IT IS TWO HOURS BEFORE DAYLIGHT, TWO DAYS BEFORE New Year’s, and ground crews wearing parkas are hard at it on the flight line at Carswell Air Force Base. A sadistic north wind is ripping across Lake Worth just off the end of the runway. But most of these men have been previously stationed at such venues as Minot, North Dakota, so the zero chill factor is not one of their primary concerns.
From out of the pre-dawn gloom a minibus rolls down the ramp and stops near one of the bombers. Six Figures emerge. They are a B-52 flight crew, the latest generation of a breed that has captivated the 20th-century American psyche-the combat aviator. There is a measure of grandeur even in the way they step briskly over to the plane, scale a ladder, and disappear inside to begin working their way through a pre-flight checklist the size of a Yellow Pages directory.
Sixteen bombers are parked in two neat rows on the ramp. At about 6:40, one, two, and then a third begin rolling toward the runway. There is something viscerally unsettling about the configuration of these B-52s, their darkest gray armor coated with an ingredient that acts as a radar repellent. Their snouts are like a tiger shark’s poised to snap someone’s legs off.
The aura of lethality that surrounds these 161-foot aircraft is enhanced by the earliness of the hour. The massive silhouettes roll through the darkness as the three craft taxi to the south end of the runway, then turn in the direction of the lake while an off-duty pilot in a truck shoots a spotlight over the planes, looking for sudden fuel leaks or unlatched panels.
Maj. Gerry Vanteicher, second oldest of eleven kids who grew up on a farm near Norfolk, Nebraska, is sitting in the incredibly cramped cookpit of the first of the three B-52s. A thermos full of coffee and a brown paper bag containing a hoagie sandwich and a couple of boxes of raisins are wedged between him and his parachute.
Vanteicher receives a transmission from the Carswell control tower and shoves a set of throttles forward, instantly providing each of the eight turbo jet engines with 17,000 pounds of thrust and offering a 7:10 wakeup call to anybody within a five-mile radius of the base.
These three potential instruments of doom thunder down the runway at fifteen-second intervals and, in a dramatic display of light and sound, knife upward into a cloudless sky, bank toward the northwest, and gradually disappear.
Persons driving to work along the nearby quadrant of Tarrant County’s Loop 820 will watch the big planes leave, although most of the motorists are not aware of where the B-52s are headed and what hey Ye up to. But the Russians know, and Soviet submarines, lurking in the eerie silence beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, have their nuclear missiles aimed for Carswell, about thirty- four miles due west of Dealey Plaza.
CARSWELL AFB, FROM THE STANDPOINT OF ON-hand inventory of deadly hardware, is the largest tactical bomber base in the world. If the red phone ever rings, signaling a Soviet attack, Carswell’s B-52s will be part of America’s answer. Since the end of the war, when the doomsday ma-chine of the hour was the B-29 of Enola Gay fame, Carswell has been one of the keystone facilities of the Strategic Air Command that oversees the long-range bomber operations of the U.S. Air Force. The base is named for Maj. Horace Can well, who died in 1944 when he crashed in South China follow ing an engagement with a Japanese naval convoy. Those B-29s have evolved into the H-Model of the Boeing B-52, a winged arsenal with a range of 5,000 miles with midair fueling. The planes need only a few short hours to fly from West Fort Worth to, say Moscow or Leningrad. Right now, the Carswell fleet consists of around twenty-nine planes that, according to Col. George Peyton Cole, commander of the Bomb Wing, are ready to be “cocked and loaded:1 A typical B-52 payload consists of twelve long- range Cruise nuclear missiles tucked beneath each wing and six short-range attack (SRAM) missiles. In the huge bomb bay of the aircraft are four objects that are known as “gravity weapons,” which is one of those delightful military euphemisms for a thermonuclear device that could probably melt Asia, or, if all four were employed simultaneously, just about do away with gravity.
Like his men, Cole, forty-three, is bluntly realistic about his mission in case of war. The SAC motto is “Peace Is Our Profession.” Interestingly, the 7th Bomb Wing’s motto is “Mors Ab Alto,” Latin meaning “death from above.” And it’s a posture that Col. Cole appears to relish. “I can’t begin to tell you about the pride I feel when I think about my flight crews,” he says. “I trust those guys to take my planes out at night, to refuel them in midair, to fly them at levels down to 300 feet for hours at a time and bring them back safely.” And, when and if the Eve of Armageddon comes, he trusts his men to fly off to enemy targets and generate mayhem of unimaginable proportion.
Still, it would be wrong to paint Col. Cole simply as a war-lover. “Our role is to act as a deterrent and I think we’re effective at that,” Col. Cole stresses. “We’re at peace and the Soviets are at the bargaining table.”
But what if some well-placed official in the Kremlin depletes the vodka supply, goes stir crazy, and decides to activate those missiles down in the Gulf or from a variety of other locations around the planet?
Col. Cole considers that prospect and says, “If a seventeen-year-old German schoolboy can land a one-engine aircraft on Red Square, I have every faith and confidence that one of our crews can do the same. That was quite a morale booster out here.”
Outside of Cole’s office, which is about a 4-iron away from the flight line, a couple of B-52s are revving it up, preparing to leave on one of the endless training sorties that take off and land at Carswell, the most heavily armed of the twenty-five SAC bases worldwide. The crews are made up of a pilot and copilot situated in front of a gunner and EWO (the Electronic Warfare Officer, who deploys the missiles). A level below, in an area about the size of a casket, sit the navigator and the bombardier. The crews leave for remote destinations like Wyoming, Nevada, and the Florida panhandle. There, they work with the space-age technology incorporated into the bombers, fine-tuning whatever skills are necessary to mangle any potential enemies.
For a number of reasons, among them domestic tranquility, the planes that leave on the practice runs are not armed with nuclear weapons. Bombing missions are done with electronic simulations. But there are about a dozen B-52s parked beside the flight line, behind a maximum security fence guarded by men carrying machine guns. These are the planes that Col. Cole refers to as “cocked and loaded.’”
A few feet beyond that compound is a box-like structure with an austerity of design seldom seen beyond the facilities of the Texas Department of Corrections. This building houses the flight crews on twenty-four-hour alert status. To the 5,500 personnel currently on active duty at Carswell, the twenty-four-hour alert is as much a part of life as oxygen.
For seven days out of each month, a crew is thrust into an en* vironment that amounts to incarceration. While on alert, crew members might be allowed to visit the base theater or bowling alley, as long as they are accompanied by a motor vehicle and a beeper, but never permitted to leave the base. They’re like the fellows at the fire house, waiting for the alarm to go off and summon them to the holocaust. This is the drill: if the North American Radar Air Defense Command thinks that an enemy attack has been initiated, word is issued to SAC headquarters in Omaha, then to the Aircraft Readiness Command (ARC) at Carswell, an activity that requires about four seconds. It then becomes the responsibility of the Alert Force to get those B-52s, which are loaded with 312,000 pounds of fuel and armed to the tonsils, off the runway and en route to retaliation before any missiles rain down on Fort Worth.
If all goes as planned, the B-52s will fly before Soviet missiles boil Eagle Mountain Lake and char the Botanic Gardens. By then, the 7th Bomb Wing will have departed from Carswell and embarked on the fulfillment of a science fiction nightmare. There will not be a second chance, so dress rehearsals happen frequently.
“If Carswell should come under attack,” says a sergeant in the ARC situation room that is connected via Omaha to a hot line in the Oval Office, “they have a priority list of things to be evacuated. First are the bombers, then the weapons, then the KC-135s, and then the aircraft maintenance parts. Fifth on the list is people.”
GERRY VANTEICHER, THE ONE WHO FLIES WITH HIS sack lunch in the cockpit, grew up attending a one-room schoolhouse and says he never experienced indoor plumbing until he arrived for classes at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Vanteicher has a winning countenance, with what might be described as large, rural ears, and he probably looked a lot like Opie Taylor when he was stomping around back in the Nebraska corn patch and milking cows.
That was a long time ago. Now Vanteicher drives a Chevy Blazer that he calls a rust bucket, lives in a yuppish South Fort Worth development called Meadow Creek, and is married to a registered nurse. When people ask him what he does for a living, he simply says, out of a vague sense of modesty, “I’m in the Air Force.” What he doesn’t tell them is that he is flight commander of a machine equipped with one of the most god-awful weapons systems ever devised.
“I realize the seriousness of it,” Vanteicher says as he sits in wing headquarters wearing one of those flight suits that Tom Cruise made to seem so glamorous in Top Gun. “The thing is that if we ever take off and do what we’re capable of doing, we’ve tailed in our primary mission, which is to be a threat to somebody. I’m not an expert on the Soviet mindset, but world domination is the announced goal and that worries me. I think that it would take something forceful to ultimately deter that. It’s important for the Soviets to realize that if they want to dominate a devastated world that it wouldn’t be worth it. That if they want to star something, they’re going to get a bloody nose.
“I don’t know if the Soviets are fully aware of what we’re up to here at Cars well, but I hope they are,” Vanteicher says. “I have this fantasy where the Soviet premier wakes up in the morning, surveys an intelligence report of the capabilities of the 7th Bomb Wing, and says to himself, ’Not today, comrade. Not today.’”
It is not surprising that Maj. Vanteicher has seen Fail Safe a time or two. In the 1964 movie, an ultra-sophisticated American B-52 penetrates Russian airspace despite all efforts-by Americans and Soviets-to stop it. The plane drops a hydrogen bomb on Moscow and the president, to forestall a total war, decides to vaporize New York City as well.
The attack procedures shown in that movie are much the same as those Vanteicher is prepared to follow. Once the B-52 is in flight, headed for its arranged target, a coded number is transmitted into an instrument on the cockpit of the B-52. The aircraft commander opens an envelope. If the numbers coincide, the crew follows through with its mission. Otherwise, the B-52 returns to base.
But contemporary “fail safe” technology will prevent the movie nightmare from taking place. “Mechanically, it couldn’t happen,” Vanteicher says. “There are lock switches built into the aircraft that are activated by specific computer codes, and these fly the aircraft. If a crew went berserk and wanted to attack a target, they couldn’t do it.”
The Boeing B-52s that Vanteicher flies out of Carswell are older than some of the men in the crew that he commands. Each aircraft is given a nickname by the ground crew, things like “Southern Belle,” “Iron Butterfly.” and “Pepe Lepew.”
“I guess fighter pilots think of their aircraft as a sports car,” says Vanteicher. “But I think of the B-52 as a Kind of sweet old lady. But it’s a fantastic airplane.” Vanteicher will admit that if the computerized “go” code ever materialized in the cockpit of his “sweet old lady,” then “I’d want to be one of the first ones in. I think that’s the typical attitude of a soldier. Soldiers are like that everywhere.”
That’s also the attitude of Captain Jayce Sotomayer, a streetwise New Yorker reminiscent of the guy in all the war flicks who’s constantly making with the wisecracks. “In the Air Force,” says Sotomayer, “the concept of pleasure is less punishment.”
Sotomayer describes a stint in a B-52 like this: “it’s like sitting for twelve hours in a little closet, and something outside is shaking the crap out of that closet, like beating on it with a baseball bat. It’s not particularly conducive to a pleasant working atmosphere. Anyway, you fly around for twelve hours in a machine that’s capable of blowing the world up nineteen times over in about two minutes.
“And then you go home and find your wife’s been crying because one of your kids accidentally broke a piece of her favorite china.”
Sotomayer would not have it any other way. He’s consumed by what he does. “I think it’s fascinating,” he says. “Patriotism is what it’s all about, really. None of us is in this for the money, if you know what I’m saying, and the Fourth of July is my favorite holiday.”
Master Sgt. Don Morse is senior gunner of the 9th Bomb Squadron. He sits in the rear of the B-52 and operates a 20mm Gatling gun that is geared to shoo away hostile aircraft.
“Most people don’t realize that a B-52 crew even has a gunner,” says Morse, who entered the Air Force as a specialist in Vietnamese linguistics. “I didn’t. But I do now. There have been a couple of instances where B-52s on training missions accidentally shot down one of our own F-4 fighters. In both cases, by the way, it was the fighter pilots’ fault.”
The week before Christmas, Sgt. Morse and his 9th Bomb Squadron crew had returned from what he termed “a special mission overseas in the Persian Gulf area” just in time to spend Christmas week on twenty-four-hour alert status.
Master Sgt. Lee Smith, who played on the 1967 version of the Piano Wildcats, is a flight line maintenance supervisor at Carswell and therefore also qualifies as a pro.
“Suppose for instance that I had a little spat with my wife for something, so I’m in a bad mood and make a mistake on the job,” Smith says. “The result of that could lead to an in-flight emergency that could ultimately lead to some fatalities. That applies to every person on the flight line.
“My aim is zero-defect performance. I know that it’s impossible, but it’s a goal. This year my unit was rated best in SAC. They gave us a certificate at a ceremony and the general stood up and applauded. The stigma of the military as a group of people who stand around and don’t do nothing sticks in my craw.”
There is a popular conception that the dash and spirit of the American military ethic disappeared sometime after Vietnam and the volunteer army. The modern Cars-well AFB experience reveals that this simply isn’t the case.
Maj. Horace Carswell, the home boy who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Air Medal, and the Purple Heart for his efforts that afternoon over the South China Sea, would feel right at home with these Reagan-era flyers. Carswell’s body is buried in a little park across from the 7th Bomb Wing headquarters. His bones must shake when one of the B-52s takes off.
Forty-four years later, the suspicion is that Maj. Carswell would be a lot more impressed with the firepower of those B-52s parked out there behind the fence than he would be with the white stone monument that marks his grave. Just one of those SRAMs would have wiped out that entire Japanese convoy and the horse they rode in on.
According to Col. George Peyton Cole, there are quite a few young Horace Carswells out there on alert, ready to take to the air and offer that “last full measure of devotion” to the cause.
A society that is supposedly starved for heroes should find that comforting.
Dr. Strangelove, I Presume?
PRIOR TO LAST MONTH, THE MOST CHALLENGING technological gadget that 1 had been trusted with was a device that shampoos carpeting. Now I am seated in the copilot’s chair in a B-52 cockpit, having just completed a low-level bombing run over a location that can’t be revealed for reasons of national security, and they’re asking me to land this beast.
The aircraft commander is Maj. Chuck Holland, a senior officer in the 7th Bomb Wing at Carswell. And he’s saying, “’Do you want to try to land it?” You’d think he’d know better. Then he tells the air traffic controller that the copilot will be bringing this baby in, so, I assume, they can muster the red trucks and guys wearing asbestos costumes.
After a couple of left turns. I see a runway. I hope it’s the one at Carswell. Now I begin my final descent. I am coming in from the south, over Benbrook Lake and Ridgmar Mall.
Through a little scanner device, I see that the runway is looming ever closer and I’ve got the sucker locked smack in the crosshairs. Then, as we pass over Altamere Road at about 300 feet, a red light flashes and an alarm buzzes and I feel like 1 am about to throw up. “You’re okay,” says Maj. Holland. “Just pull the nose up a little.”
And then he says, “You’re on the runway,” and the only person who seems more surprised than me is Maj. Holland.
Having disclosed all this, [hasten to reassure everyone living out there in the Carswell flight path: don’t bother bringing any lawsuits against the government. All of this activity took place on the second floor of a building at Carswell, in the B-52 flight simulator.
The thing never leaves the ground, but after about an hour and a half in the cockpit, amid an array of switches and gadgetry, it’s tough to believe that you’re not hurtling over the Atlantic, bent on destruction.
A screen directly in front of the windshield provides computerized graphics of what the pilot would actually see during a mission. Want the Persian Gulf? Just push a button.
“It’s pretty realistic.” Maj. Holland says. “The only real difference is that if you crash, you don’t get killed.”
On another “flight,” Holland takes us down to about 500 feet-he says they go lower in actual flights-over terrain that mimics the western United States…or maybe Iran. They come in low to avoid radar detection. Foothills approach at alarming velocity and Holland manipulates the stick at the last minute; we clear by maybe seventy-five feet.
I can hear the voice of the bombardier in my headphones. He’s back there behind us in the simulator, perfecting his aim. like a basketball player practicing free throws.
“Target approaching,” he says. “Five seconds…three seconds. . NOW!” Then Holland shoves the throttles forward, pulls the stick back, and out through the windshield, the horizon disappears.
Usually, the person in the copilot’s seat is a flight instructor who grades the aircraft commander’s every move. The exercise hands the pilot a variety of catastrophes that could happen during a flight. A generator fails. Two engines catch fire. The landing gear malfunctions. The wings fall off.
Sounds scary, but Maj. Holland says that he’s more comfortable up in the air in the real thing.
“When I finished flight training after the Air Force Academy, they gave me a ’dream sheet, in which you list a preference of the aircraft you want to fly.” he says. “I listed B-52s next to last, and was disappointed when I wasn’t assigned to fighters. Now 1 realize it was the best thing that could have happened to me. The B-52 is a fabulous aircraft.”
Well, that’s a big 10-4 there. Major. Or “roger” or whatever they say. With men like Maj. Holland and myself up there, all you civilians can continue to sleep easy at night. -M.S.