• Share
  • Read Later

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.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3