EYES OF AIR FORCE TIRELESS ON ATLANTIC WARNING PATROL CONSTELLATIONS GUARD EAST COAST AGAINST SNEAK JET RAIDS
By Bayard Webster
The Super Constellation wandered a few inconsequential feet to the left of the yellow stripe on the runway at Otis Air Force Base, Mass, as it began to roar down the runway. The pilot turned to the co-pilot, who was making the take-off, and said: 'Have you ever gone to the doctor and had your eyes examined?'
'Not in the last six years,' the co-pilot said with a grin as he eased the sixty-nine-ton monster into the air and began a slow climbing turn to the left.
Thus started at 6:20 P. M. last Wednesday another flight of the Airborne Early Warning system, which is designed to protect the East Coast from sneak jet attack. The mission ended shortly after midnight.
Aboard the four-engine plane, known to the control tower as 'Adelaide 544,' were twenty-three tons of gasoline, more than ten tons of radar gear, and several tons of assorted equipment and men. The men included a crew of twenty-one members of the 960th A. E. W. Squadron, from the Otis base at Falmouth, and two military observers.
STATION IN THE SKY - The plane arrived uneventfully on station over the Atlantic, 500 miles from the coast; one hour and twenty minutes after take-off. Its station, knows as, 'Brass Badge,' is an imaginary line, running roughly north and south for 100 miles. It is one of five such stations continuously patrolled by planes of the Air Force's 551st Airborne Early Warning and Control Wing.
The wing, commanded by Col. Richard W. DaVania of Paducah, Ky., is under the Eastern Air Defense Command. It comprises 3,000 officers and men and a fleet of forty specially equipped Lockheed Super Constellations, known in the Air Force as RC-121's. Each RC-121 is worth about $5,000,000. With them the wing conducts its airborne radar search patrols. About every three hours an RC-121 takes off from the Otis base on a patrol mission.
Andrei A. Gromyko, Soviet Foreign Minister, charged yesterday that United States Air Force planes carrying nuclear weapons often flew close to Soviet frontiers after they had been alerted by radar installations of the 'Advanced Warning System.' These radar units, he said, show 'vague shapes which American observers take for guided missiles or ballistic rockets.'
Radar observers of the 551st A. E. W. employ radar gear that is designed only to discover and track low-flying aircraft. The wing's planes fly at an altitude of 5,000 feet. If they observe unidentifiable objects, they request another plane or ship to observe the object by radar, before notifying fighter-plane alert headquarters.
The only armament aboard the RC-121 is a .45-caliber automatic pistol, carried by the radar director to protect classified documents in case the plane should land on foreign soil.
The wing works in conjunction with Navy radar picket ships and blimps. It is a seaward extension of the Distant Early Warning Line, which stretches across the northern reaches of North America. In concert, these agencies are considered by most military authorities to be a fairly effective warning net against approaching enemy aircraft, but not against missiles.
The RC-121 is one of the most peculiar-looking aircraft in the skies. Behind its anteater-like nose, is a huge dorsal fin housing the height-finding radar. On its belly is a large, turtle-like appendage in which radar scans the sky and sea ahead and below. As Adelaide 544 neared its station, a crewman remarked that it was probably about the only airplane built that could comfortably house a giraffe.
When the plane's loudspeaker announced 'On station,' the crew was well established in its intricate routine in the packed cabin. Radar men bent over the nine radar scopes, marking them with red pencils as ships or aircraft were detected. Two men charted their findings on a master plotting board. The ship's two navigators continuously checked their position.
PLANE TOSSED SLIGHTLY - The plane had been patrolling for almost an hour, when Second Flight Engineer Thomas P. Shannon, 27 years old, of Chicago, moved quickly to a porthole and looked out. Engine Number 3, inboard on the starboard side, was issuing heavy smoke and sparks from its exhaust. A black film of oil oozed from the front to the back of the engine cowl and around the wing.
A slight jar was felt in the plane as the pilot feathered the propeller, pointing the leading edges o f its blades into the wind. The propeller and engine stopped. Immediately blue exhaust flames from the other engines almost doubled their trail in the night as the pilot poured on more throttle to compensate for the loss of an engine. Over the loudspeaker came:
'Pilot to crew; We have lost number three engine. We are aborting the mission. We will begin our return flight to base in fifteen minutes.' The radar director, Capt. Earl F. Jacobsen, 36, of Worth, Ill., looked at the crew, whose average age was, 20, and added softly: 'No sweat.'
As the plane flew back to Otis Field, A. E. W. patrol assignments were shuffled. A plane patrolling to the north was assigned to the territory left open by Adelaide 544. An extra flight was dispatched to the northern station. No station would be left uncovered for more than a few minutes and ground and radar picket ship radar would provide adequate cover in the meantime.
Aboard Adelaide 544, flying smoothly on three engines, five young airmen in the rear of the plane started a game of blackjack.
LIKE STRING OF BEADS - Up ahead in the cockpit, the runway lights of Otis Field looked like two strings of lighted beads in the distance.
As the plane came in for the landing, the lights came up to meet it more swiftly and the beads began flying by either side of the windshield. A slight bump and a screech of tires and the plane was on the runway. It was shortly after midnight. The plane had been out a little more than six hours of a scheduled twelve-hour flight.
In the bus that returned the crew to the hangar, Maj. Otto S. Tauer, 36, of Underwood, N.D., the pilot, shook his head and said: 'You should stick around and see what happens after this. They really throw us into the mill: What happened? Was our judgment correct? Was the decision to feather the prop right? What corrective action can be taken to see that it doesn't happen again? Oh boy!'
As he spoke, officers and men from the wing's maintenance division were already swarming over the plane, looking at the engine, poking under oil-smeared cowl flaps. The engine was dismantled before dawn. A rocker arm had come loose, breaking an air turbine, which permitted oil to flow into the engine intake. This is considered a dangerous fire hazard. The major had made the right decision.
Article furnished courtesy of Colonel Joseph W. Felock, USAF Retired, former Aircraft Commander with the 961st Airborne Early Warning and Control Squadron, Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts. firstname.lastname@example.org