I was a KC-135 navigator on my first assignment out of Undergraduate Navigator Training. I was assigned to Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota. I had been combat ready for about a year and was in the process of gaining experience on a SAC combat crew. At that point in time there was no combat; it was all training, with the exception of an operational mission called Chrome Dome that we had flown out of Alaska in the summer of 1962.
Editor's Note: The routes depicted at the Wikipedia link are from 1966 and do not reflect operation Chrome Dome as is was conducted in 1962.
It was a cold and rainy Monday morning of 22nd October 1962. I was fixing myself a bit of breakfast when my Aircraft Commander (AC) called me and told me I was on telephone alert. Okay. I sat back wondering what I could do while sitting by the phone, when it rang again. It was my AC again. "Pack your bags," he said, "you're going to Spain." Wow! I grabbed all of my flight gear and a shaving kit and ran out the door.
On the way out to the base I wondered what might have caused all this unusual activity. The Chinese and the Indians were having armed clashes over a disputed border. Maybe things were getting out of hand. I pulled into a parking spot at the squadron and checked in with my AC. The Operations Officer immediately ordered my crew and one other out to a KC-135 that was being made ready to fly. All around me other crew members were showing up and were being sent off to the squadron briefing room. The squadron was generating its aircraft to full alert status.
As fast as we could, we loaded our gear and some crew chiefs on the tanker, buttoned up, started engines, and headed for the runway. Clearance for takeoff was immediate, and we were on our way. We flew pretty much a great circle route from Ellsworth direct to Torrejon Air Base, Spain. The other crew was flying the airplane, so we sat in our passenger seats and wondered what was going on. We had been airborne about two hours and we were near Chicago. The navigator of the flight crew told us that the entire SAC force had just been recalled from training sorties. I walked over the aft scanner's window to see if Chicago was still there. It was.
In another couple of hours we were coasting out over the Atlantic and the sun had set. I went up to the jump seat with the intention of relieving the other navigator, if need be. He was as adrenaline charged as I was and refused my offer. I sat in the jump seat and looked out into the darkness as we made our way eastward over the Atlantic. We could see rotating beacons of other aircraft all over the night sky. The ones at or near our altitude must have been mostly SAC aircraft, since the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) had a relatively small number of jet transports at that time. Below us were more rotating beacons out there in the dark. The HF radio traffic made it obvious that the Oceanic Controllers had their hands full talking to a lot of airplanes, all heading east.
It seemed like no time and we were across the Atlantic and coasting in to Portugal. Torrejon Air Base was less than an hour away. As we approached Torrejon, it was evident that the approach controllers there were pretty busy too. We were given a radar controlled descent and vectors to final approach; we could see that we were one in a long chain of aircraft being vectored for Torrejon. On a long final, we could see one aircraft on short final ahead of us, and one turning off the runway at Torrejon. The stream of inbound aircraft seemed endless.
It was still dark when we were marshaled to a parking spot and shut down the engines. The cargo door was opened and a ramp was rolled up; we started to unload our gear. A USAF colonel came up to my AC and introduced himself: "Buckwalter. I'm the wing commander." Now that was a reception party. He told the two ACs to bring their crews to the local command post for a briefing. When we got there, we were allowed to hear a previously recorded shortwave radio broadcast of President Kennedy's speech to the American people in which he told of the missile threat building up in Cuba. If you are old enough, you probably remember seeing that speech on TV. We were then given some basic operating rules regarding our own availability to fly missions. We were on a pretty short string, but not as short as the SAC alert force already at Torrejon. When we taxied in after landing at Torrejon, we saw what looked like acres of B-47s – all surrounded by mountains of concertina wire. We also saw that all of the USAF alert barns at the end of the runway had F-102s cocked and ready. We didn't know it then, but the Spanish had some of their F-86s on alert also.
We were trundled off for a meal and a bed. That evening we would get a detailed mission briefing and begin flying refueling sorties in support of B-52s flying airborne alert under operation Chrome Dome. It was difficult to sleep, so we wandered around the base taking in the activity. It was impressive. Two KC-135s were taking off every hour. MATS transports (C-121s, C-124s, C-133s, and some C-130s) were coming and going. The place was a beehive of activity.
After a short nap and a light supper, we met our evening mission briefer. We were given a detailed look at the route we would be following three times a night for the next three weeks. The plan called for a pair of KC-135s to take off in cell formation. The route took us from Torrejon out to the north and then northwest toward the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula; there we were to meet two B-52s coming from the States. Air refueling them across the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula and giving them 105,000 pounds of fuel each took us to Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Then it was a smart right turn and start a descent into Torrejon to land and do it twice more in our duty cycle. It was pretty simple. There were a few catches though. An airway known as Upper Red Seven (UR7) lay in our path, and we had to observe an altitude restriction of about 18,000 feet while crossing it – unless we could get an unrestricted climb across it. In order to get our heavy birds out to the air refueling point at the air refueling altitude, it helped a lot to have an unrestricted climb approved.
The mission briefing done, we went out to our assigned aircraft and went through the routine for the first mission of the night; we were number two on the first launch of the evening. Everything went pretty well as we went through our paces for the first time. We made our rendezvous with the B-52s and they began their approach to the air refueling position. We were heavy and they were heavy; and then there was usually some turbulence to make things interesting. In pretty short order the CONTACT MADE light illuminated on the air refueling (AR) panel and four AR pumps pushed JP-4 into the bomber at 7,500 pounds per minute. Soon after the B-52s began air refueling we were called by a USAF GCI site. "Troubadour 35, Siesta," came the call on UHF. The lead pilot answered: "Siesta, Troubadour 35, go." Siesta had some information for us. "Troubadour 35 flight, you have a stranger paralleling your track 20 miles to starboard." The co-pilot looked out; sure enough, there was an aircraft out there in the dark with rotating beacons flashing. "Siesta, Troubadour 35. We have the stranger in sight." Although the unknown aircraft paced us for a while longer, by the time we reached the end AR point, it was nowhere to be seen. We turned for Torrejon and the next flight.
The two remaining sorties went without a hitch – and without anymore calls from GCI sites. The sun was above the horizon when we finished our last maintenance debriefing and headed for our rooms for some sleep.
All of this was going on in the first week after President Kennedy had made his famous speech that informed the world of what we were going to do about a Cuba armed with nuclear missiles. There was tension everywhere around Torrejon Air Base. The bachelor officers permanently assigned to Torrejon lived in the same building but in a different wing than we did, and they had a rather large Telefunken console radio that could pick up a broad spectrum of radio signals. The BBC Overseas Service were the frequencies most listened to because they seemed to have the most to say about what was going on. Everybody clustered around that radio when the evening news broadcast was about to begin. It was silence while the BBC radio news reader expounded.
Things were tense, but not grim. We were allowed to go to Madrid when we had a break in the flight schedule. We had to be within one hour’s travel of Torrejon, so Madrid was about as far as we could go; but Madrid was the place to go. They didn’t teach much contemporary history in the late 1950s, when I was in school, so I didn’t really appreciate that Spain was under the control of a dictator. Generalissimo Francisco Franco had ruled Spain for a couple of decades by the end of 1962; he had tight control. The Spanish police, the Guardia Civil, were prominent in and around Madrid. They were all armed with at least a side arm; most were armed with a rifle or machine pistol. Still, the Spaniards seemed to be reasonably well off. The streets of Madrid were filled with traffic ranging from motor-scooters on up to large buses. We rode the local bus from Torrejon to Madrid with the Spanish workers who staffed much of air base. Torrejon was, after all, Spanish territory – even if American dollars had built it. The Spaniards also seemed to have a low regard for Cuba and Castro – especially for Castro. Perhaps it was because the generalissimo had little use for Castro.
In Madrid there was a hotel leased by the US government to serve as temporary accommodations for military people in transit; it was called the Hotel Balboa. The bus from Torrejon would drop us off there; we would pick up the bus there when we returned to Torrejon. It was a beehive of a place with Americans coming and going all the time. I noticed that one of the weekly magazines – I think it was the Saturday Evening Post – was carrying the latest installment of the story "Fail Safe". It was the part where the Vindicator bombers are on their way to their targets. What a remarkable piece of timing, I thought.
We flew and flew and flew for the first ten days of that showdown. Every hour, around the clock, two KC-135s would take off from Torrejon to refuel two B-52s coming from the United States. These were the latest models of the B-52, and they carried an AGM-28 Hound Dog cruise missile under each wing – in addition to whatever they carried in their two bomb bays. After air refueling, the B-52s would fly out over the Mediterranean Sea and cruise its length, more or less. Then they would meet two KC-135s from Morón Air Base, near Seville, Spain, for enough fuel to return to the United States. Simultaneously with what we were doing, more B-52s were flying a route that took them out over the Atlantic and northbound over Baffin Bay and then out over the Arctic Ocean. From there they flew over the arctic ice pack toward Alaska. They too were refueled twice on their long airborne alert routes. That adds up to about 96 B-52s airborne at all times during those first tense days of the showdown.
In Spain, that mysterious stranger that had so boldly paced us the first night we flew was back. Whoever it was, they were flying only at night and they were moving closer and closer to the bomber/tanker pairs as they refueled across the north of Spain. The GCI sites could not identify the stranger, so they scrambled interceptors – both American F-102s and Spanish F-86s. The stranger was wily, though. He could out maneuver the F-102s and outrun the F-86s. Recently, however, he was flying without lights, the better to creep up on a refueling formation. On at least one occasion he did exactly that: he paced an air refueling in progress. The B-52 gunner was aware of his presence, but the stranger was literally flying the B-52’s wing; the gunner couldn’t bring his guns to bear. The pilots could see the dim shape of an airplane, illuminated by the formation’s rotating beacons, flying a kind of roller coaster path above and then below them. It looked like a Soviet Yak-25 interceptor, they said. Again, when American and Spanish interceptors launched, the stranger departed.
We had to conclude that the stranger was not hostile, since, whoever he was, he had ample opportunity to shoot but hadn’t. Still, some unknown aircraft buzzing around out there in the dark, doing who knows what, was unsettling. It seemed, however, that after the Soviets “blinked” and turned back their ships the stranger appeared less and less frequently. My formation did have one more encounter with the mystery bird, though. Our flight of two had finished air refueling and were turning toward Torrejon. I was navigator on the number two aircraft. As we descended into Torrejon, we fell back a few miles from our normal trail position to expedite the approach and landing. As I watched the lead aircraft moving out to about five miles ahead of us, a new target appeared on my radar scope. It came in from the right and took up a position about a quarter mile behind the lead tanker. Excitedly, I told my AC what was happening. He could see only the lights of the lead tanker out there in the dark, but he called the leader and told him what was going on. At that radio transmission the unknown target quickly moved off to the left and out of my radar range. That was the last time we were aware of the stranger’s presence.
There was a lot of speculation about who the mystery aircraft was, but the smart money on the French Air Force. The French were a relatively short distance away, across the Pyrenees Mountains; they had a twin engine jet fighter bomber, called Vautour (Vulture, in English), that could perform well enough to evade interceptors, and it bore an eerie resemblance to the Soviet Yak-25. They probably could see our flights on their surveillance radars; and “Le Grand Charles” probably wanted to know what was going on down there across his border with Spain.
By the end of the second week the pace of flying was beginning to slow since our showdown with the Soviets appeared to heading for a resolution. We flew less frequently and the maintenance crews had a little more time to start some serious repairing on the tankers we had flown so hard. We were told we would be going home in a few days, after some “relief crews” were flown in from the States. Frankly, I would have preferred to remain in Spain; back in the States I would be pulling alert.
On the nineteenth day after our deployment, we loaded up and taxied out for our return to Ellsworth AFB. We had a relief mission of our own: we were to fly down to Morocco to pick up some B-47 crews who had been on alert at North African bases during the crisis. We sat in the number one position waiting for our takeoff clearance, but it was a long time in coming. There was an aircraft on a long final that had priority. So we sat, and we sat. Finally, my AC told me to look at what was landing. There, just gliding over the threshold, was a Ju-52 – the old Iron Annie – a relic from Franco’s flirtation with Hitler. The Ju-52 cleared the runway, and we received our takeoff clearance. As the pilot started to bring up the throttles, the pilot of a C-47 who was just behind us as number two for takeoff, informed us of his presence and asked that we “not check our mags” until after we got on the runway. The pilot assured him that we wouldn’t.
It was a short trip to Nouasseur Air Base, just southeast of Casablanca. We took on enough fuel to get us home and loaded the B-47 crews we were to take back to Hunter AFB near Savannah Georgia. They were glad to be leaving the desert. Again we started engines and taxied out for takeoff. While we sat at the hold line, a B-47 Supervisor Of Flying (SOF) drove up and gave the exterior of our bird the once over. Then he gave us a call: “Frau 80, this is the SOF.” “Go ahead,” the pilot answered. “Ah, your speed brakes are extended,” the SOF warned. The pilot pushed at the speed brake handle, which was already in the retracted position. Then both pilots looked out to see if the speed brakes were indeed flush with the wings. They were. “Uh, which speed brakes are you talking about?” the pilot asked. The SOF responded, “Those long ones on the leading edge of your wings.” Apparently the SOF had never seen leading edge flaps before. “That’s okay, they’re suppose to be extended,” the pilot reassured the SOF. Then we took off for the long haul back to the States.
Back in the days before inertial navigation systems and GPS a lot of navigation was done by celestial: taking observations of the sun, moon and stars with a sextant and turning that into a position on a map. On the KC-135 the boom operator usually did the celestial observations while the navigator converted those observations into estimated positions (nothing was precise when doing celestial navigation), along with doing a host of other things. The boom operator on our crew was none too good in the celestial observation department. On this particular day has was doing even worse than usual, having said adios to Spain the night before with a pitcher, or so, of sangría. A couple of B-47 copilots were standing at the rear of the crew compartment watching the boomer as he took the first series of celestial observations. One of the copilots looked over my shoulder as I plotted the result (which wasn't good). He tapped me on the shoulder and told me he would be doing the sextant work. The boomer was only too glad to relinquish that job.
The Soviets had backed down on the issue of missiles being placed in Cuba, but they were still up for “fun and games” otherwise. Their “trawlers” still spied and did some electronic spoofing. We were asked to check out some strange radar signals as we passed over Bermuda, on our way to Savannah. The air traffic controllers were receiving some unusual radar signals from a spot on the ocean 40 or so miles west of Bermuda; the controllers asked if we would take a look at the spot. A visual inspection revealed nothing, because of clouds, but radar showed a surface ship in the vicinity of the signal source. Meanwhile, a colleague of mine was navigating a B-47 toward a rendezvous with a tanker off the coast of Newfoundland. His radar showed a rendezvous beacon where none should have been – and it appeared to be stationary. Checking through his bombing optics, he saw a Soviet trawler at the same place the radar beacon indicated. He took a photo of the ship through the optics, but his wing bomb/nav people were interested in his experience only as a warning to others.
Even though the media coverage of the crisis wound down fairly quickly after the showdown reached its climax, we remained in a state of alert high. It was some time after Thanksgiving that we finally resumed a normal alert schedule.
Of course, that was just one of several confrontations that would take place at various times and in various places over the course of the Cold War. It was, however, the most serious and dramatic. I read somewhere, long after the Cuban Crisis was mostly a memory, that the Soviets felt intimidated and humiliated by the overwhelming force that the United States had arrayed against them. Nikita Kruschev was ousted by Leonid Brezhnev because of the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their new leadership, I am told, swore that such a thing would never happen again. The end of the Cuban Crisis was the beginning of the Cold War arms race in earnest.
I have to wonder how that confrontation would have turned out if it had been our current leadership that was in charge rather than the Kennedy Administration. It had taken JFK three previous encounters in his dealings with the Soviet Union to finally get it right. The Kennedy Administration foreign policy had been weak and indecisive up until October 1962. First there had been the Bay of Pigs fiasco; then came the Vienna Summit; and then the provocative Berlin Wall. Kennedy's actions signalled that he was a pushover; the Soviets saw an opportunity to up the ante by going tit-for-tat. Placing strategic nuclear armed missiles in Cuba would be a counter to the MRBM Thor and Jupiter missiles that ringed the western and southern borders of the Soviet Union. Clearly, the Kennedy Administration saw nuclear-armed MRBMs in Cuba as an existential threat and acted accordingly.
With its "Smart Diplomacy" our current administration has, so far, shown itself to be weak, indecisive, and prone toward appeasement. And then there is the spectacle of cozying up to leftist regimes (North Korea, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Russia) while true democracies (Israel, Columbia, Honduras to name three) have been snubbed and even bullied. There is also the on-going Presidential worldwide apology tour as a case in point. As I see things now I sure wouldn't want to go through something like the Cuban Missile Crisis with the current administration in charge.