Skyraiders: either the AD-4B (Nuclear bomber that used loft bombing) or the AD-4N (which was the night fighter version)
Carrying a Nuke to Sevastopol
"Like I said, I was a 24-year-old Marine lieutenant at the time, and I wasn't afraid of anything"--Jay Velie, Dallas, Texas
What should you fear? Well, see how this fits:
You're Breakeven Four Zero One--one man, one engine, one bomb. The year is 1957, the month February, the hour 0200. You're sitting on your parachute in the tidy cockpit of a Douglas AD-6 Skyraider, better known as the Able Dog, checking its systems by the small gooseneck flashlight that hangs from a chain around your neck. A Wright R-3350--the engine that powered the B-29 super-bomber of World War II--swings a four-bladed propeller through a circle almost 14 feet in diameter. Just behind the whirling blades, there hangs a slenderized version of the Fat Man atomic bomb that on August 9, 1945, laid waste to Nagasaki.
The MK 7 weighs 1,700 pounds and measures 15 feet long by 30.5 inches in diameter. If you need to return to USS Forrestal with it still on the centerline--tires flat and oleo struts compressed--the nuke will clear the steel flight deck with six inches to spare. You're sweating beneath your pressure suit, flight suit, survival vest, and inflatable life preserver.
On the angle to your left, the jet pukes in their A4D Skyhawks are being shot into the night like so many rockets. Breakeven Four Zero One doesn't rate a catapult: you circle the flashlight, the flight-deck officer gives you the okay, and you push the throttle to the stop. With a bellowing growl, that 3350 drags you toward a marker that's invisible until you're moving fast enough to pop the tail up. Then all you can see is the red light that glows on the far end of the flight deck, which first leaps toward you and then disappears beneath the nose. The oleos thump off the end of the deck, and you descend to your cruising altitude.
World War III has come, and Breakeven Four Zero One is at the pointy end of the spear, heading for Russia at a fuel-thrifty 140 knots. You switch from internal fuel to the 300-gallon drop tank beneath the port wing. Then inflate the rubber doughnut that cushions your butt. Every three minutes, by the red glow of your flashlight, put a time tick on the chart, closing the distance from Crete to Rhodes. Every 15 minutes, calculate the fuel you've burned. Watch your altitude!
"In our squadron of 22 pilots, we lost three killed by flying into the ground or water during a 20-month period. I thought this was normal."--Tom Beard, Port Angeles, Washington
The clock on the instrument panel is set to Zulu--what the military calls Greenwich Mean Time. Here in the eastern Mediterranean, the day is two hours ahead of Greenwich, and by 0300 the sky has softened from black to gray. You turn north, threading between the islands, each more visible than the one before, meanwhile smoking a cigarette from the sleeve pocket of your flight suit.
At 0312--right on schedule--the Turkish port of Bodrum appears before you, with its palms and fishing boats and pretty castle on a point of land. Remembering the Naval aviators who splattered themselves onto the brown cliffs of Turkey, you advance the throttle, pull back on the joystick, and clear the castle at a cautionary 200 feet and 170 knots. Feet dry! You power the canopy open, lose a section of chart into the pines, and unroll the Turkish flight chart from the toilet-paper core that keeps the route organized. Your course lies northeast, between the mountains. Legalized flathatting!
At 0407 you leave the town of Usak to starboard, rewarding yourself with an apple from the box lunch supplied by Forrestal's galley. Just after 0500--full daylight now, on a cloudy spring morning--it's feet wet and 50 feet again, across the Black Sea toward Sevastopol.
On your right-hand console is the Black Box. You toggle the switch labeled INSERT/EXTRACT, whereupon the green light goes out and the yellow light comes on. In the MK 7, a battery-driven screw gear moves the 10-pound capsule of uranium 235 into a soccer ball of tamper and explosives; when detonated, they will squeeze the capsule and make it "go critical." Long minutes later, the yellow light goes out and the red light comes on. The MK 7 has become a bomb.
Despite the rubber doughnut, a pain introduces itself to your right buttock. You shift weight to the left cheek, pop an aspirin, and wash it down with orange juice from your thermos, sucked though a tube. The 3350 coughs: port drop tank empty! You gain altitude, switch to internal fuel, tickle the primer, and when the engine sounds okay you switch to the starboard drop tank. You could lose the empty into the Black Sea, but the drag doesn't amount to much. Anyhow, you're supposed to bring the tanks back to Forrestal, in case there's a second launch.
It's 0600. In training, you saved lunch for the long flight home, but this isn't training, and the pain is climbing your spine and spreading into your right thigh. You break open the sandwiches. While chewing the ham-and-cheese, which seem especially dry this morning, you practice flying with your right eye closed.
"We didn't have goggles that went opaque until the 1960s. Shut one eye and then open it after the flash was the idea."--Ron Pickett, Phoenix, Arizona
The military calls it "monocular occlusion." Old-time navigators used the technique, too, closing the right eye while staring into the sun with the left, when finding their latitude with a Jacob's staff. You could walk down a London street in 1600 and spot the old sea captains, their left eyes dead as agate marbles.
Your own bomb isn't the problem: bright suns will be rising all over Russia this morning. Not just Able Dogs, but most of the single-seat turbojets in the U.S. Navy and Air Force have been adapted for low-level attack with nuclear weapons, along with the twin-engine Canberras of the Royal Air Force. Following their strikes, the Strategic Air Command will be along with its big Boeing B-47s and B-52s, each with multiple copies of the MK 15 hydrogen bomb.
In addition to flash, there's the blast from your MK 7. A turbojet whips along at 500 knots or more, putting a respectable distance between it and the explosion, but the Able Dog at combat power is less than half as fast as the shockwave.
Not to worry! You'll honk back on the control stick and loft the MK 7 onto the target while you're still two miles away, meanwhile doubling back the way you came. This is LABS: Low Altitude Bombing System.
Back on Forrestal, you reckoned the loft backward from the target to the release point to the pull-up. Then you found an easily recognized landmark to serve as your Initial Point, which today will be Pokrovskiy cathedral in the center of Sevastopol. You've never actually seen the Sevastopol peninsula, but you've spent hours over the spy-plane photographs, and you know the place as well as Pinecastle bombing range in Florida.
Next you calculated the time that will elapse between the IP and the pull-up. This value--15.5 seconds--has been set in the Black Box. In the Hell Hole--the avionics bay on the Able Dog's belly, behind the oil-cooler flaps and therefore encrusted with half-burned oil--the ground crew set the desired release angle and G force. Now, before Sevastopol comes into view, you must accomplish the following:
On the armament panel, by your right knee, are three red switches. Each is guarded by a metal channel so it can't be moved by accident, and each controls a "store" slung beneath the port wing pylon, centerline pylon, or starboard wing pylon. Toggle the middle one hot. (It wouldn't do to release a fuel tank over Sevastopol and take your MK 7 back to Forrestal. That would ruin the Skipper's day.)
On the left side of the armament panel is the master switch, likewise guarded by a metal channel. Toggle it hot.
Now the Black Box again. Check that the mode selector switch is set to LOFT, and that the knurled knob of the timer reads 15.5.
On the left side of the cockpit, just behind the throttle, is the switch that uncages the LABS gyro. Toggle it. A red bulb glows above the glare shield on the left side of the windshield; a tone sounds in your earphones.
On the right side of the instrument panel is a gyro with two needles. The vertical needle indicates yaw--your compass heading with respect to the target. Keep it centered.
You're ready for the goofy loop.
"Manhandling that plane--low, slow, and inverted--was the best thrill around, at least while in full flight gear."--Joe Shea, Duxbury, Massachusetts
You're not targeting Sevastopol but the military airfield on the mainland beyond, to take out the MiG-15s that would otherwise intercept the big bombers of the Strategic Air Command.
There it is: cliffs, beaches, dockyard cranes, and--as you close the distance--Pokrovskiy cathedral in the center of town. The Russian anti-aircraft gunners probably know you're coming, but they can't see you in the radar clutter of the Black Sea. Anyhow, there's nothing you can do about ack-ack. The Able Dog has been stripped of its 20-mm wing guns, rocket racks, and all external armor plate.
You switch to internal fuel, push the throttle to the stop, and toggle water injection on. (You never added water in training; it boosts the horsepower over 3,000 but takes a bunch of hours off the life of the engine.) Again that bellowing growl, as the tachometer winds up toward 2900 rpm, manifold pressure gauge to 60 inches, and airspeed indicator to 275 knots. Only the radar altimeter holds steady--50 feet above the water--as you accelerate toward the Sevastopol waterfront. Fifty feet is life.
When the onion tops of Pokrovskiy cathedral flash under the port wingtip, you press the pickle button, lying comfortably beneath your thumb on the left side of the joystick. (There's another pickle lower down. Some guys tape a thumbtack to the second pickle, with the point out, but you don't bother with that. You're good.) The red lamp goes dark; the earphones go silent. The timer begins to count: one potato, two potato....
At 15.5 seconds, the red light and the tone return, and the horizontal needle slumps to the bottom of the gyro. It has become an accelerometer. You haul back on the control stick, lifting the needle back to the middle of the dial. Centrifugal force drives you into the cushion, flattening it. When you've centered the horizontal needle, you're pulling the 4.5 Gs that were set in the Hell Hole. You weigh 765 pounds instead of the 170 that showed on Forrestal's wardroom scale, and the MK 7 weighs nearly four tons.
The vertical needle has become a yaw-roll indicator, showing whether your wings are perpendicular with respect to the target. With skill and cunning, you fly the two needles, keeping them crossed in the center of the dial. You are now on line with the target and describing the desired arc away from the ground. Perhaps incidentally, the needles also oblige you to keep your attention inside the cockpit instead of looking outside for the green stitchery of Russian anti-aircraft fire.
When the Able Dog points 60 degrees nose high, there's a muffled bang. The Douglas ejector foot, powered by a 40 mm shell, has blasted the MK 7 off the centerline pylon.
"I viewed that thump as good news. It meant that the awful-awful was on its own, and so was I."--Al Schaufelberger, St Helena, South Carolina
Now the red lamp goes dark and the earphones go quiet. You listen to the engine's agony as it pulls the Able Dog vertical. You go over the top at 2,000 feet, by which time your speed has bled off to 90 knots and you're pulling maybe half a G--basically hanging there, upside down, trying to locate Sevastopol. By the time you're pointing 30 degrees nose-down, you've picked up enough speed to roll upright. The cockpit fills up with the stink of cordite from the Douglas ejector foot.
Though it resembles an Immelmann turn and is sometimes mistaken for one, this maneuver is a Half Cuban Eight. (The dive before rolling upright makes the difference.) It enables a pilot to reverse direction at the greatest possible speed, while simultaneously losing the altitude gained in the pull-up.
Behind you, the MK 7 describes a graceful parabola through the cloudy morning: up, up, and over, like a stone from David's slingshot. When it has fallen to within 1,000 feet of the ground, a barometric switch will turn on the radar sniffers and then (if the Russians aren't jamming) the radar altimeter. You want the bomb to explode 200 feet above Sevastopol airfield. If the Russians are jamming, the baro switch will trigger the bomb anyhow, at more or less the same altitude--and if the barometer fails, there's a contact fuse.
The flash will envelope you at the instant of the burst. The Able Dog's rudder and elevator are painted white, so they won't crisp from the heat. Long seconds later, the blast will catch up. By this time you'll be at 200 feet and heading straight out, presenting the Able Dog's skinny end to the shockwave. If it catches you straight on, and if all the assumptions were correct, you will survive.
Then you can throttle down to long-range cruise, so low and slow you can count the propeller blades as they go by. You'll grind open the canopy, clear away the stink of cordite, and fill your lungs with fresh air. About the same time, the pain will start again in your right buttock, worse than before, as if making up for the pain-free minutes from the IP to here. You'll switch to the starboard drop tank, pop another aspirin, and fly home to . . . what?
"If we had to do the real thing in a Able Dog, in my opinion, none of the pilots would have survived. And I think we all knew it." -- Ralph Davis, Palm Desert, California
First off, the assumptions might have been wrong, and the Able Dog mightn't have withstood the heat and concussion of the bomb it carried to Armageddon. Second, the Russians weren't entirely without countermeasures, even against an intruder flying at 50 feet off the deck. According to Viktor Belenko, a defector who worked for the U.S. Navy in the 1970s, the "doctrinal response" of the Soviet Union was crude but devastating: recall all friendly fighters with the radio command carpet, then explode thermonuclear bombs at 50,000 feet.
Would a Able Dog get through that? Perhaps. Would Forrestal still be on station near Crete to receive it? Not likely.
Jay Velie was 24 years old and believed himself immortal. Ralph Davis's squadron--VA-104, the Hell's Archers aboard Forrestal--sometimes had grass airfields assigned to them, in Turkey or Romania, which fantastically were supposed to be stocked with avgas. In the Western Pacific, Joe Shea had his own plan: "Some of us," he recalled, "scouted out very remote locations in Japan that would offer no appealing targets for the Russians. We figured to land on the roadway or wheels up and go live in the mountains for a while."
Some nuclear-attack squadrons didn't count on returning. Their boast: "Double the range!" If Breakeven Four Zero One didn't intend to fly back to Forrestal, he could have humped that MK 7 all the way from Crete to the Kremlin. Afterward, he'd simply open the canopy, drag his lame legs over the side, and parachute down to present himself for interment. That was the plan, anyhow.
"We didn't really worry too much about the mission. Sort of figured it would be the end of the world anyway." -- Dick Davis, Glenwood, Iowa