Sampson Veteran's Tale - B-47 Stratojets and me - not quite love at first flight by William A. Ray
I was finally in the "real" Air Force
In 1956, with tech school training done with, I finally got to leave Amarillo AFB to join up with the 96th Bomb Wing at Altus AFB, Altus Oklahoma.
Altus Air Force Base was a Strategic Air Command base, home to the 96th Bomb Wing and the B-47 bomber. The 96th Bomb Wing was made up of four squadrons, the 337th, 338th, 339th and the 413th. Along with those four B-47 squadrons was the 96th Air Refueling Squadron flying the KC-97, a propeller driven aircraft that, during an air refueling procedure with a B-47 jet bomber required a unique maneuver for the refueling hookup. The KC-97, being propeller driven, wasn’t quite as fast as a jet and so on hookup the faster B-47 jet would throttle back with flaps down while the KC-97 would start a shallow dive to increase its speed. (For anyone interested in a further explanation of this procedure I recommend Alwyn T. Lloyd’s book "Boeing’s B-47 Stratojet." )
From Altus it was on to Dyess
When the bus driver called out, "Altus" and I look out the window of the bus and asked "Where?" As with most SAC bases Altus was built out in the middle of nowhere, at least it seemed so. When I reported to wherever you report to when arriving at a new base, I was assigned to the 339th Bomb Sqd. and was put to work with a staff sergeant named Wanzer. The first few words to me from Sgt. Wanzer were, "Forget what you learned in tech school and don’t call me sir!" I was assigned to work with him on a specific B-47 aircraft,, but I don’t remember the aircraft’s identification number.
The first job he assigned me was filling the B-47’s oil tanks, six in all. The filler caps were on top of the wings. There I was, never having put oil into an aircraft, given a case of very thin oil in one quart cans and told to fill up the tanks. Have you ever poured anything out of a can in the wind and have it go where you wanted it to go? This old boy had oil all over that wing, when Sgt Wanzer saw that, he immediately told me to stop and clean up the mess. He then showed me how to put oil in those tanks without spilling it all over the place. The first thing you do is set the can down onto the oil tank hole, take a long, pointed end Philips head screwdriver and with the palm of your hand pound the screw driver shaft completely through the can and let the oil drain into the tank. That was one thing we didn’t learn in tech school, and there were many more lessons to learn…the hard way!
My B-47 had been "down" for post flight Inspection, this is where it is just about taken totally apart and inspected, almost piece for piece. I went to engineering to find out what I was to do and told to draw my weapon from supply and get the plane back together ASAP. That was the first time outside of basic that I drew a weapon with live ammo, we were going to war!
Klaxon horns! There is no sound in the world like a klaxon horn, really loud and very unnerving. When you’re a kid like I was back then, fresh out of mechanics school, when a nearby klaxon horn goes off, about the only thing that comes out of your mouth is "Oh S**t!" There went the klaxon horn!
Turned out it was just an unidentified plane entering air space over Canada. There were a couple of Altus B-47s that crashed there with the loss of some lives.
The 96th was scheduled for our first TDY in January 1957. This was a complete move, everything that wasn’t nailed down was packed up and loaded on aircraft, and off to Guam we went. Three months later we were back at Altus. Things were pretty routine till September of 1957 when the Wing was sent to Dyess AFB at Abilene Texas.
There at Dyess things began to change as to how alerts were handled such as assigning certain aircraft for a couple of weeks at a time to be ready to go at a moments notice.
This was known as "Quick Strike" a program where an aircraft was "cocked." That was when the aircraft was fully loaded with fuel, had a nuclear weapon on board and all systems were set so we mechanics would only have to start the power unit and wait till the flight crew were nearly in their seats before throwing the switch on at the power unit. When we did that, number four engine started turning before the pilot actually sat in his seat. From there the rest of the six engines were started as quickly as we could get them running. Why #4 engine first? Number 4 had the main hydraulic pump on it, when it was up and running the auxiliary pump could be turned off or put in standby. Then it was just a matter of pulling the wheel chocks so that the landing wheels could roll, and getting the power unit out of the way.
I t was during one of these alerts that one of the B-47s was to take off with the full fuel load and a Nuke on board. The aircraft had what was known as a "horse collar" JATO rack (a jet-assisted takeoff setup) mounted just behind the aft (rear) wheel well and capable of having 33 JATO jet bottles on it. Each of those JATO bottles was in fact a 1000-pound-thrust rocket. When the crew fired the JATO to assist their take-off one JATO bottle exploded and ruptured the aft main fuel tank. The ensuing fire from the burning fuel made it an extreme emergency requiring an immediate exit from the plane. Unfortunately the crew chief elected to go with the flight crew and having no ejection seat as did the the air crew, he perished in the crash. The nuclear bomb was not armed and did not explode, so there was no residual radiation.
In Alaska on TDY and back to Dyess AFB
During one of these alerts I was resting in my bunk when the Klaxon went off. I always slept with my clothes on but with my boots set where I could easily step into them. I jumped up and got into my boots ran out to the car and headed for the flight line, on arrival I jumped out of the car, slammed the door and tried to head to my plane, and found I couldn’t. The reason was a simple one, I had slammed the car door on my thumb, it didn’t hurt until I opened the door. Remembering the pain helped me to never do that again.
Through the rest of 1957 and 1958 all seemed pretty normal, normal that is for a SAC base. Then came 1959. It saw another stint of temporary duty (TDY) , this time to Alaska. Instead of the entire Wing going like we did for our TDY to Guam, this was a rotational type. A few of the B-47s and their crews from each of the squadrons would go for a period of time and then, after a time, be replaced by others from each of the squadrons. While many people during their tour of duty were able to take photos of just about everything, we were not because we were in SAC and our positioning was secret as were our aircraft and all of the rest of our equipment.
While in Alaska, the aircraft on alert could be seen from a road that passed close by. One day a car stopped on the road and a guy started taking pictures, in a matter of minutes he was surrounded by Air Police (A.P.s) and taken into custody. We thought it to be quite funny, but that poor guy, whether he was Air Force or civilian, must have endured a whole lot of questioning!
The guy who made the tilted photo of the B-47offered to have several copies made if we would pay him for one, I did and this photo is now at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. I made a copy of it for myself, the museum has the original. The reason for the tilting was that he used a small camera and wanted to get the entire aircraft in the photo.
By the time I got back to my home base, Dyess AFB, I was a short timer. When I had gone on TDY to Alaska in February, 1959, the temperature there was around 40 degrees below zero, when I left it was in the 70's, nice and warm.
It was fun saying "No" to a general
Being a short-timer I was assigned to work on whatever aircraft needed someone. it was at the last aircraft to which I was assigned that a Brigadier General tried to get me to reenlist in the Air Force. He came out to my plane and, of course, I saluted him. He was scheduled to fly "my" B-47, so he asked for the aircraft forms,and I gave them to him. While he was looking over the forms he asked how long I had been in the Air Force, I told him, "something like 47 months, nearly a full 4 years." He then asked "When did you reenlisted?" I said "I hadn’t." He then said "When are you going to reenlist?" I said "I’m not Sir." He then asked, "Why not?" I pointed to my two stripes and told him, "42 months time in grade." He then said, "If I see that you get your third stripe will you reenlist?" I said "What then sir, will I have to reenlist to get my 4th?" About that time the crew chief came from around the back of the aircraft and the general asked him, "Sergeant, is this man a good worker?" The sergeant said "Your damn right he is!" The general looked at me and said "Airman, get in my car, we’re going to headquarters to get you reenlisted." I said, very emphatically, "NO SIR!"
The general tried two or three times to get me into his car so he could get me reenlisted and, perhaps, I should have signed up for another tour or duty, but then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of telling a general "NO!"
Shortly after that I started turning in everything that I was required to, tools etc, a final medical exam, in all I believe it was a several days process. On the night of August 15th 1959, me and those who had joined with me from Akron Ohio left Dyess AFB for the last time.
One of those airmen has passed away that I know of, one now lives in Kentucky, another in California, and and one still lives in Youngstown Ohio. Me, I moved from Akron, Ohio to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio perhaps three miles from where I grew up.