Friday, May 13, 2011

When the Balloon Almost Went Up

I left the crew force in 1974.  I had the opportunity to transfer to the unit command post as a controller and I jumped at it.  Even though it was shift work and holidays (the command post was a 24/7 operation) it provided me experience I needed to promotion to major. 

The command post was the final link between the President of the United States and the weapons he had at his disposal should "the balloon go up."  I don't know where this saying originated but it was used frequently to describe the onset of nuclear war!  The command post was also the central control point for all that happened on the base.  We handled emergencies of all types and security breaches.  We issued instructions to aircraft crews and assisted personnel who had questions or concerns.  We monitored the whereabouts of all of the senior staff who had to be available 24/7 on six rings of the telephone. 

It was tough work but it was seldom boring.  I came to work on a swing shift one afternoon.  After a few minutes an F-105 belonging to a tenant reserve unit on the base, swerved off the runway into the mud at about the 5000 foot marker.  The nose gear was about two feet into the dirt and the aircraft tail was extending out over the runway.

We were effectively closed!  B-52s could not land with this aircraft blocking the active and we had several missions returning with various fuel states.  I had to find alternates for the airborne aircraft and get the word to them.  Somehow, our chairs got kicked back to the rear wall and we remained on our feet, talking on the phones and radios simultaneously.  It took several hours, but we got everyone safely on the ground and got the stuck Thunderchief out of the mud. 

Alert force exercises were another event we had to oversee.  As the message came down from headquarters, we would decode it and know what it meant so we could start a chain of events that involved the personnel who had roles and ensured safety.  These aircraft were loaded with nuclear weapons, after all, and we couldn't affort to compromise any procedure.  These birds were all over twenty  years of age and many had upwards of 25000 hours of flying time.  Exercises usually resulted in several maintenance problems, engines that wouldn't start, hydraulics and electrics that were not right.  The radio was jammed with continuous requests for instructions or reports of troubles. 

Then came one late graveyard shift.  At about 2 a.m., the alerting klaxon began to sound and the alerting system message began.  We decoded it and found that it was not an exercise.  It was a real message that increased the position of alert aircraft to ensure their survival.  We thought the war had started.  I stared and my enlisted controller and he said, "maybe we better decode this again."  We did.  Same result.

All of the aircraft, 6 bombers and 6 tankers, responded.  Their times couldn't have been better.  No maintenance problems noted.  They were ready to take off.

Sometime later, it seemed longer than it was, we were returned to a normal alert status.  I realized then how close we'd come and I now knew that the crews would do as they were directed. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank goodness they, and you, were ready and thank goodness they did not have to go. Thank you again for a fascinating narrative, Father of Meg.