This is an account of my first ride in a B47, one of the Air Force's all time work horses in the Cold War.
-- Don Poole
It happened more than forty years ago in Tampa, FL, which during WWII had gotten an ominous reputation which was clearly put into focus by the expression, "One a day in Tampa Bay." The accident rate wasn't quite that bad, but it did get the hearts pumping of those going through flying training in the area.
I had just completed navigator upgrade training and was assigned to the 305th Bomb Wing at MacDill AFB, one of the most sought after bases in the states, and I was eagerly awaiting the beginning of my tenure.
The first place that some, although not all people go when reporting to a new station, is the Officers Club. One can wash out the dust that accumulates in the throat after a long cross-country drive, and meet some of the folks who will become family for who knows how long.
The guy sitting next to me at the bar turned out to be the Operations Officer in the squadron to which I had been assigned. He informed me that he was in charge of having the crews ready and able to perform the duties required by the orders from the President of the United States or his designated representative. I, as a future member of the outfit, thought he might be exaggerating just a wee bit. I'm sure he developed the same opinion of me as I regaled him with the fun times Id had flying in the B26, an old WWII bomber, while I was stationed in Japan, Korea and northwestern Florida. And they were fun times, never having been shot at or never dropping any ordinance on anyone. As far as I was concerned, that was the only way to fly.
The conversation dragged on, and after about an hour of telling lies about all sorts of situations, he hit me with an interesting proposition. "How would you like to go to Africa tomorrow?" was an invitation difficult to refuse. I had presented myself as ready and eager to face any situation I might be called upon to participate in as a new member of the organization. But Africa? I maybe should have asked a few questions but I was not about to back down.
I said I'd like that very much, but I had not gotten any of my gear yet. I would need at least a flying suit, flying jacket, boots, oxygen mask and a helmet for a minimum of necessary equipment. He replied that would not be a problem.
So there I was. Not even in the outfit for 24 hours and already I'm going to Africa. This is really some unit that I had joined. On my way home that night, I figured that I must have made a good impression on my new boss, or I really screwed up. Regardless, I was on my way to Africa come the morning.
Early the next A.M., as with most Florida daybreaks (non-hurricane days, that is), it was clear as a bell, with nothing in the forecast that would delay or cancel the trip. I met with the Ops Officer and he introduced me to the crew that would have me as their passenger. As I had never been inside a B47 before, and as a matter of fact, never even been close to one, the briefing was a bit longer and more specific than usual. I would have preferred a stewardess in the center aisle, giving pre-take off instructions, but SAC being SAC, they were very set in their ways. And I had to sit and listen.
My initiation into The SAC was about to begin.
Before going any further, I should explain that SAC is spelled without the K. All letters are capitalized and there is no hint that it stands for anything other than Strategic Air Command and has nothing to do with a bed.
The takeoff was a little noisier and of longer duration than those I had formerly experienced. The wearing of a mask from the start of a mission and the official sounding conversation between crew members was somewhat different, also. They were very efficient, though, and the ride went according to plan, including the refueling over the Azores which I had not experienced before but in years to come would become routine.
About eight hours into the mission, the pilot gave the word that we were over our destination. We were told to prepare for landing which translated into the passenger making certain his seat belt was fastened. It was, and we did.
The landing was routine. We taxied to the Alert area where the six engines were shut down and we prepared to leave the aircraft. A member of the ground crew opened the hatch just below my feet and to my surprise, handed me a cold beverage. It was a nice gesture and well appreciated. One can work up a thirst wearing a mask for more than eight hours.
The post flight was handled with check list precision, the pilot and copilot talking with maintenance personnel, alerting them to any difficulties that may have been encountered with the equipment. The navigator did the same, and I just stood in the background, assimilating my first glimpse of the deep dark continent of Africa. I was impressed.
Then it happened.
The Klaxon blared. People began to run in what seemed every direction and in a very few minutes, air crews were entering the B47s lined up and ready to go. The sound of so many engines cranking up was enough to wake the dead if there had been any in the area. Everyone had a purpose and everybody was doing his job. The bombers taxied out in a precision fashion that amazed me. When they turned onto the active runway and put power to the engines, the din increased even further in volume. I turned to one of the ground crewman and commented that I thought it was unnecessary for them to put on a show just for me, but that it was appreciated.
Then, things started to go wrong.
One of the B47s proceeding down the runway caught fire. It was obvious to even a neophyte like myself that this was not part of the big plan. I was aware that the Alert aircraft were all armed and dangerous. Each carried what today is referred to as Weapons of Mass Destruction, and something like a burning B47 was not the best situation in which one might wish to be an active particpant. An order was given that anyone on the flight line not directly involved in the ongoing activities should leave the area. I was never so happy to be among the useless. I led the way. Actually, no way did I want to be in the way.
Those of us who left the area found our way to the BOQ and eventually we all gathered in the dayroom. Everyone had their personal opinion as to what had happened, and when I suggested that it was a Welcome to SAC gesture for me, all sorts of objects became airborne in my direction. Things simmered down somewhat when someone brought in what is referred to as a forty pounder, which in reality is a forty ounce bottle of Canadian Club. We were all relieved to learn that there were no casualties and that the only losses were a B47, a nuclear weapon, and the self assuredness of people like me who would be flying in this beast for the next several years.
The trip back to Florida was uneventful. When I arrived aboard one of the returning B47s, I soon encountered my old friend, the Ops Officer who asked me how I had enjoyed my initiation into SAC. I told him I wished they would put a K in it and maybe I would sleep in peace knowing that the Strategic Air Command was standing guard over us all.
SAC has done an outstanding job, doing what they do so well, protecting this country regardless of the unforeseen and dangerous difficulties they are often forced to face. The B47 is no longer in their inventory, but the aircraft and the crews that flew them were a vital component of the effort that won the Cold War.
The accolades they received from a grateful nation were more than well deserved.