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Between 1946 and 1992 the Strategic Air Command was the United States’s main shield against Soviet aggression. Its bombers flew constantly, fueling aloft to reach any point in the world.
“SAC Time: A Navigator in the Strategic Air Command,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is the memoir of a man who spent three years in the Strategic Air Command and thirteen years in the Air National Guard.
Alexander served the Strategic Air Command as a junior officer. He was a navigator, not a pilot. Rated a bombardier, navigator, and radar bombardier, he did not crew SAC’s jet glamorous bombers. He navigated KC-97 Stratotankers, a piston-engine aircraft that refueled other aircraft. The book may be the more interesting because of this perspective.
His role was vital yet unappreciated. Flying in tankers was as dangerous as missions flown by bomber crews. Air-to-air refueling was in its infancy. The KC-97 had to fly almost at its top speed as the jet bombers slowed nearly to stall speed during the delicate refueling operation. Flights were long, requiring precision navigation, and frequently over water or Arctic terrain. Along with bomber crews, tanker crews lived in the “mole holes,” underground quarters next to the runway allowing aircraft to be instantly manned during alerts.
Alexander describes all this. He describes growing up in his early teens in a small Kansas town during World War II, his youthful attraction to flying, his ROTC years in college during the late 1940s, and navigation training at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston in the early 1950s.
He also describes separating from SAC, due to pressure from his spouse, and how his love of aviation led him to join the Air National Guard in Chicago. As a reservist, he navigated C-97s, the transport version of the tanker, rising to become his state ANG’s navigation instructor.
Activated during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, his aircraft was sent to the Pacific to shuttle part of Wake Island’s Marine garrison to Florida as part of a possible Cuban invasion force. The aircraft developed engine problems returning from Wake to Hawaii. Alexander spent the rest of the crisis in Hawaii, returning, deeply tanned, to a Chicago winter after it ended.
“SAC Time” a slim book (just over 100 pages) may be all the more fascinating for its brevity. Alexander’s writing recaptures the spirit of bygone years, a time both more hopeful and more fear-filled than today.
SAC Time: A Navigator in the Strategic Air Command,” by Thomas E. Alexander, Texas A&M University Press, 2020, 122 pages, $27.00 (Hardcover)
This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.Published in