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Cold War Warrior

Personal, National Security, History

Some readers may consider ths post self-serving, and so it may be. A friend at lunch got me thinking about this period in my life, which was pivotal. Before my Air Force service, I was an immature college graduate who knew nothing of life in the real world. I matured in the service due mostly due to the realization that I was doing something very significant for the first time in my life. The gravity of what I found myself involved with changed me in many ways, not the least of which was maturity. I went in as a callow youth and came out a fairly responsible young man, who took a wife (actually she took me), helped raise a family and pursued a long, rewarding career. I am still married to the lady after 53 years and am quite satisfied that I did well--didn't get rich by any means--and made a difference. So, here is my story of a Cold War warrior.

I served between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, a period known as the Cold War where our dire nemesis was the Soviet Union and vice versa. At the end of World War II, the United States was the world's only nuclear power. As the result of some very impressive espionage, they soon matched us in nuclear capability. There ensued a rather bizarre Mexican standoff called MAD: Mutual Assured Destruction. The theory was no one would dare attack because the retaliation would be catastrophic.

However, there was always the possibility of a mistake or aberrant action as chronicled in the brilliant Peter Sellers movie satire, Dr. Strangelove, or how I learned to love the bomb. The result was something called NORAD, the Northern Air Defense network. This consisted of the Air Defense Command (ADC) in the U.S. and a contingent of the RCAF in Canada, along with the DEW line--Distant Early Warning radar--which was a string of powerful radar sites in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle pointed north.

The theory was that one version of a Soviet attack would be a stealthy nuclear bomber assault over the North Pole, featuring conventional nuclear-armed bombers, mainly the very formidable Tupolov TU-95 "Bear" which, like our B-52, is still operational. The mission of the ADC and our Canadian counterpart was to destroy any intruding threat detected by the DEW radars.

I was an ADC pilot with the 94th Fighter Interceptor Squadron (FIS), based at Selfridge AFB near Detroit.  There were several ADC bases in the northern U.S., each, with a sector of responsibility in cooperation with the RCAF. We flew what was at that time the most advanced interceptor aircraft, the F-86D/L Sabre. (The "L" was a slightly upgraded version with 11 inches added to each wing to enhance high-altitude performance (more about that later) and the ARN-39 Data Link/SAGE [Semi-Automatic Ground Environment] system, a method of communicating instructions to aircraft without voice transmission.)


The -86D was a single-seat major modification of the F-86H tactical fighter, larger, heavier and equipped with an afterburner to compensate for the added weight of the intercept fire control equipment and armament. The engine was the J-47 with a variable exhaust nozzle to increase efficiency and performance. The aircraft was transsonic, capable of reaching the speed of sound, known as the Mach or Mach 1--barely. It had a short flight duration of a little over an hour for our typical mission profile which was 45 minutes. Armament was 24-2.75 inch unguided rockets (HVAR: High Velocity Aerial Rocket) in a drop-down pod under the nose section. The rockets could be fired in sets of 1, 2, 6, 12 or 24. Since they were unguided, the wartime tactic was to fire a brace of 12. This also allowed for two attacks.

The F-86D escape system consisted of an ejection seat--not the fancy rocket-propelled Martin-Baker type of today that can fire 1000 feet up--that was propelled out of the aircraft by a 20mm cannon shell to just clear the tail. We wore back-pack parachutes equipped with small green oxygen bottles plugged into to the oxygen mask and actualted by a round green golf-ball sized "apple" that would provide 15 minuites of oxygen for high-altitude ejection. Seat separation after ejection was automatic and it was up to the pilot to pull the rip cord "D" handle to deploy the chute. In the case of high-altitude, you didn't want to do that until you free-fell to a lower altitude because the opening shock at high altitude was much more severe because of the faster falling speed in the thin air.

The ejection sequence was initiated by two pivoted yellow handles stowed low next to the seat on either side. Raising one handle jettisoned the canopy--you could eject through it but that was not recommended--and the other fired the seat. It behooved the hapless pilot of have his helmet visor down and head back against the headrest to prevent a nasty whiplash and a face full of 300 mph air. For low-altitude ejection there was what was called a zero-altitude lanyard that was snapped onto the D-ring before takeoff, attached to the seat. Seat separation then would deploy the parachute without pilot action.

We lost one pilot due to a low-altitude ejection. He experienced engine failure and, after turning his powerless aircraft--the F-86 had the unpowered glide characteristics of a brick--out over Lake Huron, inexplicably stayed with the plummeting aircraft until too late to eject safely. He was still in the seat when he hit the water.

Each ADC base maintained two aircraft, fully fueled and armed, on 5-minute alert. Off to the side of the takeoff end of the main runway was a metal shack facing the entrance, with a small ramp in front for the two alert aircraft. Should the horn blow--yes, there was indeed a horn, a klaxon--the crew chiefs would sprint to the two aircraft and fire up the ground start carts, gas engine-powered generators to provide electrical power for the engine starter motor. (You could supposedly start the thing on internal battery but no-one ever did that to my knowledge.) By the time the pilot got there, the crew chief had hit the start switch and the engine was winding up as he helped fasten the pilot in the cockpit--parachute and seat belt harnesses, oxygen hose, zero-altitude lanyard, etc.

The chief would then jump down, pull his short ladder, pull the chocks and final safety pins, holding them up for the pilot to verify. You then taxiied onto the runway a few yards away and, without stopping, hit the afterburner and took off. The whole sequence took less than five minutes.

Weather was not a factor. We all had been trained at the Air Force All-Weather Instrument School at Moody AFB, Georgia, the finest instrument flying school in the world. We were trained to fly in any weather conditions and visibility, down to zero. Obviously, you can't wait for good weather to respond to a threat. (Of course, for practice we observed FAA weather limitations.)

Shortly after takeoff, you would contact GCI--Ground Controlled Intercept--for vectoring to the target. This was a radar site with height-finding capability. Target data was transmitted to them from NORAD in Colorado. Their job was to guide the interceptor via voice commands--that SAGE thing never did work right--to a position abeam the target and at the same altitude. The ideal position was on a 90º heading relative to the target, 39º angle off (ahead of the target) at 15-mile range. The aircraft radar--there was a small dish in that black nose--would be scanning automatically left and right. There was no vertical scan, so GCI had to get you level with the target's altitude. This was called the 90º beam attack.

The cockpit radar display was a small, about 8" square screen with a hood to keep out ambient light. Typical radar displays are a circle or part (sector) of a circle, since radar dishes typically scanned in a circular left-right motion. The Hughes E-4 Fire Control System (FCS) featured a display that was rectangular. The radar sweep line, instead of employing a circular pattern, was vertical and swept horizontally from side to side. The advantage was the sweep was expanded at shorter ranges to provide greater precision as you got close to the target. There was a name for this display that escapes me.

The maximum range of the E-4 radar was about 15 miles. If it "saw" the target, there would be a bright spot on the vertical radar scan line as it swept through. When you saw that, you would inform GCI that you had "Joy" and take over manually. There was a joystick in the cockpit that, by depressing a trigger, would allow you to manually control the radar dish in the nose. You would focus the radar on the target, holding it with the joystick which now also had vertical control of the dish. If you got it pointed right, the target return would brighten. By releasing the trigger, the radar would "lock on" to the target and follow it automatically.

Picture the situation. Your aircraft is flying at 90º to the target's heading, maintaining a 39º orientation ahead of the target. Any time the "angle off" to another aircraft remains constant, you are on a collision course. You are nose-on to him, a minimum cross section for him to see. You maintain position by adjusting airspeed (Remember, with all this going on, you are still flying the aircraft "blind", with your head stuck in a hood.) The E-4 FCS displays a "steering circle" that flits around the screen telling you how to steer. The object is to keep this little circle in the center of the screen.

When the FCS computer detects you are 30 seconds from the firing point, still on a collision course, the display changes to a large circle with a small one in the center and a steering dot. The radar display is gone. Now your job is to center the dot in that small circle. At 10 seconds to go, the circle collapses into a short straight line with the dot. Your job  then is to bury the dot in the line. The dot shifts left and right with the wings (roll) and up and down with the aircraft nose angle (pitch). The fire control system will time rocket firing to adjust for any slight horizontal position deviation, but it can't adjust for elevation. It also requires wings level. Burying the dot in the little line assured that you were level with the target with wings level. The system also at the 10 second point inserts a slight offset from a true collision course, called an "F-pole" so that your rockets, which of course travel much faster than you, will impact the target and you will pass just behind him. This was called a lead collision course.

Nothing always works as planned. The F-pole offset was activated by a relay in the computer which had a disturbing habit of sticking, resulting in no offset and leaving you on a true collision course with the target. So, during the final 10 second interval, we just would peek over the radar hood to make sure the target was moving on the windshield, indicating no collision imminent.

The typical mission profile was a full-afterburner takeoff and climbout, which burned an awful lot of fuel. You would contact GCI immediately after takeoff and follow their directions to the target's location and altitude. They would set you up on the 90º beam course to the target and continue to direct you until you called "Joy", which meant your radar had picked up the target. After that you were on your own. We normally practiced against a T-33  "T-bird" training aircraft specially equipped with a towing rig with a large, green styrofoam "bomb" that contained a radar reflector. It would be towed several hundred yards behind the T-bird. That would be your target. At 10 seconds to go, you would call "10 seconds" and the T-bird pilot would check that you were moving backwards on his canopy, indicating the Hughes F-pole had worked and there was no chance of a collision. He would clear you and you could complete the attack. We usually had time and fuel for two runs on the target, about 45 minutes.

The aircraft had a tape system that visually recorded the FCS radar display. A successful attack would be indicated by an "X" in the center of the scope where the little line had been, representing a "splash", meaning the target was destroyed. If you had the steering dot buried in the line, you were guaranteed the "splash". This recording system was called NADAR; I never learned what that meant. It was equivalent to a gun camera system. When you returned to base, the tape would be reviewed for evaluation of your prowess, or for colorful criticism.

We did this day after day except if you were on 5-minute alert duty. Flying the aircraft while operating the FCS was a bit challenging. Occasionally, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber, typically a B-47, would penetrate the DEW line without identifying itself to test NORAD. Once they came on New Year's Eve, which was interesting. We really loved SAC. The B-47 could fly a bit higher than the F-86D, which made the intercept difficult. The F-86L with its longer wings could make it to 48,000 feet, which was the ceiling of the B-47. The -D was lucky to reach 45,000. (The wing leading edges had gravity slats. Essentially, the leading edges of the wings would drop forward and down at low airspeed to provide greater lift when landing. At high altitude, the air is too thin to hold the slats in. They would come out and you were done.)

The procedure with an unidentified aircraft was to fly alongside to identify the intruder. Once SAC flew a B-36 in, which was quite a sight. They had these automatic guns in ports along the side that they would open and there you were with several cannons pointed at you. Cute. We would occasionally fly a 90º beam intercept on them, which really P'ed them off because they thought it was dangerous. Tough.

So, that's my personal war story. The Cold War was not a benign time. There was always the possibility of a nuclear attack, due to miscalculation or whatever. It was something we took quite seriously. Every one of us would have rammed an attacking Soviet nuke bomber rather than let him drop his weapon on an American city. I just thought someone might be interested in a phase of the Cold War that has received little publicity.

Guess who:


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