December 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 8
In 1959 I was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, a pilot in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), flying B-47s out of Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.
The late 1950s were the height of the Cold War, and some airplanes, loaded with nuclear weapons, were always in the air, where no surprise attack could destroy them. Many more sat at the end of runways, their crews waiting in nearby bunkers.
Fifteen minutes after an alert sounded, every B-47 at Pease not on stand-down could be in the air, headed for the Soviet Union with a nuclear payload we were trained to launch in a sort of toss, diving the plane and then pulling up as we released the bomb so that it would arc up and away from the plane, giving us, it was hoped, time to clear the area before the multimegaton blast obliterated the target and everything for miles around.
None of us placed much faith in our ability to survive both the Soviet airdefense system and the detonation of our payloads. We had accepted that we were America’s kamikaze pilots and that our flights in a war would be oneway only.
None of us doubted that there would be a war either, and we knew the only chance America had of surviving was if we got through to the Soviet war machine so quickly that it wouldn’t have time to hurl more than a handful of hydrogen bombs at our country.
To that end not only did we practice till we were past perfection at our jobs, but we were also routinely stationed on forward alert at bases in Europe.
It was during one of these forward alerts that my crew and I may well have almost triggered World War III.
My copilot, Art, and my navigatorbombardier, Jim, and I found ourselves flying a course north from Scotland to Spitsbergen, southeast into the Barents Sea, and then south for what looked like a run into the White Sea. We could have been heading for Leningrad or one of the many major military installations in the northwest corner of Soviet Russia.
We had real targets to hit, had we been ordered to proceed. We had real nuclear weapons on board. And we would have launched those weapons without a blink of hesitation. In an era of constant saber rattling, we were the finely honed edge of America’s saber. But there was nonetheless always a sigh of relief when we turned back and headed for home.
Unfortunately, this day the B-47 we were flying was the last one Boeing built. Maybe the company had put it together out of spare parts and rejects because it was a hangar queen, constantly breaking down. If it did make it into the air, the mission usually had to be aborted because of some mechanical problem. But this time we had flown it into the Barents Sea without—as far as I knew—even a hint of a problem and made our turn toward the Soviet mainland.
The minutes droned on. The sun beat through the canopy, and a blindingly white sea of clouds rose to within a few feet of our altitude. Surely it was time to turn back.
I called Jim, crowded into the nose below and forward of my position.
Instead of his usual crisply professional answer, he mumbled something I didn’t catch. I asked him to repeat.
“I said I think we’ve got another three minutes to go.”
I was startled. “You think? What do you mean, ‘You think’?”
He mumbled something again and admitted all his electronic equipment had gone out about thirty minutes before. He was plotting our course by dead reckoning and frantically trying to find the electrical fault and fix it.
“Why didn’t you tell me right away? We could have aborted.”
“I thought I could fix it” was all he said. I understood. No one liked to abort a mission. Yes, it was peacetime. But at any moment it might not be, and to chicken out as we closed the coast of Russia by claiming a mechanical failure was something none of us wanted to do.
“All right then.” I got back on the intercom. “Tell me when to turn.”
The seconds ticked away. I thought about the jet stream, still poorly understood and mapped in those days. It could be pushing us along much faster than our indicated airspeed.
“Good God Almighty!” Art sitting in tandem behind me shouted into my ears just as a shadow caught my right eye at the edge of my peripheral vision. “A Flashlight!” he yelled. “Good God Almighty, a Flashlight!”
“Flashlight” was the NATO code word for the Yak-25, a twin-engine jet interceptor that had been designed and built for the express purpose of intercepting and shooting down B-47s. And now it had one in its sights. We were dead meat.
“I’ve got him on guns,” I heard Art say over the intercom. His voice was now firm and calm. The B-47 was equipped with two radar-aimed twenty-millimeter cannon in a turret in the tail. The Yak was diving right into their cone of fire. There was no doubt that his rockets would destroy us, but we had a chance of taking him with us.
Suddenly the Yak dropped back and to the side—perhaps the pilot had spotted the snouts of the cannon tracking him—then edged in to fly parallel with our wing. I could see the pilot clearly. In his helmet and deeply tinted goggles, he looked very much like us. God knows why, but I waved. He stared back for a long second, then returned the wave and waggled his wings. I rocked the B-47’s wings. Then we just flew there, side by side, looking at each other as we headed closer and closer to the Soviet Union.
My mind raced. How to get out of this? If I could only tell the pilot in the Yak that this was all a mistake, the result of a technical error, and that we’d never meant to approach this near his wonderful workers’ paradise.
I must have said something to this effect aloud, for Jim came over the intercom. “Let’s try one-two-one-pointfive.” That was the international emergency frequency.
So, breaking all the rules, we got on the horn. “Hello, Yak. Hello, Yak. We just want to go home. Can we do that?” Staticky silence. The Yak flew silently at our side.
Finally a heavily accented voice emerging from the ether asked, “Are you the Boeing bomber?” My response in the affirmative was met with silence.
Then: “Why are you approaching the Soviet Union? What is your intention?” The transmission seemed to us to come from a Soviet air-defense ground-control station, not the fighter.
I explained about the failure of our navigational equipment. I even explained that we were flying the last plane in the production run and that it was a piece of junk that was always breaking down. I said all we wanted to do was turn around and go home. Could we do that please?
I got back on the radio. “If you shoot us down, you’ll start the war. If you try to force us down, we’ll fight and you’ll have to shoot us down.” I thought some more. What else could I say?
Then Jim came on the intercom. “Tell them it’s my fault. Tell them if that Yak pilot lets us go home, I’ll give him my watch.”
With nothing to lose I relayed the message. Silence.
Then: “What kind of watch?”
“Tell him it’s a Timex.”
“Oh, no,” Art groaned from behind me. “Why didn’t you tell him it was a Rolex? Or at least a Hamilton?”
The Russian voice came over the airwaves again: “Timex is ‘Keeps a licking and takes on ticking’?”
“Something like that. Yes. Da. Da. ”
Silence. But the Yak slid close in to our wingtip, and the pilot raised his left arm and pointed at the wrist. “Give me your watch,” I called down to Jim. He wiggled up and handed it to me. I lifted it toward the Yak. The pilot raised his goggles and stared, then rolled the Yak upside down so that we were flying canopy to canopy. I held the watch up, and he, hanging upside down, stared at it. He circled his left thumb and forefinger.
The radio crackled. “How deliver?”
“We’ll mail it when we get back to England.”
Oh, cripes! I’d just passed along classified information to the enemy.
“O.K. You mail to this address.” We all three memorized what seemed like a civilian street address, and I repeated it back over the air.
A few seconds after we had done that, the Yak edged in on our wingtip once again. The pilot gave us the O.K. sign once more. I cranked the B-47 into a near-vertical 180 and headed back the way we had come. The Yak pilot escorted us at eight o’clock high for the next ten minutes. Then he dived down again, giving us some anxious moments, pulled up to our wingtip, raised his wrist, and peeled off into a shallow dive toward Russia.
We returned from our mission about twenty minutes behind schedule. In debriefing we explained the discrepancy by the failure of our navigational equipment and headwinds. Jim was complimented on his extraordinary navigational skills in steering us home—and he did do a fine job—and that was that. There was no mention of our unauthorized breach of radio silence, and we didn’t bring it up.
We did send Jim’s watch to that Soviet address—from a civilian post office in Oxford. We thought about buying a new Timex or even chipping in for a more expensive watch, but Jim said, “No, I promised him my watch, and that’s what he’s going to get. I like the idea of some Russian interceptor pilot wearing my Timex.”
A while later, after Gary Powers’s U-2 was blasted out of the sky, as the world spiraled into the Berlin crisis, a B-47 was shot down by a Flashlight near where we’d had our close encounter. The war fever boiled up dangerously.
Talking about the fate of the B-47 crew while on alert in our runway bunker during the war scare, Jim mused, “Maybe the Timex was never delivered and the Yak pilot was sore.”
“Maybe,” said Art, “it took a licking and stopped ticking.”
“But we did mail it,” I pointed out. “Let’s write and ask what the deal is.” So on our next forward alert overseas, we mailed a letter to the Soviet address. As near as I can remember, this is what we wrote:
“Dear fellow pilot: We sent you the Timex watch you asked for, so please lay off shooting down B-47s. When the politicians tell us to, we’ll fight, but let’s not rush things.
“The crews of the 351st Bombardment Squadron.
“ P.S. If the Timex didn’t work, maybe it was the last one in the production run.”
Throughout the rest of the Cold War, another long twenty years, years that saw all my crew and me retire and some of our sons grow up and become SAC aircrew, no Strategic Air Command aircraft was ever again shot down by a Soviet fighter.