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1009th Special Weapons Squadron

Routine WB-29 Ptarmigan Flight to North Pole 1956

58th badge

Another emergency TDY (Temporary Duty) from the 1009th Special Weapons Squadron at McClellan AFB to Eielson AFB, Territory of Alaska. The time was 3:00 AM---as usual, they said a car would pick me up in 30 minutes. Others going with me were already in the car when they stopped for me. They told us 30 days, but could be more---and they wouldn’t say where we were going, but normally it would be Eielson AFB to fly with the WB-29s and later the WB-50s of the 58th AWS. We were whisked to SFO (San Francisco International Airport). Our families had no idea where we were going, and the destination was so classified that---even if we knew---we couldn’t tell them.

My wife didn’t know for over 15 years---until after it was de-classified---what I did. It was the #1 priority in the USAF at the time. Our Squadron Commander was a two star General.

WB-29 Ptarmigan Flight

WB-29 with 'Bug Catcher'

I was an A/1C Special Equipment Operator (SEO) at the time of this particular mission. It was going to be a routine Ptarmigan mission to the North Pole & return unless we hit an interesting air mass. Then it would become a Special Ptarmigan Mission trying to gather particles and see what matter was contained in the collected debris---and I would take control of the aircraft.

The mission was routine---- track north leaving the Territory of Alaskan coast over Point Barrow. We would be coming back over Barter Island to reach the mainland again. As I said, it was routine---10, 000 ft, cruising at about 210 knots TAS up to the geographic North Pole where---since we were light enough because of burnt off fuel---we could now climb to 18,000ft for our return to base. By the way: At the North Pole, the Navigators’ job is easy. Head South!!

We had barely made our 18,000 ft altitude goal when the first hint that this was not going to be a routine mission occurred (and the reason for the change was not our normal findings). First though, as a Special Equipment Operator, our instruments (which only we could handle and as with the B-199, were classified) and our access to the specially outfitted “shoe box” was located in the compartment to the rear of the unpressurized bomb bays. The 'shoe box' or 'Bug Catcher' was a contraption which stuck out of the WB-29 and later the WB-50 from what was originally the top rear gun turret. It stuck out into the air stream around 4 feet and had electrical vertically moveable doors, (Thanks to Jim Davis in 1955) which could be opened and closed to maintain pressurization while we were changing filters used for airborne debris collection.

I was unaware of a problem until I heard the aircraft commander order the Flight Engineer to shut down one of the engines. Well, I didn’t particularly care for that since we were over the North Pole, but being a non-rated crewman, I wasn’t too sure just what that meant except we would be flying over the Arctic ice pack on only three engines. We were assured that, though we wouldn’t be able to maintain 18,000 ft, we would start a slow decent until we hit an altitude that three engines could maintain until we got home---roughly 10,000 ft---no sweat!! Or so we thought.

I have no recollection of, and probably didn’t know, at what altitude we leveled for the rest of our flight. After some hours of uneventful 3 engine flight, the Navigator’s voice came over the intercom to inform the crew that we were at least over land now---making landfall over Barter Island---so no more worry about going down in the Arctic Ocean with all of its jagged ice pressure ridges or frigid water when we got closer to land. I knew that the only thing between safety and us now was the Brooks Range.

The Brooks Range is an unusual formation in so far that it is the only mountain range in the world completely above the Arctic Circle. It is part of the Rockies and runs east to west in Northern Alaska about 175 miles north of Eielson AFB. We were holding level at just below 10,000 ft, so only that long mound of rocks and trees was not going to be a factor in completing a fairly routine flight. One engine out flights were not that unusual for the WB-29, nor later, for the WB-50 aircraft.

Just about the time the Navigator told the crew that we were now over land, I heard that now familiar “Oh Shit!!”. With that, a second engine was caged (stopped). Now, still north of the Brooks Range, we were down to two engines.

I don’t know if you’ve ever gazed out of a window and seen two engines feathered and standing at attention when they were supposed to be working. It most definitely is not a comforting sight!

These aircraft were not designed to fly on two engines, and to compound problems, both engines, # 3 & 4, were on the right side of the aircraft. So, once again---not liking it one bit, we began the most shallow decent the aircraft could maintain and not fall out of the sky.

The Aircraft Commander had to put in about 17 degrees of right rudder and increase power on #’s 1 and 2 engines to maintain straight flight. The increased workload on the two port side engines did not bode well for their longevity. We now found ourselves in basically uncharted territories---or air, if you will. All we could do was prepare for the worst and hope for the best!! It looked like the worst was coming and, as a young airman, I was not real happy when we received the next bit of news.

The Navigator said that if we flew farther east of our filed flight plan, we should be able to find a lower area to get over the mountain range. This, of course, would take us off of our programmed flight plan route and make it considerably more difficult to be found if we did have to bail out or crash land. This was a real mixture of good/bad news. The good news: We would have a better chance of clearing the Brooks Range. The bad news: If we did have to go down, Search and Rescue would not really know where to look for us.

The Aircraft Commander gave the order to prepare for bailout!!! Emergency bailout in sub-zero temperatures over remote unpopulated terrain is a terrifying ordeal to contemplate. That command is always a chilling thought (literally)---to me---and most sane aviators. We were still over very hostile terrain and headed for worse. As we neared the Brooks Range, I could hear the crew up front discussing our options---which were few.

A decision had to be made! Try to crash landing in terrain about which we knew nothing, or attempt to look for a hole in the mountain range and limp through a valley we didn’t know was there. It was like choosing: Do you want to be hung or shot?

Finally, I heard the Nav say that he thought he found a pass on his radar that we could squeeze thru at our current rate of decent, but it would be close. This was the chosen option with the proviso that we all be ready to jump if it became clear that we would not be able to make it through and over the narrow break in the mountains.

The Aircraft Commander (AC) ordered everyone to be ready. The sudden sound of an extremely loud bell ringing three times (prepare for bail-out) was not comforting. That was also the signal for everyone to scramble into their parachutes. I’ve never had this much problem putting on a ‘chute before. Fear will do that to you---rushing so nothing worked right. Finally, with chute on so tight I could barely walk, I waddled to the hatch that opened to the rear unpressurized compartment and tail gunner position. With a feeling of foreboding I pulled in the hatch door. What a shock!! The wind rushing by was loud and cold.

I don’t know how the crew up front prepared. I was too frightened looking out our open hatch watching the trees go by to even think about anything---or anyone---else!! In the aft of the aircraft, our jump point was the right rear entry/exit hatch. I was still in the pressurized part of the aircraft, so getting through the hatch to the rear compartment was not a problem since the AC had depressurized the plane and were at only about 6,000 ft elevation as we approached the mountain range.

The Special Equipment Officer, being an ACM (Additional Aircrew Member) would be the first to jump. I never did like to lead the pack, and I could think of no worse time to experience that feeling than right now! We had already been alerted by the very loud 3 rings of the “prepare to bail out” signal so the other three crewmembers in the rear of the aircraft were lined up behind me at the rear hatch preparing for the single prolonged “GO” signal ring---which would mean that the Aircraft Commander had put the toggle switch to the ON steady position and had left his seat.

We felt the plane banking several times as the Navigator feverishly worked to find a way through the mountain pass. Finally the aircraft stabilized and the “all clear” call came. We had made it thru the pass! With the greatest feeling of relief and a return to normal breathing we returned to our normal crew positions. The warmth of the aircraft interior with closed hatch was a welcome respite compared to what we almost had to do. I assumed that everyone still had dry pants though we left our Arctic gear on---just in case of another engine failure and another potential to still bail out.

As fate would have it, shortly after clearing the eastern end of the Brooks Range thru a narrow pass, the third engine decided to quit. Now we were basically a power-assisted glider with only one engine engaged. Fortunately, there were no more obstacles of any import between us and the extra long Eielson AFB Runway.. And---if we had to crash land now, we would at least be in range of rescue choppers, which were standing by at both Eielson AFB and Fairbanks Airport. We rode a long slow decent to final approach and a smooth landing. The fourth engine quit on roll out after touchdown.

Amid the eerie silence of our wounded bird, we quickly exited the aircraft and left it sitting on the runway for the ground crew to handle. We didn’t want any more to do with it!

I do not know to this day exactly why the fourth engine quit---whether it conked out on its own, or if the Aircraft Commander shut it down---nor did I care!! I also do not know why any of them had to be shut down along the way. I suspect fuel contamination, but here again, not being part of the 58th Air Weather Squadron, I never did find out---and again, I did not care. We were on the ground safely---thoroughly traumatized---but on the ground safely!!! No one said much.

An aside: Ya know---in the old days, a lot of folks described flying as hours & hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of stark terror. Well, these were my minutes of stark terror. Unfortunately, Specia Equipment Officers were never sent to any type of survival school, so we knew absolutely NOTHING about surviving aircraft emergencies & accidents. The rest of the crew had been thru at least some survival schools and certainly Arctic Survival School or Arctic Exercises.

I was a neophyte, and scared as hell---with no training and no idea of what to expect. As I learned in the largest three week Official USAF survival school later, the worst thing to face is the fear of the unknown. This was facing both stark terror and the fear of the unknown through an open hatch, preparing to bail out into the Alaskan mountainside and into the complete unknown.

I remember thinking: 'That ‘chute better open fast' because I could see the individual trees swishing by below me. I knew that I had to pull the ripcord handle fast, but not before I had pushed myself out and down after I had completely exited the aircraft or I could easily get tangled on the horizontal stabilizer. I remember that the air rushing by was loud and cold, but I had my hands on either side of the hatch, ready to propel myself into the unknown. Fortunately, there was still light during the long summer. This could easily have been my last minutes of facing stark terror and the unknown---a potentially deadly combination. I guess I could have messed my pants, but all that stuff had been scared out of me already!

All in all, it was a day in the life of a crewman in the reciprocal engine days!! Little did I know, I would have more and worse frightening days on down the road.

Although there were more than several other frightening occasions during my

15,000 plus flying hours, I still feel that I lived in the Golden Age of Flying---as well as Sports, Music and Television. These including the coverage of Space Exploration in its infancy and too many other aspects of life to mention. Perhaps the most important part of my flying was with the Aviators of the 1009th Special Weapons Squadron which ranks right up there with my flight to Gia Lam Airport in which we brought out of Hanoi, the first of those who Died In Captivity (DICs) in the prison camps of North Vietnam.

Damn!!! In all the excitement, I failed to finish my story of the 'Honey Bucket'.

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