UNIQUE MISSIONS FLOWN BY THE 552ND AEW&C WING USING THE SUPER CONSTELLATION
The 552nd AEW&C Wing at McClellan AFB, California, was a very versatile unit where radar was concerned. The aircraft assigned to the 552nd Wing was one of the safest ever designed. There are those that would disagree with that, but history wise, it was the safest. The RC-121D [Super Constellation], later designated as the EC-121D, were well maintained by personnel from the maintenance squadrons.
DISCOVERER PROGRAM - In 1961, the Connie was assigned the task of directing aircraft for the Atlas nose cone pick-up in mid-air by C-119 aircraft, later changed to the C-130 Hercules aircraft. An imaginary area off of the Hawaiian Islands was designated as the Ball Park. The nose cone was re-entered into this area. The Ball Park was 100 miles long and 50 miles wide. The directors assigned aboard the Connies would instruct the C-119 and C-130 aircraft where to go once the cone was picked up on radar. The Connie also was instrumental in the pick-up of Astronauts who had re-entered the earths atmosphere in space capsules which were parachuted into the ocean in the earlier manned space flights by NASA
OPERATION DOMINIC (BLUE STRAW) - Sometime during the last part of 1961, the 552nd Wing was tasked with assisting the Department of Energy (Atomic Energy Commission) in testing of the Hydrogen Bomb at a little island called Christmas. Crews were picked and started training for this mission. We had approximately eight weapons directors, two surveillance operators and flight crews to man the three aircraft assigned. By February 1962, all training had been accomplished (survival training and tactical evaluations also had been accomplished). No one knew what this mission pertained to, due to the fact it was highly classified. In the first part of April 1962 the three aircraft were deployed to Hickam AFB, Hawaii. Two additional aircraft were deployed to the Fiji Islands for the high altitude shots from Johnston Island. Christmas Island belongs to the United States but it was run by the British. It is approximately one mile wide and about five miles long. There are inhabitant natives on the Island. We were the indigenous personnel to the island. Sand crabs, the size of a package of cigarettes also over ran the entire island. Our headquarters was in tents and the sleeping quarters had been set up prior to our arrival. The windows in the barracks were the shutter type. Being close to the Equator, the weather was hot and sticky. We had to wash our clothes in refined salt water which made the zippers hard to work. We were assigned to Joint Task Force Eight. The Air Force had the designation of JTF 8.1. The Wing had the designation of JTF 8.1.4. Everyone had to go through a records check and be issued a badge. Of course, the flight crews had a blue badge and in that badge was a dosimeter which would turn a different color if exposed to radiation. One of our aircraft would be the control aircraft and one would be on stand-by until the primary one got airborne. The EC-121 would be the first aircraft airborne and would be on station prior to the other aircraft participating in the testing being released for take off. There were various types of aircraft used in the testing. The main aircraft was the B-52 that carried the nuclear weapon. The B-52 would take off from Barbers Point, Hawaii. We also had the Canberra B-57F with the extended wing so it could fly through the nuclear cloud somewhere around 80,000 feet. They would take cloud samples and had special pods on the wings for that purpose. Needless to say, they were thoroughly washed down upon landing. Diagnostic aircraft were also in the group, which had rabbits facing toward the nuclear blast. We also had a KC-135 that had camera equipment in it. One mission was utilized for one of the first underwater submarine rocket launches. They stated that it was very close to being on target. Of course that could be 1000 feet and that would be close. The scientists would fly with us at times and after the blast they could tell if the bomb was clean or dirty. They all looked the same to me.
JOHNSON ISLAND HIGH ALTITUDE TESTING - The high altitude shots were very exciting along with the ones from Christmas Island. One particular incident was when the rocket gantry would not fall back for the rocket to lift off the pad. The rocket fell over and all of the rocket fuel exploded on the pad. The warhead didnt explode but we were talking to the people underground and they stated that it got awful warm underground. The rocket shots were very strange. One in particular looked as if it was the Green Blob and as it was moving, it looked as though it would swallow everything in its path. These rockets would be shot into the air and travel up 125 miles and then fall back down to 85 miles and explode. They would send up Nike Zeus rockets to measure the cloud and I presume they would send telemetry signals back to earth. The Thor rocket was used to deliver the atomic payload. We spent six weeks on Christmas Island. It was a very exciting six weeks and never a dull moment. I smoke and invariably, I would leave my ashtray on the window sill in the barracks. I never learned. Each time on of the bombs went off, my ashtray would be on the bed with ashes all over the sheets. When you were on a stand down day, everyone would have to assemble on the taxi-way for the countdown by Mahatma. When the detonation took place, everyone would have their high density goggles on and believe it or not, you could still read a newspaper through the goggles.
Charles "Charlie" Comstock retired from the Air Force in October 1977 as a Senior Master Sergeant and resides in Las Vegas, Nevada. His Air Force career began as a ground radar operator. He later became a crew chief on the Super Constellations at the 552nd AEW&C Wing at McClellan AFB, California, and flew on them for eleven and one-half years supporting various type missions. One such mission is described above. His e-mail address is: email@example.com
From Tony Praxel:
Charlie had most of it correct, except for the size of the land crabs, I remember them bring much bigger, about as big around as a softball, but flatter. We would keep score driving the jeep from the housing area to the Flightline as to how many we could run over. They made a loud cracking sound if we scored a direct hit.
I remember when in flight during a test several seconds after the bright flash, the shock wave would hit the aircraft and cause it to dip sharply down and then back up.
The Aircraft Commander from the 965th, Don Parker and I experimented at McClellan making three engine takeoffs. We wanted to know if we had to evacuate the island after a problem with fall-out, could we get off with an EC-121 that had an engine out. We could do it at McClellan, thank goodness we didn't have to try on Christmas Island.
Our controllers had a unique problem, they had to position several of the test aircraft so they were in an exact position and at a 90 degree angle to the blast at the exact time.
We had a deal with the sharks around the island, we didn't go in the water and the sharks didn't come into the club. One shark, "Mag-check Charlie" would listen as we ran up the engines, and if he heard a rough one, he would swim to the other end of the island, as the runway went from one end to the other.
The AC's were: Jim Marnell, 963rd. Bill Mauser, 964th and Don Parker, 965th.
TonyAbout: Tony Praxel mailto:TPraxel@aol.com
I came to the 552nd as a weapons controller in the fall of 1960 after about three years in a non-flying job with ADC (including a year on the DEW line) which gave me my choice of assignments from a "remote." I soon got checked out as a pilot, then A/C, and Instructor Pilot. For a year or more, I was one of a few who were chosen to be the Wing Commander's pilot.
I was a flight commander and later Assistant ops officer for the 965 prior to my retirement in Feb 1968. I have been involved with the planning and conducting the 552nd Wing reunions since 1970.
edited by aj northrup