National Geographic : 1965 Sep
KODACHROMEBY ALBERT MOLDVAY() N.G .S . Air Force high command weighs plans for deployment of U. S. men and planes: Gen. John Paul McConnell, Air Force Chief of Staff (right); Air Force Secretary Eugene M. Zuckert; and Gen. William H. Blanchard, Vice Chief of Staff. In the background pic ture, SAC alert crews on Guam race to their B-52's for a practice scramble. inflict instant nuclear retaliation is the world's best guarantee at the moment that nuclear war will not begin. But for me, SAC's characteristic symbol will always be the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, largest plane in the Air Force inventory (pages 327-9). I never tire of watching it thunder down the runway, its eight jet engines spewing black smoke. Heavy with fuel, its enormous wings span 185 feet and droop like those of an angry mother hen sheltering her brood. As the 244-ton plane-heavier than the Statue of Liberty-takes to the air, the wings straight en, then bow upward. In flight they flex as much as 20 feet at the tips. I first saw the B-52 close up at Ellsworth Air Force Base, near Rapid City, South Da kota. If I had entertained any thought that these last-resort bombers stand around gath ering cobwebs until an emergency threatens, I soon learned otherwise. So heavily scheduled is each plane for maintenance, modification, repairs, training flights, and alerts that it is difficult to find time to launder it. But its curiously wrinkled skin-stretched by the 308 stresses of high-speed flight-must be washed, for a dirty plane does not perform well. The master crew chief for one of Ells worth's B-52's, T/Sgt. Verle L. Wagner, explained that it takes two years for a main tenance man to learn this complex plane. Before every flight, he said, his crew checks 1,250 items in an examination lasting four and a half hours. Alert Crews Sleep in Flying Suits By Presidential order, half of SAC's 880 bombers must be constantly ready for take off within 15 minutes. The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS)-radar detection and tracking stations at Clear, Alas ka; Thule, Greenland; and Fylingdales Moor, England-can give SAC that much warning in case enemy ICBM's are ever launched across the top of the world. SAC's alert planes have been completely checked out, their switches set. They are "cocked" and ready for swift starting. Ropes, armed guards, and sentry dogs keep intruders away and prevent tampering (page 345).