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Sums it up pretty nicely.
Nuclear weapons have been in the news lately.

There are worries about countries like Iran or North Korea fielding nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers have been at odds with each other. Japan and China have been rattling sabres. China is a nuclear power and Japan could easily be if they wanted to.

Then I read this little gem in which a right-wing talk show host essentially said that Hiroshima and Chernobyl were "improved by the disasters".

Hiroshima and Chernobyl Not so Bad

You can't make this stuff up!

Many here have served in the military, but I may be the only one who personally commanded nuclear weapons, so I feel uniquely qualified to talk about the subject (not that it's ever stopped me before).

This is a deadly serious subject. As such I will treat it with my usual amount of humor and sarcasm. That doesn't mean I take the subject lightly. It just means if I didn't joke about it I'd be curled up in the corner sucking my thumb.

SAC Patch
I served as an aircraft commander on B-52s from 1989 to 1992. This was at the very tail end of the Cold War. I actually got to see the Cold War end on my watch.

I wore the patch of Strategic Air Command. The force built by insane genius (IMHO) Curtis Lemay to deter the Soviet Union. I sat alert with live nuclear weapons on my aircraft just like countless SAC crew-dogs had before me.

As a new aircraft commander, the first order of business was "Nuclear Certification". This involved spending a week in "the vault" (where all the secret stuff was kept). My crew and I were assigned an actual alert mission and expected to study every aspect of it. This culminated with us standing in front of every Colonel on the base while they played "stump the dummy". It was OK to not know the answer to a question but you had to show that you knew where to look it up.

Once certified, you were now able to pull alert. The primary mission of SAC was alert, which meant sitting around waiting for the world to end. At some bases a crew member might spend every fourth week on alert. At Barksdale we were fortunate. We had two squadrons of bombers supporting 4 alert lines. That math worked out to an alert tour every six to eight weeks.

Upon assuming alert, we would be confined to the base. We lived, ate and slept in the "mole hole" next to the alert pad where the aircraft were parked. Each crew had a pickup truck with lights and sirens. Under normal conditions we were allowed the run of the base.

Typical Alert Facility
Since the planes were technically on alert 24/7, the act of swapping out crews was a little complicated. Both crews had to go to the aircraft and page-count all the secret documents. If a page was missing, that document would be considered "compromised" and every copy would be destroyed. They were serious about this stuff.

Note that you didn't just walk out to the aircraft on alert. You'd have a bored 18-year-old pointing an M-16 at your head if you tried it. You had to go to the alert controller and announce that you were going to the aircraft. Then you would go through 2 security checkpoints. I once saw an SP (security police) chamber a round and point it at the head of a crew-member who wasn't displaying his line badge. Like I said, they were serious.

Once all this was accomplished, we would take the hand-off from the outgoing crew and the sortie was considered "cocked" (like the hammer of a gun).

While the Navigator and the EWO were counting pages, the Radar Navigator and myself would pre-flight the weapons.

You wanted to know about the weapons, right? For perspective, the Hiroshima bomb was a firecracker. It was roughly 18 kilotons. Today you could just about shoot that out of an artillery piece. An F-16 can carry a weapon almost 10 times as powerful.

B28 Nuclear Weapon
Doesn't look very scary. You'd think it would at least have skulls painted on it or something.
A typical B-52 alert sortie circa 1990 consisted of 4 B28 or B83 bombs of around 1.2 megatons each. We called them "crowd pleasers". Yes, we were a sick bunch. So figure each one of those guys was 60+ times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb.

Oh but we're not done yet. We also had 12 cruise missiles on the wing pylons. These were a bit smaller. A mere 150 kilotons each. Roughly 8 times as powerful as Hiroshima.

Cruise Missiles
Also not very scary looking.
A little math here, that all works out to a very conservative estimate of 360 times the destructive power of Hiroshima on one airplane. Pretty sobering. Especially when, as an aircraft commander, you just signed for that airplane.

As an aircraft commander of a SAC alert sortie, my name was on a list with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For that week only, my chain of command was: me - CINCSAC - President of the United States. In other words, lots of chances for me to screw up and the best I could hope for was to break even. "To err is human. To forgive is not SAC policy."

An alert tour was 7 days of enforced free time or "when's my next meal and when's my next nap". Some people worked on Master's degrees. There were week-long poker games (if you can't spot the sucker at the table it's probably you). Go to the gym, go to the base theater, go do a "shelf check" at the base exchange. By the last day I'd be climbing the walls and ready to get out of there.

It was also open season for practical jokes. Take a bunch of young guys and coop them up for a week - hilarity ensues. One favorite was to sneak into another crew's alert truck and turn the windshield wipers on, heater to full blast, lights and sirens on and wait for them to get in and turn the key. Once we completely disassembled one guys' room and reassembled it in the bathroom. You probably feel safer now knowing that the free world was being protected by such professionals.

Once a week you could expect them to sound the klaxon. We always called it "the horn" because if you heard the word "klaxon" three times you were supposed to respond.

We usually had some intel as to when the horn was going to be. If it went off at 2 in the afternoon, it was probably a drill. If it woke you up at 2:00 AM, well, your day's probably not off to a good start.

Found this old Air Force video of an alert start

"For Alert Force! For Alert Force! Klaxon! Klaxon! Klaxon! Message follows - Alpha, Six, Echo, Eight, Tango, X-Ray....."

You ran to the airplane. If you were out on base somewhere, you hit the lights and sirens and did your best impression of a 70's cop show. It was a license to steal.

You ran to the plane wearing whatever you were wearing. You had to come out of the plane in uniform (we kept spares on the plane) but if you were taking a shower when the horn blew, you ran out in a towel.

Brakes - set.
Battery - on.
Interphone - on.
"Stand by to start engines".
"Fire guard posted and clear".
"Start engines".

We had (slow burning) explosive cartridges loaded in our engines to enable a quick start. When you hit the start switches, they would "woosh!" and huge clouds of (toxic) black smoke would cover the alert pad. Imagine 4 bombers and 4 tankers all doing cartridge starts at the same time.

All this time the Command Post would be broadcasting the same coded message over and over "Alpha, Six, Echo, Eight, Tango, X-Ray.....I say again..."

While I was busy starting the engines, the Navs would decode the message, which would (hopefully) turn out to be an exercise. At one time, they might go so far as to taxi the airplanes "doing the elephant walk" but we would never go beyond starting the engines. It would have been hard on the planes to taxi them as heavily loaded as they were.

At some point in the exercise the Command Post would "poll" the Alert Force. You'd respond with your sortie call sign "Doom 65 - Ready". Yes, one of our call signs was "Doom". If you weren't ready, you'd better have a good reason. Everything was based on getting the planes started and potentially in the air in a certain (very short) time period.

Once the exercise was finished, we'd have to cock the airplane back on alert and then back to losing at poker or whatever else I was doing.

We had a small theater in the alert facility. Dr. Strangelove, of course, would be shown at least once during every alert tour. On the last night of alert, we would gather for "SAC hydraulic training films" (porn). Sleep well America - your Air Force is on alert.

That pretty well covers the day to day life of a SAC crew-dog. In part 2 we'll take a look at the big picture.

Funny story. The smoke alarms in my condo used to be prone to false alarms. It also sounds just like the old alert klaxon. A few years back, it woke me up in the middle of the night. I was just about running for my bomber before I figured out what it was.

Originally posted to Major Kong on Wed Feb 06, 2013 at 08:49 AM PST.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force, Central Ohio Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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