Chapter 4: The Wagon Wheel
In August of 1958 we were relocated to McChord AFB, Tacoma, Washington, and redesignated Detachment 3 of the 55th WRS. Our unit strength was reduced from twelve crews to ten and the 58th was deactivated.
(Include map of Det 3, 55th WRSS Tracks)
Our new mission was to fly a daily Stork Charlie track between McChord and Fairbanks, plus a daily Ptarmigan flight out of Ladd AFB in Fairbanks (now Fort Wainwright). See Figure 2 above. The Loon Echo track from Fairbanks to Shemya, Nome, and return was discontinued.
Stork Charlie coasted out over Tatoosh Island on the northwest tip of Washington and flew due west along the 48th parallel across the Gulf of Alaska to a point west of the Alaskan mainland. From there it turned northeast, crossed the Aleutian chain and landed at Fairbanks.
Every other day a Stork Charlie departed McChord on a ten day trip. On alternate days, an Alaska crew flew the same track back to McChord. Each crew flew two Ptarmigan missions while they were in Alaska. We were home ten days and away ten days.
Almira was pregnant with our son John that summer and fall and spent many lonely hours home alone listening to the ever-present rain. Continuing the tradition begun in Alaska, the other weather families kept watch on her while I was away.
The Gulf of Alaska is much stormier than the Arctic where the much colder air has less water evaporated in it than even the Sahara Desert. Arctic storms are mainly dry, bitter-cold winds howling across the icy surface bringing little snow. Not so over Northern Pacific waters. Much of our flying there was in or between cloud layers in storms on their way to the Pacific Northwest coast.
Aircraft icing was often a problem when climbing out of McChord. By the time we reached our mission altitude of 18,000 feet on one flight, we were carrying a heavy load of ice and literally hanging on by our propellers. We continued to struggle to maintain altitude until the ice began to break free. Ice from the propellers hit the sides of the fuselage with a sound like machine-gun fire: rat-a tat-tat and we transmitted a pilot report (PIREP) to warn other pilots of this hazard.
It was on a Stork Charlie mission I first saw St. Elmo’s fire. For the uninitiated, St. Elmo’s fire is long blue sparks of static electricity that under certain conditions dance across the outside of airplane windows. Through the ages, mariners have watched this eerie phenomenon on the spars and masts of their sailing vessels during heavy storms. St. Elmo is the patron saint of mariners, and sailors long ago deemed his “fire” an omen of good luck sent by their protector, St. Elmo.
For many years I was confused about something I often observed on Stork Charlie missions across the Alaskan Gulf. My confusion would last until satellite meteorology gave us their breath-taking portraits of the variety of cloud patterns that occur in the atmosphere. Meteorology textbook writers of the 1950s had no idea what weather satellite imagery would later reveal, so I had a limited collection of images to draw from. I could recognize clouds associated with frontal boundaries, cloud avenues, fair weather cumulus, etc., but like everyone else, had no idea of the many wondrous, even ethereal patterns that clouds above us sometimes form. One of these patterns we now call open-celled cumulus.
My confusion was this. I would often report scattered clouds and didn’t feel comfortable with that description because the clouds seemed to form a circle around our plane while we were in the clear. How could this be? The clouds seemed to be ten to twenty miles away in all directions, blocking the entire horizon. What kind of pattern was this? No image in my mind matched the one I saw.
It wasn’t until years later that I got to see pictures of open-celled cumulus taken from satellites. Lieutenant Colonel Hank Brandli, USAF, (Ret.), an expert satellite meteorologist, provided the example in Figure 3
(Include Hank Brandli's Hadley Cell Satellite Picture)
This satellite picture of the Gulf of Alaska taken at 2315 GMT on 12 November 1976 shows a cold front approaching the Washington-Oregon coast pushed by Arctic air behind it. Well behind the front, open-cell cumulus can be seen extending hundreds of miles across what in 1958 had been the Stork Charlie track.
Clusters of these thermally driven, mini-circulation, cloud rings form where cold air moves across warmer water. The dome of cold air above them is subsiding (sinking) and does not allow them to build. The result is a bowl of ephemeral Cheerios that Mother Nature alone can create. A pot of boiling water bubbles in a similar way and a can of used paint thinner left sitting in the hot sun will display this same phenomenon.
Alaska is not the same
Alaska without my family was not the same. Most of the other crew members played poker but I didn’t. I read, skied, visited the friends I had made while living in Fairbanks, and in the evening I talked a lot with Frank Sheranko, a young Ukrainian-American navigator from Cleveland. He and I had adjacent rooms in the BOQ.
Frank planned to enter an Eastern Orthodox Church seminary after his service stint and we spent many long winter evenings discussing our theological differences, which were great. Both of us reveled in our new found camaraderie – we came from opposite ends of the theological spectrum and neither of us previously knew much about the other’s faith.
In October and November the Soviet detonated another series of nuclear weapons. As before, we abandoned our routine weather tracks and flew sampling missions. I flew three more missions which would be my last.
Carbon dioxide sampling
Major sinks and sources of carbon dioxide exist at ground level. Photosynthesis in plant-life forms a sink; this process consumes CO2, replacing it with oxygen, thus reducing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Both human respiration and fossil-fuel burning are sources: they add CO2. In contrast, similar sinks and sources do not exist at higher elevations, and it was long speculated that carbon dioxide was well-mixed above 5,000 feet.
Beginning in September 1958, the 55th WRS helped confirm this speculation and answer other questions about this important atmospheric constituent. Sponsored by the IGY, an upper air CO2 sampling project was initiated and placed under the management of Dr. Charles D. Keeling of the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, La Jolla, California. The 55th’s weather recon tracks provided the perfect vehicles for acquiring representative samples of air at close to 10,000 and 18,000 feet, and the Air Force agreed that we could participate.
Five steamer trunks, each with twelve partially-evacuated one liter flasks, were shipped from La Jolla to McClellan and McChord AFB every month and on a specified day were loaded aboard mission aircraft. At evenly spaced intervals, the flasks were filled with outside air through tubing and valves inserted into the temperature probe opening at the weather observer’s position in the nose of aircraft. It was a cumbersome operation. Since the steamer trunk wouldn’t fit in the cramped quarters of the forward compartment, each flask had to be sent up front on a trolley through the fifty foot crawl-space tunnel over the bomb-bay and returned the same way.
Our participation contributed to what has become an important set of baseline data. From mid 1958 through 1961, weather recon crews collected samples over the eastern Pacific Ocean from the equator to the North Pole. These longitudes were ideal, for most of the air we flew through had just traversed the wide pacific and all of the CO2 introduced as the air swept across the Eurasian land mass was by now well-mixed.
Since 1958, fears of a Global Warming have escalated and Dr. Keeling’s opinions on this important matter are still being quoted.
Our data showed that in 1958, the average amount of CO2 in the Northern Hemispheric atmosphere was approximately 312 parts per million (ppm). Keeling reported in 1960 that this amount was increasing 1.4 ppm annually in the Northern Hemisphere and 1.2 ppm in the Southern Hemisphere. This trend continues.
A close call on son John’s birthday
Our son John was born three weeks early: at 9:15 (PST) in the morning on November 26, 1958. As Almira gave birth, I sat in the nose of a WB-50 in Fairbanks waiting to depart for home.
Our AC Major Charles J. Rexon was seated in the copilot’s seat to allow his copilot to log a take-off in the pilots seat. A strong crosswind was blowing from our right, so during take-off the copilot had to apply a lot of right rudder to keep us on the runway. The rudder of a WB-50 is as tall as a five story building, and, like a sailing ship, we were being blown to the left.
Major Rexon called out our air speeds as we accelerated, and just as he was about to call decision-speed (that speed at which we’re committed to take off), the right scanner yelled “REJECT.” Any crew member can abort a take-off in this way, but he better have a valid reason. Major Rexon immediately took control of the plane, and, using reverse-prop pitch and violent braking action, brought us to a stop on the last few inches of the runway. I lurched forward violently from the rapid deceleration along with everyone and everything else.
Runways at Ladd are 8,200 feet long – exactly. The Chena River loops around both ends of the runway, so there’s no safety cushion overrun. When we finally stopped, from my seat in the nose of the plane I could see the frozen Chena immediately below me. It was a close call.
After a few deeps breaths, Major Rexon calmly asked “What . . . was the problem?” The scanner replied “The right main gear was on fire, Sir.” If we had broken ground and raised that burning gear into its well under the wing behind engine number three, the flames would have ignited any gas fumes present and blown the wing off. WB-50s had “wet wings” – they contained fuel cells.
We taxied back to a hanger and watched as the plane was put up on jacks where feeler-gauges showed that the brake-shoes were not binding. Pilots apply right rudder with their right heel, and right brakes with their right toes. While our copilot applied right rudder with his heel he must have also rode the right brakes with his toes, and the resulting friction started the fire. The cold air extinguished the flames as soon as Major Rexon assumed control and released the brakes. We quickly taxied back out to the runway and made a normal take-off, this time with Major Rexon at the controls.
When we finally arrived at McChord very late that night, my colleague Captain Bob Haywood came out and yelled up the nose-wheel hatch to me, “Congratulations, it’s a boy!” For a moment I was confused, Almira wasn’t due until mid-December but John had been born that morning. In fact, John was born within a half hour of our aborted take-off. Son John nearly lost his daddy on this, his birthday. Late or not, I drove down to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis and visited Almira and met our new son John who was asleep in her room.
A square peg
Major Rose was more than a great boss, he was also a father-figure to all of us. But he had one weakness; unlike Major Rea at Brize Norton, he couldn’t get rid of a misfit: bring himself to ground one weather observer who shouldn’t have been on flying status. Fred (that’s not his real name), joined us at McChord, and had a strong fear of flying. In fact, he finally became so tense while airborne that he couldn’t relax enough to urinate. He also whined a lot and was generally a misfit. There’s a number of stories about Fred: some amusing, some exasperating.
Fred’s crew was aware of his problem, especially his fear of take-offs and landings. One morning while preparing to depart Ladd, Fred’s flight engineer was computing take-off roll when he noticed Fred peering over his shoulder. Take-off roll is the length of runway required to become airborne and is based on aircraft weight, surface wind, temperature, humidity and pressure altitude.
Under Fred’s scrutiny the engineer completed his computations and entered a fictitious 8,700 feet on the bottom line of the worksheet. (As I already said, Ladd’s runway is only 8,200 feet long.) The engineer then closed his book, first making sure the “fearful one” had read what he wrote. Fred went bonkers but managed to gasp out, “Wait a minute!,” but the engineer mumbled something like “Hey relax; these numbers don’t mean anything. They just fill a square.” A frantic Fred ran over to the AC and almost dragged him back to the engineer. The two men winked and continued to put Fred off, refusing to make any adjustments or delay the take-off. Fred refused to sit in his own seat during take-off, but instead sat in his assigned crash position back in the auxiliary-power-unit compartment in the rear of the plane. I’m not sure his crew ever told Fred the truth. They were merciless.
While Fred sat watching a poker game at the BOQ one afternoon, the conversation turned to complaints about hemorrhoids, a common ailment among pilots. Fred made the mistake of confiding that he too had that problem. One player who knew Fred well immediately quipped, “Gee Fred, I’m surprised. I always thought you were a perfect asshole.”
Ho Ho Ho
I was scheduled to fly to Alaska two days after Christmas. Early on the 23rd, Bernie Rose called me to say that Fred had fallen and injured himself and would be returning from Fairbanks that afternoon and I would have to fly out as an extra crew member on Christmas day to replace Fred. So Fred would be coming home for Christmas and I would be away. . . . I’ve always been suspicious of Fred’s “accident.”
All of a sudden I had to somehow salvage Christmas for Doug, now age six, and Joan, age five. An idea came to me while we were still talking, and I asked Bernie if he would please call the house later that evening and give my kids the big Ho Ho Ho and tell them he just heard about their father leaving, and that he, Santa, would bring their toys tonight so that they could celebrate Christmas on the 24th with their dad. Bernie agreed.
Bernie’s call came just as we were finishing the dishes. I uh-hued him a few times and then said to little Joan standing beside me, “Joan, it’s for you.” Joan took the phone, and Almira and I watched as she listened to Bernie’s act. Her eyes opened wider and wider, and by the time they finished talking, Joan had almost turned inside out. Bending forward, she yelled to her brother, “Doug, it was Santa Claus and he’s coming tonight!”
All of a sudden it was Christmas Eve and they would be spared the agony of waiting another day. Santa was coming as soon as they went to bed. We had a wonderful Christmas together. Our only challenge was to keep the youngsters in the house all day so they wouldn’t confuse any of their young friends.
Sandy leaves many questions
Captain George Sanderson and his family were already in Alaska when we arrived. He and Phyllis were older than the rest of us; they had school-aged children. Sandy took his work seriously and we suspected he might be a perfectionist. After each mission we scored each other’s weather observation worksheets, and monthly scores of the percentage of error-free observations were posted. Sandy’s monthly scores were usually 100% – perfect.
We noticed that Sandy’s handwriting on his worksheets was often shaky, as if his hand trembled as he wrote. We guessed that he was nervous about making a mistake and his shaky handwriting reflected this inner tension. We shrugged it off, but when we got to McChord, Sandy began to show other signs of anxiety. He became convinced that he had prostate cancer. However, we still didn’t recognize his behavior as dangerous symptoms.
One day in March of 1959 I went to the base commissary and passed Sandy as he was loading his groceries into his car. I’ll never forget how pale, even ashen, he looked. We exchanged a few words and he left for home. I never saw him alive again.
Sandy went home first to unload his groceries, and then drove out into the country and took his own life. He brought a vacuum-cleaner hose with him and used it to pipe exhaust fumes into his car. I heard the news later that evening. We were all stunned and immediately began to think about what we had been watching. Suicide is extremely painful to survivors, even non-relatives. I felt guilty that I hadn’t been more pro-active that afternoon when I saw the, now obviously, disturbed Sandy in the commissary parking lot.
A few of us went over to be with Phyllis that evening. While I was there Phyllis asked if I would please accompany Sandy’s remains to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. She explained that she didn’t feel she had the strength to meet with Sandy’s family that soon. Phyllis’s request surprised me, but I understood and agreed to go.
The next day I met with the base chaplain who was adamant that I do my best to convince Sandy’s family that the Air Force regarded his death as honorable. He asked me to do everything I could to help his family avoid feeling any shame over what had happened. He offered no answers for me to give Sandy’s confused dad and sisters. There would never be any satisfactory answers; Sandy left no note that I was aware of. We were left to guess for ourselves what had driven him to his untimely death.
Sandy and I would travel by rail – the first two days on the Great Northern Railroad to Chicago.
Feet-first most of the way
Protocol required that I travel in uniform and wear a black armband of mourning. Protocol also required that Sandy’s coffin be flag draped with the field of blue over his heart, and it was strongly emphasized that I make sure that his casket traveled feet first. At the train station I stood by while Sandy’s casket was loaded into the baggage car, and was reminded by the chaplain to be in the baggage car when we reached Chicago and changed trains to assure the time-honored feet-first custom was followed. I was young and I worried about this point. I didn’t want to dishonor my fallen comrade.
On my first day out of Seattle I sat next to an interesting 85 year old gentleman. He recognized the obvious: I was an Air Force officer in mourning and he asked me what happened and I explained. We carried on an interesting conversations most of the day that helped pass the time. My companion had retired from the Great Northern many years earlier and frequently used his free pass to visit a remote station in central Montana where he had spent decades of his life as a telegraph operator.
His mind was sharp and memory keen, and I sat intrigued, listening to him relate his experiences as a U.S. Marine signal-corpsman stringing communication lines in China during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century. Chinese soldiers armed with bows and arrows began shooting at U.S. Marines from the top of the city wall as his unit approached the city gates of Beijing. All of a sudden I was linked to the past, listening to someone who actually saw such ancient weapons used in warfare. He also asked some very intelligent questions about modern warfare, a few of which I could respond to with some knowledge or opinion. I was sorry to see him get off the train.
Sandy’s coffin was moved correctly in Chicago, feet first, and loaded aboard a Pennsylvania Railroad train bound for Washington, DC, but during a stop over in Baltimore my efforts to honor protocol were sabotaged. We pulled into the station and sat for about thirty minutes while they changed engines. When we started up again I realized to my horror that we were traveling backwards and Sandy was traveling head-first! The new engine must have connected to the rear of our train.
I sat dumbfounded, not quite knowing what to do. Shall I rush back to the baggage car and spin Sandy’s casket around? Who will meet me in DC? What will they say if they realize Sandy traveled backwards? This all seems silly to me now, but I assure you I was gravely concerned at the time.
There was no need to worry. When the train pulled into DC’s Union Station, no one seemed to notice or care. An Army hearse met us and Sandy and I were quickly driven to Arlington to meet with the assigned chaplain to describe the circumstances so that he could talk intelligently with the family before Sandy’s funeral, scheduled later that day. After our meeting. I left Arlington and next met with Sandy’s family at their hotel, anticipating many questions that I was still unsure how I would answer.
Not surprised, I found a very distraught Sanderson clan. It’s been over thirty-seven years since our tearful encounter and I can no longer recall exactly what we said, but I can still recall their pain and also my determination to answer honestly. I believe that I successfully conveyed the message that Sandy died an honorable death.
Sandy’s dad asked the larger question: Why? I told him I didn’t know why, and that no one back at McChord knew why either. I said that his friends would probably forever remain just as confused as his family. I told him how stunned we had all been.
We then left the hotel for Arlington where we again wept together, this time through a dignified and impressive funeral service. At the end, the flag was folded and the chaplain offered it to Mr. Sanderson with the traditional remarks: “Please accept this token of thanks from a grateful nation for your son who gave his life in the service of his country.”
When rifle volleys are fired at a military funeral it feels as if your heart is being wrenched from your chest. When they fired this salute to Sandy I decided that I want similar honors when my time comes.
The elder Mr. Sanderson looked even older and leaned on my arm as we walked back to the limousine. Through his tears he repeated his still unanswered question, “Why? Why? Why?” I told him once again that I’m not sure that anyone will ever be able to give him an answer.
Back at the hotel we said our good-byes and by then I felt like a member of the family. They invited me to visit them in Barre, Vermont, at anytime. I told them I would, but I’ve never made it up there. Phyllis moved back home soon afterwards and we exchanged Christmas cards for some years. I often think of her and the children and still have no satisfactory answers.
Next stop McClellan
Air Force’s original plan was to bring the rest of the 55th WRS up from McClellan to merge with Detachment 3 at McChord the next summer, but this plan was scrapped. It was decided that McChord could no longer accommodate a squadron with so many large aircraft. Instead, in the summer of 1959 we moved once again, this time to McClellan AFB, California. The effects of these much too frequent disruptions to family life were ameliorated by our once again moving with our friends. These shared experiences brought close friends closer.
My orders to McClellan included a three months temporary duty (TDY) assignment while enroute to the Air University’s Squadron Officers School (SOS) at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Senior lieutenants and junior captains must either attend this school in residence or take the correspondence course if they expect to be promoted to major one day, and I was by now a captain.
The SOS program is intense, filled with military and academic training plus lots of athletics. Students are organized into ninety separate seminar groups of twelve or thirteen each with a major or lieutenant colonel as section advisor. Competition was emphasized and every activity was scored in some way.
One of the most important Air Force missions in the spring of 1959 was to defend against an all-out Soviet nuclear attack. ICBMs had not yet come onto the scene, so manned bombers were the threat. The SOS curriculum included a realistic exercise that showed us what defending against such an attack would require and how effective our defenses, reasonably speaking, were expected to be. Each seminar section became an Air Defense Command Control Center and our scenario was “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!”
Each seminar section defended the same sector which included Chicago and Detroit against an, as yet, undetermined number of Soviet bombers. We would not know how many until early warning radar got a reliable count. Our challenge was to use available fighter aircraft and ground-to-air Nike missiles judiciously and destroy as many invading aircraft as we could.
Soon after the first alert was sounded we began receiving information on aircraft type, numbers, altitudes, ground speeds, and direction of flight. Our responsibility was to scramble the right interceptors at the right moments to optimize their effectiveness. The efforts of each seminar section were evaluated by referees who made estimates of how many enemy aircraft would have gotten through our defenses to drop their weapons of mass destruction.
The lesson we learned was that a 100% defense did not exist at that time, and therefore, nuclear war was unthinkable.
The SOS curriculum required us to do research and write papers on appropriate topics and also to deliver two fifteen-minute speeches. While browsing in the library I found a book by Norman Cousins titled “Modern Man Is Obsolete” written in August 1945, immediately following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Cousins book appeared originally as an lengthy editorial in the September 1945 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature on news stands the same month the bomb fell. This lengthy essay drew immediate national attention and was acclaimed by thoughtful persons from all walks of life. Reprints appeared in newspapers across the country and Viking press published it in book form before the end of the year.
In his slim book, Cousins called the concept of national sovereignty obsolete and asks the questions “Can we will to change from competitive-man to co-operative man?” “Can we now work out the tremendous problems of world government?”
He pointed to the Greek City States as a tragic example of a society who dissipated their resources in wars among themselves rather than joining together in synergistic cooperation. Their failure to do this eventually spelled the demise of the greatness that was once Greece. In contrast, the thirteen original colonies, he pointed out, agreed to compromises and united for their common good in spite of their many differences, many of them large.
Cousins was also able to anticipate most of the problems the United Nations would later encounter monitoring individual nation’s nuclear weapon development efforts. The only way the world could avoid an ultimate nuclear Armageddon, he argued, was to turn all nuclear weapons over to a larger sheriff. Nuclear weapons, he said, made national sovereignty obsolete.
While Cousins did not anticipate the immense costs of the nuclear arms race that followed 1945, our soon to be President and Commander-in-Chief Dwight D. Eisenhower had addressed this issue in January 1953 before his inauguration when he wrote, “The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.”
When Wendell Wilkie ran for President on the Republican ticket in 1940 I was only eleven, but the title of his famous book, One World, left a lasting impression on me. Even though I was too young to read it, its title must have influenced me, for Cousins’ words inspired one of my talks.
Before delivering my talk, I asked each of my classmates the following question: “Do you think that nuclear weapons will be used again in war?” By a majority of eleven to two we voted that nuclear war would never again occur.
I delivered my speech, including quotes from Norman Cousins’ book, and gave them the results of my unscientific survey. I concluded by saying that if we really believe that we will never see nuclear weapons used in warfare, in effect we were predicting World Government, and if that’s what we believed, then let’s remember to support the concept. I expected no applause and got none.
SOS ended in July and we arrived at McClellan in late August.
The Wagon Wheel
While I was away at SOS, AWS merged all weather reconnaissance activities in the eastern Pacific from the Equator to the North Pole at McClellan. Each day the 55th flew five missions around a large triangle, from California to Hawaii, to Alaska, and back to California. We named this trek the “Wagon Wheel”. Each morning a plane departed McClellan for ten days. Our schedule was as follows:
Day 1: Fly a zig-zag Lark track from McClellan to Hickam AB, Hawaii at 18,000 feet unless fighter planes were being ferried out to Pacific bases and needed wind observations at 30,000 feet. On those days we would fly a shorter and more direct flight at this higher altitude.
Day 2: Spend a day relaxing on Oahu: swim, surf, sleep, play tourist in junker cars bought jointly with other crew members, shop, go to the club and drink. (Five other weather observers and I invested sixty dollars each and bought a 1951 Studabaker with a rusted-out muffler. It was a virtual gas chamber.)
Day 3: Fly a round-robin Lark mission: a large triangular track down to and along the equator and back to Hickam.
Day 4: Take another day off for rest and relaxation.
Day 5: Fly a Loon Hotel track due north along the 165th meridian to Ladd AFB in Fairbanks.
Day 6: Spend the day relaxing in the Arctic: ski, sleep, play poker, throw snowballs, talk with the guys, visit friends off base, drink.
Day 7: Fly a Ptarmigan.
Day 8: Weather observers had to spend this day monitoring weather observations radioed back from all of the 55th mission aircraft. We checked each observation for errors and relayed them to a waiting world. Other crew members had the day off.
Day 9: Stand-by and secretly hope that on its way home the Stork India crew will have to safely abort and you will get to fly home in their place – a day early.
Day 10: Fly a Stork India home to your wife and the children.
A trip around the Wagon Wheel was one of variety. On one trip in January 1960 I surfed in the warm tropical waters off of Waikiki Beach one afternoon, the next day flew to Fairbanks, and on the third day skied in eight below zero temperatures on the slopes at Ladd AFB in Fairbanks. Packing for these trips wasn’t as difficult as one might think. Arctic clothing was, of course, a must. A bathing suit, shorts, sandals, a pair of summer slacks, and a couple of Aloha Shirts didn’t take up that much additional space.
I lost my temper
I was the second senior weather observer in our flight; Bill Smurro was in charge. Fred was in our flight and was still not suited for Air Force life, but I don’t recall hearing anything more about his fear of flying. One morning while I was training Captain Doug Williams, a new arrival, Fred poked his head into our room and said, “Jack, I called Bill at home last evening and told him I needed someone to take my place as weather monitor today. I’m on stand-by tomorrow and fly out the next day, and I have to go into town to re-register my car and run a few other errands before I leave. Bill left for Hickam this morning and told me to have you get someone come in and work for me.”
Never before in my military career had I ever yelled at man nor mule, but when I heard this selfish, inconsiderate request, I blew up; my blood pressure must have gone through the ceiling for I yelled – no screamed – at this jack-ass posing as a man. My violent reaction startled my trainee, but I didn’t care; I was beside myself. I told Fred, “I’ll be damned if I’ll call anybody! I don’t care if Bill has me court-marshaled when he gets back (I knew he wouldn’t), I won’t do it! If you want someone to replace you, you call them yourself. Just get the hell out of my sight!” . . . . Fred vanished.
I sat down and calmed down a while before explaining Fred to Doug. About an hour later, Fred returned and poked his head in the doorway again, this time a little more tentatively. He asked me if we could talk. I invited him into the room and he began by saying he didn’t think that I liked him. Not commenting on this, I continued to listen. He ended by saying that he had decided to take the monitor duty himself. As calmly as I could, I explained to Fred that he had been home for over a week and in my opinion could have done all his running around before today. I’m not sure he understood.
When Bill Smurro got back and heard what had happened, he told me that he misunderstood Fred’s problem and thanked me for refusing to accommodate such an unreasonable request.
A few years later I would have to deal with Fred one more time.
Another close call
While departing Hickam one morning in the spring of 1960 on a Loon Hotel mission to Fairbanks I had another near-miss. Captain Ralph Scowden was our AC. As our aircraft rolled down the runway, it was obvious to me that the plane wasn’t accelerating like it should have been: it felt heavy and sluggish. I listened to the AC and engineer discuss their instrument readings. The engines were producing marginal power, but they decided to commit to take off anyway. Immediately after breaking ground we flew over some Pearl Harbor base housing units on the beach, still very low. Right below me I saw a Navy wife hanging clothes out to dry. I could have handed her a clothespin. We didn’t have sufficient power to climb and were in deep trouble.
As Ralph described it later, “It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life, but I reached forward and pulled all four throttles back to METO (maximum except for take-off) power.” When an aircraft is obviously underpowered, instinct tell us to gun those engines more – to shove the throttles through the instrument panel if necessary! As soon as Ralph eased back on the throttles we began to accelerate and were able to start our climb-out. The rest of the flight was without incident. Ralph had concluded that the fuel mixture was too rich and was fouling the spark plugs. With a leaner mixture, full power was restored and once again I cheated death.
As I recall, I never panicked during such emergencies. For one thing, they happened too suddenly for much of a response. My attitude from the beginning was that the last decision I had control over was to climb on board the airplane. Once I did this, my fate lay in the hands of others. I was willing to face the reality that there was nothing more I could do, except perhaps hope that my AC wasn’t bent on suicide.
Flying across the jet stream
My longest reconnaissance flight was on November 20, 1959: a sixteen hour and thirty minute Loon Hotel mission from Hawaii to Alaska. Based on forecasted winds, we had estimated fourteen hours enroute.
Forecasts of jet-stream wind speeds were poor in 1960. Even with our daily Loon Hotel observations feeding into National Weather Service’s numerical prediction models, jet-stream wind velocities were often dangerously unreliable. NMC’s prediction model was still not sophisticated enough to predict this phenomenon well.
North of the 40th parallel we began to encounter much stronger northwest winds than forecasted. Each hour we fell an additional half-hour behind flight plan. To stay on our due-north track the AC had to point our nose well to the northwest (into the wind) and our ground speed fell off proportionally. After three hours we had burned too much fuel to continue on our scheduled track, so the pilot turned our nose straight north and let the 150+ mph jet-stream blow us to the east. Our normal track would have taken us across the Aleutian Islands. Instead we headed northeast toward Elmendorf AB near Anchorage and had sufficient fuel remaining to continue on to Fairbanks and land safely.
From the beginning of time mankind has had to deal with the vagaries of the weather. Numerous attempts have been made in recent years to modify certain weather parameters with but only a few successes, mainly with attempts to increase rainfall and dissipate fog. Most experiments produced inconclusive results, but a few worked well under certain conditions and have been used operationally for some time.
Since flight operations are especially sensitive to the weather, AWS has been active in weather modification efforts. In 1966 they ended inconclusive tests using dry ice with tethered balloons to eliminate cold-fog: fog formed at or below freezing temperatures. In 1967, AWS WC-130s flew some rainmaking missions in Southeast Asia.
Fuller writes that in 1971, Texas Governor Preston Smith wrote directly to President Nixon asking for the Air Force’s help to relieve a drought. The 55th WRS sent two WC-130s to Kelly field near San Antonio and they flew cloud seeding missions from Kelly during the month of June. AWS was credited for producing the rain that followed.
Efforts to eliminate cold-fog in Germany brought excellent results during the 1970s that, to this day, still enable NATO fighters to stay Combat Ready during fog conditions. Silver-iodide generators positioned a few miles up-wind from air base runways are turned on and the crystals were propelled up into the fog and stratus. This causes snow to fall and a hole to appear in the fog bank. A light wind is necessary to transport the hole down-wind as it continues to grow. Fighters can take off or land while the hole moves slowly across the runway. There are risks involved, but the technique have been operational for well over twenty years by now. This process doesn’t work in winds stronger than five to seven knots, but in most instances, light winds and fog occur simultaneously.
On January 7th, 1960 I flew from McClellan to Fairchild AFB, Washington, to dissipate cold-fog. We loaded several hundred pounds of dry-ice plus an ice-crusher into the WB-50’s rear compartment, took off, and arrived over Fairchild before sunrise. Flying at about 100 feet above the stratus layer, we made four passes up and down the runway sprinkling our magic potion as we went. The crushed dry-ice was ejected down into the fog through the dropsonde chamber in the aft compartment.
Control tower operators reported some snow-fall, but no hole appeared. My Doppler radar was measuring a wind of from seven to ten knots, a little too strong. We left concluding that “You can’t fight Mother Nature,” and, as in many similar experiments, our results were inconclusive.
Supporting something or other
Weather personnel in the field (away from any headquarters) are often asked to support operations they are told nothing about. If there is no militarily justifiable “need to know” the purpose of a mission or any of its details, we are left out in the cold, as it were. While we can easily provide support without knowing anything about the operation we’re supporting, it does raise questions. Such SECRET, and TOP SECRET projects occur all the time, it’s the nature of military life. After reading an article in Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine later, one could often make a good guess about what had really been going on.
Russia’s launch of Sputnik in October 1957 stunned America. However, by the spring of 1960, less than three years after Sputnik, our infant space program was rapidly gaining momentum. The struggle for supremacy in this effort had already become a significant part of the Cold War’s total ideological struggle. In a little more than nine years an American would walk on the moon.
In 1960, America was once again gearing up for combat, this time for a showdown in space. However, the much heralded “race to the moon” was never a true race. Nowhere in the world did there exist any serious competition to America’s high-tech industrial might. The U.S. alone could accomplish such a feat.
The USSR had the brain power, but in their over-controlled economy, even Einstein would have been no match for the army of unfettered creative minds at work in our free society. In spite of all the jokes about NASA contracts going to the lowest bidder, our capitalist system of not so-friendly-competition overwhelmingly tipped the scale. The ultimate outcome could not have been otherwise.
Project Mercury was born when President Eisenhower signed the Space Act of 1958 into law. As NASA struggled to find the appropriate launch vehicle for its new Manned Space Program it simultaneously pursued an acceptable Mercury capsule design.
At this same time, the Air Force began developing military objectives in space at a faster pace, and in late spring of 1960 the 55th WRS was called on to support some splash-downs in the Pacific Ocean close to Hawaii. We had no need to know any of the details, but were to simply make weather observations in certain areas at certain times. Necessary aircraft and crews were sent to Hickam.
Scheduled launch times were uncertain, and delays often forced our crews to stay at Hickam longer than planned. My friend Bob Fitzsimmons was the AC of one crew that lingered there for over a month, waiting patiently to finish and come home. According to Bob, he would be told to begin reconnaissance ten days or so before the event, but after two or three days of flying was ordered to stand-by for further instructions. A few days later he would start the cycle all over again. This routine was repeated a few times, and Bob and his fellow officers spent many idle afternoons traveling from Officer’s Club to Officer’s Club across Oahu chasing bargain-priced drinks at Happy Hour instead of clouds.
Ruptured fuel cells
On 4 February 1959 a WB-50 departed Kindley AFB, Bermuda, on a Gull Quebec mission. One hour and fifty-five minutes later a Japanese freighter reported an aircraft crash at 38 degrees, 10 minutes North and 67 degrees, 22 minutes West. Twelve men died. There was no distress signal so it was concluded that there had been a sudden catastrophe, perhaps a ruptured fuel cell.
These cells in the wings of WB-50s were designed for combat conditions. They would self-seal if a machine gun bullet ripped through them. A few fuel cells on WB-50s may have developed leaks over the years which sealed themselves as they were designed to. Over time, however, the sealant could become brittle and eventually rupture.
During periodic inspections, WB-50 fuel cells were randomly selected for inspection, but in late April of 1960 it was decided that this procedure was not good enough and Air Force grounded all of its WB-50s, authorizing each plane one flight: to its periodic inspection depot in Georgia. All WRSs stayed grounded until every fuel cell was inspected and either certified safe or replaced. By the end of July, the 55th was back in full operation but I was about to leave for my next assignment.
Adieu to my flying days
Stork India had been an appropriate name for our flight home from Alaska. Frequent trips made for frequent loving reunions, and resulted in many additions to our families. Our fourth and last child, Diane, was born ten months after we arrived at McClellan.
In August my career took me to other experiences. I had applied for graduate school and the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) accepted me for the fall semester of 1960 and I was sent back to my alma mater and its excellent graduate meteorology program.
As I prepared to leave California and end my flying career, the French began their nuclear weapon atmospheric testing program. Some of my friends and fellow crew members were sent to Christmas Island from where they flew reconnaissance into French debris near Tahiti. The 55th WRS would later fly reconnaissance into other French tests in the Sahara Desert. I’ve never regretted missing out on these splendid opportunities for travel and adventure. I had done my bit.
Diane was just six weeks old when Almira noticed a protrusion jutting out on her lower abdomen. It was an inguinal hernia that had to be operated on immediately. The surgeon had never worked on such a tiny body before – our little baby was just over eight pounds – but he did an excellent job.
Two weeks later Almira flew ahead to Tallahassee to find a rental for us and took tiny Diane, daughter Joan, and son John with her. Son Doug and I would drive to Philadelphia together to meet the others there for a visit with Almira’s parents. My trip with Douglass and our parakeet Blue Sky was one of the highlights of my years as a young father. On our way east Doug and I visited Yosemite, crossed over the Sierra Mountains and the desolate spaces of Southern Nevada on our way to Bryce Canyon, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. The two of us developed a conversational relationship that lasts to this day. Enroute we shared a couple of amusing incidents.
Leaving the Grand Canyon country, we headed northeast out of Yuba City through Monument Valley, headed for a crossing of the San Juan River into Utah. The road map I had with me indicated a primitive road for the first seventy miles, but when we struck out, we found the road had been newly black-topped – at least the first half of it.
It was the middle of the afternoon and we were cruising along at about seventy-five miles per hour when I noticed something in the road ahead; a barrier marking the end of the improved roadway. I slammed on the breaks and almost skidded to a stop just before I came to the barricade. In the back of our 1957 green and cream Plymouth station wagon Doug, Blue Sky and his cage, and an opened piece of luggage came sliding forward violently. The birdcage tipped over and bird seed spilled all over the place. Nobody was hurt, but we would be picking bird seed out of our underwear for the next few days. The next forty miles were tortuous – a winding, mostly sand-surfaced rutted road. We didn’t arrive at the San Juan River crossing until well after dark.
After leaving the far west with all of its mountains and other natural wonders, I became anxious to reunite with Almira and my other children, so I drove non-stop from Colorado to Chicago. When I finally entered the Indiana Turnpike, it was about six in the morning on the second day and I had to stop for some sleep. I must have been asleep for no more that two or three hours when I heard Doug talking to Blue Sky: “Gee, Blue Sky, we’ll never get home if Dad doesn’t wake up soon.” I smiled to my self and soon sat up and gave a faked stretch, indicating I had slept enough and was ready to press on. I didn’t want my little friend to worry so. We made it to Almira’s parent’s house before dinner that evening.
I look back on my three years of flying duty with a great deal of satisfaction. Ignoring the risks we took, I cherish my memories of Pole Vaulting and the Wagon Wheel. As I had imagined beforehand, my weather reconnaissance tour was exciting and it was fun.
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