My Life In SAC – The USAF Strategic Air Command


“Aaaaaarrrrooooooogah, Aaaaaarrrrooooooogah, Aaaaaarrrooooooogah” came blasting through the building. It was two o’clock in the morning this time, when that raucous electrifying blasting klaxon horn announced that an aircraft launch message would soon be on its way. This piercing sound was a very few decibels below a sustained sonic boom, and even the soundest of sleepers would awaken with a jolt.  It hit me like a thunder bolt, and I immediately exited my dreams leaving my wife floating around in the world of sleep. I had been on alert for nearly a week and always looked forward to our reunions. But dreaming would have to wait since that terrifying noise which continually vibrating throughout the entire building meant only one thing. GET TO YOUR AIRCRAFT as fast as you could!

I was the aircraft commander of one of SAC’s (Strategic Air Command) combat ready crews from 1950 to 1974 and at this time, 1967, was flying B-52Ds at Fairchild AFB, Washington. It was our job to help insure that the unmentionable never happened. In those days the theory of mutual destruction was our main deterrent. Our time spent on alert meant the United States had a force constantly ready for any eventuality. Which again meant, if you send a weapon our way, we will return the favor, with not one, but several! And if an enemy did strike first we would be obliged to respond with a second strike. In this manner, an atomic war would begin. Since both of the super-powers knew this, and neither was willing to take the inevitable loss of several million of their people, no such strikes were ever made. But how could you enforce this “stand off,” this “mutual respect”? The US maintained this mutual respect condition by having highly qualified crews and fully loaded bomber aircraft on the alert, ready to respond in a moment’s notice, and by letting the other fellows know we have this capability and are willing to use it and would respond.

But, back to my experience. The klaxon would blast, all lights in the building would automatically come on, outside red lights would flash all around, more sirens, automobile engines starting, APU (auxiliary power units) coughed, spit and roared to life. The entire alert station was instantly awake. Being on alert did not involve just men of the flight crews. The maintenance ground crews had to quickly respond also and do their part in preparing the aircraft so they pulled alert shifts along with the flight crews. But with the first loud blast, I would be jolted awake. By the second, I knew what was going on, and by the third (all measured in milliseconds) I was up and on my way. Before going to bed, I had positioned my flight suit so that one quick grab and it was ready to accept my left leg, one quick yank, then the right leg. Before my feet hit the floor, the zipper was up to my neck, I was dressed. Then socks and shoes, which were also preset, so they were near my feet when I would bounce back on the bed to put them on. One yank, one sock would be in place, a quick shove and my boot would be on and the quick dressing zipper jerked to the top. One shoe on, another half second, the other was secured. I would grab my flight jacket and be out the door. My crewmates who were equally swift were also on the run, entering the hallway we joined more than 35 other flight crew members, all running to their aircraft. Excitement electrified everyone in the building.

In my years of pulling alert, at Fairchild AFB, (1956-1965), our alert quarters were in a two story building with the lower half underground. On the main above-ground floor there was an office or two, a lounge, several study/mission planning rooms and our dinning hall. On the lower floor were the sleeping quarters, small rooms with either two, or sometimes three, beds in each room. Each room was furnished with a chest of drawers for personal gear, a couple of chairs and several good quality single beds. Near each end of the building on both floors was a ramp about ten feet wide leading outside to the aircraft which were parked in a cluster, the closest not more that 50 yards away.  From the sleeping quarters it was an up ramp then out the doors. For our periods of alert, this was our home. These living quarters were purposely located very near the flight line, adjacent to the alert “Christmas Tree,” the parking area designated for only the loaded alert aircraft. All alert B-52 aircraft were loaded for immediate war with both bomb bays full of atomic bombs, AGM 28s (air to ground missiles) attached under each wing,  all ECM (electronic counter measure) equipment required, a full load of 50 caliber ammunition for the tail guns, and all the jet fuel that could be squeezed into the tanks. All aircraft were positioned so that only one 20-30 degree turn was required to head the aircraft toward the take-off  runway. To cut taxi time to a minimum the entire area was compact with fully loaded aircraft parked on both sides of the strip, with only a minimum distance between each aircraft.  All were positioned so that none were in the blast area of starting engines from other aircraft.

In those, my more youthful days, I could run the couple hundred yards to the aircraft and still have breath enough to answer the radio. My record may have been a bit more than eight seconds, but we were speedy. We would run down the hallway of the sleeping quarters, and up the ramp like a tight knit band of angry hornets. We would hit the top, pour through the doors and down the outside ramp like lava spewing from an erupting volcano. By the time we arrived at our aircraft, the ground crew chief was already there. He would have the forward hatch open, the auxiliary power and air carts running and was standing by to “start engines.” The armed guards had withdrawn to their control point. This was probably the only time ever that anyone could approach an aircraft fully loaded with nuclear weapons and not be challenged or have your  credentials checked.  We would reach the aircraft, up the entrance steps, then climb the ladder to the pilot’s compartment, all on a dead run. As our bodies bent and swung into the pilot’s seat, our hands would grab our pre-positioned helmets, flip a couple of switches to the “ON” position and we were ready to listen and respond. Very quickly we would hear, “stand by for roll call.” Next was “Reno (or whatever our call sign happened to be) Reno 11?” (one-one)  If the crew of Reno 11 was in their aircraft, their response would be “Reno 11, ready.” This went on for a few seconds, giving all aircraft a chance to respond. If any failed to answer a couple of calls, that crew was skipped over. Next would come “Stand by for a message from Sandblaster” (the code for headquarters that day).  Then would come the coded message. Several crew members were required to copy and authenticate the message. Within moments we understood the message. The message could have been one of several. Number one was the most severe, “Take off on you assigned strike mission.” or number two, which was “Taxi to the runway and simulate take-off.” or number three, just “Start engines and stand by.” And number four was “Authenticate and reply.” Thankfully, my group, nor any other SAC unit ever received message number one saying to take off and head toward our targets. Most messages were either “start engines and taxi,” or just “start engines.”

For the sake of this story, let’s say this time we were sent a number two message, instructing us to start engines, taxi, and simulate taking off. In these early days we started the jet engines using compressed air. Engine number five would be the first activated and was started using ground-supplied auxiliary air. As the engine wound up to a whi-n-n-n-ing start, we would run it to near 100% power. This gave us enough air pressure in the entire starting system to simultaneously activate the starter switches for the remaining seven engines. Very close monitoring of the engine instruments, especially the RPM (revolutions per minute) and the EGT (exhaust gas temperature) gages was required. These were the two critical gages to watch. The engine needed to be turning at a given RPM (I remember it as around 20%) before the throttle was advanced introducing jet fuel into the chambers. The exhaust temperature was also critical. If the limits were exceeded (I think it was something like 690° C.) it was considered an “overheat’ condition and required immediate remedial maintenance. Soon all eight engines would be humming along, the four alternators would be on line, the hydraulic packs running and we would be ready to go. By now, the ground crew chief had insured all hatches were closed, the parking chocks removed and the air and electric carts disconnected. He would then assume a position off the wing at the front of the aircraft to signal we were “all clear.” We would have taxi clearance by then, and as soon as we could we would start taxiing, reporting to the control people and the other aircraft, “Reno 11, taxiing.” Keeping a close eye on nearby aircraft was paramount to prevent the possibility that more than one aircraft might attempt to occupy the same area at the same time, in this night time scramble.  Steering the aircraft with our feet gave us time to buckle into our parachutes and survival gear harness. By the time we arrived at the runway (some 150 yards or so) we would be all strapped in, and the rest of the crew would have reported “ready for take-off,” indicating their systems were up and running. Aircraft landing lights would come on and we were ready to go. As we approached the runway, we would get the call from the tower “Reno 11, cleared onto the active”(the designated take-off runway). Tower personnel had turned the runway side and center lights and the blue taxi lights on and had all ground traffic cleared from the active runway. The airfield would be closed to all incoming flights; no aircraft would be permitted to land during this exercise. We would roll onto the active runway and align with the runway center lights. Then would come the power surge, as we announced “Reno 11 rolling.” We practiced and tried to accomplish all of this within or in less than our targeted five minutes. All eight throttles would be advanced, even up to 100% power for a short period, using a small portion of the 100,000 pounds of available thrust to clear the starting position for the following aircraft to join in at thirty second intervals. Inside the aircraft, it was serious and silent. The only inter-phone chatter was that required to perform a safe take off.  We rolled, perhaps three or four thousand feet, down that almost 14,000 foot runway, before we began to slow down. The aircrafts air brakes were extended and wheel brakes applied. We did not deploy the landing drag parachute during these drills since it would require major maintenance to re-install a packed chute. Leaving the runway, we would enter the taxi-strip and return to the designated parking area. When I was among the first onto the runway, I would see four, five or even six aircraft on the runway following me. Back in the “Christmas Tree” area, the engines would be shut down and a ground tug would back the aircraft into its designated spot. As soon as the aircraft was parked the refueling truck would arrive replacing the fuel used during the exercise. After this was finished the flight crew would again “run the check-list,” putting the aircraft into the proper condition needed for the next engine start exercise which COULD be the BIG one, the one we hoped never to have.

While I was involved in this aspect of the Cold War at Fairchild, our alert periods and procedures were similar to that followed at all of the many SAC bases scattered across the United States.  We kept approximately one third of the crews and aircraft loaded and on alert at all times. Alert schedules were published a month or two ahead and since it was a “once every 3 weeks duty” it wasn’t too hard to make a good guess when your next alert tour was to be.  A couple days before alert time, we would report in for specialized briefings. We would learn where and what our targets were, the flight path we would follow to arrive there, compute fuel consumption, time involved and put everything down on its proper form. The radar/navigation team would attend their specialized briefings also. They would re-study their targets, re-acquaint themselves with the radar off-set aiming points, all known hazards en route, and study known enemy installations along our route. When finished with these briefings they would know this route, its peculiarities and requirements as well as they knew the road back home. The electronics warfare officer would also be well briefed on the route, the expected interferences, any missiles etc. He would also consider the type of electronic threat and/or missiles we might encounter, and the best and recommended method of combating these possible attacks. Those involved with the nuclear weapons we would carry would also attend a briefing and perform additional “study” on these requirements. Every possible aspect of the mission — from take-off, the route to the target, the route away (or back) from the target, the field of intended landing, other available fields in case they were needed, all were studied, discussed, briefed and certified. When we as a crew felt we had the knowledge we needed and the briefing officers were satisfied they had provided all their information for any and all possible contingencies, our crew would be “certified” as qualified to pull this period of alert with responsibility for the assigned targets.

The stated mission and the over-all plan of pulling alert was to get our entire group of fully loaded alert aircraft airborne in as few minutes as possible. To accomplish this goal, we had a thirty-second-interval take off procedure we called a MITO (Minimum Interval Take Off) as a requirement that we practiced many training periods. These training exercises would involve a minimum of three aircraft and sometimes up to six or more. All aircraft would be lined up on the approach to the take-off end of the runway. The number one aircraft would start rolling and the second aircraft would start their timing and be taxiing onto the runway advancing power as they lined up. The number one aircraft would be only a few hundred yards down the runway way by the time number two was ready to apply full power. Number three would follow, etc. These close-on the heels take offs were always an exhilarating and testosterone generating experience. If you were back in line behind several of those huge eight engine bombers, the turbulence would replicate the wildest roller coaster ride. As soon as the aircraft wheels left the ground you would make a slight turn to get away from the turbulence of the preceding aircraft. If one engine were to fail during take-off you continued with the take off.  If something more drastic happened (failure of several engines) our procedure was to purposely run off the side of the runway. You were not to block the runway, it had to be kept clear!  It was much better to take your chances off the runway, than in a nasty, pile-up of several bomb laden aircraft. With the incoming enemy missile delivery time measured in minutes, always less than thirty, the only usable aircraft would be those already in the air. Hence this somewhat dangerous yet exhilarating take-off maneuver was practiced and perfected so that if an attack came America would be ready and have a portion of her aircraft in the air.

I remember change-over time as being 0900 on crew swap day, when my crew would begin its alert rotation. We reported to the alert area with our flight and professional gear. We would have another short session with a briefing officer to catch up on any possible last minute information. While we were doing this, the crew we were relieving would go to the aircraft and be ready to download their personal gear. Upon our arrival at the aircraft and as the retiring crew unloaded, we would perform an exterior walk-around inspection. By the time we finished the previous crew had their equipment off the aircraft and ready to load onto the bus. At this point, the aircraft with its specified targets were handed to us and became our responsibility. We loaded our gear and then checked and inspected our flight positions. Everything would get a thorough look-over. We then attached our helmet along with our oxygen mask and radio connections at our duty station. We then re-ran the “before starting engines” check list, and positioned every switch, up to the “start engines” switches, in their ready to go positions. This same “get ready” procedure was going on at all the flight stations. The crew would finish the preparatory action in approximately the same time.  Then with our oxygen masks attached, our helmets in place, the radio/interphone connections active, check-lists set to the proper spot, the targeting material and codes needed in case a “go” message was sent, were all in their proper places, we would leave the aircraft, under the watchful surveillance of armed guards,  and return to the alert quarters. During the first day or so of each alert rotation we usually accomplished some additional training. SAC was especially gung-ho on training back then, knowing the only way to keep the crews sharp and avoid complacency was to keep reviewing, studying, and re-doing.

During these alerts each crew would be assigned an alert vehicle. Back in my days at Fairchild, it was an Air Force blue Ford station wagon with a red flashing light on top.  This vehicle was our crew transportation while we served our duty period. Everywhere we went we went as a crew, always together. Each crew would designate a driver, usually the gunner. This way when speed was needed, upon arriving at the aircraft, he would stop temporarily at the nose of the aircraft and those using the forward compartment would jump out. He would then drive to the rear of the plane, leave the auto behind the blast fence and enter his compartment in the tail section.

An alert period was one week. For a while we ran a three day, four day week. One crew on duty three days, the second for four, etc. The more often a change of crews was made, the greater the work load on the supporting personnel. If they had to brief crews only once a week, instead of twice, they had more time for their other work. At the very first, we were permitted to leave the designated alert quarters for only a few specific reasons such as target study, required briefings, etc. Then as months of the Cold War grew into years, and the procedures were pretty well solidified, a small percentage of crews were permitted to attend other on-base places. We could go to the BX, the theater, library etc. But by giving the crews this latitude, some method of alerting them had to be established. The base was then configured with a series of rotating red lights along most main streets, and that raucous sounding noise maker, the klaxon horn, was also installed.  When an alert was activated, the red flashers all over the base would activate, staying on, as I recall, for fifteen minutes. The klaxon would sound in the theater, the BX, the dining hall and all other buildings which the alert crews were permitted to visit.

What would happen if the crew was at the movies or in the BX and the blasting klaxon  began? Crews would run from the building to their vehicle and take the closest, most direct route to their parked alert aircraft. The red street flashers were alerting all other traffic, which was required to pull to the right of the road, stop and remain stopped for as long as the flashers were on. Alert crews had top priority and were not required to obey speed limits, neither were we required to observe stop signs or red lights. I remember one day we were a mile or two from the aircraft when the alert sounded. We six piled into the station wagon and M/Sgt Al Green took off. With our overhead light flashing, I’m sure we were doing 50-60 miles an hour or better on the way. Stop signs flew by. When we arrived at the flight line, the gate guard had the gate open, had stopped all other area traffic and waved us through. Again, the only time in my twenty year SAC career that I or anyone else was permitted to enter the sealed flight line without showing authorization, was when responding as an alert crew.  We would roar up to the aircraft, up the ladders and perform the procedures already described. You were never quite sure that it was a practice response or the real thing. Remember, this was the very unpredictable Cold War. We were very aware that another very active world power opposed the United States and was capable of doing us serious harm. So these alert scrambles always caused concern. What if the unthinkable, an atomic war, was really about to start? Would I come back from this mission? And if I did how about my family, my loved ones? Would they survive the certain expected retaliatory actions? And after those worries, what about our country? Could our nation absorb the terrific losses that were guaranteed to be inflicted?  And what about those who did survive, what world would they be surviving to, or for. If the superpowers had detonated one hundred or fifty or even just ten atomic bombs, and it probably would have been many more, could the earth survive? Radiation would be everywhere. Fallout would cover the entire globe in a very few hours with the results remaining active for many, many years. To we who were trained to do this, and with our knowledge of the damage that would certainly result, actually having to fly such a mission was very far from a happy thought. Needed and necessary for our country’s survival, yes, but there would be no winner. The entire world would suffer. Radiation would in time cover the entire globe. No one involved or not, would be unaffected. So thankfully, that so very serious message number one, was never needed nor transmitted. The world escaped a certain catastrophe.

To fairly relate this story, great thanks and many pats on the back are due the ground crews, both maintenance and security. Without their support in getting the planes ready, making sure everything was as should be, needed maintenance performed, the aircraft secure etc., none of this could have succeeded. We flight crews worked warmly inside the aircraft where it seldom snowed, the temperature never got below freezing, nor were we exposed to the bone chilling winds, or the sweltering heat,  as were the ground crews who worked outside in a range of  ramp temperatures of over one hundred degrees down to nearly minus thirty. I will always have the highest praise and respect for those dedicated ground personnel who in so many cases are the un-sung heroes of this very long and quite active Cold War.

So another chapter in the history of SAC has closed. The need for “mutual destruction” is no longer considered necessary and with the termination of this great command, it will never again be possible to assemble such a devastating force. Those of us who were so deeply involved feel we played a big part in keeping the peace. We also feel the world might be a much different place, were it not for these super dedicated people who worked as both flight and ground crews. They were responsible for keeping this fleet of loaded bombers constantly ready to defend America on a few moments notice.

For the record the World Almanac lists the Cold War period as being from 1950 to 1975. However it was not formally ended until Feb.1st, 1992, when the first President Bush and President Yeltsin signed the documents, declaring it over.)

Francis H. Potter.

Col USAF Ret.

One response to “My Life In SAC – The USAF Strategic Air Command

  1. That was an interesting read. Being a Navy Brat, I lived on or near several AFBs. Homestead was home to B-47s and then B-52s until 1968 when it became a TAC base. Even though it became a TAC base, it did not mean all of the B-52s left. There was one location where there was a red light but no Klaxon. That was the base chapel. As an usher there, one of our jobs there was to make sure that we knew if there was an alert crew there and to have the doors open for them to exit before they got there. Luckily, that only happened once in my time.

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