Flying the Aluminum and Magnesium Overcast
The B-36 Peacemaker
Combat Aircrew S-02 (Select Lead)
by Ted A. Morris, Jr., Lt. Col. USAF, Retired
In March 1955 I became a “Johnny Come Lately” First Lieutenant in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber force. After six months of Officer Candidate School at Kelly Field, Texas and 18 months in the Air Training Command Observer Course at Ellington Field, Texas and Mather AFB, California, I was assigned as a B-36 Aircraft Performance Engineer (APE), Crew S-02, 40th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 6th Bomb Wing (Heavy) at Walker AFB just outside Roswell, NM. I had already served nine and one-half years as an enlisted crew chief and flight maintenance technician on PBY-5A, PBM-5, SB-17G, SA-16A and C-119G aircraft in the Coast Guard and Air Force.
Although SAC initially had used both officer and enlisted engineers on the “Peacemaker”, they converted to all officer engineers during the final years of the B-36 program, and commissioned me commissioned specifically for that position.
During those years SAC had six Bomb Wings (Heavy) with about 200 B-36s of all models. There were also four Reconnaissance Wings (Heavy) with just over 130 RB-36 models, which were later designated Bomb Wings. The 6th BW (H) consisted of three Bomb Squadrons (Heavy) – the 24th, 39th, and 40th. During my years with the 6th BW (H) it was first commanded by Colonel W. K. Martin, followed by Colonel Glenn W. Martin, two very fine commanders and true gentlemen.
Each squadron in the 6th BW (H) was assigned nine B-36F aircraft (both standard and featherweight versions), and one featherweight B-36J. A standard B-36F had fifteen crewmen, a total of 16 MK 24 20mm cannons in eight turrets for defensive armament, and carried about 9,200 rounds of 20mm ammunition. The featherweight B-36J carried only 1,200 rounds for the tail turret, had two fewer aft gunners, and had the nose turret, the two upper forward turrets, the two upper aft turrets, and the two lower aft turrets, the associated turret retracting/extension mechanisms, and the fire control systems removed. This resulted in considerable weight reduction, and permitted carrying an additional 2,700 gallons (16,200 lbs.) of fuel, bringing the total fuel capacity to 30,600 gallons (183,600 lbs.). The B-36 was powered by six Pratt and Whitney R-4360-53, 4,360 cubic inch displacement, 3,800-horsepower reciprocating engines – the largest piston engines mass ever produced in the United States – and four General Electric J-47 GE-19, jets with 5,200 pounds of thrust. A combat-loaded featherweight B-36 weighed in at 410,000 pounds, and could scoot along at about 410 knots true air speed (KTAS) with a combat range of 4,500 miles and a service ceiling of 44,500 feet.
Each squadron had ten aircrews. Although aircrews were qualified to fly any of the Wing’s aircraft, for our wartime mission and for most of our training flights, each aircraft was assigned to a specific crew. Aircrews were designated ‘featherweight’ or ‘standard’, reflecting the crew complement required by the Emergency War Order (EWO) aircraft assignment. Our aircrew, S-02, was assigned B-36J (III) number 52-2821. The (III) denoted featherweight, and our crew was manned accordingly. Aircraft 52-2821 was the sixth from the last of 383 B/RB-36 aircraft produced by Convair between 1946 and 1954.
Letter and number designators identified the aircrews of each Wing. The letters NR (not ready), R (ready), L (lead), and S (Select) indicated aircrew qualification status. The numbers identified the crews within the Bomb Wing. The highest crew qualification, Select, brought with it “spot” promotions, a unique feature of SAC in those days. Although all SAC crews worked countless extra hours, pulled extensive temporary duty (TDY) and deployments, SAC used spot promotions to reward the very best. On Select crews, Captains, Majors, and enlisted men in the rank of Staff Sergeant or above were promoted one rank in temporary status. They retained this rank as long as the crew remained Select, as measured by SAC’s rigorous training and evaluation schedule. While holding a “spot”, the individual continued to compete for promotion with his contemporaries in his permanent rank. For example, our aircraft commander, Lieutenant Colonel Naden, held a spot from Captain to Major. When he was promoted to Major in the normal cycle, he immediately pinned on, and was paid at the rank of, Lieutenant Colonel. On aircrew S-02, the aircraft commander, navigator, bombardier, first engineer, first and second radio operators, and all the gunners held spot promotions. Unfortunately, Lieutenants were not eligible, and on crew S-02 we often said the copilot, third pilot, co-observer and second engineer (me) were working just for the fun of it! Of course, this was only our version of black humor, because SAC had the most serious purpose ever conceived.
The mission of B-36J (III) 52-2821 and crew S-02, should the time ever come, was to drop nuclear bombs on our EWO assigned targets. Our primary EWO bomb load consisted of one 25-foot long, 43,500-pound MK 17 Thermo Nuclear (TN) Special Weapon carried in and filling the two aft bomb bays, and a 6,000 pound MK 6 atomic weapon carried in one of the forward bomb bays.
In the tension filled world of the 1950s, including during the Hungarian Revolt and the British, French and Israeli invasion of the Suez, SAC often went to full EWO Alert. At those times, SAC’s well-understood capability to perform our mission deterred our enemies and maintained the peace.
That ability to accomplish our mission was the result of training, training and more training. Aircrews normally flew four or five training missions totaling about seventy flying hours a month. During my 30 months with the B-36, I accumulated nearly 1,400 flying hours. However, the longest hours were those required to plan missions, complete ground training requirements, preflight and postflight the aircraft, and brief and debrief each mission.
The majority of SAC training missions, whether launching from home base or an extended deployment location, were flown “around the flag pole” – taking off and landing at the same base. One reason was that the B-36 required numerous ground maintenance man-hours for each flying hour, and the demanding postflight inspection schedule was best performed by qualified Wing maintenance personnel. After 15 flying hours the aircraft required an extensive postflight inspection, and after 35 hours it required an even more detailed postflight. To save maintenance man-hours, the Wing would schedule B-36s so that the first mission flew with a maximum of 14:55 hours, and scheduled the second mission for a minimum of 20:05 hours, thus requiring only one postflight inspection (after the second mission). Many a scheduled 14:55 hour mission lasted longer, but the crew would log 14:55. The 20:05 hour missions were also usually longer, but the crew would count that additional time, bringing the total for two consecutive flights to no less than 35 hours, and requiring only the 35-hour postflight inspection.
At our normal 350 knots true airspeed (KTAS) cruising speed, those around the flagpole flights proved quite the long way around! On a normal training mission, crew assembly time was usually four hours prior to scheduled takeoff. The crew needed a one and a half ton stake-body truck to move all the gear from the crew storage bins to the aircraft. A-3 bags with winter survival gear, parachutes, one man dinghies, Mae West life vests, 6-man life rafts, K3A radar spare parts lockers, drinking water, and in-flight meals all had to be transported to the aircraft, then loaded and stored on board. Then, the aircraft commander, copilot, navigator, bombardier and co-observer collected final mission and weather information, while the performance engineers conducted the major portion of the aircraft preflight inspection. The engineers calculated last-minute takeoff data, determining nose-up, takeoff and flaps-up speeds (which depended on aircraft weight and the temperature), performed weight-and-balance checks, planned mission fuel loads, and calculated engine power settings for all aspects of the flight (takeoff, climb, descent, bomb runs, etc.). Performing these calculations, I became quite expert at using a straight-line Mannheim trig slide rule, though in later years, as a navigator, I sometimes found it difficult using the same scales on the round slide rule side of the E6B or MA-1A navigator computer.
The engineers’ preflight always involved “crawling the wing”. While each engineer nominally had a wing to preflight, in practice the first engineer did the paperwork while the second engineer crawled both wings. This required climbing up the left main landing gear into the wing crawl area ahead of the inboard and center engines, then crawling out to the inboard side of the outboard engine. Along the way, he checked fuel and oil lines and numerous fuse and circuit breaker panels. Reversing direction, he then returned through the left wing into the center wing bomb bay area, into the right wing, and conducted an inner wing inspection for the starboard wing. He exited the wing through an access panel and down to the ground by way of a maintenance stand provided by the ground crew. Sometimes a stand was not available, requiring a crawl back through the wing and down the right main landing gear. This routine guaranteed a thoroughly soaked second engineer – with sweat!
Of course, working in the hot and cramped area in the wings sometimes led to mistakes. For example, I once failed to detect three 10 amp fuses installed in the left wing flap system panel instead of the 20 amp fuses required. When the pilots attempted to retract the flaps on climb-out, the 10 amp fuses blew out, leaving us with asymmetrical flaps. The aircraft commander depressurized the aircraft and held below 10,000 feet while I crawled out through the forward bomb bays into the wing. I had to squeeze past the retracted landing gear (the tires were very hot and smelled horrible), over the engine air ducts of numbers 3 and 2 engines, and out to the fuse panel. After replacing the blown 10 amp fuses with the proper 20 amp fuses, I made the long crawl back through the bomb bays to the forward pressurized compartment. There I got a chewing out from my first engineer, and some first aid for a nasty burn on my leg from a very hot oil line on number two engine.
In addition to their own preflight requirements, the aircrew performance engineers were essentially the aircraft’s maintenance officers. In fact, our Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC) was in the maintenance career field (432X) rather than in the operations career field (10XX or 15XX). When the B-36 had to be moved, the fuel load changed, or final engine checks made, one of the engineers was the responsible officer. There were times when the aircrew preflight revealed required, unanticipated, last-minute maintenance. When this happened, the scheduled takeoff time did not change, and tempers could get rather hot as everyone tried to meet that scheduled time. A late takeoff required a determination of whether ground maintenance or the aircrew would be “charged” with the delay, and this often resulted in caused heated discussions. Having the aircrew performance engineers monitor most ground crew maintenance activities in dealing with potential problems avoided many of these “discussions”. Even so, there were many “ramp picnics” by the aircrew during which the navigator and bombardier conducted extensive mission replanning under the shade of the aircraft wing, while ground crews performed repairs and maintenance.
After completing their preflight activities, the aircrew lined up for final inspection of emergency and personal gear before boarding the aircraft. Engine start began 45 minutes before scheduled takeoff time. The engineers started and checked takeoff power on the six reciprocating engines. The copilot took care of the jet engines’ preflight and run-up. Individual aircrew members completed their specific power-on equipment checks and then assumed takeoff positions as the pilots taxied the aircraft to the runway takeoff position. In the forward pressurized compartment, only the pilots and engineers remained at their flight stations. The other aircrew members in the forward pressurized compartment (bombardier, navigator, co-observer, third pilot, and radio operators) took crash landing positions by sitting on the floor of the radio compartment facing aft for all takeoffs and landings.
On the runway in takeoff position with brakes set, full takeoff power was applied to all ten engines at 30 seconds from scheduled takeoff time, the brakes were released, and the flying portion of the mission began. SAC regulations required all six reciprocating engines to be running with the propellers turning for takeoff. However, it was not unusual to set a sick recip at idle during takeoff, feather the prop and shut down the engine as soon as the aircraft broke ground, and fly the rest of the mission using the remaining five recips. The jets were primarily used during takeoff, landing, climbout, and high altitude operations (above 35,000 feet), although they could be used for any need. The jets used standard 115/145 AVGAS, the same as the recips.
For defensive armament, the standard B-36 had eight turrets, six of which retracted into the fuselage, each with two 20mm guns. The five gunners in the aft pressurized compartment operated the tail turret, the two upper aft turrets and the two lower aft turrets. In the forward pressurized compartment the co-observer operated the nose turret, the upper right forward turret was operated by the third pilot, while the second radio operator manned the upper left forward turret. On a gunnery training mission each turret had to accomplish an 85% fire out rate. Normally the gunners loaded and checked alignment of all ammo to insure a successful fire out.
Of course, the primary training mission involved bombing practice, and crew S-02 was among the very best. Shortly after I joined the crew of S-02 the original bombardier suffered a severe heart attack and was medically grounded. Our new bombardier was Lt. Col. I. P. Evans, winner of the 1955 SAC Bombing Competition. A true professional and gentleman, he had been with the B-36 fleet since its early days. Bombing was done using the K-3A radar bombing system, the original visual bombsight having been replaced by the time I became a crewmember. However, the K-3A, like many radars in the days before transistors, had a very short operating life. On every flight, each aircrew carried three foot-locker size boxes filled with replacement black boxes, and frequently used many of these spare parts to keep the radar operational for the complete mission. Occasionally, we dropped a 6,000-pound cement-filled atomic-bomb “shape” on a bombing range. The B-36 would jump up nearly 100 feet when releasing these shapes, usually from an altitude of 35,000 feet or above. However, the majority of practice bombing was electronic. We would “drop” our bomb on an RBS (Radar Bomb Scoring) site, operated by SAC, which would then score the drop. These RBS sites were located throughout the U.S., most of them in railway cars that SAC would periodically moved around the country to simulate new targets.
On one training mission, we were scheduled to make a special high-altitude RBS attack from 43,000 feet on the last day of the training quarter. Successful accomplishment of this training requirement was necessary to remain combat ready as a Select aircrew. Shortly after departing the initial point (IP) on the bomb run, engine number six lost all oil pressure and had to be feathered and shut down. While the pilots and first engineer cleaned up that problem, the second engineer and bombardier calculated a new airspeed for the rest of the bomb run. Then, engine number 5 broke an oil line and dumped overboard its 150 gallons of 1100 grade oil, requiring it to be feathered and shut down. Then the two jets that were running suffered apparent compressor stalls and quit. This left us operating on the four remaining recips with their throttles to the firewall. We lost over 40 knots airspeed and nearly 1,000 feet of altitude during the bomb run. While the rest of the crew fought to keep the aircraft flying, Lt. Col. Evans calmly recalculated all his bombing information, cranked it into the K3A bomb system computer and, while not getting a “shack” (perfect score), did get an excellent bomb score. After the bomb run, we declared an emergency and landed at Carswell AFB, which was a two-Wing B-36 base. During our descent, we got the four jets started and running. After getting engines 5 and 6 repaired and reservicing the oil we again took off, completed our remaining training requirements, and returned to Walker AFB. This is just one example of the professionalism displayed by Lt. Col. Evans and the rest of the crew, and was typical of a great many of the people I was associated with during my 18 years in the Strategic Air Command.
The B-36 was pressurized to a 4.0 PSI (pounds per square inch) differential with the atmospheric pressure outside the aircraft. This meant that at 25,000 feet actual altitude, the cabin pressure was 10,000 feet. Above 10,000 feet cabin pressure, oxygen was required. Minimum training mission altitude was 25,000 feet. The cabin temperature was reasonably comfortable at that altitude, mainly because of the heat generated by all the electronic black boxes. Flight above 25,000 feet, however, required plenty of warm clothing.
For all its size, the B-36 had a cockpit designed to be cramped and uncomfortable. The canopy covering the pilots and engineers on the flight deck had heater defrost outlets for the pilots’ forward vision. The rest of the canopy “frosted” over thickly at high altitude, only to thaw during descent, dripping on everyone on the flight deck. The engineers seats were directly behind the pilots’, facing aft. When the pilots slid their seats aft for more comfort, the engineer had to slide his seat forward (aft) resulting in less comfort. On the B-36J the two engineers sat side by side. The B-36F had one seat at the engineer’s panel and a jump seat located so as to give the second engineer curvature of the spine and a stiff neck. Normally the engineers wore a chest-pack parachute harness to give some small amount of extra room on the flight deck. In order for the co-observer to make celestial observations for navigation, the periscopic sextant had to be mounted in the sextant port located in the top center of the flight deck canopy. When he came clawing his way up from the lower bomb/nav compartment (located below and forward of the flight deck), the pilots and engineers tried to move seats and gear to give him room to use his sextant. It helped if he were thin and an agile contortionist!
Creature comforts were also lacking in the B-36, despite the propaganda films distributed by SAC and the popular movies of the time. In the forward pressurized compartment there were ten aircrew members. There was only one bunk located in the overhead of the radio compartment, and we normally used it to stow much of our extra equipment. No one slept on it. As a matter of fact, very few aircrew members ever had time for more than forty winks at their crew station. The aft pressurized compartment had three to five gunners and six bunks, but crewmen from the forward compartment very seldom used the 85 foot tube connecting the two compartments, even to go aft to take a nap. The forward compartment had one agonizingly slow-draining relief tube and a “can”. To use the can required moving a lot of stowed gear and then one had to be a real contortionist to use it. The first user also had to clean it after the flight. It is needless to say what the last activity was prior to boarding the aircraft!
During descent and approach for landing the engineers performed a postflight on each reciprocating engine using the built in electronic engine analyzer, which was a great trouble shooting device for its day. However, this engine postflight was only the beginning of the engineers’ postflight duties. After each mission, the pilots taxied the aircraft to one of several single-point refueling spots over underground fuel pits located in the center of a main taxiway, and shutdown the aircraft. The crew would then unload everything brought out during the preflight sequence onto a 1 1/2 ton truck, store the gear in the aircrew storage bins, and attend mission debriefing. The second engineer would then return to refuel the aircraft to a minimum of 25,000 gallons, or to the required fuel load if a specific one was scheduled for the aircraft. After refueling, the ground crew and second engineer would tow the aircraft to parking. If your aircraft was the only one on the taxiway refueling pits, this sequence went quickly. However, at Walker AFB, normally all six refueling pits were in use at the same time. Towing and parking then became a game of musical chairs. The Powers-That-Be always wanted your aircraft parked in a space where it was necessary to wait for all the other aircraft to refuel. Then you had to wait while they moved the end aircraft to parking first (it was usually the last to arrive). It often took 2 to 3 hours to put your aircraft to bed. Only then could the second engineer go home, ending a 24 to 36 hour day, depending on the mission length.
Beginning in the 1960s, through the 1990s, SAC had a portion of its B-52, FB-111 and B-1 bomber fleets on continuous nuclear Alert, loaded and ready for immediate takeoff. However, until late 1956 SAC did not even have the nuclear EWO weapons located on the same base with the bombers. Instead, the Air Force Logistics Command (AFLC) maintained and stored the atomic and thermonuclear bombs at several widely separated Air Force Stations (AFS), which were adjacent to Air For Bases with suitable runways for the aircraft supported. The primary ones used by SAC were Deep Creek AFS, located at Fairchild AFB, Washington, Mt Rushmore AFS at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota – where the 6th BW (H) received its EWO loads – and Limestone AFS at Loring AFB, Maine.
Should the balloon go up, or during a typical SAC no-notice Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI), it was necessary to load fly-away kits, specially configured to fit into the B-36 bomb bays, fly to the appropriate AFS, and swap the fly-away kits for the EWO bomb load. The fly-away kits were equipped with sufficient spare parts and maintenance equipment to maintain each aircraft at its forward bomb loading base. As might be expected, this method of operation severely degraded SAC’s response time. SAC eventually switched to a Bombs-on-Base (BOB) concept, establishing secure munition storage areas operated by Aviation Depot Squadrons attached to the base Combat Support Group. Later, these ADS later became Munitions Maintenance Squadrons (MMS) and were moved into the Bomb Wing maintenance structure.
Although SAC uploaded and downloaded the fly-away kits during the moves to the weapons’ storage locations, AFLC (Air Force Logistics Command) crews handled the loading of the bombs. This made it necessary to periodically fly a B-36 to these AFS to make an aircraft available to the AFLC bomb loading teams to practice uploading and downloading procedures. SAC, of course, did not fly an aircraft up and back just to let AFLC teams practice. The aircrew would be scheduled for a regular training mission both ways, usually a 14:55 hour mission on the way up and a 20:05 on the return flight.
From its inception, the B-36 had a number of detractors, especially the U.S. Navy, which believed that the cost of the 380 B-36s would have been better spent on an additional aircraft carrier. Strategic Air Command found itself in a continual debate over the capabilities of its largest bomber, and continually pushed the aircraft and crews to build statistics of their accomplishments. The command also did not hesitate to show off the aircraft to the public and readily provided B-36s in low altitude formation fordemonstration flights on holidays and other special occasions.
Flying the B-36 at 2,000 feet or below on a hot summer day through the bumpy thermals practically guaranteed airsickness. On such a flight over Macon, Georgia in July 1955, airsick bags were at a premium, and several of us would gladly gotten out to walk if it hadn’t been for that long first step!
Often these formation fly-bys consisted of aircraft from several different Bomb Wings flying in close formation together for the first time. We would normally form-up over an assembly point and orbit there until the scheduled time for the fly-over. We would then drone past the spectators, rattling windows and giving them quite a show of our magnesium overcast at the exact scheduled time.
During a fly-over at Philadelphia, PA, the aircraft directly ahead and slightly above our aircraft had an engine malfunction, splattering our canopy with several cylinder parts and a large quantity of engine oil, making a bit of a mess until the windblast cleared most of it off.
Each fly-by naturally involved training requirements for the crew. The navigator always had “Nav Legs” to complete – day celestial, night celestial, radar and/or polar grid. The bombardier had numerous RBS attacks to make on widely scattered targets, and the pilots needed instrument flying practice. The gunners had fire-outs to complete, and the performance engineers had to constantly get maximum performance from the engines with the minimum of fuel use. Each B-36 flight, regardless of the reason, was packed with training requirements for the crewmembers, but whenever SAC was tasked to “show the flag”, the crews were ready.
Every flight had its regimen of required training. In 1956, aircrew S-02 was selected to provide a B-36 for a static display and to present a 6th Bomb Wing Flag to the Sixth Student Squadron at the Air Force Academy, which was then located at a temporary campus on Lowry AFB, Colorado, while its facilities in Colorado Springs were under construction. Naturally, we flew training missions on the way up and back – 14:55 and 20:05, respectively!
SAC did not like to have its bomber fleet and aircrews Remain Over Night (RON) at some other base. Yet SAC did not hesitate to send us off on an extended 10 to 14 day exercise at a forward operating base, or for a 90 – 120 day rotational tour to such locations as Guam, Greenland, Alaska, North Africa, Okinawa, etc. One special uploading/downloading task performed by SAC aircrews took place whenever they were to be TDY for extended periods. This involved installing a platform into the forward bomb bay, then lifting the aircrews’ and the ground crews’ privately-owned motor scooters onto the platform. I believe SAC operations would have come to a near halt were it not for these motor scooters, which were used to get about on the base and the flightline at the deployment location. The only other transportation available was foot power. I know they had aircrew taxi services back in those days, but it seemed to be one taxi allocated per Bomb Wing.
We flew many interesting missions during these deployments. During our 90 day rotational deployment to Guam in 1955, aircrew S-02 was assigned an upper-air sampling mission over the East Siberian Sea and northern Russia. Special equipment was installed in the forward bomb bays, with various probes extending into the slip stream through specially modified bomb bay doors. After a 20-plus hour mission, much of it above 35,000 on oxygen, we landed for special debriefings and postflight servicing at Misawa AB on northern Honshu Island, Japan. Misawa AB was an F-86D fighter base and the fighter jocks were eager to run practice intercept missions as we descended for landing. I remember them swarming all around us, and wondered how we would fare against MiGs in a featherweight aircraft, with just our tail guns.
As we were the first B-36 to land at Misawa, B-36 ground handling equipment was predictably in short supply. On departure, we had no tug to move us out of our nosed-in parking position, so we put the propellers in reverse and backed out of the parking area. We taxied down the runway to the takeoff end, since the taxiway was too narrow and weight-limited for B-36 operations. We did a 180-degree turn at the end and again reversed the props and backed to the end of the runway with our tail over the overrun. Never saw an F-86 able to do that! While we were doing this, numerous spectators, mostly Japanese on bicycles, massed behind us along the perimeter fence to watch the spectacle. When we applied full takeoff power on all ten engines, the aft gunners reported that the windblast was blowing them, bicycles and all, end over end in all directions. After takeoff we made a rather low altitude fly over guaranteed to rattle everything not securely tied down. Naturally, we flew a training mission during the return flight to Guam.
During the return to Walker AFB from this deployment in Feb 1956, a severe winter storm blanketed much of the west coast with fog and snow. After a 25-hour non-stop flight, only the first two B-36s made it into Walker AFB before the storm broke over New Mexico, depositing more than 18 inches of snow. There were 6th Bomb Wing B-36s diverted all across the Pacific and west coast, including Wake Island, Hawaii and Blythe CA, just to name a few locations.
In addition to scheduled deployments, SAC also had numerous exercises to test our ability to deploy and operate far from home on short notice. In March 1957, during the operational exercise “White Horse”, the 6th Bomb Wing flew a Unit Simulated Combat Mission (USCM) from Walker AFB to Hickam AFB, then on to the forward strike base at Anderson AFB, Guam. We then launched on the exercise mission against simulated targets at Zamboanga (where the monkeys have no tails) on Mindanao Island, Philippines, T’ainan, Formosa and Tokyo, Japan. After successfully “bombing” these targets during a single non-stop sortie, we landed for post-strike debriefing at Kadena AB, Okinawa. About 1,000 miles north of Hawaii during the 27-hour non-stop return flight to Walker AFB from Kadena, a brilliant light flashed throughout the aircraft; everyone reported it had happened right in front of them. Probably a lightning strike, it promptly knocked all the electrical circuits off line, leaving only the batteries to supply all the electrical power. Battery life according the Dash 1 Technical Order (T.O.) in these circumstances was 15-17 seconds. Everyone scrambled to shut down all electrical systems. As the engineer manning the electrical panel I did my own scrambling to restore alternator electrical power in those very tense 15 seconds. Fortunately, we made it, and landed at Walker AFB, after flying more than 115 hours on four sorties during the eight-day mission.
While they never provided me with a steam bath or massage after a flight (as shown in the film “Strategic Air Command”), Walker AFB, located at Roswell, New Mexico, was really a great assignment. The 6th Bomb Wing with B-36s was co-located with the 509th Bomb Wing equipped with B-47Es. Called “Roswell by the Sea” (with all that sand, we knew there had to be a sea around somewhere!) Roswell was a small city of less than 10,000 people and 200 miles from any larger population center. The people there were great. I always measured my other assignments against Walker AFB and Roswell, and none were any better. During the spring, dust storms were common, and the blowing sand often rose as high as 10,000 feet. Walker AFB itself was at 3,660 feet elevation. These sand storms often made landing an instrument operation. The wear and tear on the aircraft and engines was considerable, and maintenance work in the springtime was downright miserable, but the rest of the year was really quite pleasant.
Eventually, even the best things must end. The 6th BW (H) converted to B-52 aircraft in September 1957, and the commissioned performance engineers were out of a job. SAC sent us back to school to become Navigator/Bombardiers (152X) for aircrew duty on B-47 aircraft. It was to be my last flying assignment. Medically grounded in 1960 after serving as a B-47 aircrew member for two years, I went on to find my real job as a SAC Munitions and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer for the next 12 years, but that is yet another story!