(or The War that Wasn’t)
This is an article written 10 years ago on the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile crisis. Reprinted with permission of the son in honor of his Dad.
This story is one that shows how close we’ve come a couple of times to all out war with the USSR. It’s kinda long, but well worth the read.
By Klyne D. Nowlin, Col USAF (Ret)
Forty years ago on October 27, 1962, two Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers, loaded for war, roared off the alert pad headed for the runway at an air base in the Caribbean. To the casual observer, this looked like another test exercise which occurred almost daily at SAC bases around the country to test the ability of the combat crews in ready alert position to man their aircraft and take them to the point of takeoff. However, there was something different about this exercise. First, there were only two of the eight B-52s on ready alert participating. Second, when the runway was reached, the two 465,000 pound B-52s, loaded with over 300,000 pounds of fuel and a bomb bay of nuclear weapons, continued down the 11,000 runway under full power. By now it was obvious to the casual observer that these two B-52s were in the process of taking off.
On that day, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of war of what is now known in history as the 13 day Cuban missile crisis which started on October 16, 1962. This was the day of the showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union, which placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and had Russian ships off the shore of Cuba waiting word to deliver more missiles crated on their decks. In Florida, troops were poised to invade Cuba and Navy ships and Air Force aircraft were standing ready to support the invasion. Cuba was already equipped with Russian nuclear missiles that could obliterated our forces and cities with less than five minutes’ warning.
On that breezy, sunny October day, I was one of the pilots in the lead B-52 of the two aircraft formation which had received the command message while on alert to launch our aircraft, proceed to our airborne orbit points off the boundary of the Soviet Union, and wait for the execution message to strike the heartland of Russia. We were not the only strike aircraft launching. Alert aircraft in pairs from almost every SAC combat base in the United States were scrambling to get airborne and to precede to their strike orbit points. Our mission was somewhat different because our course would take us in the vicinity of Cuba. We were directed to vector our course so as to fly over the Russian ships off the coast of Cuba and to report our sightings to SAC headquarters.
Our takeoff roll took every bit of the 11,000 foot runway on that warm fall day. At 155 knots, our B-52 lumbered off the runway and seemed to gasp for altitude until the gear and the flaps were retracted, eliminating the drag that was holding back the giant bird from accelerating and climbing. As we started our climb to approximately 30,000 feet altitude, we could look back to our right and see our wing man, the second B-52, joining us in formation. Because of the security of our mission, we were under radio silence, except for the exchange of information inside the aircraft at crew stations.
About 100 nautical miles from the Russian ships off Cuba, the radar navigator reported, “Pilot, I’ve picked up the Russian ships in tandem formation, parallel to the Cuban coast, and it appears they’re stopped with the engines running in idle.” As we flew over the Russian ships, we confirmed our radar navigator’s earlier report that the Russian ships had stopped dead in the water. Shortly thereafter, we transmitted a strike report to SAC headquarters confirming the Russian ships had stopped short of Cuba.
Now we were racing east, away from the sun, to intercept the coast of Spain where we would rendezvous with our first Air Force air refueling KC 135 tanker out of Spain. As I recall, nightfall came quick since the standard clock time in Spain was five hours ahead of us. I also recall, it must have been a new moon night because it was pitch black outside. As we crossed into Spain, our radar navigator picked up two beacon signals. He decoded the beacon signals and confirmed that one of the signals was from our tanker and the other from the tanker for our buddy B-52 wing man. “Pilot, our tanker is approaching 100 nautical miles on a direct course to intercept our flight path,” reported the radar navigator. We were racing toward each other at a closer rate of over 1000 knots. The radar navigator continued to gives us progress reports in 10 nautical mile increments as our tanker approached. “Pilot, he’s at 10 nautical miles and is starting his 180 degree turn to rollout in a position in front of us,” the radar navigator reported as we readied for refueling. “Roger, I have the silhouette of the aircraft in sight,” responded the pilot. Not only were we under radio silence, we were also flying without navigational lights on. From a distance, it was difficult to see the tanker. As we aligned the B-52 below the tanker, we could see the refueling directional lights which were recessed for security purposes in the belly of the KC-135. I remember it was a smooth night and we were able to take on 120,000 pounds of fuel without any disconnects. Both pilots on board the lead B-52 were members of the ‘One Gulp’ club, a distinction given to those pilots who were able to hook up with the tanker and take on over 100,000 pounds of fuel without a disconnect, thus in one gulp. The refueling took about 15 minutes. When the tanker completed offloading the fuel, the tanker pilot flashed the refueling directional lights indicating he was preparing to disconnect. When we saw the tanker making an abrupt climb, we pushed the nose of the B-52 downward, thus causing a pressure disconnect. The disconnect was successful and we took up a heading east, leaving the east coast of Spain and setting course over the Mediterranean Sea for our orbit point. Our wing man was now on his own, heading on a different course to his orbit point. We would not see our B-52 wing man again, unless the command to strike was not received and we returned to our home base.
While cruising above 35,000 feet over the Mediterranean Sea , a radio call on Guard Channel, the international emergency channel which overrides all other channels, came in loud and clear: “Big Photo, Big Photo Aircraft, two MIG fighters from a Russian block country are heading 270 degrees, in your direction, approximately 125 nautical miles east of your position.” The reference to Big Photo was used by ground radar sites to indicate a big aircraft, possibly photo reconnaissance. We were not a photo reconnaissance aircraft, but we were big. We could not confirm whether the call was for our aircraft since we were under order of radio silence. Several transmissions of the message continued. Shortly thereafter, the radar navigator called, “Pilot, I’ve picked up two bogies approximately 100 nautical miles at twelve o¹clock, moving rapidly, on a intercept course.” The pilot responded, “Roger radar, keep us informed of progress.” The radar navigator continued to countdown the intercept milage. When the two MIGs got within 10 nautical miles, we spotted the two aircraft by their navigational lights, moving rapidly at ten o’clock our position. About then, the radar navigator reported, “Pilot, the lead MIG is breaking formation and starting a turn toward us!” The pilot responded, “We have the bogies in sight. The second MIG continued on a course passing off our left wing about 5 nautical miles. The gunner reported, “Pilot, I have a bogie on my scope, passing outbound on our left and now starting a turn back toward us.” The pilot answered, “Roger, keep an eye on him and arm your guns, but don’t shoot unless we are fired upon.” The lead MIG had now joined up next to our left wing as if flying formation with our left fuel tip tank. It was still dark but we could see the outline of the pilot’s helmet. At the same time, the other MIG had moved in low, directly behind our B-52 about 100 feet. The gunner exclaimed, “This guy is looking at me, eyeball to eyeball! If he shoots, we won’t have time to shoot back.” The pilot again commanded, “Gunner, our orders are not to shoot unless fired upon.” “If he shoots, he’ll knock us right out of the sky,” replied the gunner. At that point, the gunner shouted, “He’s accelerating toward us and is going under our belly!” Suddenly, the B-52 began to shake as if something had grabbed on to the tail and began shaking it. This was followed by a loud, intense roar. Unexpectedly, the MIG darted from under our aircraft nose and all that we could see were two fireballs of blueish red flame coming from his tailpipes as the fighter zoomed, climbing for altitude in front of us. At this point, we also noticed the other MIG was haul tailing it, joining with the second MIG on a reverse course from where they came. This tactic by the Russian MIGs was reminiscent of the reconnaissance E-P3 that was forced to land in China after a MIG-21 collided with the US Navy aircraft in 2001. This withdrawal seemed to calm the crew as they returned to normal crew station monitoring. Occasional navigator’s heading corrections to the pilot was all that could be heard.
When our B-52 reached it’s orbit point somewhere southwest of the coast of Yugoslavia, the pilot reduced the eight engine power to efficiency flight settings to conserve as much fuel as possible and began a racetrack pattern to loiter at the orbit point. By this time, B-52 aircraft from the other SAC bases were assembling at or approaching their orbit points in anticipation of receiving the radio command from SAC Headquarters to strike the heartland of the Soviet Union. Most crews were hoping and probably praying the command would never come and they would be able to return to their home bases when the given time for departing the orbit elapsed. Most crew members envisioned the strike mission as a one way trip. The odds of surviving the atmospheric turbulence caused by numerous detonations of nuclear weapons dropped by aircraft and launched by ICBMs which could tear the aircraft apart, the fire from enemy defenses, and finally finding a friendly post strike base still intact for landing, appeared to be very unlikely. That’s the price of war.
After several hours, our orbiting time elapsed without further command orders, and we departed for our rendezvous point with our second KC-135 air refueling tanker off the southern coast of Spain. By this time, we were in daylight hours and our refueling went off without a hitch, again taking on 120,000 pounds of fuel, which we would need to return to our home base. Our return route took us along the Mediterranean Sea and over the beautiful Rock of Gibraltar which was a sight to see as it stuck out in all its brilliance surrounded by dark blue water. From the cockpit, this sight was breathtaking. However, this was not a sightseeing trip and we were not out of the woods yet, since we were still on call to strike if we could still fly to our target prior to dry fuel tanks–a sobering thought!
On leaving the west coast of Europe, our flight would reverse our course to the northeast coast of Cuba where again we were to report the status of the Russian ship convoy containing the nuclear missiles for offload in Cuba. As we approached within radar sighting, the radar navigator, excitingly reported, “The Russian ships are headed east away from Cuba in tandem convoy formation. Something has happened.” As we got in sight of the convoy, we were able to report to SAC Headquarters the exciting news that the ships were headed away from Cuba. At this point, we took up a heading for direct flight to our Caribbean island home base.
Flying at 43,000 feet, It took about three hours to arrive at our descent point for landing at our home base. On descending and reaching 20,000 feet, we were cleared for a straight in approach for landing. At the same time, the tower reported that two B-52s had just launched from our home base which was exactly the same time we took off the day before. The pilot reported to the crew: “Gentlemen, our replacements are airborne, we are off the hook and cleared to land.” An exuberant cheer could be heard throughout the crew cabin. Oddly, as combat warriors, we were relieved to hear that our strike mission was over for this day. Up to this point, we were on call to reverse our course and return to strike if we could make it over our target before dry fuel tanks. The crew’s apprehensions were noticeably diminished because they knew they were returning home to their families.
After being airborne for over 24 hours and without sleep for 30 hours, the challenge now for the pilots was to put the giant bird on the runway safely. Under these conditions, the landing is often referred to as a controlled crash. Fortunately, the B-52 bounced on the runway several times until the drag chute could be deployed to stabilize and slow the bird now weighing over 250,000 pounds. Again, another cheer went up from the crew expressing their happiness for being safe on the ground. After clearing the runway, the plane was taxied to the parking ramp where three Air Force blue staff cars were waiting to take the crew to debriefing. As we looked out the right cockpit windows, we could see our wing man B-52, who we hadn¹t seen since our first refueling point, safely landing on the runway.
At the intelligence room, while the crew was being debriefed on ever aspect of the mission, the secure doors of the room abruptly swung open and everyone came to attention as the wing commander entered the room. The wing commander extended his congratulations to the crew for a job well done. He conveyed the reports being received that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had ordered the Soviet MRBM missiles in Cuba dismantled, crated and returned to the Soviet Union, because he didn’t want to be the one to start the next world war. There has always been speculation as to what caused Primer Khrushchev to withdraw the missiles and returned the ships to the Soviet Union. Was it the build up of troops in Florida, less than ninety miles away, or the Navy ships with troops off Cuba¹s coast ready to invade? You can bet Khurshchev was not very comfortable with B-52s surrounding his western boarders, from north to south, ready to strike the heart land of the Soviet Union. It was apparent, the MIGs, we encountered, came to verify that President John F. Kennedy was not bluffing when he said in a letter to the Kremlin, “I must tell you that the United States is determined that this threat to the security of this hemisphere be removed.” Obviously, the display of United States’ mighty force played a major role in Khurshchev’s decision.
Not a movie, not actors, this was the real deal…
Thanks to Craig and Dave for allowing me to put this up in honor of all those who participated in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thankfully, the USSR backed down….