• U.S.

National Affairs: The Deadliest Crew

6 minute read

Just after 5 o’clock one afternoon last week, the B-47 City of Merced stood deadly quiet on the parking ramp of the March Air Force Base near Riverside, Calif. Suddenly the plane came alive: her six turbojets throbbed, then hummed,then split the air with a banshee scream. In their tandem seats under a Plexiglas canopy, Major Horace (“Beau”) Traylor Jr., the aircraft commander, and Major Martin Speiser, the pilot, made ready to taxi to the runway. Their green coveralls were soaked through with sweat; it was more than 140° in their compartment. They faced a nerve-shredding test of their skill and endurance: the City of Merced was about to take off in her final flight in the U.S. Strategic Air Command’s annual bombing and navigation competition, the supreme peacetime test of air-combat capability. From split-second improvisations during the hours of competition come bombing and navigating techniques that are later adopted as standard operating procedure.

There was a special point of interest in this year’s competition: Which would show up better, the reliable old B-36 (introduced in 1946), now on its way out as a combat weapon, or the flashier, faster (upwards of 600 m.p.h.) B-47? Last year the B-36 scored higher. This time the top SAC strategists staked their hopes and reputations on the B-47.

From Castle Air Force Base (near Merced, Calif.) came the City of Merced and her crew of veterans. After the first two flights in competition, the City of Merced was well down from the top of the scoreboard (which, because of the classified information on its face, was under around-the-clock guard by armed air police). On the third and last flight, the City of Merced had to do better—much better.

Radar Strike at Sacramento. Now she was airborne. She leveled off at 35,000 feet, moving at better than eight miles a minute, and headed toward her first target: the northeast corner of the northernmost building of the Campbell Soup plant in Sacramento.

This was to be a “freestyle” bombing run, i.e., a visual approach was permitted, and the navigator-bombardier (now called the “observer”) could make free use of his optical equipment, including a high-powered telescope in the bombsight. The Campbell Soup target was vital to the City of Merced, because on her previous flight, an unpredictable wind shift had drifted her off course, and she scored only one point out of a possible 85.

Despite his visual alternative, Observer Jose (“Joe”) Holguin chose to strike at Sacramento by radar. Twenty-five miles from the target, Major Holguin, at his bombsight controls up forward, became the key man in the City of Merced: Beau Traylor had only to maintain air speed. His face glued to the radarscope and its tireless, swinging line of light, Joe Holguin made manual adjustments to keep the crosshairs on the pip that marked his target. Nearly everything was handled by the “K” system, the fabulous new Air Force apparatus that automatically navigates, flies the plane and releases the bomb. From a sounding device came a steady hum. At the precise moment when the “K” system would have released a real bomb, the humming stopped (the descent trajectory of the simulated bomb was plotted for official scoring purposes by electronic equipment on the ground).

Joe Holguin began figuring feverishly, then announced the results over the intercom. The bomb would have landed, quite literally, within a stone’s throw of the target. This was better than close enough, since, with the H-bombs SAC planes will carry in combat, a three-mile near-miss would be a kill.

Halos Lost at Spokane. The City of Merced headed north through the gathering night toward Spokane and Target No. 2: the northeast corner of the main building of the Centennial Flouring Mills. For this test there was no visual alternative—an SAC umpire, aboard to make sure all rules were observed, took a quarter out of his pocket and taped it over the eyepiece of the optics equipment.

As the one-minute Spokane bomb run began, the wind was at a steady 50 knots. Then, just before the bomb release, it shifted to the northeast and subsided to seven knots. The City of Merced intercom was filled with curses (“We all loused up our halos,” said Pilot Speiser later). The hypothetical 1,000-lb. bomb landed less than half a mile from the target—a bad mission in SAC’s strict accuracy book. But since the City of Merced had made better runs at Spokane on the two previous lights, the inferior third try, under the “best two out of three” scoring rules, was not counted.

“One for Old Ralph.” Next came the tough celestial navigation tests, a dog-legged, 891-mile course from Butte to the Hoover Dam. Only the stars could be used to fix position. At least five minutes ahead of time, the observer was required to announce his estimated time of arrival at Hoover Dam. Joe Holguin’s E.T.A. was 10:57:54. When the 54th second of the 57th minute ticked past, the City of Merced was two miles from Hoover Dam.

This was a top piece of celestial navigation; on the test, the City of Merced scored 117 out of a possible 125 points.

The third and last bomb drop was on the northwest corner of an Earle M. Jorgensen steel company building in Los Angeles. This was an important run for Major Holguin. About six miles from the target was the Cheli Air Depot, named for Ralph Cheli, an Air Corps Medal-of-Honor winner who died in the same Japanese prison camp in which Holguin spent two years. “Every time I go into Los Angeles,” says Holguin. “I put one in for old Ralph.” He did it again this time: the City of Merced’s theoretical bomb landed a couple of city blocks from the target.

The mission was over. The City of Merced was met at March Field by an officer with a case of beer. Out of a possible total of 1,000 points, in three flights totaling 9,000 miles, the City of Merced team had scored 853—enough to become “the world’s deadliest bomber crew.”

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