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The Airborne Alert Provides a Sure Reply to Russian Missiles

ROUND the clock, day and night, twelve B-52s armed with hydrogen bombs cruise over the U.S. and Canada, carrying maps, charts and radar photos of Soviet targets. They are part of the Strategic Air Command’s 1,500-plane retaliatory strike force, but they have a special distinction: because the twelve are always on station at their high-altitude guard posts, they constitute a brand-new weapon in the U.S. arsenal. They are the airborne answer to the threat of Soviet Russia’s growing missile force, the minimum strike-back punch that the U.S. can deliver even if the Soviets should devastate all the 100 SAC bases and their grounded planes. The constantly flying Daily Dozen give the U.S. a defense that, as SAC Chief Thomas Power says, “never has been attempted in the military history of the world before.”

With considerable secrecy, SAC’s airborne alert has been flying for more than a year, patrolling the skies in unbroken guard while many a defense critic was orating that the U.S. is unprepared for Russian missile attack. First flights were made out of Loring Air Force Base in Maine. Since then, the alert has flown 6,000 sorties, with no alert bomber landed until another has relieved it on station. The duty is now rotated so that each of SACs twelve B-52 wings has one aircraft on patrol at all times.

Chin-ups & Blivits. Like all other SAC operations, the airborne alert routine is fenced by narrow restrictions and standardized procedures. Briefing is held a week prior to scheduled takeoff. On take-off day, other crews run through the three-hour preflight checks on the alert bomber to lessen the fatigue of the crew going on duty. Take-offs are scheduled for around 10 a.m. to allow for a full night’s sleep. (The crewmen’s physical condition is attested by the fact that they must be able to run a reasonably fast 250-yd. dash and perform five chin-ups and 33 sit-ups.) The planes carried an extra pilot on the first alert flights because flight surgeons were fearful that fatigued pilots might err fatally on delicate landings after 24 hours aloft. But tests proved that they could bear up with no serious fatigue, and the extra pilot was scratched.

On the morning of his flight, the airplane commander passwords his way through a series of guards until he arrives at intelligence headquarters. There he picks up his Combat Mission Folder, which is really a box containing his charts and maps and the arming devices for the bombs (“blivits”) that are secured in the airplane’s bomb bay. Together, pilot and intelligence officer unlock the orange box, take an inventory, lock it up again. The pilot signs for it, and the box is hauled to his plane, where it is chained to a post in the cockpit.

Catgut & Catnap. The six-man crew climbs aboard with its frozen TV lunches, its printed forms (27 of them have to be filled in during and after the flight), and 100 Ibs. or so of survival gear apiece. One pilot, Major Adelbert Gionet, a SAC plane commander for eleven years, carries toothbrush and mouthwash along, as well as a surgical needle and catgut (“If I ever rip any of me, I want to be able to put myself together”), and a flask of whisky. They all carry knives, since a knife has proved to be the most durable and versatile survival weapon.

Unlike other SAC crews that are continuously making training flights and simulated bombing attacks, the airborne alert crew flies a casual course—”high-speed loitering”-that keeps it within striking distance of its targets. On the 24-hour orbit that will range across 11,000 miles or so, the pilot maintains a 400-knot “endurance speed,” avoiding sharp turns and other nonessential maneuvers to conserve fuel. SAC’s planners calculate that he is within reach of his target for 21 hours—known as “effectiveness time.” In the remaining three hours, he is low on fuel and making a scheduled mid-air refueling rendezvous. During the long patrol, crewmen warm their food and eat. thumb through books and magazines, rotate taking catnaps on rubber mattresses and in sleeping bags.

Tethered & Armed. Through the whole period in the air, the crews are tethered by SAC’s worldwide communications system to an airborne commander, who flies out of SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha on twelve-hour shifts. Point of the flying command post is to provide battle direction in case all or one of SAC’s surface communications centers are bombed. The airborne commanders are SAC’s generals, and the flagship is a converted KC-135 jet tanker loaded with communications equipment and capable of flying, if necessary, for 15 hours without refueling.

To guard against accidental triggering of H-bomb war, the SACmen are schooled in a complicated, checks-and-balances, fail-safe system that is not only foolproof but “damnfool-proof.” Before an alert plane would start toward its target, the coded string of electronic signals from the command post must be authenticated by two crewmen as well as by the pilot. When that is done, the crew begins the arduous process of arming the bombs. No one crew member can do it alone; for each man who arms the bomb, regulations require that another must be in attendance and watching closely. Knobs must be turned, safety seals broken, keys inserted and turned to close a series of detonator circuits embedded in the TNT that activates the nuclear core on impact.*

Long Stretch. The fuel and spare parts required for operating the twelve planes around the clock for one year run to $65 million—the fuel for one B-52 alone runs to $7,000 per flight. SAC Chief Power has managed to get an additional budget of only $185 million. If he can get the money, Power would like to boost the alert to include at least 25% of his planes, which would cost $750 million a year above the $8 billion budget for all of SAC’s operations.

In Power’s plans, the alert will continue through the years (estimated until 1965) that the U.S. is building a reliable missile-warning system. Some airmen think that the airborne alert will be a part of SAC life as long as there are any nuclear bombers in the picture (estimated until 1965). Costly as it is, the airborne alert is an economical way of stretching the effectiveness of the strategic bomber as long and as far as possible. Says Lieut. General Walter (“Cam”) Sweeney, commander of the Eighth Air Force: “I think we’ll never go back to not having it.”

* Before the crash of a B-52 airborne alert plane last January in North Carolina, one of the two unarmed H-bombs was jettisoned by parachute. The other crashed with the plane but caused no trouble (at worst, only the TNT in an unarmed H-bomb explodes on impact).

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