The world shrank a notch last October 16. On that date three
men and a Strategic Air Command aircraft flew 8,028 miles from Tokyo to London
in eight hours and thirty-five minutes.
The most significant fact about the flight, aside from setting
a world's speed record, is that these three men were a regular SAC combat crew
and the aircraft was stock SAC B-58 bomber.
These men proved that if this aircraft and its weapons were
needed half a world away from any base on the globe, they could be taken there
by a SAC combat crew, on order, in a little more than eight hours. This fact is
an aviation milestone, a tribute to the skill of SAC combat crews, a measure of
the performance of a great aircraft, and a small victory in the cold war.
The story of this remarkable record flight is not the story
of a maximum effort of heroic men. It is, instead, the story of the routine top
performance of the Strategic Air Command.
Two generals—one of them Gen. Thomas S. Power, SAC Commander
in Chief—were discussing the capability of the B-58 supersonic bomber at SAC
headquarters on a hot Nebraska afternoon last summer. The B-58 had been
operational in SAC for over two years. Most of that time was needed to iron out
the myriad small problems that had troubled this unique and complicated
aircraft since it first joined SAC. Once the B-58 had been a problem, the
generals agreed. Now it was a seasoned, reliable strategic weapon. What this
aircraft needs next, General Power said, is to be pushed hard—beyond its normal
operational performance. We need to show just how good and how reliable it is.
That afternoon a message went to SAC's Second Air Force
headquarters and to the B-58 wing at Carswell AFB, Tex., directing the
commanders to tell SAC headquarters just what their aircraft could do.
Six possible flights were suggested.
Tokyo to London was picked for several good reasons. First,
the total route was, for the most part, identical with two regular training
routes called "Glass Brick" (a regular practice mission to the Far
East) and "Alarm Bell" (a similar practice mission to Spain). The
Tokyo-to-London flight would be a shortcut beginning at Alaska and going
across the Arctic and ending at London, which combined the "Glass Brick"
and "Alarm Bell" missions.
Second, because the route was mostly over regularly planned
corridors, tanker bases would be no problem, nor would aircraft servicing.
Crews would accomplish their normal "Glass Brick" and "Alarm
Bell" training while en route. The switch in destinations and flight path
was just the kind of curve that SAC commanders like to throw at their people to
keep them on their toes.
And third, the distance involved and the length of the
supersonic run would be the best possible way that the B-58 could exceed its
For these reasons, General Power approved the
Tokyo-to-London flight, and it was given a code name —"Greased
Clearing the Way
A number of factors about "Greased Lightning" made
the mission special but also made approval by a number of other agencies
necessary. Since this was a supersonic flight, the governments of the countries
to be crossed had to give specific approval. This was because the flight would
drag a sonic boom wherever the flight track passed. As it turned out, approval
was granted to fly over London faster than sound (at 50,000 feet), but such
approval was not granted for a flight over Tokyo. And, not the least important,
such a flight would be a problem to regular air-traffic control in the busy airspace around two of the world's greatest
Besides Air Force approval, it was, therefore, necessary to
get a final go-ahead from the Department of Defense, Department of State, and
many other national agencies.
Meanwhile SAC began planning.
"Greased Lightning" would only serve its operations
and training objectives if it were a widespread exercise involving many units,
crews, and support people. It might be more spectacular to have a single plane
with minimum support fly the special Tokyo-to-London track, but it would be
poor planning for several reasons. First of all, as a Strategic Air Command
operations officer explained it, SAC doesn't fly that way. Every SAC flight is
planned to be as safe and foolproof as men and equipment can make it. The
Tokyo-to-London flight would be no gamble. There would be no discredit to the
crew or SAC if fuel reserves were more than adequate and support complete.
Second, SAC doesn't have a varsity team backed up by a full
bench of scrubs. All of SAC's combat-ready crews are first team. The more
aircraft and personnel that could participate in "Greased Lightning"
the better. The main purpose of both the regular "Alarm Bell" and
"Glass Brick" missions was to give Far East and European bases practice
in handling the B-58 aircraft and its related equipment. "Greased
Lightning' would serve the same purpose. The primary aspects of this mission
that would not be special were the aircraft and the combat crew. This team
would be no more—or less—than the crew and aircraft that would be assigned an
actual emergency war order target.
Finally, the more aircraft directly participating, the more
reliability data would fall out of the mission, SAC wanted to see if the
aircraft, crew, and support people could do the job. If they would fail in some
way, it would be better to know where the system was weak now, rather than wait
until a time when failure would be disastrous.
No significant expense would be involved in increased
tanker and ground support. The tankers would be flying other training missions
if they were not supporting "Greased Lightning." The experience of
flying from unfamiliar bases over unfamiliar routes would be first-class
training for everybody.
The B-58 Hustler
"Greased Lightning" was designed to give the B-58
operational experience and test its capabilities. What kind of aircraft is this
needle-nosed jet bomber?
To answer this, you might go to the headquarters of SAC's
43d Bomb Wing at Carswell AFB, Tex. There, on a table in a small room, in a
rehabilitated World War II building, is a most remarkable collection of
The Hustler began shattering records in January 1961 when,
within two days, it broke six world speed and payload records. Flying a closed
course over the western US with 1,000- and 2,000-kilogram loads, the B-58
turned in speeds up to 1,284 miles per hour. This performance earned the combat
crew the Thompson Trophy.
Four months later, on May 10, 1961, a B-58 and corn-bat crew
of the 43d Bomb Wing won its second trophy, the Blériot Cup. Flying a
669.4-mile rectangular course, the Hustler clocked 1,302 mph.
On May 26 a SAC B-58 commemorated Lindbergh's historic New
York-to-Paris flight of thirty-four years before by flying nonstop from
Carswell AFB to Paris via Washington and New York. With aerial refueling the
Hustler flew the New York-to-Paris leg in just three hours and twenty minutes
at an average speed of 1,105 mph and won the Mackay Trophy.
Less than a year later a SAC combat crew and B.58 took the
Mackay Trophy a second time, plus the Bendix Trophy, by setting new
coast-to-coast speed records. The flight from Los Angeles to New York and
return took four hours and forty-one minutes. The aircraft commander of the
B-58 pointed out later that if a cannon had been fired at New York
Angeles at the same time he passed the West Coast gate, he
could have landed at Idlewild and have had lunch before the shell arrived.
No aircraft has ever filled a table with trophies in quite
that manner before.
But little is traditional about the B-58. In one giant step,
the B-58 achieved a greater speed increase over the preceding strategic bomber
than was reached in the previous fifty years of aircraft design.
The B-58 is a departure from the usual trend toward larger
manned strategic aircraft. It was designed around a "minimum-size"
An important part of this concept is the disposable armament
pod carried beneath the B-58's slender fuselage. This pod makes it possible to
carry the weight and space needed to hold weapons and reserve fuel only one way
on a mission. After the pod is dropped, the bomber's fuel economy and survival
probability are greatly increased on its trip home.
The Hustler's combat crew of three—aircraft commander,
navigator-bombardier, and defense systems operator—is half the number needed to
fly the much larger B-52. Consequently, the flight and bombing-navigation
systems of the B-58 are highly sophisticated. The bombing-navigation system is
estimated to be ten times as accurate as preceding systems with only two-thirds
of the former weight and size.
The problem of temperature rise caused by flight at twice
the speed of sound made necessary an entirely new approach to aircraft
structure design. The B-58's heat- and fatigue-resistant skin is made of
fiberglass, aluminum, and stainless-steel honeycomb, sandwiched between two
layers of metal. This same heat made problems for the crew and their special
equipment. To keep them cool the Hustler carries an air-conditioning unit that
does the equivalent work done by an ice-making plant with a capacity of 160
tons of ice a day or by fifty-four home air-conditioning units.
To achieve speeds and altitudes, far beyond any other
bomber, the B-58 combines the very high lift/drag ratio of a deltawing with an
area-rule "coke-bottle fuselage. This combination gives the bomber good
stability and smooth transonic flight. With four General Electric J79 turbojet,
pod-mounted engines, each with 10,000 pounds of thrust, plus afterburners, the
B-58 cruises at a higher speed than the top speed of any previous bomber.
Statistically, the B-58 is also impressive. This medium
bomber weighs over 160,000 pounds. It has a wingspan of over fifty-six feet
while stretching just under 100 feet from nose to tail. The wing has an area if
1,542 square feet. The landing gear has ten wheels, and the aircraft carries
over 15,000 gallons of fuel.
As remarkable as this aircraft may be, however, the combat
crew that flies it is even more remarkable. The cold hardware of the B-58 only
becomes a weapon when a dedicated, professional combat crew climbs aboard.
The SAC Combat Crew
There is nothing like a combat crew. While some teams may be
as closely coordinated and trained, none shares the responsibility of a combat
crew. Each SAC combat crew, whether missile or bomber crew, may have in its
charge one or more nuclear weapons.
But, besides this responsibility and the role it gives them
in world history, the combat crew is also a dedicated and skilled team of
technicians. This combat crew, with all others in the Strategic Air Command,
spends an average of seventy-four hours a week on duty. About 122 days a year
these men are on alert, living on the flight line away from their families, undergoing
almost continual training.
When not on alert, combat crews fly their aircraft to keep
proficient and to keep the ground-support people proficient in their skills.
This is why SAC continually flies practice bombing missions across the United
States and one reason why bombers and tankers rotate to SAC overseas bases in
Europe and the Far East. This is why SAC originally established the "Glass
Brick" and "Alarm Bell" missions.
In keeping with the regular "Glass Brick" and
"Alarm Bell" operations, support aircraft and people departed their
US bases some time before the planned flight and prepositioned themselves for
the mission. The first of these aircraft to take off were several RB47 weather
scout aircraft that left Forbes AFB, Kan., on October 11. During the last few
hours before the record flight, they would patrol the flight path and give
up-to-the-minute weather observations to SAC headquarters where the mission
would be controlled. They would assist the regular Air Weather Service aircraft
that continually scan the Arctic area. Within forty-eight hours, KC-135 tankers
departed from Lockbourne (Ohio); Kincheloe (Mich.); Bunker Hill (Ind.);
Wurtsmith (Mich.); K. I. Sawyer (Mich.); Walker (N. M.); Beale (Calif.); and
Wright-Patterson (Ohio) Air Force Bases. These aircraft would refuel the
mission and airlift support people to their assigned bases. Most of this effort
was routine "Glass Brick" and "Alarm Bell" support.
Some was special—for instance, extra tankers were needed for
the 8,000 miles to be flown supersonic, the longest supersonic flight ever
attempted. Flying faster than sound eats up a tremendous amount of fuel.
Peacetime safety factors would require that the "Greased Lightning"
aircraft be refueled five times between Tokyo and London.
The same tankers that supported "Greased Lightning"
were also used for transporting the Federation Aéronautique Internationale
stewards who would verify the distance and speed of the record flight.
The FAI is the only world organization that can certify a
record flight, and an impartial observer from one of the thirty-eight member
countries would have to personally witness and time the aircraft as it passed
through the "gates" at Tokyo and London. The FAI stewards would
witness the flight from the air by riding aboard refueling tankers and by radar
from the ground. This was because at more than 50,000 feet altitude, the B-58
would be almost invisible to ground observers.
By October 15 all support aircraft and people were in
On October 9 at Bunker Hill AFB, Ind.—two days ahead of the
special "Greased Lightning" support—crews of the 305th Bomb Wing had
carefully pre-flighted their B-58 bombers and had taken off on the October
"Glass Brick" mission. Their destination was Guam. They crossed the western
half of the United States in a few hours and headed out over the Pacific.
Flying subsonically to conserve fuel, the bombers passed over Hawaii, then
Midway, then Wake Island, and finally landed at Guam—tired, but keyed up for
the coming Arctic dash. One of these crews would soon find a place in the
At Guam the support people went into action, readying the
bombers and performing their scheduled training. Later, the bombers took off
again for Okinawa where support crews were waiting for their turn at working
with the big birds. High over the Arctic Circle the weather scout B-47s
reported to SAC headquarters that the weather would be good.
By now the FAI stewards were in place in London and Tokyo,
the aircraft were ready, and the combat crews anxious o go.
The flight was planned to follow the regular "Glass
Brick" route from Okinawa to Japan to Shemya in the Aleutian Islands. At
that point SAC would divert two of the B-58s to pass over Alaska, the Parry
Islands above the Arctic Circle, Greenland, Iceland, and then finally London.
None of the combat crews knew which two it would be.
8,000 Miles in Eight
At a few minutes before noon on October 16, under a bright
tropical sun, a B-58 bomber taxied out to the end of the runway at Okinawa with
its four jets whining. At exactly 1200 hours, its afterburners exploded into
life and the 160,000-pound intercontinental bomber moved forward. It
accelerated rapidly, trailing a dense, black cloud of smoke, and abruptly
tilted its sharp nose upward and lifted free of the earth. Minutes: later a
second B-58 did the same. Then a third.
Flying subsonic, the three bombers moved close to their
KC-135 tankers on schedule, about an hour after takeoff and topped their fuel
tanks. Japan was in sight.
As the first tanker moved delicately into position, an FAT
steward leaned over the boom operator's shoulder and identified the B-58. About
twenty minutes later the bomber, its tanks filled with JP-4, broke free.
At 1:27, the Japanese FAT steward at Tokyo International
Airport checked off the blips on his radar screen as, out of sight above him,
the bombers went through the gate and climbed northeast. As they climbed, they
accelerated—afterburners flaming—until they were going faster than sound.
Higher and faster they rose until at close to 50,000 feet and traveling over
1,000 mph, they leveled off, dragging a giant shock wave over the sea miles
They were not supersonic long. Their first refueling was
due in about one hour. Every time the 13-58s refueled they had to drop to below
Mach 1 and descend about 30,000 feet to meet their tankers. This time the
tankers were waiting off the northern tip of Japan.
The refueling was uneventful.
On the 2,000-mile flight to Shemya, the weather continued
clear and bright. At 50,000 feet the three B-58s were miles above the scattered
clouds that were forming below. Traveling faster than a .45-caliber bullet,
the bombers flew back into yesterday as they crossed the International Dateline
and raced toward darkness.
It was 7:00 p.m. when the B-58s made their second refueling,
over Shemya in the Aleutian Island chain. Clouds were beginning to build up
below them now as they dropped down to the tanker's altitude and slowed down to
fill their fuel tanks again.
At SAC headquarters, in Omaha, the senior controller was
told that the weather was turning bad over Anchorage, Alaska, the next
refueling spot. There was also a report that one of the "Greased
Lightning' B-58s was having navigation-system troubles.
The decision was made to land the ailing B-58 at Eielson
AFB, Alaska, and send one of the others to Chicago and then home. The remaining
B-58, flown by Crew S-12, was to proceed to London. Average speed so far from Tokyo
to Anchorage was 1,116 mph.
At this moment, a KC-135 jet tanker lurched and rolled in
heavy turbulence about 25,000 feet over Anchorage. The weather had worsened. It
was pitch black, with visibility at times less than one mile. The tanker was
carrying the thousands of pounds of fuel the B-58 would need to reach
Greenland. Flying supersonically a B-58 burns over 1,000 pounds of fuel each
The maneuver the tanker and its B-58 receiver would have to
complete is called a high-speed rendezvous. So far, the B-58 had performed
this operation twice since leaving Tokyo. The high-speed rendezvous is a
difficult maneuver SAC pilots have had to master.
Essentially, this is what happens. The tanker flies at
around 500 mph at about 26,000 feet. It is flying a twenty-four-nautical-mile
holding pattern—a giant race track in the sky over the rendezvous point. Meanwhile,
the bomber is flying toward him at 50,000 feet at almost three times the
tanker's speed. On the side of the holding pattern when the two aircraft are
heading in opposite directions, they approach each other at about Z000 mph.
When the two aircraft are about seventy miles apart, the
tanker makes a 180-degree turn timed to put him on the same course as the
oncoming bomber but below him. At this same time, the B-58 pilot—flying at Mach
2 at 50,000 feet—pulls his bank of throttles back to idle, and begins a
supersonic penetration. He lets down about 30,000 feet to an altitude about
1,000 feet below the tanker and, with engines still on idle, begins to bleed
off speed. At the same time the bomber is making his penetration, the tanker
completes his turn back to the bomber's course. The bomber is now climbing
slowly from below about four miles to the rear of the tanker.
When the bomber puts his nose just thirty feet from the
tanker's tail, he is flying at the exact same course and airspeed as his
tanker. The tanker boom operator, lying on his stomach in the tanker's tail,
controls the long refueling boom until it locks into the bomber's nose. While
the two aircraft are hooked together, the fuel is transferred. Such aerial
refueling is a routine, constantly practiced operation within the Strategic Air
But the black, stormy night made problems over Anchorage.
The air at 26,000 feet was so turbulent and the visibility so poor, the
refueling would have to be made at a different altitude. The two aircraft commanders
conferred briefly by radio and decided the tanker would climb out to 28,000
feet and try to top the weather.
In the B-58, Maj. Sidney Kubesch, 33, of El Campo, Tex., the
aircraft commander, watched his altimeter. He was in a shallow dive, still
flying better than Mach 1 even though his engines were on idle. As his aircraft
began to approach the top of the cloud layer, the turbulence began. At his
speed, the air felt like a country road, hitting him with sharp jolts that
made his engine pods swing.
Behind him, Maj. John 0. Barrett, 32, of San Antonio, Tex.,
the crew navigator-bombardier, also watched the altimeter, but his main concern
was a spot on his radar screen. This was the tanker, miles ahead and just beginning
Further back, Capt. Gerard R. Williamson, 26, of New
Orleans, La., defense systems operator, reviewed the long checklist of the
actions he would have to take during the coming refueling. He reached up and
placed his hand against the bomber's skin. It was warm. They were still
In the tanker, the FAT steward braced himself against the
continual rolling and bucking in the tanker's tail. The boom operator lay
beneath him wiping the small observation window clean. The FAT steward would
have to spot and identify the B-58 and certify it. The boom operator would have
to give it enough fuel to reach Greenland. The KC-135 broke out into bright
starlight minutes later.
Maj. Kubesch saw the tanker's lights and black silhouette
about six miles above and ahead of him, just where they should be. His B-58 was
slowly drifting up to 28,000 feet, bleeding off airspeed. At the moment of
contact he would have to be at exactly the. tanker's speed.
Slowly the sharp nose of the B-58 moved into sight through
the boom operator's window. There was still a lot of turbulence but like all
SAC crews, S-12 had practiced this hookup hundreds of times. The telescoped
boom began to stretch out under the boom operator's control. The bomber moved
up to meet it. At just the right moment the operator punched the boom sharply
into the bomber's open refueling hatch. Fuel began flowing.
The bomber and tanker continued in this way for more than a half
hour. Repeatedly, the turbulence broke the two aircraft apart. As they
separated, jet fuel sprayed back over the bomber like water out of a fire hose.
Repeatedly they moved together again.
As the tons of fuel passed from the KC-135 to the B-58, the
trim and weight of the two aircraft changed. The tanker, lighter now,
threatened to pull forward. The bomber became heavier and needed power to keep
contact. As the bomber's weight increased, its critical stalling speed began to
come close to its refueling speed. For thirty-eight minutes the two SAC combat
crews fought their aircraft and the swirling air and shredded clouds around
them. Finally, the bomber broke away for the last time.
The next tanker would be waiting over the Arctic Ocean west
It was still dark when they met that tanker and took on the
planned fuel load, but this time the weather was good.
About an hour and a half later, at 8:00 o'clock local time,
over Iceland, Crew S-12 of the 305th Bomb Wing began their final refueling.
Twenty minutes later the tanker dropped away in bright sunlight into the cloud
layer that stretched beneath from horizon to horizon.
So far during the flight, Major Kubesch had spent almost two
solid hours trailing on the end of a refueling boom. Each time he refueled it
meant dive, slow down, hook up, pump, breakaway, climb, and accelerate. The
flight seemed like one big refueling exercise.
At London, the weather was normal: cloud cover and mist
drifting up and down from 300 to 3,000 feet. Visibility was less than five
miles, but no problem. The British FAT steward near London checked the B-58
through the gate by radar at 2:34 in the afternoon. The flight had taken eight
hours and thirty-five minutes to travel 8,028 miles—halfway around the world by
the polar route. The average speed was 938 mph.
At SAC headquarters, some questions have been answered. It
is now known that the B-58 can be diverted in flight to any spot on the globe.
And that if need be, it can fly there supersonically. The combat crews of the
tankers and support aircraft are better trained than they were. Bases in the
Far East are better able to handle the unique problems associated with B-58
For the B-58 combat crews, including S-12, this has been an
exciting change from the routine seventy-four-hour week of ground alert and
For the free world, "Greased Lightning" has been
just one more demonstration of this simple fact: The United States Air Force
combat crew is the most capable and dedicated weapon ever devised.
The author, Don Smith,
is a civilian employee of the Office of Information at Headquarters, Strategic
Air Command, Offutt AFB, Neb.
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