came over the intercom. “What happened? I didn’t feel a release.”

I looked at my panel. The bomb-bay-door-open light was on. The bomb bay door should have closed after the device was released. “Something is wrong,” I answered. “Looks like the weapon didn’t release.”

I felt a tremendous load lift off my shoulders. We had followed our orders and carried them out successfully—until the moment the bomb didn’t release. Hundreds of thousands of humans were still alive.

If there is a God, I thought, thank you.

“What the hell!” the pilot exclaimed. “We have a hot nuke on board.”

The co-pilot asked, “What’s the plan?”

The plane continued following the heading it had been on for releasing the weapon. That was okay, since that is what was planned—however, not with the weapon still in the bomb bay. We had not experienced the bright light emitted when a weapon detonates nor been buffeted by shock waves, further evidence that something was amiss.

There was a long pause after the co-pilot’s question. I thought, What would my pa do? This was Pa’s kind of problem, and he would have a solution he could implement with the tools he had. From my weapon control panel, I attempted to set the altitude at which the nuclear weapon would activate to a lower altitude, but it didn’t respond.

Flight crews had been briefed on the things we should know about the weapon. One item that stuck in my mind from the briefings was that one of the last activation requirements was for a sensor in the nose cone to sense that the device was free of the aircraft and falling free. I told the pilot to drop us down to five thousand feet and gave him a new heading.

The pilot asked, “Heading to where? What about the locked and loaded nuke in the bomb bay?”

“We’ll have to take care of the problem in our bomb bay on the way to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. We’ll drop down to five thousand feet so we don’t have to keep the cabin pressurized while we work on our problem, but not so low that the weapon could be activated. Anybody have a Swiss Army knife?” I asked.

The co-pilot replied, “Wouldn’t ever leave the house without one. Why?”

“Throw it down here,” I replied. I didn’t know what I would do with the knife, but I wanted to make it seem like I had a plan.

I observed on my nav panel altimeter that the pilot had begun dropping down from thirty thousand feet. I could start trying to break into the bomb bay without worrying about cabin pressure when or if I could do it.

I looked around my space. The bombsight was mounted next to the navigator’s table. I noticed it was on a base consisting of two aluminum bars about a foot long, four inches wide, and half an inch thick. Phillips head screws attached the bombsight to the aluminum bars, and the bars were fastened to the plane deck with more Phillips head screws. The Swiss Army knife had a Phillips head screwdriver in its repertoire, but that seemed like a lot of screws for the fragile Swiss Army knife to handle. The bombsight was raised on a pedestal about a foot and a half high. Without giving it too much thought, I sat down on the plane deck, braced my feet against the navigation table, put my arms around the bombsight, and leaned back. One of the aluminum bars attached to the bombsight pulled loose; the other stayed attached to the plane deck but detached from the bombsight. The screws attached to the deck and to the bombsight had been loosened and could be removed using the Swiss Army knife. Soon I had two heavy pieces of metal to work with.

I used one bar as a wedge and the other as a hammer. I placed the end of the wedge bar next to a row of rivets and began pounding on it with the other bar.

When I started pounding, the pilot shouted, “What in hell are you doing? Are you destroying the aircraft?”

I explained that I was trying to break a hole in the bulkhead to get a look at the weapon, and then I resumed pounding. Finally, a small crack opened in the bulkhead. Working on the small crack with the wedge bar, I opened a hole large enough to push the wedge bar into. I then used the wedge bar as a lever to peel back the aluminum far enough to put my arm through. I was able to see into the bomb bay.

Using flashlight that was attached my life jacket, I observed that the weapon’s tail end hung loose; the front end remained firmly held by its hanger. The hanging tail kept the bomb bay doors from closing.

I described what I saw to the pilot.

“How stable does the situation look?” he asked.

“Hard to tell,” I replied. “If the nuke doesn’t fall free before I can reach it with one of my bars and smash the sensor in the cone, it will be safe.” I was assuming that in the process of smashing the cone, I wouldn’t accidently activate the weapon. I assumed that it required a positive signal to activate, that it would not activate if it received no signal.

I reported, “I can reach the cone with my bar.” A short time later I reported that I had smashed the cone with my bar. “Okay,” I said, “drop down to radar-avoiding altitude, five hundred feet.”

This would be the real test to determine if my assumption about the sensor was valid. We dropped below a thousand feet and we didn’t blow up. In one of my engineering classes, the professor had said that when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. The professor was proved wrong in this case.

We were soon skimming over the Ukraine’s flat terrain with few obstacles, cruising at five hundred feet. It continued to puzzle me why, after we had flown thousands of miles through Russian airspace, there was no response from Soviet defense forces. I mentioned this to the crew.

“Suits me,” the co-pilot answered. “I had considered bombing Russia a suicide mission.”

“It is,” I answered. “Assuming other planes are successful.”

The pilot agreed. “Everything seems so quiet and peaceful—this isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.”

“Peace on earth, good will to all,” the co-pilot replied.

We reached the Black Sea and continued flying at five hundred feet above the water until we reached a point where we felt it was safe to climb to 10,000 feet.

The pilot asked about the fuel situation. Could we reach Incirlik? The co-pilot monitored the fuel and asked me how far it was to Incirlik. I had established a good fix on our position when we reached the Black Sea and gave him a number I had high confidence in.

“Okay,” the co-pilot said. “Hang on while I run the numbers.” After a long pause the co-pilot reported his conclusion. “Based on flying at our current altitude and assuming wind isn’t a factor, we need to refuel before we reach Incirlik.”

“Ok,” The pilot said, “See if you can raise Incirlik about getting a tanker to refule.”

The co-pilot handled the communications. He received no response to his calls on air force frequencies. He tried Turkish airways. Same result.

He called me on the intercom. “Nav, could you look at our radios? We should be able to communicate with somebody. I’m not getting anyone. Something must be wrong.”

I had a reputation as the fix-it guy in our crew. I could usually resolve problems or figure out a way to work around them. Must have inherited some of Pa’s tinkering ways.

The communications equipment rack was in an unpressurized portion of the plane, accessible through a removable access cover that put the plane’s transmitters and receivers within reach. I gained access to the communications equipment and started working on the problem.

I asked the co-pilot to transmit something. There was a power output indicator on the front of the transmitter, and it indicated a strong signal as the co-pilot transmitted. Two receivers provided dual redundancy. One receiver had an obvious problem. It was cold, without power, but the other one had power. A phone jack allowed direct connection to each receiver. I plugged my earphones into the receiver with power. A functional receiver would have background noise; this one did not. Back to the other receiver. I found an obvious problem; a circuit breaker had been tripped. I reset the circuit breaker and heard background noise. So much for dual redundancy. Both receivers had been down for different reasons.

I called up the co-pilot on the intercom. “Okay, you should be able to communicate.”

The co-pilot communicated with the Incirlik Air Force Base and identified our plane. The pilot and I were monitoring the conversation. There seemed to be some confusion at the other end. Then a voice requested our plane’s identification and asked for the origin of the flight. Then it asked for the names of the crewmen.

The co-pilot supplied the information and added that we had a hung nuclear device in the plane.

There was a long pause in the communications and the pilot came on the intercom. “Do you think?”

I replied, “I do. Maybe we were recalled and never received the message.”

“Damn,” the pilot replied.

About this time two F-86 fighter plans appeared on our wing, looking us over.

Incirlik finally came back and requested more information.

The co-pilot described the nuclear device hang-up and said that we couldn’t close the bomb bay because one end of the device hung down, preventing its closing.

There was another long pause before the voice said the plane could not land at Incirlik with a nuclear device hanging out of the bomb bay.

As we approached the northern coast of Turkey, Turkish airways asked for information. Incirlik interceded and got us cleared for an overfly.

The co-pilot informed Incirlik of the other problem that put the hung-up nuclear device in second place. “We are short of fuel and need to be refueled in order to reach Incirlik.”

This was a problem Incirlik could handle, and they got right back. “We have a loaded tanker that will take off shortly to intercept and refuel your plane.”

That settled, they returned to the puzzle of the hung-up nuclear device. The co-pilot assured Incirlik that the weapon was safe.

A long pause followed before Incirlik came back with directions. They instructed us to drop the nuclear weapon off the coast in shallow Mediterranean waters.

The co-pilot sounded exasperated. “We can’t drop it. It is hung up.” The voice said there were two options: drop the weapon near the shore or ditch the plane in the Mediterranean near the shore.

As we were refueling, I realized I hadn’t eaten the second C ration. We had been flying for twenty hours and I wasn’t hungry or tired. We had been surviving on adrenaline for a long time.

It also occurred to me that I was a long way from the farm in South Dakota, in a different world I couldn’t talk about and probably wouldn’t want to talk about. Strange, I thought. Things happen in one’s life which you don’t expect, don’t plan for, are not prepared for, but you go along with whatever it is, like pulling a lever to release a nuclear weapon that would have killed hundreds of thousands of people but for the grace of God, who caused it to hang up. Humans can pull that lever as if it were a normal part of a job. I’m capable of doing that. Why? How?

After we finished refueling, the pilot announced that we would try to shake our hung-up nuke loose when we reached the Mediterranean. If that wasn’t successful, we should ditch the plane, again near the shore. The first alternative seemed preferable.

The pilot said we would do the “pull up, drop bomb” maneuver, something the air force had determined should not be done with the B-47 because of the strain on its fragile wings. In the maneuver, the plane makes a low approach to the target, then pulls up steeply and releases the bomb in the presence of strong gravitational forces that would eject the bomb clear of the aircraft. It might work—if the plane didn’t fall apart.

We made a fast descent to near sea level, picked up a lot of airspeed, and then pulled back sharply. We shot up, pulling a lot of Gs. If that didn’t break the nuke loose, nothing would.

Suddenly the plane began to roll. The pilot screamed into the intercom, “Bail out! We’ve lost a wing!”

I had no choice but to use the unreliable downward ejecting system. I didn’t hesitate, just pulled the lever and found myself thrown from the spinning aircraft. We were above a thousand feet when the plane broke apart, plenty of time for my chute to open before I hit the water. I saw two other chutes floating down. We all hit the water at about the same time. I inflated my life jacket and untangled myself from my chute by the time I was picked up by one of several boats that had been dispatched to the area to respond to whatever happened. While the crew was being picked up, parts of our plane could be seen splashing down a few miles downrange from where we were. Very likely the nuclear device ended up somewhere near where Incirlik wanted it, but I didn’t expect the crew would be receiving any mission-completed citations.

It took about half an hour for the boat to take us to a landing, where an ambulance met us. By then, I was feeling the effects of not sleeping for twenty-four hours, eating only one C ration during that time, and spending more than twenty of those hours flying under stressful conditions. Dry clothes, a meal, and a bed were at the top of my to-do list. It was not to be. We showered and were found to be tired but healthy by the medics. We received clean uniforms, and then we were interviewed by three worried-looking air force officers. Yes, we had flown across the full width of Russia and were only prevented from nuking Moscow by a malfunctioning bomb release. We had followed air force procedures. We were not recalled from the mission, so we’d opened our onboard sealed orders and proceeded to carry out those orders. And yes, we’d determined that neither of the redundant receivers were functioning when we tried to contact Incirlik Air Force Base.

After completing the interview, one of the officers, a colonel, reminded us that we all had top secret clearances and confirmed we were aware that we would not divulge information about our missions to anyone unauthorized to know about them, particularly this mission we had just completed.

It seems that two counter-balancing failures had probably prevented an all-out nuclear war from occurring.

As far as I know, the Russians may never have known about the almost-nuking of Moscow. If they had, they may have suppressed the information, not wanting to admit to the Russian people that a US military aircraft had penetrated Russian airspace and flown undetected across the breadth of the country.

I returned to Pa’s farm after completing my active-duty obligation. We built a state-of-the-art machine shop and started a company called Original Design. We did custom design work, mostly for agricultural machine manufacturers but also for the auto industry. We didn’t do manufacturing but did provide prototypes and proofing and testing of concepts. We trained some South Dakota farm kids to be the skilled mechanical craftsmen who built and tested our prototypes. As we incorporated electrical and electronic features into our designs, we also hired an electrical engineer and a couple of technicians. I introduced Pa to the concept of patents, and we hired a lawyer who spent most of his time researching, filing, and protecting patents we generated.

I never talked to anyone about the missions I flew in the air force, especially not about the time my crew overflew Russia because of a receiver failure and would have dropped a nuclear bomb on Moscow except that another failure caused the bomb to hang up. I look around our neighborhood, which has not changed much during my entire life, and think, Thank God for failures.

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