“These aircraft of Armageddon go from sitting asleep to airborne in minutes, cold starting engines with explosive cartridges belching thick black smoke spinning turbine blades to life,” Mark Hasara, former KC-135 Pilot.
The following cool story, that exclusively appears on The Aviation Geek Club, is taken from Mark Hasara’s book Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit. For twenty-four years Mark Hasara operated one of the Air Force’s oldest airplanes, the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker. His career started during the Reagan Administration, carrying out Strategic Air Command’s nuclear deterrent mission. Moving to Okinawa Japan in August 1990, he flew missions throughout the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia. His first combat missions were in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. As a Duty Officer in the Tanker Airlift Control Center, he planned and ran five hundred airlift and air refueling missions a month.
KLAXON! KLAXON! KLAXON!
1620 Sunday, 23 September 1987
509th Bomb Wing Nuclear Alert Facility
Pease AFB, Portsmouth New Hampshire
“Confidence comes from discipline and training.”
–American businessman and author Robert Kiyosaki
“It’s absolutely true that unless you can instill discipline upon yourself, you will never be able to lead others.”
—Author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar
Pease Air Force Base’s Durham Street ends with a large fenced in concrete apron. Signs stating “Use of deadly force is authorized” hung on the fence every thirty feet. In an underground concrete bunker, the crew lounge looked west through two large picture windows. Nine drive-through shelters covered six FB-111s bombers we called “FBs.” Like their F-111 fighter-bomber siblings, the wings move forward and backward during flight. FB’s were designed for one thing: nukes. FBs carried AGM-69 Short Range Attack Missiles or SRAMs, giving them ability to launch nuclear warheads 100 miles away from Soviet targets. B61 nuclear bombs are easily recognizable by their silver finish and maroon colored nose cones. Aircrews call B61s “dial a yield,” crank up the nuclear blast from the cockpit. A hand full of alert FBs carried only SRAMs. KC-135s and FBs sit side-by-side in a large area called The Alert Facility. These aircraft of Armageddon go from sitting asleep to airborne in minutes, cold starting engines with explosive cartridges belching thick black smoke spinning turbine blades to life.
None of us ever forgets the whooshing sound of a cart start and the smell of gunpowder in the air. Starting engines are the easy part. Getting airborne concerned us all. Tanker pilots wondered if the aircraft could get off the ground carrying 173,000 pounds of fuel and 5,561 pounds of water. Taxiing tankers creak and groan at Emergency War Order or EWO maximum takeoff weights near 288,500 pounds. If the klaxon goes off, twelve heavy aircraft make a left turn, passed through a wide hole in the security chain link fence called “The Throat,” and onto the active runway for the runway. Two weeks in September 1987 were different. Four additional bombers and five supporting KC-135s generated one morning. Each Alert Facility parking space was full, and six aircraft parked in the Runway 16 hammerhead, a large concrete parking area at the airfield’s north end.
On Friday 18 September, the 509th Bomb Wing Command Post received a coded message from SAC Headquarters implementing Runway Alert. Six aircrews drove dark blue Air Force Six-Pack trucks to their aircraft, started engines and taxied out the Alert Facility throat to Runway 16’s hammerhead. Once positioned in the large concrete hammerhead, aircrews shut down engines and explosive start cartridges were reinstalled. The entire end of Runway 16 became a temporary Nuclear Alert Facility with the same use of deadly force authorization. People behind the perimeter fence looked down at us from Arboretum Drive just behind the airplanes. What a spectacle, nuclear weapons in the open.
Each morning crews made sure all the jets were ready to respond should execution messages for SAC’s Single Integrated Operations Plan or SIOP Six Charlie arrive. Planners briefed us before going out to the jets what characters each coded launch message should contain. Saturday morning, another message from Offutt restricted all alert aircrews inside the facility and all six Runway Alert sorties to cockpit alert, one crewmember on a headset at all times. My crew took turns listening every three hours for additional messages. Spike my Aircraft Commander, Nav Gorney our Navigator, and Tommy our Boom lay on the troop seats in the cargo compartment trying to sleep. I’m in the Copilot seat, headset over one ear listening to the command radio. I clipped my grease pencil to the open sliding window’s white board, bored.
Looking down at TC, pilot of FB-111 Sortie 03 and his two and a half megatons of thermonuclear attitude adjustment, he’s bored too. His raised left hand and extended middle digit signals TC’s silent protest: “Well… Cockpit Alert sucks!” Our sucking experience was caused by one thing: Soviet submarines armed with nuclear missiles patrolling in the Atlantic Ocean.
Soviet submarine K-423 left the Kola Peninsula in June armed with SS-N-21 Sampson cruise missiles capable of hitting anywhere east of the Mississippi River. Two Soviet Delta class subs carried sixteen intercontinental ballistic missiles, each armed with three to seven nuclear reentry warheads capable of hitting anywhere east of the Rockies. Seventy-two nuclear weapons in three subs were aimed at military and commercial targets across America. Fifteen to thirty minute missile flight times separates survival or frying in a nuclear blast.
At 1609 Sunday afternoon, K-423’s opened their cruise missile doors. Fifteen miles southwest of K-423 Trident 924, a Navy P-3 Orion Sub Hunter, picked up the sound of launch tubes flooding. The Navy’s Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) line stretching across the Atlantic Ocean confirmed Trident 924’s worst fears, a Soviet nuclear Boomer Boat opening doors. SOSUS sensitivity can pick up Tu-95 Bear Bomber propeller noise when flying at low altitude. USS Invincible’s surveillance towed sensor array system (SURTASS) also heard the Yankee Notch missile doors open and tubes flood. Shortly after the Yankee Notch opened its doors, Navy surveillance heard the sound of both Delta III’s missile hatches begin systematically unlocking and flooding two at a time. Sixty-seven miles northeast of Saint Pierre, the first Bear bomber forward weapons bay doors swung open at 1610, followed twelve seconds later by the trailing Bear bomber forward doors. The northeast US just received it’s Fifteen Minute Warning, missiles will impact the US in a quarter of an hour.
“For Alert Force! For Alert Force! Klaxon! Klaxon! Klaxon!”
Pease Command Post was still decoding the message but wanted the force to be ready for takeoff. The Alert Force starting engines was always the first action.
Spike jumped in his seat calling for the Starting Engines and Before Taxi Checklist. Nav Gorney sat behind me waiting for the entire emergency action message from BRIMSTONE, Pease Command Post. I wrote down the message on my sliding window as Spike buckled his seat belts. My finger opened a tab to the START ENGINES checklist page,
“Battery-power switch emergency…”
Spike replied “Battery power switch is emergency!
I continued, “Parking Brakes, set!”
“Brakes are set, Pilot!”
“Reserve Brake Pressure, check!”
“On… Set… pressure checked, Pilot!”
“Check with ground, ready to start engines!”
“Ground, Pilot… clear me fore and aft on all four engines.”
Hurry… we have to hurry. Nuclear weapons will impact in the next fifteen minutes. It takes a third that time to start engines and take off. Sergeant Baldock stood in front of us, a long black cable attaching him to the jet. Six Crew Chiefs stand in front of six aircraft waiting to see smoke.
“Chocks are in, fireguard is posted, you are cleared fore and aft all four engines!”
“Start engines, Copilot…”
“Starting engines, Pilot!”
Spike pushed all four starter switches down into GROUND START. Pulling out the start selector switch and pushing it down to CART START, all of us immediately heard the loud whooshing sound of four explosive cartridges , igniting like matches to a big gas can.
“Ground, Pilot… Good carts on all four!”
Leaning out my window, black smoke poured out from underneath the two right engines as cartridges cooked off. Glancing at TC, he’s heads down watching his engines spool up. Black smoke near the FB’s main wheels drifted behind TC’s aircraft in the wind. I momentarily fixated on TC’s B61 bomb’s maroon nose cone under his left wing. Nuclear war is not supposed to happen. We aren’t meant to do this. What just happened and how long did we have before Soviet nukes kill us all? A big cloud of black smoke rolled across the south end of the airfield as aircraft in the Alert Facility fired carts. Our starter cartridge smoke cloud passed over the people on Arboretum Drive watching from the fence line. Don’t they know what’s happening?
Whatever was happening would be epic.
Within seconds, the RPM gauges climbed past 12%. Spike and I grab two throttles out of CUT OFF and put them in START. Exhaust gas temperature rose on all four engines and passing 30% RPM all four throttles went over the stops into idle. All engines stabilize between 58% and 60% RPM.
“Engines started Copilot!”
“Engines started Pilot!”
“Pilot, Ground… chocks are pulled aircraft is in taxi configuration except for the door. You’re cleared to taxi!”
“Come on up Chief…”
BRIMSTONE re-broadcast the message. The checklist said go to the end of the runway and hold. Nav Gorney authenticated the message, flipping plastic pages back and forth in the red EWO binder. Sergeant Baldock ran toward the airplane taking up the ground cord and disappeared under the nose. I heard him coming up the ladder a few seconds later. Sortie One stopped right of the high-speed taxi line. Sortie Two stopped behind Sortie One’s left side. TC stayed put… the hold line is full. Finishing the starting engines checklist, I reached up, grabbed the alarm bell switch, and pulled it to the right momentarily. After a long buzzer sounded, I said over interphone,
“Boom ready to taxi!”
“Nav ready to taxi!”
“Door warning light is out, Co’s ready to taxi! Starting Engines before Taxi check complete!”
All five crewmembers sit strapped in our seats engines running, not saying a word. All of us are stunned the Soviets would even think of nuking the US. Russian satellites can see nuclear armed aircraft at the runway’s end, ready for takeoff in minutes. What are they thinking? The remaining alert force aircraft rolled down the main taxiway from the south side of the airfield: nine nuclear-armed FBs and eight KC-135s. BRIMSTONE called next:
“BRIMSTONE with a poll of the alert force, Sortie One?
“Sortie One is complete…”
“Sortie Two is complete…”
…and down through all twelve bombers. Complete meant every aircraft and EWO checklist items for taking off to nuclear war is done. BRIMSTONE asked the same of tanker sorties,
“Polling the tanker sorties… Sortie one oh one?
“Sortie one oh one is complete.”
“Sortie one oh two?”
Sortie one oh two is complete.”
All tanker sorties are checklist complete, engines running at the end of Runway 16, ready for takeoff.
I put my finger on the Before Takeoff Checklist while sitting in the hammerhead. Spike quickly briefed the takeoff procedures during the radio silence, making sure both of us understood what he and I would do if the Armageddon scenario continued. When Spike finished his brief, the cockpit was dead silent except for the sound of running engines. None of us could talk. All of us are thinking the same thing, did the Soviets launch an attack? What is going to happen to our families? Are they being told what is going on so they can survive? The next action message will confirm what is happening to all of us.
“For Alert Force, For Alert Force… message follows… ”
Nav Gorney memorized the launch message preambles during our morning pre-flight and told us what the launch characters were. Spike turned around in his seat to see him writing on another plastic covered page in the red mission binder with a black grease pencil. Nav Gorney thumbed through the pages and looked up at us, eyes wide. Nav Gorney read the first line of the message. He still needed to validate it but,
“It’s a launch message… it says take off Spike!”
Sortie One FB-111 pulled forward onto Runway 16, Sorties Two, and Three moving up behind him in an accordion motion. Sortie One’s engine exhaust nozzles opened going into full afterburner. Two long orange tongues of flame grew twenty feet from the open nozzles. Sortie Two rolled across the high-speed taxi line with Sortie Three seconds behind. I remained fixated on TC’s B61 bomb again. I called out the Before Takeoff Check and Spike hacked the small clock on the instrument panel. The procedure is tankers launch seconds behind the FBs in minimum interval takeoffs or MITOs… twelve second spacing between each jet for survival. Launch the most aircraft with the least amount of spacing between them in the shortest amount of time. Reaching down above my left knee I moved the water injection switch up, and two water pumps whined under the jet’s belly. We crossed the hold line seconds behind TC’s Sortie Three. Passing 70% RPM the sound and vibration of the aircraft changed signaling all four engines receiving water injection. Two point eight EPR on RPM gauges confirmed what we all hear, water on all four.. We could not take off if it wasn’t. The jet struggled to accelerate under this heavy weight on a runway sloping downhill.
At a 181 knots I called rotate over interphone. Spike pulled the yoke back, the nose rose up, and the airplane left the ground. Lots of turbulence caused by the three FBs in front of us still in burner made a bumpy ride. Two positive climbing indications the gear came up, and Spike leveled off 520 feet above the ground, indicating -193e knots but accelerating. Nav Gorney called one hundred ten seconds of water. Flap gauges showed all up just eleven seconds before water injection ran out.
People on Rye Beach heard the deafening sound of approaching airplanes. Fighter bombers in afterburner passed overhead low, loud, and fast. Heads looked up as Sortie One appeared from behind the trees lining Rye Beach. Many New Hampshire residents had seen FBs and tankers taking off and landing at Pease before. The first FB was followed very closely by another… and another… and then a tanker… very close together. People noticed large external fuel tanks toed inward under each FB’s wing. One aircraft carried skinny silver shapes, another long white ones. Few New Englanders had seen these shapes. Car alarms began screaming from the parking lot. Several people were running from the beach toward the parking lot hollering at people up and down the seashore.. A father heard one young man screaming,
“GET OFF THE BEACH! GET OFF THE BEACH!” pointing toward the parking lot.
A second tanker passed over Rye Beach low and loud. The third tanker appeared above the trees very close behind. What did this young man know everyone else didn’t? Why were these three young men running toward the parking lot screaming for people to get off the beach? Drivers on I-95 were startled by the sight of low-flying planes and the sounds of jets so close together. Phone lines to the base operator lit up. People wanted to complain their Sunday naps were being rudely interrupted by jet noise, not realizing it’s the sound of their imminent deaths.
Spike rolled into a left turn following the bombers on our assigned fan heading. I could see cross-cockpit Star Island passing underneath us through Spike’s window. Spike leaned back, his right hand pushing against the instrument panel glareshield for some leverage, to see who was following us. Sortie One Zero Two was 1500 feet behind us in a turn. Sortie One Zero Three 1300 feet behind One Zero Two just beginning their turn. The rest of the bombers were flying or rolling down the runway. Spike and I took turns donning helmets and attaching PLZT goggles to protect our eyes from the nuclear blast. PLZT goggles clipped on helmet visor turn dark black within nanoseconds of a nuclear flash. I grabbed form fitting aluminized cockpit window curtains for additional protection. The world is now officially shut out of our cockpit.
Pease AFB nuclear attack stream continued climbing east. Radar returns on the scope next to my left knee displayed all aircraft strung out in front of us abeam Kennebunkport Maine. Vice President Bush and his family hopefully are moving away from Walker’s Point. Russians had to know the northeast alert force launched heading toward them. Survival launch directed aircraft to fly to a holding point. At the ten-minute mark after the klaxon, none of us had seen a bright flash or felt turbulence from any nuclear blasts. Instruction is to stay beyond twenty miles from SAC bases and large populated areas, or in other words, targets.
Nav Gorney began running the grid checklist passing St John’s Newfoundland. Grid navigation is used to fly across the higher latitudes in the era of no global position satellites. Due to the unreliability of magnetic compasses above 60 degrees north latitude and quick convergence of longitude lines, a false north is determined to fly a straight line. Grid navigation reorients the aircraft’s heading to this false north pole by creating a squarer latitude and longitude similar to flying near the equator. Once in grid, the gyro compass is put in a free running mode to maintain the new heading reference allowing us to fly a straight line. Message traffic continued to broadcast from several agencies with names like Abalone, Gentry, and Sky King. None of the decoded messages applied to us.
My crew’s mated FB-111 now called CUTLASS 01 contacted us on the air refueling primary frequency two hours out of the control point. The two Navigator’s talked through mission specifics… mainly updating the time crossing the rendezvous initial point or RZIP. Each aircraft will descend to 21,000 feet at the RZIP, the FB air refueling altitude. Refueling at 21,000 feet is smack dab in the heart of any Russian surface ship’s missiles or guns envelope. The stream is too far away from the European coast to worry about Russian fighters. Things stayed busy in the cockpit flying northeast. It helped keep our minds off the pending war and our families.
CUTLASS 01 required 65,000 pounds with 72,000 pounds available in our tanks on contact. If more fuel is needed, bombers say a codeword and a number. That codeword means to transfer all the tanker fuel down to empty fuel system pipes if they needed it. That one codeword is a death sentence for tankers. FB’s did not hold enough in their tanks, so I did not expect to hear those code words. Not true for KC-135s mated to B-52s. Stratofortresses held over 300,000 pounds of gas and could drain two tankers easily burning fuel at 22,000 pounds an hour. Remember, I am flying the TOAD aircraft: Take Off and Die!
All of us were talking over interphone about the rapid launch out of Pease and what Russia must be thinking. Nav Gorney keyed his mic and told us all to shut up. Scribbling another coded message on the plastic front page, he flipped backward in the red binder. Navigators flipping deeper into the pages is a good thing. It meant the situation is changing. But who is RAILCAR…?
“This is RAILCAR… I say again…”
Running his right hand down the checklist page, he marked off each item. His facial expressions were intense but showed some relief.
Nav Gorney continued running his right hand through the pages, flipping back to the message characters on the front leaf. Spike pressed him for what was going on.
“They’re talking… Russia did not like seeing the Northeast force launch… hang on.”
CUTLASS 01 radioed on air refueling primary. They had relevant information.
“Pilot, Nav. Go to the hold point and wait with our mated bomber. Do not go beyond the turnaround point. It is now a wait and see game. The talking heads in DC and Moscow are discussing the situation.”
“Trend One Zero One, CUTLASS 01. Do you have the latest message traffic?”
Nav Gorney answered “CUTLASS 01, Roger. Trend no changes to timing.”
Both aircraft arrived at the hold point… and waited for two outcomes. The first is all of us go home. Moscow observed this large nuclear attack force coming, and everyone backed down. Option two, very scary version, discussions break down. All Trend tankers offload fuel, and CUTLASS 01 and friends continue east to their targets. Spike wanted to take a look outside, so each of us removed the thermal radiation curtains. The North Atlantic Ocean below us had high white caps and broken low clouds at about 5000 feet. Orbiting at the hold point, I pumped 46,700 pounds of fuel into CUTLASS 01. And we waited for instructions.
Twenty-five minutes passed. RAILCAR sent another message recalling the force back to Pease. CUTLASS 01 needed 15,000 pounds to make it back to home plate, leaving us with extra gas for the three hour return trip. During the flight home, we all discussed how it felt launching. All of us are sick. Sick the Russians would even think to attack. But none of us can describe our emotions seeing Pease AFB laid out front of us. Everything looked like we were coming back from a typical training mission. Nav Gorney called BRIMSTONE passing our maintenance code, code one with no discrepancies. Spike landed from an ILS approach and moved uphill on the parallel taxiway back toward the Runway 16 hammerhead. Several staff cars followed us in the dark. I felt it was odd they were waving at us while taxiing. The northeast is still in Runway Alert. The Security Forces Tech Sergeant flashed two fingers at us rolling up to the hammerhead entry point. Spike held up two fingers, and the SP cleared us to enter the Hammerhead Alert area. Everyone in our cockpit is pissed the Russians would do such a thing but we’re all glad to be home.
Events described above became a scenario used during Wednesday’s Alert Changeover training in late autumn 1987. It did not happen quite like that on Sunday afternoon. The alert force did not launch, but planes parked at the end of the runway. A Russian Yankee Notch submarine had, in fact, come across the fifteen-minute warning line, meaning nuclear warheads would impact Pease in fifteen minutes. The Soviet Captain was smart enough not to open his doors. All four bases in the Northeast United States; Pease, Plattsburgh, Loring, and Griffiss received Runway Alert implementation and six Pease jets, three FB’s and three -135s, left Alert Facility parking for Runway 16’s big concrete parking area in the hammerhead. All six jets stayed in Runway Alert for two weeks. On the last day of September, the Yankee Notch turned south back across the 15-minute line toward Bermuda. Shortly after crossing the line, SAC sent another message removing the northeast Alert Force from Cockpit Alert. All aircraft taxied back into the alert cages and resumed a normal alert posture if being in a cage with nuclear-armed aircraft is standard; silver bullets and maroon nose cones.
Lessons From the Cockpit: Discipline
Strategic Air Command accomplished everything by a checklist, either flying the airplanes or performing our nuclear missions. We trained relentlessly on checklist procedures and discipline. Strategic Air Command leadership wanted to make sure when it came time to launch and execute on a nuclear mission all of us would follow the checklist procedures cold with few variations. During Operational Readiness inspections, we were tested – 100% on all emergency War order procedures, particularly command-and-control of decoded messages.
The lesson I formed from flying in Strategic Air Command was checklist discipline, habitually following every step. When nuclear weapons were inbound, we acted and not reacted because of discipline to procedures in our checklists. Any small break in the checklist discipline chain could have catastrophic results. Many aircraft accidents are a result of checklist discipline and a break in flying habits, like forgetting to put the gear down, an obvious checklist item. Having the discipline to create patterns in our lives has been a theme from many motivational speakers. Disciplining ourselves through creating habits leads to healthier and happier lives, increased productivity, and greater effectiveness in our work. I recently read a terrific article on 50 things wealthy people do habitually daily. They had disciplined themselves by creating the habit patterns, doing certain things in their lives which make them successful. Discipline your life by building habit patterns just like we exercised in the airplane to create a more prosperous environment for you and your family.
The following video features a MITO performed by FB-111s and KC-135s from Plattsburgh AFB, NY, 380th BMW.
Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit is available to order here.
Photo credit: Mark Hasara and U.S. Air Force