A Navigator’s Account of SAC

 

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.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter: 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.

    Some guys get all the luck.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter: 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.

    Some guys get all the luck.

    And when his day-job boss asked what had happened, Alexander was forced to say words to the effect that “I can’t tell you. It’s classified.”

    • #2
  3. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Seawriter: Rated a bombardier, navigator, and radar bombardier

    I am curious about these. The aeronautical ratings I am familiar with are Navigator, Senior Navigator, and Master Navigator. Bombardier was awarded to people who had graduated the 20 week Bombardier course, but was phased out in 1949. I had not heard of Radar Bombardier before.

    In my time in SAC the word “Navigator” was applied to both Aeronautical ratings and crew positions, with the crew position “Radar Navigator” given to the person fulfilling the job previously known as bombardier, and Navigator given to the crew position and rating. Today the ratings are forms of Combat Systems Officer and the crew positions remain as Radar Navigator, Navigator, and Electronic Warfare Officer – in the B-52.

    • #3
  4. Jim George Member
    Jim George
    @JimGeorge

    Instugator (View Comment):
    Instugator Ricochet Charter Member

    Seawriter: Rated a bombardier, navigator, and radar bombardier

    I am curious about these. The aeronautical ratings I am familiar with are Navigator, Senior Navigator, and Master Navigator. Bombardier was awarded to people who had graduated the 20 week Bombardier course, but was phased out in 1949. I had not heard of Radar Bombardier before.

    @instugator, first, thank you for your service! I see from your place of residence and your list of service accomplishments that you were apparently based at Barksdale in Bossier City, an area we have family connections to as my brother in law, RIP, was in the medical field there for some time and his son and family are still there. We are long time natives of Baton Rouge now living in the Florida Panhandle.

    One of the greatest parts of my life was my service in SAC, as what I have always heard referred to as a Navigator-Bombardier on B-47s — I was most interested in your discussion of the various titles and now am not at all as certain as I have always been of what my title actually was. Like the author of this book, I trained at Ellington in Houston and then went to what was then McCoy AFB and is now Orlando International. In fact, I just ordered a model B-47 for my young nephew so he could have some idea of what my plane looked like–I call him my favorite fellow Blue Angels fan and wanted him to have a little appreciation for the reason his old Uncle loves aircraft and flying so much! 

    Thank you both for this discussion and for introducing me to this book; it brought back memories of some of my most memorable years and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Some famous person once said, or it could well be that I made it up myself based on my own experience, that one’s military experience never leaves one and that was absolutely the case with me. And that experience clearly has a lot to do with the fact that I mourn where this country is headed with all of this anti-American hatred and anarchists trying to burn down Federal Courthouses and people needing safe spaces and hot cocoa for their hurt feelings and the list is endless. And tragic. And, should the unthinkable happen and the President not get re-elected, very possibly terminal. 

    Thanks again, Jim.

    • #4
  5. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Jim George (View Comment):

    One of the greatest parts of my life was my service in SAC, as what I have always heard referred to as a Navigator-Bombardier on B-47s — I was most interested in your discussion of the various titles and now am not at all as certain as I have always been of what my title actually was.

     @jimgeorge

    Hi Jim,

    I went looking for crew positions on the B-47 and I found a couple of diagrams. Upstairs was the Pilot in the forward seat, with a Copilot/Weather observer seated behind him. Downstairs almost in the nose of the aircraft was the Navigator/Bombardier. So you were probably rated as a Navigator. Do you have a set of wings? I would like to see a picture of them. When did you leave the service?

    I retired out of Barksdale AFB and I currently work for Air Force Global Strike Command. The JB-47E  on display at the Global Power Museum is tail number 53-2276.

    The B-52G, 57-6509 “Nine O Nine II” on display at the museum also was a G model I flew in Desert Storm as a 1Lt. Despite what the Wikipedia entry says, it was on the ramp at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, not Moron, Spain.

    Stu

    • #5
  6. Brian Wyneken Member
    Brian Wyneken
    @BrianWyneken

    Instugator (View Comment):

    . . . 

    I retired out of Barksdale AFB and I currently work for Air Force Global Strike Command. The JB-47E on display at the Global Power Museum is tail number 53-2276.

    The B-52G, 57-6509 “Nine O Nine II” on display at the museum also was a G model I flew in Desert Storm as a 1Lt. Despite what the Wikipedia entry says, it was on the ramp at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, not Moron, Spain.

    Stu

    You probably knew Dan Charchian (among others) – he was co-pilot on my first crew when I started at Griffiss in ’85. Stayed in SAC as a nav and later radar-nav for a single term.  Then, like the nav in the post spent the rest of my flying career in C-130s with “the guards.” One little comment – 1st day of Navigator training at Mather, the training squadron commander greeted us with the comment that if we were planning to make being a navigator into a career we were making a mistake – the crew position would be gone in less than 10 years . . . that was November 1983! 

    • #6
  7. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):

    Instugator (View Comment):

    . . .

    I retired out of Barksdale AFB and I currently work for Air Force Global Strike Command. The JB-47E on display at the Global Power Museum is tail number 53-2276.

    The B-52G, 57-6509 “Nine O Nine II” on display at the museum also was a G model I flew in Desert Storm as a 1Lt. Despite what the Wikipedia entry says, it was on the ramp at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, not Moron, Spain.

    Stu

    You probably knew Dan Charchian (among others) – he was co-pilot on my first crew when I started at Griffiss in ’85. Stayed in SAC as a nav and later radar-nav for a single term. Then, like the nav in the post spent the rest of my flying career in C-130s with “the guards.” One little comment – 1st day of Navigator training at Mather, the training squadron commander greeted us with the comment that if we were planning to make being a navigator into a career we were making a mistake – the crew position would be gone in less than 10 years . . . that was November 1983!

    Yep, I know Col Charchian – went to fly the B-1. Later came to Barksdale as the 2BW Comannder. Here is his farewell note to the wing in 2007. He retired and is now working for UL Coleman.

     

    • #7
  8. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Brian Wyneken (View Comment):
    1st day of Navigator training at Mather, the training squadron commander greeted us with the comment that if we were planning to make being a navigator into a career we were making a mistake – the crew position would be gone in less than 10 years . . . that was November 1983!

    The Navs left the KC-135 with the advent of the Pacer CRAG mod back in the 1990’s. The career field went away in 2009 with the merger of Navs, WSOs, and EWOs into the  Combat Systems Officer career field. So the Training Sq commander was off by more than 1/4 century.

    • #8
  9. Jim George Member
    Jim George
    @JimGeorge

    Instugator (View Comment):
    I went looking for crew positions on the B-47 and I found a couple of diagrams. Upstairs was the Pilot in the forward seat, with a Copilot/Weather observer seated behind him. Downstairs almost in the nose of the aircraft was the Navigator/Bombardier. So you were probably rated as a Navigator. Do you have a set of wings? I would like to see a picture of them. When did you leave the service?

    Stu, with apologies for the lack of shine on the wings, here’s a close-up along with a fuller shot of the shadow box in which they have resided since (some times it seems) shortly after the Presidency of Mr. Coolidge came, tragically for the country, to an end. It is such an honor to have someone, anyone, actually ask to see my wings, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, as it’s been a very long time since anyone has even known I have them, much less want to see them, except for the blessed times when I go to NAS PENSACOLA to see the incredible Blue Angels practice/perform, as I do as often as possible and hope to start doing again after the COVID mania finally maxes out, as it is sure to do. 

    If those diagrams are in a format in which you can readily do so, I sure would appreciate it if you could sent them to me. I would enjoy seeing them and may send them to my nephew as well. 

    I was in the USAF from 56-59 after which I attended LSU Law School 59-62; practiced for about 55-60 years. Quite often thought I would have been much happier had I stayed in USAF, especially in the last years of practice as it was turning into something akin to a barbaric wasteland. 

    Thanks for the note; sure have enjoyed remembering those times in the Strategic Air Command, and I thank you again for your exemplary service to our Nation.

    Sincerely, Jim.

    • #9
  10. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    @jimgeorge I don’t know what you are talking about, but those are shiney Navigator wings – awesome.

    I am glad you have them in a shadow box.  SAC in your day was frenetic time with the Cold War heating up and SAC trying to stand up and invent the procedures we still follow today.

    I sat nuke alert in the B-52G model until the day I left for Desert Shield and then, except for exercises, I never sat Alert again.

     

    • #10