Chapter 2: Combat Ready
As graduation approached, Air Weather Service (AWS) our new parent organization asked the forty-two of us at Penn State to select three assignment locations we would most prefer. Almira and I chose Colorado, Maine, or Florida, and my first assignment was to Detachment 20, 26th Weather Squadron, Pinecastle AFB, Florida. This small base south of Orlando (before Disney World) is now used as the Orlando Jet Port.
I reported for duty on July 1, 1954, ready to put all the theory I’d learned into practice. As I had anticipated, it felt good to finally have a real job. I had a lot to learn, but there were plenty of competent teachers at Pinecastle anxious to teach me. My new commander, Major John L. Jarratt Jr., immediately put me on their rotating shift roster along side more experienced forecasters who first taught me rule number one: never tell a pilot that he can or cannot fly somewhere. Describe the weather you expect him to encounter and he will decide whether or not he wants to fly through it.
Pinecastle was a favorite stop-over for weekend warriors, so the weather station stayed busy on Sunday afternoons briefing pilots on their flights home to all points north and west. This gave me an opportunity to follow weather systems across the entire continent.
Fourteen forecasters were assigned to our weather station: five majors (this was surprising), one captain, two lieutenants (including me), one warrant officer, three master sergeants, and two lower grade NCOs. All but the youngest four of us were World War II veterans. Warrant Officer Breske was older than the rest. He told me that he once gave a weather briefing to “Wrong Way” Corrigan who came into his weather station at Mitchell Field on Long Island shortly before his controversial and illegal flight across the Atlantic in the late 1930s.
Brigadier General Keith K. Compton assumed command of the newly organized 813th Air Division the same week I arrived. During WW II General Compton had been the tactical commander of the daring B-24 bomber raid against the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
On our first visit to the officer’s club, Almira and I walked by General Compton talking at the bar with some of his staff. Just as pilots often do in movies, he was holding his hands up in front of him, simulating two airplanes in a dog-fight: “There I was at 30,000 feet . . . .” Almira and I smiled and nodded to each other. Yes Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more, we’re in the Air Force, or is this a Hollywood set?
By late August I had completed enough on-the-job training to be placed on shift by myself. On my first day alone in the station, a hurricane was approaching the Florida peninsula from the east and General Compton and Colonel Michael N. W. McCoy, Commander of the 321st Bomb Wing, walked into the station.
I had never talked to a general officer or colonel (Brass) before, but MSG Hunsaker had already given me advice on how to cope. He told me to ignore eagles or stars on uniforms, and instead imagine these senior officers standing there in their underwear. He guaranteed me that this image would help me stay cool. He was right. It worked. In fact I continued to use this imagery for the rest of my career. My only problem came after I too became a colonel, for I then had to get used to the idea that others were envisioning me standing around in my underwear.
As I walked over to greet the two of them I felt self-conscious about my shiny gold second lieutenant’s bars and decided to simply greet them and wait for questions. They studied the charts for a bit and then asked me, “How can you tell when a hurricane is getting close?”
This conversation took place three years before Sputnik and six years before the advent of satellite meteorology. Air Force Hurricane Hunter planes from Bermuda provided position reports twice a day at best, so information on the exact position and strength of these storms was often sketchy. I thought back to my lectures in tropical meteorology class and answered with certainty, “A hurricane is always preceded by cirrus clouds, sir. The cirrus will form an arc along the eastern horizon.” They nodded thoughtfully, turned back to the charts for a while and then left without further questions. I must have still felt a little insecure, for I wasn’t sure whether they really had no more questions, or wouldn’t trust a second lieutenant’s answers.
As they left, I overheard them tentatively deciding to order an evacuation for early the next morning. They decided that an evacuation would make a good training exercise even if the storm’s full fury never reached Pinecastle. The storm turned north overnight as they often do and we were not affected, but the bombers were already on their way to a safe haven at Eglin AFB near Pensacola and would return the following day.
Fallout charts and other responsibilities
In the event of a nuclear attack it would be important to know where the winds aloft will carry the radio-active debris. Using the vertical wind profile from Orlando’s upper air sounding, one of the duty forecaster’s daily tasks was to plot a fallout chart each morning. The most vulnerable area was usually shaped like a fat ice cream cone. During the spring, summer, and fall, this deadly profile covered most of Orlando to our north and west, caused by the prevailing southeasterly winds around the southwestern quadrant of the Bermuda High. Winter’s northwesterlies turned this awful cone around toward the southeast.
Major Charles C. Hurt, our new detachment commander, suggested that I do a climatological study for the station. If I did this, he would have a valid reason to give me a higher Officer Efficiency Rating (OER). Since military promotions were based on OERs, this was sufficient incentive for me.
I collected and analyzed the latest five years of hourly station temperatures and defined the shape of each month’s average diurnal temperature curve. Using today’s forecasted max and min temperatures, all intermediate hourly temperatures could be calculated by adding a certain percentage of the difference between these max and mins to the minimum temperature. For instance, if the forecasted min temperature (which usually occurs just before sunrise) was 720, and a max of 940 was forecasted for 3 p.m. the total temperature range would be 220 (940 - 720 = 220) The temperature at noon might in this case be equal to the min temp, (720), plus 80% of the 220 difference, predicting a temp of 900.
After I completed this project, we were able to give pilots more accurate temperature forecasts. The algorithm I used was developed by meteorologists at the 26th Weather Squadron Scientific Services Section.
Pinecastle was initially established as an Air Force Training Command base but had recently been “SACumcised” – turned over to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). Suddenly, all those who had been teaching student SAC crew members how to fly B-47 Bombers were now a part of SAC themselves, and in 1954 SAC was at war – the Cold War.
According to my friend, retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hassett, a 321st bomber pilot at the time, “Those B-47s we inherited from the Training Command were pretty “tired” after several years of touch and go landings. Landings which were not always comfortable. The radar sets were a mess.”
In the 1950’s the US Air Force had a deadly serious mission. In a very real sense, the fate of all mankind rested on its success. Simply stated, the job of SAC was to deter a nuclear attack by our Cold War Soviet adversary. As Frank says, “We were a saber to be rattled.”
In those days before the advent of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), that deterrence depended on two things. The first was our ability to intercept and destroy incoming Soviet bombers. The second was to insure that any attack would be suicidal for the USSR because our own bombers would simultaneously rain nuclear ruin on the Soviet Union in reprisal for such an attack. This guaranteed mutual suicide was a deadly game played out in large part over the wild expanses of the Arctic, the Bering Sea, and the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
To carry out that mission, the Air Force had developed appropriate weapons: jet fighter-interceptors assigned to the Air Defense Command plus SAC’s strategic bombers. Both of these commands superbly trained their crews and the supporting personnel who together stood alert every hour of every day. A few crews from each squadron were always on alert duty, standing by to run out to their aircraft and fly off, armed for nuclear war.
The one variable that the best equipment, the best training, the best preparation could not eliminate was as old as the earth itself. The Weather. There was no better place for me to begin practicing my new trade than Pinecastle. My clients were professionals with challenging requirements which would demand my best efforts.
When I arrived, the first order of business for everyone at Pinecastle was to make the 321st Bomb Wing "Combat Ready." This would take time and require a lot of hard work: training, training, and more training. It meant acquiring sufficient nuclear-war-making skills to meet all of SAC’s Standardization Board requirements developed since WW II, mostly under the demanding leadership of SAC’s fabled General Curtis E. LeMay.
The highest level of professional competency was demanded of every SAC Bomb Wing before it was entrusted with nuclear weapons and invited to stand watch with their brethren as part of our country’s nuclear deterrent force, a force which guaranteed the annihilation of any power insane enough to launch such an attack on the U.S.. In the back of all of our minds was an unspoken understanding that such annihilation would be mutual. Colonel McCoy had been brought over from McDill AFB at Tampa to lead the way for the 321st.
The mission of the base weather station was to support their efforts. Every morning we briefed the Wing Commander and his staff on weather conditions that would impact the wing’s training schedule, and all day long and into the night briefed the weather to 321st air crews before every flight. Our briefings covered:
1. Weather at take-off:
a. Surface wind velocity and direction, plus runway temperature and humidity. These parameters were needed to compute how much runway would be required for take-off at a given gross weight.
b. Runway cloud ceiling and visibility.
2. Flight level winds for navigation.
3. High level clouds that might interfere with celestial navigation.
4. Severe weather enroute.
While most mid-latitude thunderstorms are often less than 40,000 foot tall (the normal cruise altitude of a B-47), Florida thunderstorms often exceed 50,000 feet. On a few hot summer days bomber crews returned home and landed to tell me that, “You can’t get out of Florida today.” They were headed north to do radar bomb runs on targets in the midwest but ran into a line of severe thunderheads stretching from Cross City on the north Gulf Coast clear across Florida to Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast. At maximum weight, B-47s had a narrow range of air speeds at high altitudes. Frank Hassett says that “It was called coffin corner. Low speed stall and high speed buffet could be close to the same airspeed for a given gross weight and altitude.” Severe or even moderate turbulence inside a fully developed thunderstorm cell slowed a plane down and it would stall, which was no fun, so few B-47 crews risked flying through fully developed Florida thunderstorms at high altitudes on purpose.
5. Weather at landing, including cloud bases, runway visibility,
precipitation, and surface winds.
6. Clouds and turbulence at in-flight refueling areas.
7. Icing conditions on climb-out or descent. (Temperatures at B-47
cruise altitude are too cold for icing.)
8. Weather conditions at alternate landing fields in case Pinecastle
weather was below minimums when they returned.
We also maintained a “Met Watch,” monitoring flights and advising airborne crews of unforecasted weather that posed a hazard.
Each time the 321st flew a SAC evaluation mission, their Wing Weather Officer, always an experienced officer forecaster, would deliver a briefing to the entire wing at once. By early fall the 321st was declared combat ready, and such large missions would now occur more frequently.
Central Florida is checkered with lakes and wetlands – ample sources of moisture to increase the humidity and encourage fog formation, especially overnight. After midnight, fog patches would occasionally drift across Pinecastle’s runways, briefly lowering visibility. Aircraft cannot land when runway visibility is less than posted minimums for the field.
Also, jets burn fuel faster at low altitudes, so when a bomber pilot commits to a “jet penetration” (descent and landing) he has to be sure that he could abort his landing, climb to altitude again and still have enough fuel left to fly to his alternate air field.
About two o’clock one morning I received a call on our direct pilot-to-forecaster radio channel from a B-47 pilot asking whether he could descend and land safely. He didn’t have enough fuel to make it to his alternate landing field, McDill AFB, ninety miles away at Tampa if he descended and found that we were fogged in.
This kind of question really puts forecasters on the spot. Our APQ-13 radar was not designed for weather and couldn’t “see” these small fog patches but “I don’t know” is never an acceptable answer. Like it or not, weather forecasters are paid to stick their necks out, so I gave him my forecast: “Come on down, you can make it.” He landed with ten miles of visibility. His odds were much better than 100 to 1.
First major responsibility
U.S. commitments to NATO in the ‘50s required that we maintain a Strategic Air Force nuclear presence in the European-North African theater at all times. Combat ready status meant taking your turn on what were called SAC Rotations. In early December of 1954 the 321st was deployed to England for their first ninety-day rotation.
Ten little Indians standing in a row. One fell down and then there were nine. Seven experienced forecasters standing in a row (ahead of me in both rank and experience), seven fell by the wayside and there I go. Major Jarratt was our commander and immune from such duties. Major Hal Minnick was to go to Lakenheath with the bombers. First Lieutenant Castor Mendez-Vigo was already in England with another Bomb Wing, and I can’t remember the reasons the other three majors and captain had for stepping aside.
Before I knew what was happening, I was on my way to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire as Weather Liaison Officer to the 321st Air Refueling Squadron (ARS). As a neophyte weather forecaster, dealing with notorious English weather was going to be a challenge, but Air Force forecasters stationed at Brize Norton would help keep me out of trouble.
Fill ‘er up
In the event of the “real thing,” SAC bombers would require at least one mid-air refueling to reach their targets thousands of miles away. An ARS tanker was a flying gas station with a long rigid “gas hose” (a hollow boom) hanging underneath the aircraft. The tankers’ fuselages were filled with large fuel tanks. Using small maneuverable wings mounted on the end of the boom, a specially trained tanker crew member laid on his stomach in the rear of the plane, and, while looking down through a large window, “flew” the boom into an opening in the front end of the bomber as it approached the tanker from behind and underneath. Once a solid connection was made, the refueling began and the tanker would “fill ‘er up.”
The patience and dexterity required of both the boom operator and pilot for this dangerous transfer is an excellent example of the demands placed on SAC air crews to become combat ready. Our job was to help the tanker and bomber avoid attempting such risky, close-quartered maneuvers in either clouds or turbulent air.
The 321st ARS flew KC-97s (the military version of the, by now, ancient four-propped commercial Stratocruiser) and was stationed at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, where I joined them in early December 1954.
At least I was no longer a “shavetail” (2nd lieutenant), but now wore the silver bars of a first lieutenant. This would be my first real-world experience in a position of major responsibility. It was an exciting time in my young life, and I felt ready and knew I would do my best. After all, I couldn’t disappoint Mom.
Lieutenant Colonel Donald A. Gaylord, commander of the tanker squadron, was a fine gentleman and he and his staff made me feel welcome – especially the squadron operations officer, Major Bruce Abraham, who would become my closest day-to-day contact and an appreciative audience.
My first task at Maxwell was to deliver a formal weather briefing three days before our departure for the UK. The briefing was held in the base theater. Surprisingly, I was not nervous standing on the stage in front of such a large audience.
The day before my briefing a strong cold front had pushed through Montgomery leaving clear skies and below freezing temperatures. This situation afforded me a sure-fire forecast: “Warming with increased cloudiness.” Basically this was all I had to say, because in 1954 a three day forecast was still a stretch of the imagination, but I elaborated a bit. Major Abraham thanked me for my good job.
By the time we left Maxwell, it was again hot and humid. Another burst of cold air was approaching from the northwest and a line of severe thunderstorms would develop as the front moved across Alabama eastward to the Georgia coast. The first leg of our sojourn was from Maxwell to Bermuda. I left with the first wave of aircraft after briefing them to expect severe thunderstorms until we were out over the Atlantic. The next two flights would encounter these same storms out over open water. We had a bumpy ride, but radar helped us avoid most of the stronger cells.
Safely on Bermuda, I anxiously waited for the second and third waves to land. The third wave flew through some large hail and one plane suffered some dents in its nose. If I doubted it before, I now knew that I was engaged in very serious business. It was exciting to brief a crew on severe weather and then fly through it with them.
The next morning we flew on to Lajes Field in the Azores where we again RONed (remained overnight), and the next morning flew our last leg north to Jolly Old England. As we neared the coast, air traffic controllers at Lands End on the southwest tip of England radioed a welcome to us Yanks. They knew who we were and why we were there. Their warm welcome established a feeling within us of camaraderie with our hosts.
RAF Brize Norton
I was billeted in the Bachelors Officers’ Quarters (BOQ) behind the Officers’ Club and assigned a Batman (an RAF Officer’s valet). This was a new perk for the young me. My man had served at Brize during WW II and stayed on to now serve us Yanks. Every morning newly polished shoes awaited me at the foot of my bed – a bed I never had to make.
As soon as we were settled in, Colonel Gaylord assembled us in the main O’Club lounge. He informed us that we were required to wear our uniforms in the club at all times. This announcement brought some groans, but as I mentioned earlier – SAC was at war, and we would dress accordingly.
Colonel Gaylord had been stationed in England during WW II and was familiar with English culture, customs, and mores, while this was the first visit for most of the rest of us. He delivered his final point with firmness, saying that some of the more randy among us might feel like kids let loose in a candy store who could take any candy they happen to see. What he meant was that we would find young British women less sexually reserved than their American sisters. He warned us sternly, however, that if any Mum came to him with complaints that one of his officers was “oversexed, overpaid, and over here,” said officer would be disciplined and shipped back home immediately. From the tone of his voice, no one doubted his conviction.
Frank Hassett and the 321st bombers were at RAF Lakenheath across the island, close to the North Sea coast.
The Lord Mayor’s reception
During our first weekend at Brize, the Lord Mayor of nearby Oxford extended an invitation to the officers of the 321st Air Refueling Squadron to a sherry reception at the Town Hall. This event would be a fascinating introduction to British gentry and polite society.
The Mayor’s Steward stood at the top of a long, wide flight of marble steps waiting to announce each of us in his very large voice to the Lord Mayor and his Lady standing some distance behind. I self-consciously ascended the steps and, with my Philadelphia accent, gave my name and rank to the steward: Lieutenant Sharp. Smiling back at me, he responded “I cawn’t say it that way,” then promptly standing erect bellowed “Leftenant Shop.” I walked over and shook hands with the Lord Mayor and his Lady, taking note of their long robes and the Mayor’s impressive chain of office.
As soon as I entered the large reception hall behind the Mayor, a gentleman came over to me smiling, introduced himself and promptly escorted me to a circle of his friends and introduced me around. I found each person I met to be skilled in polite conversation with a well-honed but genuine sincerity that made one feel both welcome and important. After a decent interval, someone else took my arm and said that there was someone they wanted me to meet and I was then whisked over to another small gathering and integrated into their conversation.
I began to realize that by the end of the evening I would be waltzed around the entire auditorium in this manner, and that neither my hosts nor I would ever be left standing awkwardly with nothing left to say. It was a smooth, well rehearsed, polite, and quite comfortable time-honored ceremony. I was charmed by the process and the quality of our conversations.
Of course by now I can’t remember anything we talked about except for a conversation at my last stop on this merry-go-round in a group focused on a distinguished older gray-haired gentleman with a large drooping mustache, wearing an old-fashioned V-shaped collar. He reminded me of Mr. Chips.
After some chitchat someone asked him how he enjoyed his new position. I listened for a while but couldn’t quite make out what this new position was, so I leaned over and quietly inquired from a woman standing next to me. She whispered back to me, “Why Mr. Smith (By now I can’t recall his real name) is the new Vice Chancellor of Oxford.” I had been chatting with the CEO of Oxford University! The four sherries I already consumed hadn’t dulled my senses enough to not realize that this was indeed an honor. My informer further explained that the position of Chancellor at the time was an honorary position held by Lord Louis Mountbatten, and that Mr. Smith was the real head of this ancient English University. My son Douglass, two years old at the time, would one day attend Oxford . . . If I had only known!
I had been introduced as the squadron’s meteorological officer and Mr. Smith turned the conversation to the weather. A strong storm passed through Oxfordshire the previous evening and Mr. Smith described how the wind whistled down his chimney and blew cold drafts through his house. I nodded knowingly and respectfully limited my remarks; at least I hope I did. A polite announcement ended the festivities, and after some brief welcoming words from the Lord Mayor we were bussed back to the base, eager to now defend England and her Queen.
SAC tanker squadrons existed to serve their customers – SAC’s manned bomber force. Since being declared Combat Ready did not mean the end of training, my own customers also faced a busy schedule, dictated by the needs of the 321st’s B-47s.
Every weekday morning Major Abraham, some other staff officers and I gathered informally around a long table. I began each meeting with a weather briefing and left before the staff began planning their training missions for the next few days. The weather during that December and early January had been stormy with above normal snowfall amounts, and by mid-January, squadron training had fallen well behind schedule.
One morning after I again forecasted snow, my audience groaned. I paused for a bit and looked around the room; everyone looked discouraged, but I decided to be completely honest and give them even more bad news. That morning the London Times reported that the British Met Office expected this harsh winter weather to continue indefinitely. Major Abraham, who had been sitting with his head in his hands, raised up and asked “Jack, are you actually briefing us from the daily newspaper?” I raised my eyebrows, shrugged my shoulders, and admitted that “Well, yes sir. I guess I am.” Major Abraham began to laugh loudly and the rest of the staff caught the humor and joined in. I stood there grinning sheepishly and watched them – kind of surprised, but then thought to myself that “Well I’m glad I can at least provide comic relief.” It took a little while before we could continue with our business. My gaffe became a running joke for the rest of our tour.
Major Rea does the right thing
A brand new lieutenant recently assigned to the base weather station didn’t belong in weather forecasting nor in the Air Force. He lacked the self-confidence to make even the simplest decision. After only a couple of months on this his first duty assignment, he was already experiencing stomach problems. If he stayed on active duty much longer, he would certainly develop ulcers and un the meanwhile, he was an albatross around Detachment Commander Major William R. Rea’s neck. Rea could not allow him to work a shift by himself.
One morning as I prepared my briefing in the weather station I watched the lieutenant answer the phone. It was a request for a simple forecast: runway temperature three hours from now. But instead of giving an answer, he asked the other forecaster on duty for his opinion.
I was impressed when Major Rea began administrative action to separate the young fellow from the Air Force, and within a few weeks the square peg was once again a civilian. Rea did the right think: a favor to the lieutenant and the Air Force. His discharge was mutually agreeable and would be under honorable conditions.
Launch, ready for war
Every combat ready SAC unit was subject at any time to unannounced launches in full combat configuration, rehearsing for the gruesome possibility that one day it might be for real. On one such drill I gave the squadron a weather briefing and returned quickly to the weather station to monitor their take-off. All of the tankers had their engines running, waiting for the OK for them to taxi out and take off when, suddenly, their tactical commander called me on the pilot-to-forecaster radio channel and demanded angrily, “Jack are you there? What the hell’s going on? The tower just called and said the field is closed; visibility’s below minimum. Hell, I can see ten miles in any direction.”
I was as surprised as he was and asked him to stand-by while I checked. As I laid the mike down, the weather observer on duty ambled nonchalantly back into the station. I went over to him and explained as calmly as I could what he had just done; he had stopped a war! When I asked him why, he took me outside and pointed in the direction of a church a quarter mile away. Ground fog obscured his “official” marker –but the fog was very shallow. It didn’t even reach up to the KC-97’s cockpit windows. I reasoned with this young Kentucky farm boy to please go out and look up and down the runway and see that there was plenty of visibility – and for God’s sake, please use some other marker and open up the field so my guys can go do their thing!
Forecasters are discouraged from arguing with their weather observer and it’s against military regulations to order them to change an observation, otherwise, forecasters, usually of higher rank, could coerce an observer to “see” weather conditions that would verify previous forecasts and thus artificially inflate the forecaster’s verification score. This time he went along with my urging and raised the visibility to one mile. I apologized to the upset major for the delay, and a long string of KC-97’s promptly taxied out and took off to protect the free world.
By 1956 this incident plus others prompted AWS to establish ‘representative observational sites.’ Weather observers were moved out onto the airfield from where their observations would more closely match the weather that pilots actually encountered during their take-offs and landings. Small buildings were constructed at each end of the runway and observers would shuttle back and forth whenever the wind shifted insuring that they always made their observation close to the point of landing.
This program, however, created another problem. By 1955 a number of women had already been trained as weather observers, and AWS now had to deal with sex in the workplace. Observation sites were cozy warm little shacks, isolated enough for such activities, especially at night. Decades later the Navy would have to deal with similar problems when females were finally assigned aboard Naval vessels. In fact, all of the armed services would have problems dealing with sexual harassment and worst: Tail Hook, Army basic training. As of this writing, even though females have by now fired missiles in warfare and taken as prisoners of war (Desert storm), there still remains a lot of old offensive habits and even criminal behavior to overcome in this matter.
Unintentional weather modification
Six tankers flew off one evening to refuel their bombers over Ireland. I briefed the crews to expect solid clouds up to about 20,000 feet with clear skies above.
When they arrived at their designated refueling area they were, as forecasted, in the clear just above the clouds. When they returned to Brize I heard their amusing story. They arrived a little early at the rendezvous point and had to loiter for awhile, awaiting their customers to arrive. As they circled, their condensation trails (contrails) formed more clouds and they were forced to climb higher in order to stay in the clear. By the time the bombers arrived, the tankers were close to the KC-97’s operational ceiling at its fully loaded weight and were having trouble keeping their chins above the clouds. But when the bombers finally arrived and they all flew off together in a straight line, they were again in the clear with room to spare and hooked up safely. The tankers also began to lightened up as they transferred fuel and had no further trouble holding altitude. How often do we cause our own problems - in the air or on the ground?
It promised to be a long lonely winter, especially over the holidays. Like most of the others, I spent most nights at the Club – in uniform of course. We drank, played a lot of [English] darts, drank, played chess, and drank. I found a dart partner, Lieutenant Kennedy from Philadelphia, my home town, and we won a lot of games together. The club held a tournament every weekend and Jim and I were usually contenders.
Each week a forty-ounce bottle of Canadian Club whiskey was awarded to the individual player who posted that week’s highest score for one turn: three-darts. I won twice during our thirteen week stay.
Most of the time we played partners, but each evening the first two players to enter the bar would just begin playing. New arrivals found a partner and wrote their names at the bottom of a list of challengers on a chalk board. After each game, the partners at the top of the list challenged the winners. Losers bought a round of drinks for the winners. If you and your partner were on a streak, you could play all evening – provided you could still stand up. I found that I played better after one or two drinks. After three I began stashing my winnings on the window sill behind the slot machines.
Over Christmas a very large and gaily decorated tree adorned the club lobby. It meant nothing to me. In order to avoid deeper loneliness, I ignored it. On New Year’s Eve I joined a group of my new friends standing and talking beside the tree, and as we stood there, one fellow (I’ll call him Pat) drank six or more martinis in front of the rest of us while we sipped one or two. An hour before midnight, Major Abraham came down from his room and joined us. By then Pat was sloshing gin all over his shoes. Bruce looked at him and groaned “Oh No!,” turned his head to the side, shaking it in disgust.
Pat was scheduled for Airdrome-Officer duty at midnight and was by now drunk as a skunk, but was still aware enough, although barely, to realize what Major Abraham was thinking and tried to reassure his boss that he was OK, but Bruce ordered him out of his sight, to go to bed immediately. A couple of the other guys helped the still mumbling Pat up to his room. Major Abraham took the duty himself; a major sacrifice on New Year’s Eve thousands of miles away from his family. He couldn’t drink a drop to help him blank out his loneliness.
My pay-off for this whole assignment came one evening in early February. I had gone over to the club and was walking down the hall on my way to the bar and the dart board when Major Abraham caught up with me. With his usual smile, he gave me a solid pat on the back and said “Jack, I want you to know how much we appreciate the great job you’re doing for us.” I felt ten feet tall. I liked that man from the beginning. Looking back, I just wish I had thought to ask him to send a note to Mom.
March 5th finally came and we packed up and winged our way home; another SAC unit was already crossing the Atlantic to replace us. Next year we would stand watch again, but for now – home to my dear wife, and the kids!
England would have been much more fun if Almira had been there with me. Soon after I returned home she and I agreed to make the Air Force my career and I applied for a commission in the regular Air Force. Almira’s life would be affected as much as mine, so it was only fair that we make the decision together. One of our motivations was the possibility that one day we would get to visit England together. My application was accepted and twelve years later the whole family would be stationed in England for a wonderful three year tour.
Wing Weather Officer
When I arrived home at Pinecastle in March of 1955 I was put back on rotating shift, but later that year was named permanent Wing Weather Officer for the 321st Bomb Wing. I would brief Colonel McCoy every morning and conduct all of the out-of-station weather briefings for their combined training missions.
After briefing six crew for an eight hour mission to the upper mid-west and return one afternoon, I went home, and after dinner took the family to a drive-in theater. Unlike shift work, where I could brief the forecaster who relieved me and go home without any further responsibilities, as Colonel McCoy’s Staff Weather Officer I now retained full responsibility for these missions until they were completed. Feeling some anxiety about the possibility of low clouds when the planes returned around midnight, I kept a watchful eye to the sky and opened the car door every now and then, leaned out and looked skyward, hoping to still see a starry sky above.
About an hour into the main feature, low stratus clouds began rolling in, so I drove Almira and the kids back home and returned to the base to sweat out the rest of their flight. As it turned out, while low clouds were still present when the planes landed, both the ceiling and visibility were above minimums and no one had to be diverted to an alternate landing field. Such incidents were typical consequences of this increased responsibility. I had already dealt with this on my deployment to Brize, so such inconveniences were no surprise.
A badly busted forecast
Sometime during the winter of 1955-56, the 321st was directed to fly a complicated mission that included two refuelings. Their flight path was to take them north to a refueling area over Maine. From there they were to fly to a second refueling area close to Casablanca, and then turn north to France to make a simulated radar bomb run, finally landing at Ben Guerir AB, Morocco.
Weather forecasts for such long flights came from AWS’s Global Weather Central that was co-located with Headquarters SAC at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. At the time, Global alone had the necessary tools to provide the best possible forecasts for such long flights. Global’s forecast arrived at the weather station via teletype machine.
I briefed Global’s forecast to my crews and, before beginning, gave each pilot and navigator a weather flimsy: a folder containing copies of wind charts, refueling area forecasts, a vertical cross-section of their flight path depicting enroute clouds and other “sensible” weather elements, plus landing forecasts for Ben Guerir and alternate landing fields.
Global’s forecast of weather in the first refueling area over Maine busted badly. A deep low pressure system moved off the New England coast as forecasted but then stalled. While it continued to sit in one spot churning up the ocean, the associated frontal boundaries wrapped themselves completely around the low’s center in a counter-clockwise direction, finally coming ashore along the Maine Coast from the east with all its fury. One of the bomber waves met with horrible weather conditions: multiple cloud decks with imbedded showers and only narrow clear layers between the cloud decks. There was also light, to occasionally moderate turbulence, which made refueling especially dangerous.
Late that night, three or four bombers were forced to return to Pinecastle. Their wave was unable to connect with the tankers before reaching the northern edge of their reserved refueling area, so they decided to turn around and fly back south and try again. The next wave of bombers and tankers caught up with them and came flying by heading in the opposite direction: north. Understandably, it frightened the crews out of their wits. Somehow there were no mid-air collisions. The sight of other aircraft bouncing up and down above or below you – flying in the opposite direction – all concentrating on hooking up in turbulent air must have been terrifying.
The entire mission ended in shambles. 321st bombers were scattered from Florida all the way to North Africa. Those who took on little or no fuel over Maine returned to Pinecastle. The rest flew on, but some of these hadn’t on-loaded enough fuel to get to their second refueling area over Casablanca and were forced to land in the Azores. The rest made it all the way.
Frank Hassett’s flight refueled over Maine without incident. The Casablanca refueling was more chancy for him. According to Frank, “The tankers were at a higher altitude than briefed and we didn’t see them until someone got their “head out” and looked up, and there they were. It was a “fire drill” for a while, and I remember refueling in a fairly tight circle.” Frank also added that “It was a long flight: fifteen hours. We were given two pills to take at a certain point. I’m sure it was Dexedrine. It kept us awake during the flight, but we were so wired after landing that we couldn’t sleep. I think that program had a short life.”
I felt terrible about the whole mission, and thanked my good fortune no one was killed. Careers have been ruined by busted forecasts like this one that lead to serious accidents and death. I heard that this had already happened to one of my Penn State classmates.
A weather briefing to nowhere in particular
In November 1955 some of my old friends from the 321st ARS flew a KC-97 tanker down to Pinecastle to transport a SAC Command and Control Team to Incirlik AB near Adana, Turkey, for a ten day exercise. I was a member of the team. In Turkey I had little to do because we were there simply to transmit mock strike reports and aircraft movement messages, simulating a war emergency. Since I had no “need to know” anything about SAC’s Emergency War Plan (EWP), I wasn’t privy to the messages and provided little input.
I did learn something in Incerlik I wasn’t supposed to know. While killing time at base weather one day talking to Ken, a lieutenant forecaster stationed there, a pilot came in for a weather briefing and I was told to wait outside until they finished. After they finished I went back inside and found Ken chuckling to himself. He explained that he had just given a weather briefing for no flight-path in particular – to no place in particular. The pilot’s destination was classified and Ken wasn’t supposed to know where he was headed - except Ken already knew.
Of course, Ken had to go along with the charade and described the weather conditions across the entire eastern Mediterranean as he had done a number of times before, but Ken knew that the guy was actually headed to a secret missile base about 450 miles to the east of Incirlik very close to the Russian border. No one except those with a “need to know” were supposed to know the site even existed, but it seemed that everyone at Incirlik knew. I never found out where the place was located and didn’t really care, but I did enjoy the humor.
By April of 1956 the 321st was ready for their next SAC Rotation, this time to Sidi Slimane AB, Morocco. Lieutenant Norm Clark and I would accompany the bombers. I suppose two lieutenants equaled one major.
The 19th Bomb Wing (SAC) was stationed at Pinecastle while their new permanent base at Plattsburg, New York, was under construction. My colleague Lieutenant Castor Mendez-Vigo had been in Morocco since January supporting the 19th and would return to Florida soon after the 321st relieved them. The night before Cas left Sidi, he and I dined together at the O’Club, and after eating, we retired to a small side-room decorated in Moroccan leather and brass where we reminisced about our still brief Air Force careers and how we had prepared for them. Cas is a Cuban-American from Tampa and like many children growing up there in the 1930s couldn’t speak English when he first went to school. Both of his parents worked in a cigar factory. During high school Cas worked in a men’s clothing store to earn money for college. He later attended the University of Florida at Gainesville where he had a part time job trimming hedges and cutting grass.
Cas said that at the University of Florida he was “just another Spic from Ybor City.” As he related some of his experiences, his face showed the pain he still felt from the ethnic prejudice of that era. His presence was ignored by young coeds inside the dormitory whenever he trimmed hedges outside their windows. They would undress as if he weren’t there: he was transparent, a cellophane man. I’ve never forgotten the emotion Cas showed that evening. This was my first conversation about prejudice with someone who had actually experienced it.
As the hour grew late I asked him – perhaps even trying to put words into his mouth – “But surely Cas, it was all worth it, wasn’t it?” He looked back at me, shaking his head as he answered slowly, “I’m not sure, Jack. I’m really not sure.” I recently asked this same question of my friend, now 67 years old, and was relieved to hear him now say that it was, indeed, well worth it. Cas is too positive a person to have held on to even these deep hurts that long. Our conversation may have even helped his healing. Cas flew home the next day.
Aircraft carriers or bombers
April weather in Morocco is showery, but by May it usually dries out, however coastal stratus can still spread inland at night bringing low ceilings and visibility to Sidi Slimane. Except for this challenge, forecasting in Morocco was boring compared to my challenge with English weather the previous year, in fact the whole trip was rather uneventful except for one episode.
This, my most interesting experience, began as a deep dark secret that didn’t even have an official security classification pinned to it. Norm and I were told that the wing wanted to fly a few weather reconnaissance missions around the Mediterranean for our benefit. This offer seemed strange, but we thanked them and every morning for about ten days we briefed a crew on a zigzag track around the Mediterranean Sea to our north. The crews seemed to listen just a bit too closely to our briefings, and this didn’t make sense either, until we eventually heard through the grapevine what was really going on.
The Department of Defense (DoD) was preparing their military budget proposal for the up-coming fiscal year, and there was currently strong competition between the Navy and Air Force over how much money would be asked of Congress for aircraft carriers versus bombers. From somewhere high up in the Air Force chain of command a request had been sent to the 321st to find the Navy’s Sixth Fleet cruising in the Mediterranean and make simulated radar bomb runs against it. Air Force thought they could provide sufficient evidence that an aircraft carrier task force was now too vulnerable to nuclear weapons, and that money would be better spent building more B-52s.
Suddenly all of this unsolicited effort on our behalf made sense. Their plan sounded good on paper, but, fortunately or unfortunately, it didn’t work. My flier friends told me that from 40,000 feet it was impossible to tell by radar the difference between the Navy’s Sixth Fleet and an Italian fishing fleet. Nobody advised me officially of the final conclusions, so I can only speculate.
I can recall a joke on the same issue that circulated about this time. It seems that some Navy Admirals were defending the merits of their aircraft carriers against an Air Force General who argued that carriers took too long to get to a trouble spot. For instance, if there were a crisis in the Mediterranean it would take a carrier nine days to arrive from Norfolk. One of the admirals quipped back, “Well, if Congress gives us three carriers we could make it in three days!”
Dealing with boredom
I immersed myself into all forms of athletics while at Sidi in order to keep my attention off the boredom and loneliness. At the officer’s club swimming pool I taught myself a few dives that I hadn’t had the nerve to try when I was younger. At pool-side, I can still recall the then risqué bathing suits worn by French officer’s wives. They were cut very high up on their thighs. By now, of course, this style is commonplace even in our own country. I also played catcher on the weather detachment’s intra-mural softball team.
One day while driving to the weather station I noticed a few men pole-vaulting and quickly pulled my Jeep over to find out what was going on. Two NCOs assigned to the base told me that they were practicing for a track meet scheduled in a few weeks in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Teams from Air Force bases around the Mediterranean would participate. I had pole vaulted in high school nine years earlier and decided to join the team if Norm would agree to cover for me. He agreed and I began relearning this long dormant skill.
A few weeks later I went to Rabat and won first place. The intervening years of gymnastics since my last track meet had given me added upper arms and shoulder strength; in fact my winning height of 11’ 6” was six inches higher than my high school best. After winning at this height, I decided to try clearing 12’. By then it had begun to drizzle a bit so I had to wipe my pole dry before I began my approach run. When I planted the pole and began my pull up, my hands slid back down the already wet tape and scared me to death. So I left my new record stand without another attempt.
It felt good to get away from the base for a couple of days.
The track coach invited me to the European Championships in London the following week but I declined. I had already taken advantage of Norm’s good graces and felt that I had better stay and work.
By the first week in July we were all anxious to return home. I was asked to fly to the Azores ahead of the bombers to prepare weather briefings from there to Pinecastle. And so I had to stay at Lajes AB until the last bomber passed through. It was unusually hot that week, and the high temperatures and humidity made it difficult for a fully loaded B-47 to take-off on their relatively short runway. From a position on top of an overlooking hill I watched each plane take off, and every one seemed to use up the last inch of available runway. The last bomber finally departed and so did I: aboard a slow flying C-124, the Flying Boxcar. I was the last person to arrive home. I had missed Almira very much during those three months, but unlike England, I had no desire to take her back to see Morocco.
Suez and Budapest
In October of 1956 the Soviets decided that Wladyslaw Gomulka, a Polish communist who had been spearheading Polish demands for more independence from Moscow, would become the next leader of the Polish Communist government. According to Levering, “these developments weakened Soviet influence there and set an example that other satellite nations emulated.”
On October 23, students in Budapest, Hungary, took to the streets in support of another reform communist. Imre Nagy, their leader, also hoped to rid his country of its repressive Stalinist political system, and for a second time, the Soviets decided to allow a significant reform within their sphere of influence.
A few days later, on October 29, Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula. A week after this, in a coordinated move, English and French forces invaded Egypt at Port Said, the northern entry point of the Suez Canal. In retaliation, Egypt quickly sank 40 ships, blocking the canal. This open warfare was the culmination of a cascade of Cold War diplomatic strategies intended by the west to weaken Soviet influence in the Near East.
Earlier that year, in an effort to persuade Egypt’s President Nasser to change his mind about a recent agreement to exchange Egyptian wool for Czechoslovakian weapons, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles promised American and British help for Nasser to finance construction of his planned Aswan High Dam.
Nasser went through with his deal with the Czechs in July and the United States and England promptly responded by withdrawing their earlier offers of financial assistance. Almost immediately, on July 26, Egypt seized the Suez Canal, planning to use the income from the canal to finance the project alone.
Shortly after the Anglo-French hostilities against Egypt began in the fall. In a move entirely separate from the Suez Crisis, Khrushchev ordered Soviet troops into Hungary to crush a growing rebellion there. By Soviet standards, Nagy’s reform government had gone too far: they had already decided to leave the Warsaw Pact and allow the formation of opposition parties. On the streets of Budapest, Soviet tanks quickly restored a Soviet-style order, and Nagy was executed later as a “counter-revolutionary.”
The situation was now critical, and the world anxiously awaited the next reaction from both super powers.
Levering writes that “When in early November  Khrushchev threatened a nuclear attack on England and France if they refused to leave Egypt, Eisenhower placed the Strategic Air Command on full alert and told an aide that he was ready, if Western Europe was attacked, to hit Russia “with everything in the bucket.” Such threats and counter-threats, backed by unprecedented nuclear capabilities on both sides were not uncommon during this second dangerous phase of the Cold War; Korea being the first dangerous phase.
The 321st Bomb Wing was immediately ordered to deploy back to North Africa fully armed with their nuclear weapons. When I arrived at the wing for my weather briefing that fateful evening, the crews were already assembled, and there was a noticeably higher than normal level of anxiety present in the room. The reality of what we were all about had bubbled up to the surface in all of our minds. On my part, I recognized that these men could be on their way this time to actually drop nuclear weapons somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Before today it had only been a game. Certainly we had all been training for such a possibility, it had seemed we had no choice, but in our hearts we always hoped that deterrence would work.
As I walked down the aisle and passed out my weather flimsies, one of the pilots looked up at me with an expression on his face I shall never forget. He had a lot more on his mind than I did: his Emergency War Plan mixed with his concern over the fate of his family and himself. I knew, that he knew, that refuelers would not be available to bring him back home again if he were really going to war. All of a sudden he was thrust into a grim understanding of what his ultimate fate might be. He looked up at me and with a feigned smile and uncertain voice asked jokingly, “Hey Jack, would you like to change jobs with me? Heh. Heh. Heh.” I played the game, going along with his pretense of humor. Smiling back, I answered simply “No thanks.”
No bombs were dropped, and within a month the United Nations arranged a truce, and Israeli, French, and British forces soon withdrew. By the following March the sunken vessels were removed and the Suez Canal was reopened. The west decided to accept Hungary’s fate: mutual nuclear suicide would solve nothing.
These events may have helped inspire Mountbatten to say during an address in Strasbourg, France in May 1979: “As a military man who has given half a century to active service I say in all sincerity that the nuclear arms race has no military purpose. Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. Their existence only adds to our peril because of the illusions which they generate.” However, they can, and in this instance, did deter.
McCoy Air Force Base
SAC held their annual bombing competitions each fall and Pinecastle was selected as host for 1957. The best crews from each SAC B-47 and B-52 wing would gather there for their annual shoot-out in early October. I had already received permanent change of station (PCS) orders and would be gone by then, but helped with preparations at the weather station that began many months before the event.
The RAF sent one of their delta-winged (triangular shaped) Vulcan bombers to the competition and the British unit commander came along on a courtesy visit. He would never return to England. Colonel McCoy invited this honored guest along on a flight to demonstrate a new SAC bombing technique for him.
In response to the Soviet’s increased ability to shoot down high-flying bombers, SAC was developing low-level penetration techniques. In order to avoid radar detection, bomber crews were being taught to approach their targets below radar surveillance, at tree-top level, and at the last moment nose-up sharply, releasing their weapon straight up into the sky, then complete an Immelman turn (half a loop followed by a half-roll heading back in the opposite direction) heading away from their target. Using the time it took for the weapon to slow down, stop, and then drop back down and detonate, a bomber would be far enough away to escape incineration. The shock wave would certainly catch up with them, but this held less risk than penetrating at high altitudes where improved USSR defense systems currently focused.
Unfortunately, SAC would soon sadly learn that the wings on B-47s were not designed to withstand such violent maneuvers in denser air close to the ground. The wings on Colonel McCoy’s B-47 buckled. McCoy, his Vice Commander John Livingston, and wing navigator Vern Stuff, plus the visiting RAF Group Captain John Woodroffe were all killed in a fiery crash north of Orlando.
I had left for my new assignment before this happened, but read about it in a Philadelphia paper. Colonel McCoy was given credit for somehow avoiding hitting a school and is still a hero in the eyes of the citizens of Orlando. Pinecastle was subsequently renamed McCoy Air Force Base.
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