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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."

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