On Alert
A brief history of Lincoln's B-47 bomber alert program

A B-47 crew scrambles during an alert exercise - Cold War Infrastructure of SAC-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1999


From 1957 until the end of combat-ready operations in 1965, Lincoln B-47 bombers were readied for quick response to any Soviet attack. Strategic Air Command rules asked for bombers to be quickly airborne within 15 minutes of any sign of attack or, always instead, an exercise. Loaded with nuclear bombs, this hair-trigger alert was designed to put the maximum amount of bombers in the air and give credibility to the American nuclear deterrent in the face of Soviet missile technology.

Sputnik and the vulnerability of SAC bombers

In the middle 1950s America amassed a huge bomber fleet mainly consisting of B-47s but slowly being upgraded by B-52 bombers. As the manned bomber was at the time the only feasible strategic weapon capable of delivering nuclear weapons there was no absolute need for an alert force given that even jet bombers took several hours to attack and the development of the Distant Early Warning radar installations in the north of Canada gave ample notice of any Soviet aggression. Yet a change was in the air.

In October 1957, Sputnik, the world's first artificial sattellite was launched by the Soviet Union. While the world marveled at the scientific achievement, American defense planners worried over the rocket that put the satellite into space. Also named Sputnik (but later designated the R-7 rocket), the capability of the rocket to carry a huge payload extremely long distances suddenly put the United States in danger of a sudden missile attack for the first time. Whereas bombers took several hours, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) could potentially destroy targets in minutes.

The manned bomber, with its maintenance requirements, its manned crew and its grouping on SAC bases suddenly made it very vulnerable. While American ICBMs were beginning testing (later leading to the Atlas-F to be based at Lincoln) they were still a distant practical weapon. The only choice SAC had was to develop a hair-trigger alert program for its bombers for survivability.

SAC's Alert Program

SAC history documents put the starting of an alert program back in 1954. At Lincoln AFB itself an alert barracks was set up within the Transient Officer's Quarters near the base dispensary. These were the closest barracks available to the flightline although they were in fact near the BX and therefore across Oak Creek. A siren system on base announced that an alert had been called and officers on alert would take vehicles to their awaiting bombers. Lincoln was in fact an early test base for the alert concept, Yet because of the rapid attack capability poised by Soviet missiles it was decided that close apron housing was needed.

An interim solution included the shipment of five 50-foot trailers to sit aside the Lincoln flightline but a permanent solution was soon planned.

In 1956 even before Sputnik SAC began planning for alert aprons or special areas set aside for the rapid deployment of bombers. Several techniques were attempted until a definitive "Christmas tree" set up became the ultimate alert apron of SAC. Within these trees, concrete branches stretched out just far enough to allow for parking of a single bomber. Lincoln's own "Christmas tree" is shown below.

Photo thanks to Robert Loffredo

Construction at Lincoln

While many other SAC bases merely built on "branches" attached to alert areas from runways, it was decided in a unique case at Lincoln to actually build the alert apron onto the NW-SE runway effectively closing that runway to traffic. (It has been said that in the early 60s the other end of the runway was utilized for drag races). As seen above, there were 8 "notches" and these were occupied interchangeably by 98th Bomb Wing and 307th Bomb Wing B-47s. Mike Gingrich of the 307th BW notes that the north apron was utilized as an overflow alert area as well, to the south of that sat the tankers.

Molehole?

A 150-man (one of the largest in SAC) alert building was constructed during 1960 directly attached to the alert apron. The "Molehole" term is derived from the fact that much of the building sits below ground to help protect it against attack. The eight aircrews spent a period of time in these living quarters always ready to scramble to their bombers until their rotation was over. In fact the 98th and 307th Bomb Wings were reorganized with a fourth squadron in 1959 to support the alert mission (rotating from alert, rest, training, flying) and the full authorized compliment of crews were soon staffed (The 424th and 415th Bomb Squadrons shared aircraft with the rest of the wings, however numbers of B-47s at Lincoln varied over the years).

On Alert

To keep airmen trained and ready for alerts, SAC headquarters often dispatched alert exercise messages to its bases. These exercises ranged from Alpha, Bravo, Coco and Delta. Alpha exercises included the crews scrambling to their plane while Bravo included the start up of the aircraft. Coco exercises involved the aircraft taxiing to the runway and readying for takeoff before the exercise would be called off. These alerts were quite rare, but Delta exercises were the rarest as they sent the aircraft into the air. In the 1950s, the Jet Scoop reported the codename "Serious" meant the crews were going to war.

From a Lincoln base guide, a flight crew plays a game during their stint on alert 

Operations and Closure

The alert program became a staple of Lincoln AFB operations as it did with SAC bases worldwide. A SAC infrastructure history paper termed Lincoln as being "one of the most critical SAC bases during the early Cold War period" due to its large bomber fleet and capability. The emphasis was changing however and missile technology was being implemented. While the alert apron was being built in 1960, so too were Atlas-F silos across Eastern Nebraska. With the fielding of the large-scale Minuteman program in 1962 the days of the mass-force effect eminating from the B-47 fleet was numbered. By 1964 only 400 B-47s remained in service while Minuteman missile installations soared (eventually 1,000 silos were built). It is assumed (I welcome corrections) that Lincoln B-47s stood on alert until late 1965 when the last nuclear weapons were removed from the base. Soon after the base closed and the apron stood empty.


In 1971 the mole-hole was quickly removed by the Lincoln Airport Authority as a runway obstruction (with the reactivation of the NW-SE runway). Today the concrete pads where the bombers sat remain but little else. The original alert building was torn down years ago and the pads are the only remnant of a time when nuclear war seemed so close that bombers stood ready 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to retaliate against any Soviet attack.

Interesting PDF documents on the SAC Alert Program

SAC Dispersal and Alert Concepts in 1961: Declassified USAF document

Alert Operations and the Strategic Air Command 1957-1991 SAC History Office

Strategic Air Command and the Alert Program: A Brief History 1957-1988


References:

COLD WAR INFRASTRUCTURE FOR STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND: THE BOMBER MISSION
November 1999 Karen J. Weitze, Ph.D. for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Global Security - Air Force Facilites
http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/facility/bomber_alert.htm

Strategic Air Command and the Alert Program - A brief history
April 1988 SAC Headquarters - Office of the historian
http://www.siloworld.com/DOWNLOADS/SAC%20Brief%20History%20Reduced.pdf