08 November 2013

Operation Chrome Dome

In 1960, Strategic Air Command began an operation called Chrome Dome; it was a plan that kept a number of nuclear-armed B-52s on airborne alert.  The logic for the plan was that it would discourage the Soviet Union from even contemplating, let alone carrying out, a surprise nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.  About a year later, in 1961, another operation to supplement Chrome Dome was begun:  operation Hard Head.  Operation Hard Head called for a nuclear-armed B-52 to orbit in the vicinity of Thule Air Force Base, Greenland, so as to keep a visual watch on the Thule BMEWS site, which was located some six nautical miles east-northeast of Thule AFB.  If the Thule BMEWS site were to be attacked, the B-52 crew would make a report to SAC Headquarters by any electronic means available.

Operation Chrome Dome itself involved several B-52s flying sorties about 24 hours in duration along two routes.  The Northern Route ran up the eastern coast of North America, through the Nares Strait between Ellesmere Island and Greenland, up to about 85º north latitude and then southwestward to Barter Island, Alaska.  The B-52s took air refuelings just off the eastern United States in the vicinity of Cape Cod and
again over eastern Alaska in the vicinity of Fort Yukon.  From there the B-52s flew a route along the western coast of North America and returned to their departure bases.  Another route, the Southern Route, departed the eastern United States on a route that took the B-52s to the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, where they received air refueling, and then on into the Mediterranean Sea to the Adriatic Sea; the return route took the B-52s over the southern coast of Spain for a second air refueling, and then a return to their departure bases.

Air Refueling
The air refuelings were conducted by KC-135s temporarily deployed to Eielson AFB, Alaska, about 26 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Alaska.  There were also KC-135s deployed to Torrejon Air Base and to Moron Air Base, both located in Spain.  Early on, the first air refueling on the Northern Route was conducted by KC-135s deployed to Griffiss AFB, New York, but that practice was abandoned and the air refueling was simply conducted by permanently assigned KC-135s in the northeastern United States.

I supported Operation Chrome Dome from both Eielson AFB and from Torrejon AB.  I also deployed once to Griffiss AFB in January 1962.  The deployment to Torrejon was a pleasure trip; the deployment to Eielson was, in the summer months, tolerable duty; however, winter flying from Eielson was a test of men and equipment.  During the winter months the air temperature routinely hovered around -25º F.  Everything was cold soaked and it was hard to warm the aircraft up after they had sat idle for more than a few hours.  Hydraulic leaks were common as seals hardened and cracked.  Windows, especially cockpit windows often broke as the intense cold caused the aluminum window frames to contract and overstress the window panes.

The routine for deployed tanker crews was to conduct several air refuelings on the Cold Coffee route, which ran from Fort Yukon straight south to a point abeam Big Delta, Alaska.  The B-52s would receive an onload of about 100,000 pounds of fuel in about 20 minutes.  The bombers would then proceed along their planned route to their home base, after some six or seven hours more of flying time.  The tankers cleared the Cold Coffee air refueling track to the right and made an immediate descent and landing at Eielson AFB.  If the pace of operations warranted, the tanker crews could make one or two more air refueling sorties on the Cold Coffee Route before calling it a day.

There was also at least one Hard Head sortie, which meant that the tanker crew would fly to the vicinity of Thule Air Base, Greenland and refuel a B-52 assigned to keep watch on the Thule BMEWS radar site.  It was a boring job.  If for any reason the B-52 was unable to take on sufficient fuel or had other problems that warranted aborting the sortie, the tanker crew was required to perform the Thule Monitor mission until relieved by the next B-52 coming from the United States.  I flew exactly two Hard Head sorties on my two deployments to Eielson; the first, done in daylight, went as planned.  The second, done in the February darkness of mid-winter was not quite as smooth but we got the fuel offloaded and didn't have to fly the Thule Monitor mission.  Those who did fly Thule Monitor told me that it was one of the most boring things they have ever done.

The Hard Head Route
The Hard Head route was flown twice daily:  the first takeoff was at 0800 Alaska time and the second one departed twelve hours later at 2000 local time.  The sortie lasted about 8½ hours.  The outbound route involved flying out to Fort Yukon VORTAC and then direct to Thule TACAN; it was pretty much a great circle line of flight from Eielson to Thule.  Once in the vicinity of Thule the bomber and tanker made a point-parallel rendezvous and the tanker offloaded about 85,000 pounds of fuel to the bomber.  The tanker return route to Eielson was slightly offset from the outbound route and flown at an altitude of 41,000 feet in order to extend the tanker range to maximum.

The route was pretty easy navigation in the summer months.  That far north, we had to use grid navigation techniques to steer, since the route of flight took us almost over the North Magnetic Pole; thus the magnetic compass was unreliable.  The route was over the Canadian Arctic islands, which are pretty rugged, and most of the islands stood out well against the various inlets and straits that are part of the Arctic Ocean.

Navigation was mainly by ground mapping radar with only a 45 minute over water leg between Herschel Island on the Canadian coast and Banks Island, which was a radar checkpoint.  Then it was just a matter of fixing off of the islands all the way to Thule.  Not only that, but it was daylight all day long that far north so even if the radar failed you could still visually identify the islands passing below.  There was lots of open water and everything appeared as it was depicted on the navigation charts.  That was in the summer.  Winter time was a different story.  The next time I flew that route was the following February and the islands mostly disappeared in the frozen expanse that the Arctic Ocean became in mid-winter.  It took some careful radar scope reading and maybe a bit of imagination to pick the shape of the islands out amid all the sea ice of the now frozen inlets and straits.  It was also dark for all but a couple of hours of twilight at Eielson; further north on the Hard Head route the only light at any hour came from stars and aurora borealis.

The Real Deal
My first Hard Head sortie came on August 15, 1962; we were the 2000 launch.  All Chrome Dome and Hard Head sorties were heavy weight takeoffs; the objective was to give the receivers as much fuel as they needed to complete their missions.  That meant a takeoff roll of around 10,000 feet on a runway with a total length of 14,400 feet and a sluggish rate of climb until the KC-135 accelerated to best climb speed.  That was no time to have a problem with the engines.

My flight records show 8½ hours of flying time – all in daylight.  Since it was daylight I had my 35mm camera along and took several shots of the terrain that we flew over.  I wish I had shot more pictures, especially of the Humboldt Glacier which begins some 140 nautical miles north of Thule.  Several large icebergs were visible in the waters of Nares Strait.  It was an impressive sight looking out of the copilot's side window; on radar, I estimated the face of the glacier to be some 70 nautical miles wide.  Digging out my slides from over 50 years ago I find that I have some shots of the Canadian Islands on our outbound leg and some more shots of the Canadian part of the Brooks Mountain Range on our return to Eielson.

Melville Island
Melville Island south coast on a summer day
After passing over the northern edge of Banks Island the next checkpoint was Melville Island.  Banks Island is a roughly rectangular land mass about 200 by 100 nautical miles.  There aren't many prominent terrain features to fix off of.  Melville Island is just the opposite with deeply cut fjords and a rugged coastline.  And then there was two curious features on the northern end of the Sabine Peninsula that looked for all the world like impact craters.  I discovered decades later that they are, in fact, naturally occurring salt domes that had collapsed.

Bathurst Island
Lots of open water with some sea ice in the straits
Bathurst Island and its adjoining smaller islands, all separated by narrow straits, are every bit as rugged as Melville Island and just as deeply cut with fjords.  Some low clouds hung over part of the island as we passed by.

Ellesmere Island
After passing over the extreme northwestern tip of Devon Island our route of flight took us over the southern end of Ellesmere Island and our last radar checkpoint before making our rendezvous and air refueling with the B-52 out there somewhere keeping watch over the Thule BMEWS radar.  We were already in UHF radio contact the receiver while still over
The Nares Strait
Ellesmere Island and completed our rendezvous some 60 nautical miles west of Thule Air Base.  Then it was a twenty minute flight up the Nares Strait offloading fuel to the receiver.  Having completed the key part of our mission, the B-52 went on its way and we began a climbing left turn the took us on our return route to Eielson AFB.

RTB (Return to Base)
The flight back was pretty much the same scenery we had seen on the way out, just oriented 180º from the view we had of it two or three hours earlier.  All during our sortie the Distant Early Warning (DEW Line) radar sites had been silently monitoring our progress.  The DEW Line sites were in communication with US command centers via land lines, and Headquarters SAC was one of the command centers on the communications network.  The system was known as Green Pine.  The radars at Cape Parry and Tuktoyaktuk were the closest sites to our route of flight.  As we passed Banks Island we were back over open water and the nondescript Canadian coastline had few discernible features to fix off of so the pilot called the Cape Parry site and requested a position.  After a few minutes Cape Parry came back with a set of coordinates and a time they were taken.  The position from Cape Parry agreed pretty much with where I calculated our position to be.
The Brooks Mountain Range

Closing in on the Canadian coastline, we could see the eastern end of the Brooks Mountain Range where it extended into Canada.  They were white with snow and the coastline was a jumble of ice floes stacked up for a few miles out to sea.  It is about 0400 in Fairbanks when the picture was taken; the sun is low on the horizon and east is to the left.  Winter soon would be back to that part of the world.  On the south side of the Brooks range it was still summer with all the mosquitoes and
The Yukon River
muskeg.  The Yukon River became visible and we were given clearance to begin our descent into Eielson.  It was 0430 on August 16 and the sun was shining brightly above the mountains to the southeast of Eielson.  I was sitting in the jump seat between the two pilots, watching the world go by as we descended.  I happened to be looking out the pilot's windscreen when something struck the windscreen with a loud THUMP.  I glanced at the pilot's altimeter and saw that we were passing through 25,000 feet.  The spot on the windscreen was a smear of blood and feathers and about the size of a golf ball.  I still wonder what kind of bird flies at 25,000 feet over northern Alaska.

Just past midsummer, the air temperature around Eielson was well above freezing, although the nights required a light jacket.  Looking down on terrain as we descended to final approach altitude, the small fishing villages stood out on the banks of the Tanana River and you could see
that preparations for winter were in full swing as the local tribes worked to gather fish to feed their dogs over winter.