Home Cold War Era Remembering Operation Chrome Dome, the 1960’s airborne alert missions flown by B-52 strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons

Remembering Operation Chrome Dome, the 1960’s airborne alert missions flown by B-52 strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons

by Dario Leone
Remembering Operation Chrome Dome, the 1960’s airborne alert missions flown by B-52 strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons

By 1961 General Power openly announced SAC conducted airborne alert missions, codenamed Chrome Dome, with nuclear-armed B-52s or BUFFs, meaning Big Ugly Fat Fellows in polite company.

The following cool story, that exclusively appears on The Aviation Geek Club, has been written by Mark Hasara, author of the 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. 

Chrome Domes and Brass Knobs

0500 Sunday, 5 November 1962

Sheppard Air Force Base

Wichita Falls, Texas

“As long as the Soviets know that, no matter what means they employ to stop it, a sizable percentage of SAC’s strike force will be in the air for counterattack, within minutes after they have initiated aggression, they will think twice before undertaking such aggression.  For this reason, it is my considered opinion that a combat-ready Alert Force of adequate size is the very backbone of our deterrent posture.” 

General Thomas S. Power, Strategic Air Command Commander from 1957 to 1964

“Day and Night, I have a certain percentage of my command in the air.  These planes are all bombed up, and they don’t carry bows and arrows.”  

General Thomas S. Power statement to the Washington Press, November 1957

   Millions around the world descend on Orlando Florida’s theme parks every year.  Looking west from Orlando International Airside One terminal windows, an enormous concrete ramp runs north and south for a mile and a quarter.  Numerous Airline Cargo companies and Fixed Base Operators (FBO’s) function down Orlando’s west ramp. Airbus A380s, the largest passenger aircraft in the world with two hundred sixty-two foot wingspans, can park comfortably side-by-side on the west ramp.  Driving south on Boggey Creek Road passing Tradeport Drive another large aircraft parking apron appears on the left. Nine large stubs form a concrete tree. Look closer, a taxiway overgrown by weeds once connected this tree to Runway 36 Right straight away.  Do you know why Orlando International’s identifier on your boarding pass is MCO, not ORL? More importantly, do you know it’s history? Very few do. The International Civil Aviation Organization identifier K is for the US, and MCO identified McCoy Air Force Base.  In October 1962 B-52’s armed with nuclear weapons waited for launch on the Boggy Creek Road parking tree, a SAC Alert Christmas Tree. McCoy’s bombers and tankers participated in another form of alert in 1962: airborne alert. 

Remembering Operation Chrome Dome, the 1960’s airborne alert missions flown by B-52 strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons

   General Thomas Power testified before Congress in February 1959,

“We in Strategic Air Command have developed a system known as airborne alert where we maintain airplanes in the air 24 hours a day, loaded with bombs, on station, ready to go to target… I feel strongly that we must get on with this airborne alert… we must impress Mr. Khrushchev that we have it and that he cannot strike this country with impunity.”

   By 1961 General Power openly announced SAC conducted airborne alert missions, codenamed Chrome Dome, with nuclear-armed B-52s or BUFFs, meaning Big Ugly Fat Fellows in polite company.  General Power’s concept reduced SAC’s retaliatory response time in the event Soviet Premier Khrushchev attacked the US. If an attack came, Chrome Dome bombers departed airborne holding points close to the Soviet borders for targets inside Russia.  With several two-ship formation cells of nuclear-armed bombers flying twenty-four hours a day, the US would always have a force within striking distance of the Soviet Union. Chrome Dome sorties remained part of SAC’s nuclear alert posture for over seven years.    

   Chrome Dome Stratofortresses operated over three routes lasting approximately twenty-four hours in duration.  KC-135s in the US northeast refueled the B-52s on BLACK GOAT track over Newfoundland, delivering 12,500 gallons of fuel to each bomber, eleven times more than an average family consumes a year.  The three Buffs in cell formation continued north toward Thule Greenland, turning west for Alaska near the North Pole. Eielson Alaska tankers rendezvoused with the BUFF cell on COLD COFFEE track northwest of Mt McKinley, each receiving another 110,000 pounds of jet fuel for the return to home bases.  West coast BUFFs flew the second route over and around Alaska requiring similar tanker support. A Southern European route crossed the Atlantic to a point northwest of Spain. Two tankers from Moron or Torrejon rendezvoused over the Pyrenees Mountains, both bombers gulping down 105,000 to 115,000 pounds of gas.  BUFFs continued to hold points in the Adriatic Ocean off the coast of Italy. Returning to the States nearing Gibraltar, two more Spain based tankers pumped another 110,000 pounds into each bomber.  

   Chrome Dome western route passed over Alaska into the Beaufort Sea.  Most Alaska tanker crews double turned; fly a mission, landing to upload fuel, and taking off on a second sortie meeting B-52s on COLD COFFEE track.  Tanker aircraft and crews rotated in and out of the US Northeast, Spain, and Alaska Tanker Task Forces on forty-five to sixty-day cycles. Twelve Chrome Dome B-52’s remained airborne twenty-four hours a day.  Chrome Dome and McCoy AFB leaped to the forefront of international news in 1962 when a reconnaissance plane photographed unusual activity one Sunday afternoon in the Caribbean.

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   Major Richard Heyser arrived at Edwards AFB on 12 October to qualify in the J-75 powered U-2F spy plane.  Heyser left Edwards at 2330 on 13 October and the first U-2 photography reconnaissance mission across Cuba’s mainland, codenamed Brass Knob.  From 75,000 feet above western Cuba, Major Heyser’s cameras recorded the first hard evidence of three Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) sites near San Cristobal.  Two Brass Knob overflights on 15 October photographed two Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) sites near Guanajay. Soviet SS-4 IRBM missiles range reached beyond the US Rocky Mountains.  Six U-2 flights on 17 October photographed Cuba’s entire land mass. Soviet cargo ships in Mariel Harbor continued offloading additional ballistic missiles. Soviet technicians appeared on U-2 photos unpacking and reconstructed Ilyushin IL-28 Beagle medium range bombers on San Julian airfield. Navy RF-8 Crusaders flew the first Blue Moon low-level reconnaissance sorties on Sunday 21 October, catching Soviet personnel in the open constructing nuclear warhead shelters. Khrushchev’s crash program to arm Cuba with nuclear weapons as fast as possible before anyone knew failed. 

   By 20 October General Powers received instructions from the President to increase the US nuclear forces status to Defense Condition Three (DEFCON 3) and prepare for DEFCON 2.  Using one-eighth bomber airborne alert orders, Chrome Dome increased bomber sorties to over seventy a day. Fuel requirements for seventy Chrome Dome bombers increased to over 14 million pounds daily while the KC-135 fleet is still two years away from full strength of 732 aircraft.  SAC nuclear forces assumed a DEFCON 3 posture as President Kennedy spoke to the nation Monday night about the Cuban Crisis. The Alert Force remained in DEFCON 3 for only thirty-nine hours, the time between the declaration of DEFCON 3 and the beginning Cuba’s naval blockade. General Powers ordered a one-eighth airborne alert status to begin at 1100 Central Time on 24 October.  

  SAC’s secondary Airborne Command Post nicknamed Looking Glass capable of launching nuclear bombers and missiles required refueling every five hours.  Four hundred and two KC-97 and KC-135s sat loaded with gas by 11 am 24 October. On 5 November 1003 tankers were on ground alert or supporting Chrome Dome bombers, ninety-seven percent of the tanker force.  Seventy-five B-52s flew sorties on 5 November, forty-two on the northern route, thirty-one on the southern route, and two in Thule’s Early Warning Monitor orbit. KC-135s at Moron and Torrejon flew eighty-four sorties, the northeast tankers thirty-one, and Eielson an additional eighteen: 133 KC-135 sorties in a single day offloading 13,900,000 pounds of fuel.  By comparison, US tankers pumped 9 million pounds the first day of Shock and Awe on 21 March 2003.

Remembering Operation Chrome Dome, the 1960’s airborne alert missions flown by B-52 strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons
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   SAC KC-97s also supported naval quarantine operations performing sea search, tracking Soviet shipping moving toward Cuba.  Stratofreighters based at Bermuda and Lajes flew thirteen-hour sorties called Blue Banner missions, identifying ship type, course and speed entering Cuba’s exclusion zone.  Crews photographed ships from three thousand feet to identify cargo on decks. These same tankers supported RB-47 missions on similar Blue Banner maritime intelligence collection tasks.

   General Power received direction to secure SAC’s nuclear forces from DEFCON Two at midnight, Central Time on 21 November.  During one month of continuous operations, SAC B-52s flew 2088 Chrome Dome sorties, totaling 47,168 hours of flying time with a ninety-seven percent effectiveness rate.  Each bomber sortie required at least two KC-135 refuelings on each mission. Using 5 November as a yardstick with one hundred thirty-three KC-135s sorties offloading 105,00 pounds each, SAC’s new refueler passed 414 million pounds of gas in thirty days.  414 million pounds is in the range to how much fuel USAF KC-135s offloaded during Desert Storm (forty-one-day campaign) and Iraqi Freedom (twenty-six-day campaign). Remember, General Curtis LeMay initially did not want the KC-135, which lost the 1954 tanker competition to Lockheed’s L-193!  

I arrived at Pease AFB in November of 1985.  Driving through the Sherborne Gate, I passed the 509th Nuclear Alert Facility.  I wanted to see it up close. Getting out of my Mazda RX-7, I had an unobstructed view of the 509th Bomb Wing’s Alert Facility across the tanker squadron’s parking lot.  Two months later I walked into the Alert Facility entrapment area, handed the Security Policeman my line badge, and he checked to see if my name was on the cleared list. Giving my Line Badge back, a stadium gate buzzed for me to walk through.  For the next seven days, the Nuclear Alert Facility is home, Wednesday morning to Wednesday morning. Dropping my bags in a bedroom underground, I waited. Waited for the klaxon to sound and run to a KC-135 loaded with gas. Or, expected to be thrown into the Alert Facility’s pool fully clothed, boots and all; a 509th Air Refueling Squadron tradition at the end of your first Alert tour.  By the summer of 1987, I was one of the most experienced Copilots in the squadron. That summer, SAC crews in the Northeast relived the nuclear status of November 1962.

Remembering Operation Chrome Dome, the 1960’s airborne alert missions flown by B-52 strategic bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons

Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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