Chapter 3: Pole Vaulting
The high ground
From earliest times the military intelligence gathering advantage of high ground has been self-evident. On a brief assignment to Turkey in 1955 I had seen physical evidence of this. Signal mounds used during the Crusades still stood silent sentinel on the south coastal plains near Incirlik.
The age of flight began in 1783 with a daring balloon ascent over Paris by Joseph Michel and Jacques Montgolfier. This short narrow inroad into the heavens above would eventually become our avenue to the moon and perhaps one day to the planets and the advent of military aerial reconnaissance was now just a matter of time.
"Balloon observations for military intelligence were made during the American Civil War; by the end of the 19th century the armies of many nations had balloon observation units." In 1880 during the Franco-Prussian War, a few brave French balloonists ascended above the countryside to observe their enemy and soon both sides were using this new method of reconnaissance and the principle of high ground reached new heights – literally.
With the advent of powered flight the significance of these earliest aerial reconnaissance mission was not overlooked.
The birth of weather reconnaissance
Weather reconnaissance began simultaneously with aerial warfare. Special weather observation aircraft transmitted visibility estimates back to ground stations early in World War I. Between the two world wars, instruments to measure barometric pressure, air temperature, and humidity – non-visible weather parameters – were attached to Army Air Corps aircraft.
The first Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS) was activated in World War II in 1943 at Patterson Field, Iceland, but was soon moved to Presque Island, Maine, to serve the entire North Atlantic ferry route. During the rest of the war three other WRSs were deployed, plus smaller organizations formed by air combat units for local use.
Cold War growth
After the Air Force was established as a separate service in 1947 its Air Weather Service (AWS), formerly the Army Air Force Weather Service, kept its weather reconnaissance mission. However, as John F. Fuller points out in his book Thor's Legions: Weather Support to the US Air Force and Army, 1937-1987, nuclear weapons debris sampling justified the fleet. (Thor was the ancient Nordic God of thunder, lightning, and war [Blitzkrieg): that blacksmith in Valhalla who creates lightning bolts as he forges mighty swords on his giant anvil in dark storm-clouds high above the earth.) Fuller explains that AWS's weather recon program was ultimately justified by its proven value to our own atmospheric nuclear test program, plus our military intelligence community’s need to sample the weapons test debris of other countries.
According to Fuller, in May of 1949 a routine weather recon track was established from Eielson AFB, Alaska to Yokota AB, Japan. This Loon Charlie track could be said to be strictly for weather data, but the aircraft had been outfitted with a metal box (called a bug catcher by the air crews) atop the fuselage that held diaper-like filter paper which could snare any size or type of particle, including small bits of debris from nuclear weapons detonations. On September 3, 1949, 1st Lieutenant Robert C. Johnson's RB-29, on a flight from Yokota AB, Japan, to Eielson AFB, Alaska, captured some debris which verified that the Russians had detonated a nuclear weapon. In his autobiography, General Omar Bradley wrote that "The detection of these radioactive samples electrified the military." President Truman announced this finding to the nation on September 23, 1949.
David G. McFarland, a retired private weather forecaster now living in Palm Beach, Florida, writes that as a first lieutenant weather officer with the 54th WRS at Guam in 1955 he flew a B-29 special "winter storm" reconnaissance mission into Russian air space over Kamchatka where his aircraft successfully sampled a radioactive air mass from a Russian hydrogen bomb. From my own later experience this seems to have been a reckless and foolhardy adventure, but the Cold War inspired many such escapades.
Various configurations in the number and location of Air Force WRSs continued from 1945 on, based on budget and manpower constraints. As the Cold War plodded on, a number of them were formed, positioned and repositioned at sites adjacent to, or on islands in northern hemisphere oceans. Permanent weather observation sites over Arctic ice and warmer oceans are necessarily sparse.
In November 1957 weather reconnaissance was at its zenith with seven WRSs in place:
The 53rd at Mildenhall AB, England
The 54th at Anderson AFB, Guam
The 55th at McClellan AFB, California
The 56th at Yokota AB, Japan
The 57th at Hickam AFB, Hawaii
The 58th at Eielson AFB, Alaska
The 59th at Kindley AFB, Bermuda
At this same time 66 WB-50D weather reconnaissance aircraft were assigned among these units. A number of other airframes were in the inventory prior to and after this date including: the B-25, B-24, B-17, WB-29, WB-47, WC-130, WB-57, and the WC-135, a modified version of the Strategic Air Command's RC-135.
The WB-50D was a modified B-29 Superfortress, powered by four reciprocating engines each driving four-bladed propellers. "It [the WB-50D] had more powerful engines (3,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitneys), redesigned engine nacelles, a taller fin and rudder, a lighter and stronger wing, and a new undercarriage for increased operating weights, plus two 750 gallon external fuel tanks, and a one-piece Plexiglas nose molding. Its service ceiling was 36,700 feet, its cruising speed 277 m.p.h., and its range 4,900 miles. The WB-50D "raised the operational altitude of weather reconnaissance from 500 millibars (18,280 feet) to 300 millibars (30,050 feet)."
Sputnik and Lieutenant Sharp are launched
On October 4th, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik and the age of artificial earth satellites began. That same month I was launched on a new assignment – transferred to the 58th WRS at Eielson AFB, Alaska, located at Milepost 26 on the Alaska Highway east of Fairbanks. How ironic that this tour of mine began with Sputnik's, for weather satellites were destined to eventually eliminate the need for weather reconnaissance flights, except for Hurricane and Typhoon Hunters. But until significant advances were made in remote sensing capabilities, such as infrared radiometry that would one day make weather satellites feasible, it was still necessary to attach a three dollar thermometer on the nose of a million dollar aircraft and push it through the air if we wanted to measure temperature (plus other weather parameters) while boring holes in the sky.
Since mid-1947, the Air Force had been flying a mission close to and at times across the north pole. The 58th WRS adopted their name, "Pole Vaulters," from this legacy.
I volunteered for reconnaissance duty for two reasons. First, it promised to be exciting and fun. Second, I could bring my family to Alaska with me, for I had no desire to serve a remote or isolated tour in Iceland or Korea. My timing was good for, at the time, there were plenty of openings at the time for young non-rated (non-pilot or navigators) weather officers like myself who were encouraged to sample flying duty in this important way. I had hoped for an assignment in Tactical Air Force reconnaissance at Spangdahlem, Germany, or over-water reconnaissance in England, but on the 9th of September 1957, orders were published assigning me to the 58th WRS in Alaska.
Almira and I decided to drive to Alaska, and early in October left Orlando on our long journey to Fairbanks, five time zones to the west: from 350 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer to 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. During the next three years I would fly 1,449 hours on WB-50D weather reconnaissance flights over the Arctic and Pacific Oceans and the Bering Sea. Our trip north was a story in itself.
Once is too often
Years later, while stationed in England, Almira presented a travelogue of our trek to the Lady's Guild at the Anglican Church in our village. I prepared a blank polar-stereographic weather plotting chart for her to help her audience comprehend the distances involved. There was less than one inch difference in length between a straight line drawn on the chart from Orlando to Fairbanks and another line drawn from London to Fairbanks. A third line from London heading southeast extended all the way to Pakistan. These visual comparisons dramatized Almira's point that our little excursion was a mind-boggling 6,150 miles.
The first twelve hundred miles were easy: from Orlando to Philadelphia to visit our families and say our good-byes. While there, we noticed that each time we described our upcoming trip to someone, the typical response was, "Hmm, that'll be interesting," which wasn't particularly encouraging, for it was usually said with a furrowed brow as if they thought we were crazy. Perhaps they foresaw more risk than we anticipated.
On a gray drizzly morning in mid-October we said our last good-byes and headed west. While still on the Pennsylvania Turnpike we suddenly understood our family's concern when over our car radio came the startling news that "Yesterday, the bridge across the Peace River on the Alcan Highway between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John collapsed into the river. No one was on the bridge at the time." We looked at each other in astonishment. What do we do now? We can't get there from here! Assuming the role of the protective male, I assured Almira that they would surely figure out some solution before we got that far north – which would be, as it turned out, nine days later. The Air Force had paid us $750 in advance to cover our travel expenses and we had no military air or sea travel reservations out of Seattle, so we were on our own.
On day two we arrived in Chicago and took pictures of our goofy children, Doug now age 5, and Joan, almost four, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Joan pulled her knitted wool hat down over her forehead to keep warm and Doug's hands were buried deep in his pockets. As at home, Doug kept his little sister giggling while we were in the car. It had been a pleasant journey so far.
Almira began a family tradition on this trip. After breakfast and lunch each day she dug into a large bag of surprises and handed one back to the children. They looked forward to these treasures and would be entertained for hours with a coloring book, a puzzle, or the many other interesting items Almira had selected for them. They were never bored, but, rather, enjoyed their rolling geography lesson.
Five days of easy driving took us to Gillete, Wyoming. Almira's journal entry for October 21st from Rapid City, South Dakota to Gillete reads:
"Saw some beautiful sights in the Black Hills. Saw my first Buffalo, also Mt. Rushmore, plus a stockade, mountain goats, elk, and deer. Solid rock tunnels and corkscrew curves made for variety. Saw a tree being felled. Wyoming is entirely different from South Dakota."
We were already 3,100 miles out of Orlando by then; almost half way there – a breeze so far. But things changed the following afternoon. After a visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield and Cemetery we turned north. By mid-afternoon we ran into some light snow on a hill north of Billings, Montana, and when I tapped the brakes the car lost traction and skidded off the road down into a gully. I was able to keep our nose pointing straight ahead as the car plummeted down diagonally into the gully and up a steep embankment. At the top of the hill we still had a lot of momentum so I turned the wheel and steered us diagonally back down through the gully again and up toward the road where we came to rest just short of the highway. I had executed a near-perfect aerial maneuver called a wing-over and was both frightened and relieved, for my main concern had been to keep the car upright and I was able to do that. I wrote in our journal, "How I managed to keep from rolling over, I guess, came from my Navy flight training."
We were driving a brand new 1957 Plymouth Station wagon with those big-finned fenders and a long rear overhang and the damage to the car was limited to a large dent under the right rear fender. The children were tossed about in the back with our luggage, but otherwise unharmed. A state trooper stopped and took Almira and the children on to Grass Range while I waited to be towed the remaining ten feet back onto the icy road. From there I gingerly drove the remaining twelve miles to Grass Range to be reunited with my family. Almira and I clung close together that night, thinking of what might have been.
The next morning we stopped in Great Falls, Montana, to have snow-chains and a head-bolt heater installed. A head-bolt heater is a long metal rod inserted into a hole drilled down through the engine block. It’s attached to an electric cord and when plugged into a receptacle, keeps the oil warm.
The mechanic installed our snow-chains inside-out with their open ends – claw-like protrusions – facing the tire side-walls. This allowed them to eventually cut through both rear tires. We were unaware as we left the garage that we had been set-up for more trouble up the road.
Two days later in Edmonton, Alberta, we found a clean looking motel and I parked the car in front of the office and went inside to register. When I got back into the car to back it up, the front wheels wouldn't turn at all and the steering wheel turned too easily. I stopped the car and pulled on the steering wheel which came out like a sliding trombone. It had evidently snapped in two just as I had stopped!
We sat there in shock, realizing again what had not happened. What if? What if it had broken any time during our 413 mile journey that day over snow packed roads from the Canadian border? What if it hadn't broken that evening, but broke later, somewhere in the far northern wilderness ahead of us? Fortunately, Edmonton was already a large city in 1957, so we might be able to have it repaired the next day.
Early the next morning I had the car towed to a repair shop and we were back on the road by mid-afternoon. I stowed the broken column under the front seat to show it to a Chrysler dealer in Fairbanks and arrange for a reimbursement. The car was almost new with less than 7,000 miles on it. A few days later, this long steel rod would come in handy.
We stopped around dusk in Whitecourt, Alberta, two hours out of Edmonton. With any luck we would reach the Alaskan Highway the next day and we wanted a good night's sleep before beginning that adventure. We were now 4,300 miles from Orlando with 1,850 miles left to go, and what an adventure it would be.
We had brought a copy of The Milepost along with us: a must for Alcan travelers. This reference book described every facility on the highway. Each motel and garage is located by its milepost: distances north of Dawson Creek and south of Fairbanks. Page 39 of the 1957 edition describes one facility:
Milepost 733.3 (F 786.9) – Swift River Auto Camp – (a Clyde Wann Station) – opposite maintenance camp with phone, telegraph & P.O. On a bend in the Swift River, with sleeping rooms, central bathrooms with showers, cafe, grocery store, beverage room, & trailer space with electric plug-ins. Standard gas & oil, with credit cards honored, minor repairs, tires sold & repaired, & limited warm storage.
According to The Milepost, from Dawson Creek north, there were 1,221.5 miles of gravel road to the Alaskan border. Gravel road began at Whitecourt, 256 miles south of Dawson Creek, so we would drive on gravel a total of 1,500 miles. This is equivalent to driving on gravel from Philadelphia to the Colorado border.
We reached Milepost zero at Dawson Creek at noon on the 26th. The temperature was already at 50o F, and the worst possible thing was happening: a thaw. The dirt streets of this frontier town were melting into mud. Fort St. John was just 48 miles north as the crow flies, and we would have to have been crows to get there direct, for as we had heard the morning we left Philadelphia, the Peace River Bridge between Dawson Creek and Fort St. John was gone and the detour upstream to a ferry-crossing doubled the mileage. Mud would multiply our travel time tenfold.
The detour was little more than a cow path and the mud grew deeper with every mile. I struggled to keep the car on the road, but shallow curves in the road were slightly banked and we eventually slipped helplessly sideways down into a ditch. I stepped out of the car into gumbo mud and stood there feeling helpless with no idea what to do, when suddenly a car came careening backwards toward us down the hill up ahead. Fred Rose, a young Canadian oil field worker, had passed us a few minutes earlier and noticed our Florida license plates and summer tire-treads. This good neighbor had purposely stopped and waited for us at the top of the hill. When we didn't appear, he came back to help out. His wife and baby daughter were in the car with him.
I thanked him with all my heart, and together we somehow got our snow chains back on. Fred placed a plywood under the jack so it wouldn’t sink down into the mud, and our messy job didn't take very long at all. As we worked, Fred explained his mud-driving technique to me: drive as if you are in a motor boat; rev the motor, spin your wheels, and churn the mud. This, he assured me, would keep me out of ditches. I followed his advice and made it to the ferry with no further delays.
The ferry was a two-car-length long barge with a tugboat lashed to its side. As we plowed across the ice-choked water I felt like Little Liza in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Ice floes floated by while others bumped against the ferry. I insisted that we keep the car's doors open, just in case.
Once again safe on [not so] solid ground, we wended our way uphill out of the Peace River Valley. The car salesman in Orlando had tried to sell us electric windshield washers. In my ignorance I told him that in Alaska they would be little more than expensive ice cube dispensers. How I regretted that remark as I peered vainly through our mud-covered windshield, desperately trying to see the road ahead. Again, I faked a calmness that wasn't there and invited Almira to admire the truly breathtaking view of the Peace River Valley as we continued our climb, but she wouldn't even glance out the window. Her comment was, "No thanks, there's nothing between me and that view." No guard-rails at all. Instead, she sat with her head bent down, intently knitting on what was destined to become the world's longest scarf.
The road to Fort St. John had some small hills on it. At the bottom of one hill we came alongside a car with two people asleep under blankets in the back seat. I stopped the car to check on its residents: a mother and her small boy. Alcan rules of the road require travelers to look after one another. The woman thanked us and assured me they would be OK. She told us that she couldn't make the ice covered hill and would wait until dark. The road would be frozen by then and she would be able to climb the hill. Here was an interesting glimpse of life in the far north.
We finally made it to Fort St. John and had dinner with our new friends the Roses who had zoomed on ahead of us. They had been able to find us a motel room for the night – another small miracle, since most of Fort St. Johns’ motels were filled with stranded truck drivers who couldn't negotiate the detour with their large rigs and instead were waiting for other arrangements to be made. That evening we voted the Roses to Sainthood and would exchange Christmas cards with them for years to come.
The next day we began the final leg of our expedition: four days over the last 1,500 miles to safe haven at Eielson Air Force Base. The first day was particularly memorable. That was the day we had no flat tire.
It was to be white-knuckle driving all the way. The road was mostly dry and very bumpy – one long washboard – and top speed was thirty-five miles per hour. It was still unseasonably warm, but with the late October’s low sun angle we would often drive up the south slope of a hill on mud and slide down the north side on ice. At the top of one hill we viewed a particularly long and steep downslope ahead of us. A car coming from the opposite direction stopped and hailed us. I rolled down my window and the driver asked us to please advise Mary at the next motel that he had made it up the hill this time and wouldn't be returning for another night. This was the third day he had attempted to crest the hill. Wilderness travel in the far north requires perseverance.
To save time and money we ate lunch in the car. I was amused each noon to watch Almira climb back over the front seat into the flat rear of the wagon, fix peanut butter sandwiches for all of us and feed the kids; all of this without once taking her eyes off the road ahead.
Around ten o'clock in the morning on the next three days we had flat tires. Two were side-wall failures caused by the improperly installed snow chains, the third was a puncture by a long, sharp, pointed stone. Tubeless tires had not yet reached this far north, so tubes had to be installed plus flat pieces of hard rubber glued over the holes in the damaged sidewalls. A tire repair cost $2.50. That morning, gas, tire repair and a tube cost $13.35. This doesn't sound like much today, but in 1957 reflected the high prices of the far north.
On the third day as we neared Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, we came up behind a road grader scraping the washboard road ahead of us. His plow was leaving a mound of dirt behind him down the middle of the road. When I finally decided to pull around him, I had to drive across this hill. Too late did I realized that the dirt hill consisted of mud ice cubes; very l-a-a-r-g-e ice cubes. One of the larger ones, practically an iceberg, wedged itself under the oil pan and there we sat high-centered, stuck once again. I mumbled a few choice words and climbed out to take a look and Almira moved over into the driver's seat. Our Plymouth had Chrysler's new push-button transmission shift, so Almira alternately pushed the reverse and first gear buttons. The car joggle back and forth a few inches, but wouldn't dislodge. I stood there frustrated for just a moment when I suddenly remembered the broken steering column stowed under the front seat. I'm sure I grinned as I pulled this long “ice-pick” out and began poking away at the frozen mud-ball until it broke in two. In triumph, Almira drove across the debris to my cheers.
We spent about ten minutes sight-seeing in Whitehorse (it was a small town) before pressing on and stopped for the night at a quaint roadside motel called Krak-R-Krik Inn. We were particularly enamored by the lighting: a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room. Now just 532 miles from Fairbanks, this would be our last night on the road. Black top awaited us at the Alaskan border.
The next morning we decided not to tell the kids how close we were to our final destination, but wait until we knew for certain that we would make it to Eielson AFB that evening. From Krak-R-Krik to the Alaskan border we drove through a 234 mile winter wonderland. An overnight fog had left the surrounding sub-Arctic fir forest under a cloak of hoarfrost, giving the scene a ghostly white coating. Except for our third flat tire, it was a pleasant drive.
We stopped at the Alaskan border to take pictures. Each time we look at them now we're reminded of the mud. We had scraped away a spot on the rear window so I could see out the back, and this clear spot is visible in one of the pictures.
On paved road once again, we made good time to Eielson. When we finally saw its runway lights, they looked like Christmas. We pointed to them and told the children where we were. Until that moment neither of us realized how much tension the children had been feeling. The moment they knew that their ordeal was over, they began to laugh and hug each other. Even at three and five years of age, they felt the same relief we felt.
We drove onto the base to Fran and Jerry Perren's quarters and received a hearty welcome. It was Halloween and our two children dressed up and went trick-or-treating with their two older children, Mike and Michele, while we four adults sat and talked.
Lieutenant Jerry Perren was my sponsor for this move and we had been corresponding since September. While the official word was that rentals in Fairbanks were scarce, Jerry had already found a rental and put up $150 of his own money to hold the house for us. The Perrens immediately became our good friends for life.
Was our great adventure worth the risks? I think so, even though Almira half-jokingly named her diary "Once is Too Often."
Shall I unpack?
Military tradition dictates that every newly assigned officer meet the new commander and be welcomed by him [and now, or her]. I made an appointment to meet my new commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jack N. Highley. and no sooner sat down in his office when he said to me, "Well, as you may have already heard, the squadron will move to McChord Air Force Base (near Tacoma, Washington) next summer." I was surprised . . . no, stunned, and I thought to myself, "Shall I unpack?" After such a grueling trip north I had hoped we would stay for a full three-year tour.
Colonel Highley further explained that because of the upcoming move we wouldn't be eligible for base housing and would have to find our own housing on the local economy, and housing was scarce and very expensive. I explained that Jerry had already solved that problem for us.
Our new home was in a sub-division appropriately named "Arctic Park.” The first evening after we moved into our “igloo,” I bundled son Doug in warm clothing and carried him outside to see Sputnik sail in its near-polar orbit across the cloudless starlit sky. This was a favorite pastime that autumn across America and the entire world. Daily newspapers from Florida to Alaska published the times Sputnik could be observed plus the best direction to look for it.
During the next week I met my fellow weather observers including my boss Major Bernie Rose. Our group of mostly young officers and their wives became a very close-knit community. Even now, well into our retirement years, we're still welcome guests in each other's homes at any time. Most of us had pre-school children then, and during that cold Arctic winter of 1957-58 we took good care of each other's families whenever the husband was off flying.
Captain Bill Smurro got to Fairbanks just a few weeks before we did, but, because he had four children, was not given permission to bring his family to Alaska until he found a rental. During the two months before his family finally arrived, Bill became our frequent over-night house guest. In fact, we kept a cot for Bill in a narrow storage closet off the upstairs hallway. Joan, our four year old daughter who could not as yet pronounce an "R", referred to it as "Captain Smuwo's woom."
Bill finally found a rental just across the street from us in Arctic Park and over New Years flew down to Seattle to meet his family and bring them “home.” Early on the afternoon of the day they were to arrive (close to New Years day), Bruce Huber, a fellow weather officer and Arctic Park neighbor, and I de-decorated our Christmas tree and carried it and the trimmings across the street to the Smurro's house where we redecorated it and left its colored lights burning. When Bill and Ann’s children entered the house they were met with conclusive evidence that "Yes, Colleen, Lori, Gina, and Nick, there is a Santa Claus." To this day, Bill and Ann still talk about the wonder they saw in their children's eyes.
As I arrived, the 58th was close to setting an AWS record for on-time take-offs (a take-off by a mission aircraft within fifteen minutes of its scheduled departure time). By spring of 1958 we would break the record. This string was a great morale booster, for during the previous fifteen months the squadron had suffered two fatal crashes that cost the lives of 23 crewmen.
At our first squadron party, a few of the veterans described these crashes. This was not appropriate party talk, but, rather, a disservice to us newcomers. It frightened Almira considerably and I was glad when the offending parties, understandably traumatized by these events, were transferred out.
The first crash had occurred on 31 August 1956 killing all eleven crew members. The plane hit the ground at an 85 degree angle on an island in the Susitna River approximately thirty-five miles northwest of Elmendorf AFB. We were told that this accident was caused by a cup of coffee spilled into the auto-pilot control console located in the aisle between the pilot and copilot just behind the weather observer's seat. Based on this account, crews never passed coffee cups over the top of this console, always around it.
1st Lieutenant William J. Wolters, Jr., one of my classmates at Penn State, was the weather observer on that ill-fated crew.
The second fatal crash on 17 January 1957 killed twelve. It occurred two minutes after take-off. We were told that this tragedy was caused by a runaway propeller. If a propeller goes into flat pitch, it creates a drag that's difficult to compensate for, especially on take-offs before the plane has gained enough altitude which the pilot can trade off for distance to a runway or any other smooth surface. It can be compared to the propeller suddenly becoming a flat surface and creating a tremendous drag.
A few years later, Captain Bruce Huber's aircraft experienced a runaway prop and the crew lived to tell about it. Their plane took off from Ladd AFB, 26 miles west of Eielson, and luckily had sufficient altitude to land at Eielson by the pilot allowing the plane to turn slowly toward the side with the drag which was also the direction to Eielson. Bruce was lucky.
While I considered it a great aircraft, one that certainly always brought me home, Fuller writes that "The WB-50D widow maker was the blackest page in the annals of weather reconnaissance." From 1956 through 1960 AWS WB-50Ds chalked up thirteen accidents, killing sixty-six crew members.
All AWS weather tracks were coordinated with the National Meteorological Center (NMC) at Suitland, Maryland, principal customer for our data at the time. NMC first began running computer numerical weather prediction models under Dr. George P. Cressman in 1954, and in 1957 still depended heavily on Air Force reconnaissance data to fill observational gaps over oceans and the northern polar region.
Our efforts were an important, albeit unheralded, national resource along with Air Force hurricane and typhoon hunting missions over warmer waters. The same data we were collecting to better defend against a nuclear attack was making a large contribution to better forecasts for our civilian population. Arctic air masses that invade the lower 48 states all winter long are born in the latitudes where we flew.
All weather recon tracks were code-named after birds. The 58th flew two tracks daily. Each crew flew a Ptarmigan mission every twelve days and a Loon Echo flight in between. A Ptarmigan (pronounced with a silent P) is the Alaskan state bird, and the Loon summers on far northern lakes. A framed picture of a WB-50 captioned "PTOMORROW'S PTARMIGAN" hung on a wall in the maintenance shop.
Bob Fitzsimmons, my good friend, my pilot for a time, and a wit, used to report to Bethel as we flew over this southwestern Alaska city:
"Bethel radio, this is Loon Echo Echo Echo Echo."
Take-off times were scheduled in early morning to optimize the value of our data to one of NMC's two daily computer upper air analysis and numerical forecast runs. Each morning Ptarmigan flew a thirteen to fourteen hour mission north up over the Arctic Ocean, while a Loon Echo flew a fifteen to sixteen hour mission southwest across the Bering Sea to Shemya at the tip of the Aleutians, north to Nome, and finally back to Fairbanks. See Figure 1 below.
Preparing for take-off
Fuller writes that "On March 17,1947, a B-29 of the 59th [WRS] with Captain George A. Collins at the controls made AWS's first B-29 weather reconnaissance flight over the North Pole on a 16.5 hour mission." By my arrival ten years later we knew as much about Arctic flying conditions as any Swedish or Russian military unit.
Each evening two planes were towed into Eielson's Birchwood Hangar to warm up. The next morning, flight crews reported two hours before scheduled take-off to begin pre-flight inspections after which we loaded our survival gear into the bomb bays. Last but not least, our flight lunches complete with cartons of what I came to call "reconstipated" [reconstituted] milk (Ugh, foul tasting!) plus large coffee urns were lifted aboard.
Aerial weather observers checked enroute conditions with base weather station meteorologists and gave a last minute briefing to the crew. For fuel economy, the aircraft commander (AC) would decide whether to fly a reverse track: fly north out of Barter Island at 700 millibars (9,880 feet) and return south through Point Barrow at 500 millibars (18,280 feet) rather that visa-versa. Flight engineers computed take-off roll distance while navigators were computing estimated flight-time based on forecasted winds. We were now ready to board and take-off.
The huge hangar doors would open and a tug towed us outside. In the dead of an Arctic winter we had an estimated twenty to thirty minutes to start engines before they were again too cold to start. I remember one 30o below zero morning when we weren't able to start the engines on our primary aircraft. We had less than forty-five minutes to reload our gear onto a cold-drenched aircraft (already being warmed by hot air blowing from giant yellow heater hoses), preflight the bird, taxi out and take-off on time. A new definition for "whole hearted cooperation" was written that morning. The AC was still completing his pre-flight check list as we rolled down the runway and took off, but we made it. Fortunately we had even remembered to transfer our coffee urns.
Such incidents underscored how important our efforts were. We were at war – even if it was (fortunately) a Cold War.
We flew with a crew of ten. In the forward compartment were the AC (the aircraft commander: a pilot), the copilot, a weather officer (my position), one flight engineer, and two navigators. In the rear compartment were two radio operators, a dropsonde operator, and a wing scanner. The dropsonde operator acted as a second wing scanner during take-offs and landings.
As we flew to the coast to begin taking observations, the navigators checked out their equipment. Magnetic compasses are useless this far north, and Loran signals did not as yet reach our latitudes, so gyroscopic-compasses and radar were our most important navigational equipment.
A gyroscope is a spinning wheel whose momentum keep it constantly oriented toward the sun because of the laws of physics. Its read-out compass is read by navigators. Because the earth rotates once every twenty-four hours, a gyro-compass drifts one degree every four minutes but the navigator can still compute which direction is north.
"AWS crews helped develop polar navigational procedures of value to SAC navigators trained to lead bombers to targets in Russia." Polar Grid Navigation was the answer. This was the technique of plotting positions as Xs and Ys on a checkerboard grid rather than latitude and longitudes, as in more southern climes.
All recon tracks coasted out (departed the coastline) above radiosonde (upper-air balloon soundings) stations: e.g. Point Barrow or Barter Island for Ptarmigan flights. Over Barrow we made our first radar altimeter reading of either the 700 millibars or 500 millibars pressure surface. This observation would give NMC the opportunity to compare our data to one of their station’s weather balloon readings to prevent erroneous data from contaminating their upper air analyses.
Out over water or ice we took observations approximately 175 nautical miles apart. Each observation contained coded readings of temperature, dew point, a spot wind (rather than an average wind over a distance that non-weather aircraft report) measured by an early version of Doppler radar. On a specialized radar set in front of me I read the true altitude of the constant pressure-altitude surface we were flying at. We also reported cloud amounts, visibility, and air turbulence when present.
Between observations I usually read, ate, or slept. If I was still asleep as we neared the next observation point, one of the pilots behind me would nudge my shoulder with his mukluk covered foot, sometimes not too gently.
That far north, we were alone in the sky except for the few commercial planes flying over the pole from Europe and Alaska. For six months in winter it was dark for the whole journey. During the lighted six months of the year we watched the sun circle around us, describing a spiral to its ultimate zenith at the summer solstice in June and then screw itself back down again below the horizon, hiding from view until spring.
Ironically, navigational fixes were more reliable during the cold dark winter. Three-star fixes provide us fairly accurate positioning. Each star’s elevation and azimuth defines a line of position (LOP) with our aircraft positioned somewhere on the line. If the three stars selected are evenly spaced around the horizon, their LOPs formed a triangle. An aircraft’s position is assumed to be in the center of this triangle, and the smaller the triangle, the more accurate the position. During summer’s constant daylight, the sun, which is a star, provided one LOP and if the moon is visible it provides a second. No other heavenly object was available to provide a third line.
At specific observation points along each track, instrumented packages call dropsondes were parachuted out the bottom of a pressure chamber in the floor of the aft compartment: Ptarmigan dropped five. Measurements of pressure, temperature, and humidity from flight altitude down to the sea or ice surface were broadcast by the “sonde” back to our dropsonde operator to encode for broadcasting. These data were surprisingly accurate, considering their low cost.
On the day before a scheduled flight, crews stood stand-by, waiting to depart ASAP if the already airborne mission aircraft aborted before reaching a predetermined minimum completion point. When this "completed mission" observation was received by radio, stand-by crews could go home. If a stand-by crew flew, they permanently moved ahead of today's crew on the schedule.
About one hour north of Point Barrow we aborted my first mission, a Ptarmigan on November 15, 1957. A Plexiglas window panel above the copilot's head developed a crack in it, and blew out ten minutes later even though we had lowered cabin pressure to decrease the difference between outside air and cabin pressure.
Explosive decompression is a unique experience. Air explodes out of the hole in the plane and gushes out of your lungs as well. The panel blew just as I finished exhaling, but the remaining air in my lungs expanded under the reduced cabin pressure and I involuntarily exhaled a second time with an uncontrolled grunt through my nose and my mouth. It felt as if an elephant had stepped on my chest. Except for a slight nausea that I resolved by barfing into my coffee cup, I was fine, and so was everyone else. (I never drank another cup of coffee while air-borne.) Fortunately, the only object lying in the tunnel over the bomb-bays connecting the rear compartment with the front was a fur parka. Air from the rear compartment being sucked to the front of the plane propelled the parka out of the tunnel like a shell from the barrel of a canon. No one was hurt.
We quickly descended to 10,000 feet for more oxygen and turned for home and the next day my same crew flew a complete mission without incident. Already I was a veteran.
There's cold, then there's Arctic cold
The uninitiated among us may be unfamiliar with the effects of temperatures below minus forty degrees Fahrenheit. The affects of such numbing cold on automobiles must be included among the legends of the far north. Before we left the lower forty-eight, I was warned to prepare my car for an Alaskan winter, so, as I previously described, in Montana we had a head-bolt heater installed. The top of this metal rod has an electric cord attached that you must plug into an outlet when you park your car for any length of time. Those living in Maine, Montana, Minnesota, or other cold states know all about this. Downtowns in far-northern cities look like cowboy towns of the nineteenth century, but rather than horses hitched to the rails, cars are "hitched" into the electric receptacles provided.
During our first month in Fairbanks, I plugged my car in every evening before I went to bed. Our first electric bill was a shocker: over $150. Even at 1958 prices and an inflated Alaskan economy, this was too much for our budget, so I began setting my alarm for three a.m., and each morning would climb out of my warm bed to switch on the head-bolt heater.
1958 plastic seats hardened and became brittle at such low temperatures and tended to crack when you sat down in them. Rubber tires lose their elasticity when your car stood still for even a short time and you drive off with square wheels. The flattened spot against the frozen ground stays flattened, and you bump bump bump down the street until your tires again round out.
Dick and Garthy Brett had driven a 1947 Hudson to Fairbanks. It was a klunker; it burned oil and the starter stuck. A few times when we went over to visit the Bretts, Dick wasn't in the house. We would ask Garthy where Dick was and she would say "He's out under the car. Didn't you see him?"
Bruce Huber's car stalled one morning while he was driving the 26 miles from Fairbanks to Eielson and Bruce carelessly stuck his flash-light in his mouth to free up one hand to help him get the car started again. His lips froze to the metal casing and when he pulled the flashlight out of his mouth some of his lips came with it.
During the coldest period (it reached -54o Fahrenheit during Christmas week of 1957) an inch of frost formed on the surbase along the bottom of the rear wall of our house.
Four year old daughter Joan could stay outside no more than twenty to thirty minutes at a time. By the time we let her back in and took off her boots, her little feet would be red and raw from the cold.
Ice-fog forms at about 40o below zero, so on super-cold mornings Eielson's main runway fogged in after every Ptarmigan's take-off. The moisture content of a B-50's exhaust was enough to leave ice-fog in its wake. At 40,000 feet we call the result condensation trails (contrails), on the ground its name is ice-fog: same temperature range, same phenomenon.
Looking straight down from 18,000 feet, ice-fog can’t be seen; it's too shallow. I was always surprised to see how dense it was when we landed in it.
Arctic Survival School
All crew members were required to attend Arctic Survival School. My class was held during the spring equinox in late March. A more appropriate title would have been Sub-arctic Survival School. It was too dangerous and expensive to take each of us to the tundra on the north coast or out on Arctic Ocean ice, and Fairbanks’s climate is sub-arctic: it has trees. Ptarmigan missions left tree-covered central Alaska behind at the foot of the Brooks Mountain range one hour north of Fairbanks and we spent the rest of the flight over treeless landscape.
Lectures covered techniques in building parachute teepees and beds out of pine bows. Instructors did tell us about polar bears. They were very curious and had no natural enemies and this combination made them especially dangerous.
We spent four days camping in the woods near Fairbanks, practicing our new skills. Temperatures at night got down to zero and hovered around 20o above during mid-afternoon. My pine-bow bed was quite comfortable and I slept in my underwear at night because my sleeping bag was so efficient. We were taught to turn our sleeping bags inside out to air during the day so that all of the moisture they absorbed during the night could evaporate, otherwise they would eventually become large ice cubes.
Everything we ate or drank smelled of smoke from the campfire and by the time I returned home, I too reeked of smoke.
The secret handshake
“Identify, Friend or Foe” (IFF) systems are an essential part of any effective defense system. Our eyes, ears, and noses constitute our own body’s IFF system. Lionesses repeatedly lick their cubs all over to mark them with an identifiable odor so the male of their pride does not mistake his own young as interlopers and kill them.
Our immunity system evolved based on the same principle. Antibodies in our blood have specific secret handshakes. In this case, however, invading viruses and other single-celled antigens are killed if they can shake hands with one of the many antibody-guardians our body creates. This is a geometric based system. If the molecular shape of an antibody fits like a key into the door – the cell wall of the invader – the antibody enters the cell and destroys it.
In war zones, soldiers posted around their unit's periphery challenge with "Who goes there?" If you know the secret password you may safely advance. If you don't, you are shot. All Air Force weapons systems are designed with electronic IFF capabilities that similarly sort friend from foe, and when used correctly, deaths from friendly fire are avoided. During the Cold War, IFF systems were used along all of our coastlines, including Alaska’s, to sort out Air Force weather reconnaissance planes and other friendlies from Communist interlopers attempting to slip into our airspace.
On each flight, the AC carried aboard with him a sealed envelope marked SECRET. Once airborne, he opened the envelope and studied the enclosed IFF procedure of the day. Similar to our body's immunity system, these procedures were based on geometry. As we approached the Alaskan coastline to reenter its airspace, ground based Air Defense Command radar sites challenged us with a sophisticated "Who goes there?” The pilot responded by flying today's secret handshake: perhaps a 270o turn to the left, followed by a two minute straight leg, followed next by a 270o turn back to the right. This flight pattern was tracked on radar and provided a positive identification. IFF patterns were changed daily: secret handshakes at a distance.
Almost a Molotov Cocktail
Lieutenant Colonel Harvey P. Hall assumed command of the 58th WRS a month after I arrived and on 23 January 1958 I flew a Loon Echo mission with him as my AC. About four hours into the mission our right scanner reported that gasoline was dripping off the trailing edge of the wing behind engines number three and four. We were somewhere over the Bering Sea enroute to Shemya. A second crew member in the rear compartment verified the situation and Colonel Hall immediately turned the plane around and radioed a call for help to the regional Air Sea Rescue Squadron. They sent a plane to intercept and accompany us back to landfall.
It was a tense situation, but Colonel Hall showed outstanding leadership ability. He stayed calm, and from the way he talked to his crew and the Air Sea Rescue people, I decided I could trust him to handle this emergency as well as anyone possibly could. Within two hours we were again back over mainland Alaska. So far so good!
We landed without incident, and as soon as the plane came to a halt we scrambled out and ran for our lives as raw gas poured onto the ground.
At the time, we didn't realize that leaking fuel cells in the wings of WB-50s were soon to become a serious problem and later cause one and possibly two fatal crashes.
Chasing nuclear weapons debris
From January through March of 1958 and again that October and November, Russia conducted atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. I flew seven missions into the debris.
Each time a detonation was sensed by a detection system developed by the Atomic Energy Commission and operated by the Air Force, meteorologists at Global would track the debris cloud through Global’s forecast upper air wind fields. Global provided us with fairly accurate forecasts of when and where such clouds would cross the international dateline. All territory west of the dateline was assumed to be hostile and we stayed on our side.
Based on prior experience, Russian Air Forces were perceived as testy to say the least. From McFarland's account of his flight over Kamchatka in 1955 described earlier, the Russians had due cause to suspect our intentions whenever we approached their air space.
After each Russian nuke was detonated, routine reconnaissance tracks were set aside and we flew special missions directed by the Air Force Office of Atomic Testing (AFOAT) to locate and sample the radioactive clouds.
High-flying SAC B-36s would sometimes join us, sampling at 30,000 feet while we stayed at or below 18,000 feet. On one of my missions into the Gulf of Alaska we were alone and, as it turned out, fortunate to be flying that day at 30,000 feet. As we began a zigzag search course across a 160+ mph jet stream, our navigator gave the pilot an erroneous heading. Thirty minutes later the navigator looked into his radar scope and was startled to see some 18-20,000 foot Canadian Rocky mountain peaks directly below us. He had applied a 30o magnetic deviation in the wrong direction, so we were flying in a jet stream on a heading 60o off our intended course. I was very glad the B-36s stayed home that day, otherwise, flying at our usual 18,000 feet, one of the clouds we flew through could have had a rather large rock in it.
Our pilot was more angry than frightened; afraid we wouldn't find what we were looking for and he would be criticized.
I had been plotting my wind observations on a weather map in front of me when I heard our navigator give the AC that bad heading, and even though the heading didn’t make sense to me, I must admit that I said nothing. I didn't have the confidence at the time to challenge him. After the error was discovered, I realized I had failed myself and my crewmates in a very important way. This cheap lesson which could have been deadly has stayed with me and given me whatever courage I ever needed to speak up in similar circumstances even if it turns out later that I’m mistaken.
We carried an AFOAT technician on these missions who sat in the rear compartment with a Geiger counter. He had the authority to direct the AC when his instruments began jumping. When we hit paydirt, the pilot turned the plane around and flew us back through the puddle until measurements showed we were in the hottest spot. On a signal from the rear, the AC would then put the plane on auto-pilot into a circular orbit for the duration. Based on predicted fuel consumption, we would continue orbiting in this stuff as long as we could. Another 55th aircraft would fly out to replace us.
If radiation levels reached a certain value we were ordered to don oxygen masks so that we wouldn’t inhale higher concentrations of the ionized particles. If levels reached an even higher threshold, we were warned not to eat our box lunches that would have been similarly contaminated with radioactive particles. My crew donned our masks once. We collected particles in our bodies as well as in the collection boxes under the wings.
Late one night as we flew due south about 30 miles on our side of the international date-line, we had trouble finding our prey. Air Force radar personnel at Kotzebue, Alaska, called and asked if we knew our position and our AC answered "Yes. Why?" The radar operator advised him that a Russian MIG fighter was flying off our right wing, so the pilot inched us just a wee bit further to the east to give our escort more space. We were unarmed. I was nervous.
On every flight, small black plastic dosimeters that measured radiation levels hung from our dogtag chains. They were as useful as a rabbit's foot because they were never read. I still have no idea of the level of ionized radiation I was exposed to, but I know for certain that I later developed leukemia and have always suspected it was caused by this exposure. I was diagnosed four years after retirement and my claim for a service-connected disability was denied by the Veterans Administration. If my cancer did in fact result from this exposure I would still hold no resentment toward my government. I was a volunteer and as I said earlier, in 1958 the world did not yet fully understand what had happened at Hiroshima.
The International Geophysical Year
In 1958 the world's scientists cooperated in what was called the International Geophysical Year (IGY). All manner of experiments and geophysical and solar measurement programs were conducted. The eleven year sun-spot cycle was at its peak and the world’s scientific community joined together to measure the effects of this phenomenon and conduct other studies. I had a front row seat from which to watch one of nature's most dramatic displays: the Aurora Borealis which peak with increased sun-spot activity.
One display stands out in my mind. We were returning from a Ptarmigan run, flying due south across the Brooks Mountain range. Aurora stretched above us from horizon to horizon. Curtain-like displays blown by some unearthly wind shimmered 80 kilometers above. From my vantage point in the Plexiglas nose of the aircraft I leaned back and gazed up in wonderment at one of nature's most breathtaking sights. It reminded me of what sailors might see while sailing under San Francisco's Bay Bridge, but our bridge was a lot taller. Human biological limits in night time depth perception would not allow me to fully comprehend that all this was happening 80 kilometers above me.
When I first arrived at the 58th in late 1957, the north bound leg of our Ptarmigan track out of Point Barrow took us close to an ice-floe inhabited by a group of scientists wintering among the polar bears in the Arctic darkness below. Each time we flew by their site we enjoyed chatting with them, for Ptarmigan was a lonely track. We never saw another airplane and it helped to hear their voices. I’m sure they were glad to chat with us too. On one of my first flights close to Christmas 1957 they reported that a curious polar bear had chewed through some electrical wiring shutting off some of their runway lights.
By late spring their floe had drifted counter clock-wise across Ptarmigan's north and south-bound legs on its aimless trek around the Arctic Ocean. Late in the spring of 1958 the ice-floe split in two and much of their runway, and worst yet, also their radio antennae, began to drift away. Suddenly the 58th had a new mission. We were asked to fly top-cover for these imperiled souls and serve as their antennae while some Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft were being fitted with skis at Thule AB, Greenland. Preparations took about a week before all souls on board were air-lifted safely out and flown to Greenland along with as many of their valuable samples as could fit aboard the rescue aircraft. We noticed that media accounts of this episode never mentioned our contribution. They also serve who only fly in circles.
Back to the lower 48
Just as Colonel Highley told me when I first arrived, the squadron was moved down to McChord AFB the following summer. The move was accomplished in two stages. Half the squadron moved down with their families in June while the other half continued flying a reduced mission. After the crews in Tacoma got their families settled in, they returned north to relieve the rest of us so we could move our families. Almira and I decided to leave Alaska by ship rather than again tackle the Alcan.
to Cold Fronts Table of Contents
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