This piece of history-rich writing was provided to the museum by Col. Perry Nuhn (Ret.), a master B-47 navigator/bombardier who served at Lincoln during what could be called the apex of the Cold War. We're very appreciative of this great biographical story he provided us and wish to thank him for helping keep the history alive.
- Rob Branting
- Rob Branting
Perry R. Nuhn, Colonel USAF, B-47 Experience, Lincoln AFB, NE, 1957-62
My Air Force Career (I have provided this as purely background)
Perry R. Nuhn is a Master Navigator/Bombardier with over 4000 flying hours including those in the Douglas A/B 26 Intruder, the Martin B-57 Camberra, and the Boeing B-47 Stratojet. He entered the Air Force in 1952, received his wings and commission in 1953, and retired as a Colonel in 1980 after a career that included assignments to combat crew duty, air operations, and command and control and the systems development and operational application of automated command and control and planning systems. His final assignment was the Information Systems Director, Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is a veteran of the Korean War, the Cold War and Vietnam War. His B-47 related assignment was from 1957 thru 1962, in both the 344th and 415th Bomb Squadrons and on the 98th Bomb Wing Staff as a combat crewmember, navigator/bombardier/radar systems instructor, and as the 415th Squadron Navigator and as the 98th Domestic Target Officer, Bomb Wing Staff. He has 1000 hours in the B-47 as a combat crewmember and flight instructor.
SAC and later years Career
My Strategic Air Command (SAC) began with assignment to the 344th Bomb Squadron, 98th Bomb Wing, 818th Air Division, Lincoln AFB, Nebraska, in November 1957. At the time, I had approximately a total of 1000 flying hours in the A-26s and the B-57s and another several hundred Air Training Command student hours. Prior to receiving my wings, my initial flight training had been in navigation, followed by specialized training in low-level operations, SHORAN, and the Norden bombsight.
In 1956-57, along with many other Air Force Bombardier/Navigators, with a similar background were required to undergo up-grade training in celestial navigation and the K-systems radar navigation and bombardment at Mather Air Force Base, California. At the completion of this, I was ordered to join SAC at Lincoln. AFB, Nebraska for combat crew duty, this was in the fall of 1957.
Soon after arrival at Lincoln, I was sent to on TDY to Wichita, Kansas for B-47 transition. For the navigator crewmember, this consisted of an introduction to the B-47, its systems, and a series of training missions. After approximately six weeks of ground and air training, I returned to Lincoln and was assigned to a non-combat ready crew. In short order, our crew completed its certification requirements, passed our standardization boards and was declared combat ready. For the next two years, my primary job was as a SAC combat crewmember.
In 1959, after promotion to Captain, I was asked by the Wing Operations Officer whether I would accept a new assignment as the newly formed 415th Bomb Squadron, or preferred to stay on a lead crew with a possible “spot” promotion in the offing. As my original aircraft commander had recently transferred to the Wing Staff, I followed suit and became the 415th’s Squadron Navigator. Approximately a year later, I was reassigned as the 98th Bomb Wing’s Domestic Target Study Officer, a duty which I held until my transfer to SAC Headquarters in late 1962, when SAC tested over 2000 rated officers to determine their potential computer aptitude and selected 25 of us to form the cadre for the automation of the SAC Command and Control System (SACCS).
Lincoln AFB, Nebraska
The 818th Air Division was the senior command at Lincoln AFB, Nebraska. Two SAC Bomb Wings fell under the command of the 818th. These were the 98th and 307th Bombardment Wings. Previous to assignment to Lincoln AFB, both wings had been in the Far East flying B-50 combat missions during the Korean War. Upon arrival at Lincoln each Wing transitioned to B-47’s. The Wings, each, consisted of three bomb squadrons and a refueling squadron. By the time I left Lincoln, the Wings had become “super” Wings each having four B-47 Bomb Squadrons and one KC-97 Air Refueling Squadron. Each Bomb Squadron had twenty B-47s. I do not recall the exact number of tankers, but I think it was somewhere around twenty-five. The ramp at Lincoln AFB was full with 160 B-47s and 50 tankers plus a few administrative aircraft.
We knew what was expected of us, we were trained in how to accomplish it, we constantly practiced and honed our skills, memorized our war mission(s) and when not training we were on active alert ready to launch within a few minutes of the horn blowing. Although, published normal operating weight of the B-47 was 175,000 ponds and the maximum loaded weight as 202,000 pounds (Jane’s), many takeoffs on training missions involved flying the B-47 at Emergency War Operations (EWO) weights, over 230,000 pounds, to ensure the pilots were used to what was required in a wartime launch. At these heavy weights, the loss of an engine on takeoff could result in the aircraft settling down on the runway. We also had aircraft that suffered stress cracks due to high weights. To prevent fatal accidents, wheels were magna-fluxed on a regular basis and replaced as necessary.
Most training missions simulated all or parts of our wartime mission profiles. All operations conformed to the SAC Tactical Doctrine and related standardized procedures and all crew procedures were carefully accomplished using checklists and oral affirmation of completion. All of our B-47 training missions were scheduled to completely utilize available flight time to accomplish required crew-training requirements. As a result, there was no time left to “bore holes in the sky.” Every training flight I flew, every minute was occupied. Everything we did reflected our wartime mission. We were in the Cold War and every day the possibility of real mission execution was possible.
Initially, there was no alert duty or alert facility, and both the bombers and the tankers went TDY for ninety days at specified intervals. In 1957, with the increasing Soviet ICBM threat, home alert throughout SAC bases was initiated. Crews went on alert for a week at a time, 24/7, as part of their duty schedule. They were on instantaneous call whenever the alert horn sounded. Alerts were random, initiated at SAC headquarters, and upon responding the crews did not know whether the alert was practice or real, and what kind of alert it was. While on alert crews ate, slept and were awake in lock step. Their uniforms were flight suits and they were always armed. Each day began with a preflight of their assigned aircraft, then the daily briefing. Throughout the day they were free to move around the base and many times were scheduled for additional crew training, EWO target study, and mission preparations for their next scheduled training flight. Arrangements were made with the University of Omaha, to conduct night classes for those men on alert who wanted to pursue a Bachelors Degree. (I attended these classes and was awarded a BGE and then completed an MA after I was assigned to SAC Headquarters in 1962.) Each crew had an alert vehicle and was restricted to the environs of the base. Families were allowed to visit for short periods on Sundays. Each crew was scheduled for at least one tour of home alert approximately every third week. The alert aircraft were fully configured for war and loaded with nuclear weapons. Crews were tested using Alpha alerts (ready to start engines), Bravo alerts (start engines), Cocoa alerts (taxi for take off), and Romeo alerts (takeoff). Satisfactory alert responses varied from less than four minutes for an Alpha upward. On all alerts, as the navigator I was tasked at starting the power cart and standing fireguard until the ground crew (also on alert) arrived. At this point I would clamber up the ladder pulling it after me, and then close the pressure door, before going to my seat. At this point the ground crew would close the outer door. Meanwhile the pilots were in their seats, the engine start was “gang-barred” so all engines could be started simultaneously. As soon as all engines were running, the ground crew, detached the power cart, pulled the wheel chocks and if a “Cocoa” or higher we began to taxi to the runway.
The alert crews were first housed in reconditioned existing barracks until a semi-hardened alert facility was constructed on the airfield. The alert “birds” were parked in close proximity, a short running distance away, to the hardened facility. Crews from the 98th, 307th, and the Air Refueling Squadrons all used the same facility. The facility had a bedroom for each crew, a messing facility, a lounge area, and rest room and showers. It was built out of reinforced concrete and was half buried in the surrounding ground. While we were on alert, it was our home. Our needs were minimal, all we required was flying gear, and a few changes of underwear, a few books and we were settled. One of the 98th Refueling Squadron’s flight engineers often played his guitar while on alert. He had a small band that played around the Lincoln area. Years later, he was famous as “Boxcar Willy,” and had the nose of a KC-97 in his theater in Branson, MO. On the two occasions that the 98th Bomb Wing held reunions in Branson, he put on a special show for all his former Wing-mates. The last one was shortly before he died of cancer. At night, some slept in their flying suits; boots, coats and other items were kept nearby so they could be grabbed on the race to the airplanes. We always tried to outguess SAC Headquarters as to when the alert horn would blare next. If it was late in the day or if we had not had an alert for a few days, crews would delay calling it an evening, waiting out the horn. It was unsettling to just fall asleep to be awakened by shrill noise and running boots.
In late 1958, in addition to home alert, the crews began to pull Reflex Alert. Initially, the 98th pulled Reflex Alert at Greenham Common Air Station, UK, and the 307th went on Reflex in Spain. Later, while the 307th continued to pull Reflex in Spain, the 98th’s Reflex operations moved to Upper Heyford, UK. The tanker Squadrons continued to pull home alert and also some went on 90 day TDY(s) in Newfoundland, Canada to support the over-flight of the bombers on their way to Reflex bases in England and Spain.
At Greenham Common, our alert vehicles were all jeeps. All had governors to control their speed. Someone suggested that we “race” to the planes with winning crew being awarded a short libation on the next “off-time.” (Alert schedules were: depart Lincoln in late afternoon and arrive at Greenham the next day, get settled in the alert barracks, and go on alert the next 7days, than 3 days off either in London or elsewhere, then another 7 days on, and fly home to Lincoln the next day.) Of course, the “race drivers” among us began to modify their jeeps and the governors were removed. We “raced” a few alerts, until the “command section” found out, and the competition came to an end.
About this time SAC decided to test out improved wide-band HF radios. WE were told to use the radios to the maximum to give them a good test. The radios were great as one could converse with the Lincoln Command Post from our alert ramp in England. Better yet, with a phone patch we could call our wives directly, letting them know we were on our way, got our fuel, and arrived in England safely. Then, two plus weeks later, that we had left England, got our fuel, and what time we would get home. This luxury of home contact came to an abrupt end, when SAC decided that the radios had enough testing and their use was restricted to operational communications only.
Our first Reflex alert at Upper Heyford occurred during a period of “white frost.” Upper Hayford was not flat, but had many ups and downs in its topography. The taxiways were slick with “black ice.” The alert was a “cocoa.” Our Reflex Commander, newly arrived, was unaware that he could downgrade the alert to a “bravo,” so we taxied. It was a wild ride as B-47s were skidding down the slopping taxiways, throttles and brakes were on and off, and the radio communications between aircraft commanders were extraordinary. Fortunately, no collisions occurred and we all made it back to the alert facilities albeit with “shaking legs.”
Another happening on while on alert occurred very early in Lincoln’s alert history. It was July 1958, a Sunday afternoon, families were picnicking on the alert area lawn, and the 1958 Lebanon crisis was underway. SAC was at a high level of alert posture, practice alerts were cancelled, and the crews were told that the next alert would be the “real thing.” Then, the world situation lessoned and SAC decided to re-instate the practice alerts. Only, the crews and their families were not notified of this decision. The alert horn basted away. The crews ran for their alert vehicles leaving wives and children in tears. One navigator, a bachelor, Don, was in the shower. As the alert horn “whaled,” Don, buck naked, grabbed his flight suit and boots and hurled him self down the stairs, out the door and thru the families, leaping into his alert vehicle as his crewmembers sped away. Don’s “flashing” was always a topic of discussion in latter years.
A few of the crewmembers took up the hobby of brewing their own beer. If their timing was bad, and they could not cap the beer at the precise time, the brew-lot was ruined. On several occasions, the time to cap came up when the “brewer” was on alert. While it took “almost and Act of God” to get off alert for few hours, a substitute (briefed in on the specific SIOP mission) was found and the beer saved.
A final story of alert involved our crew. The alert horn blared. It was evening and there was a slight mist. At the time, we were still using rental cars rather that Air Force vehicles as alert vehicles. I jumped into the driver seat of our assigned 1958 Plymouth sedan. It had full power steering, an innovation I was not used to. As we sped around a corner, the car began to skid on loose gravel on the road. I turned into the skid, but the power steering only increased our skid. We slid off the road very slowly, so slow that the crew ahead of us stopped and watched us skid off the pavement and roll upside down into a ten-foot deep ditch. We opened the windows, slid out, ran up the hill, and leapt into the stopped alert vehicle ahead of us. We still made a four-minute alert. Fortunately, it was an “alpha.” When we returned to the scene of the accident, the Air police were on-scene and we were sent to the base hospital for a quick check and then went back on alert. Several months later, our AC, Woody, was on TDY to Warner Robins, AFB, Georgia, as a test pilot flying B-47s that had completed the “milk bottle” maintenance recall. At the Officers Club bar one night, another pilot joined him, and finding that Woody was from Lincoln, queried him about the crew that was “killed” in the alert-auto-accident at Lincoln. While tempted to elaborate on the “myth,” Woody calmly replied” Yes, I know about that accident, I was in the car.”
With the Reflex and Home Alert commitments and continuous ground and air training, the crew schedules became very busy. In a six-week period a crew could expect to fly 3 to 4 times plus one reflex tour of twenty days, pull ten days of home alert, and have the remaining 4 days off. As no free days remained, all recurring training, SIOP target study and additional duty tasks were shoehorned into the days the crew had home alert or were mission planning for upcoming training flights. As a rough estimate, a crew’s 6 week period (42 days) consisted of 38 duty days, which allowed only 4 days every six weeks for family and home tasks.
For those crews not on alert, an alert pyramid was instituted. When not on alert or on the base, crewmembers were required to call the person above and below them on the list when ever they expected to be gone for over 15 minutes. They were required to say where they would be, when they would return, and how to be reached. This was well before cell phones. As our required duties and the shortage of crewmembers, consumed most of our time, many of us did not come close to getting our 30 days a year leave. The most any of us could expect was seven to fourteen days of leave a year. Consequently, we soon all had saved the maximum days of leave that we were allowed to save. To avoid losing leave and to free us from alert pyramid procedures, many took leave every so often on free weekends just to not call every time they left the home.
If we were not flying, we attended some recurring ground training, studied our EWO mission and targets, or attended to our additional duties. All the time I was on a crew, my additional duties were as a navigator instructor and as the Squadron Administrative Officer. The latter, sometimes required lots of time as for a period, our Squadron Commander had been killed in an aircraft accident at Wichita and the Squadron Operations Officer, next in command, tasked me to take on most of the command duties. We did not have centralized maintenance at the time, so I had a full plate of administrative duties including shepherding wayward young airman.