Russell E. Hershey,
INT: Now this is purely a personal opinion. It seems to me incredibly dangerous to fly planes twenty four hours a day loaded with nuclear weapons. Was that not the case?
OP: Was it dangerous to fly an airplane with weapons for twenty four hours? We didn't really perceive it as being dangerous. You know, the weapons were safely locked = in a bomb bay. They just, you know, they weren't just put up there with bailing wires so that when you hit a bump they would fall out. There was a number of things that had to happen, you know, before those wax could get unlocked. There were a number of people got involved. One person just couldn't unlock the wax and drop the bombs and you couldn't shake them out. It would have to have a major.. airframe accident or something come apart for the weapons to fall. Even then, if it fell out, if they weren't armed and there was another arming procedures, they would not detonate. They would just be.. something dropping on the ground.
INT: Could a crew, a single SAC crew, have dropped an armed bomb if it had wanted to?
OP: Could a SAC crew drop an armed bomb if they wanted to? If they wanted to, certainly they could, but there would have to be a major conspiracy. All that crew would have to agree together that they're gonna drop this bomb. If there's any one person or two people on that airplane said 'no, we're not gonna drop this bomb' they wouldn't drop it. I don't believe that that ever entered any of our minds. The SAC people in those days were so professional but we were a little weird in some ways probably. When we got round the airplane, it was all business and we just didn't have that thought. The other thing that they had in those days -- I think they still have that -- was human reliability programs, where if someone started acting a little strange, we'd start watching them and you know, we.. send them to the doctor or for examination or.. ..(inaudible).. 'are you having a problem?' because occasionally you have people would kind of start going towards the deep end. But we had ways of identifying that and as I recall, we didn't really attach much stigmatism to that to those people because we knew it was a tough mission and there was a lot of things and if someone just couldn't handle it any more, then they couldn't handle it, and they went on to do something else.
INT: Excellent answer. Last few questions then. When we spoke on the phone, you gave me a very good metaphor of what it was like particularly with the Soviets. You said it was like a football game in the sense that you were out there, you know, making your play and that they were aware of what you were doing. Do you remember..?
OP: What was that? What did I..?
INT: You described flying the twenty four hour alerts as a.. the fact that the USSR knew what you were doing but there was nothing that they could do about it. It was a bit like playing a game of football. They could only watch you move across the pitch. Let me phrase it into a question. When.. the planes were flying.. to their fail-safe points and flying out over the Med, was there anything that the Russians could do or tried to do about it?
OP: When we were flying the airborne alert or if we were airborne on a particular sortie we really didn't feel threatened from adversaries.. or the Russians while we were flying until we got close to their areas, 'cos they simply didn't have the range with their interceptors or their missiles. And as you recall, we had a.. with NATO we had a pretty tight ring round (inaudible). Now, as soon as we got within and we knew where the fighter baswere, where the (inaudible) were and that's right.. when we got within range, certainly we began to pucker and tune up for that. You have to understand though that they had kind of what we call a roll-back type of mission because by the time we launched and if something happened and we were there, the missiles would be fired first. We had all the NATO there, you know, the English, the French, the Italians and ringed in we had aircraft positioned in a European theatre and their mission was to go in and start at the beginning and roll back, take out the communications, take out the fighter bases, the Russian fighter bases and take out.. So when we came along with the B-52s we hoped -- and we were pretty sure -- that if everybody else did what they were supposed to do, that we were relatively clean and when we came into the coastline, as soon as we came into the threat, we'd duck down at low altitude and at low altitude and high speed we felt very comfortable and confident that we were gonna get through. So well, the Russians certainly posed a threat and knew that and we placed a lot of faith and a lot of trust in the rest of the team that somebody else had missions to perform. Ours was the final kind of blow, much as we did at Hanoi, in 1972 this is.. Let's end it. This is it. It's the final quarter and then when we do this, it's over.
INT: Good answer. What was it like to fly a B-52 at low level at top speed?
OP: Flying a B-52 at low level was quite an experience because the airplane was initially designed and built as a high altitude bomber and it really wasn't until the early Sixties that we began experimenting with delivering weapons at a low altitude and the reason we had to go lower altitude because of the Sam Mitchells. Their range and their altitude was so great that flying at thirty five thousand feet you just were simply a target of opportunity that... the other thing, the accuracy of weapons, of course, even delivering nuclear weapons was not a great at high altitudes was at low altitude. You were more susceptible to fighters.. your penetration capability. So we began to fly at low level and we started out maybe at fifteen hundred feet and a thousand and five hundred feet and then snuck down at three hundred feet. Initially, at maybe around two eighty knots and then at three twenty five knots and you zipped along quite rapidly. Initially we didn't have low level auto-pilots. We had to fly the airplane manually, and it was a handful and get a little bumpy and some heat thermal and we had what we called 'thermal curtains' and these thermal curtains where you have all this glass around you, these windows. What you did, you pulled up all these curtains and the co-pilot, or whoever was not flying the airplane, had a little peephole there, maybe a six by six square. Everything else was closed and they wore.. now this may sound like I'm telling a story and an interesting anecdote.. add later on. We wore an eye-patch, one eye-patch covered one eye so that, you know, we.. then there.. and the co-pilot or the other pilot was kind of a safety observer. If something was coming up or something like that. Now, because there were weapons going off all over the place and these nuclear blasts, this light would blind you so if one went off, you got blinded. But you only got blinded in one eye, you see. So, you know, that may sound like a story but it's the truth to the extent that we used to get we'd get a pilot, a co-pilot, on alert for the first time. Someone would get a pair of goggles, the eye-patch, and they would tell him, says 'now you have to wear this on alert'. So 'what, why do I have to wear this?'. 'It's practice. You have to learn to see with one eye because when you fly, you're going to be sitting over there operating with one eye and while you're on alert here, this is the opportune time to do that' and of course this co-pilot would be walking round the facility with this one with this eye-patch on and of course everybody else would.. giggle and laugh about it.. at him. They knew that this young man had been had and after he found out about it, why, he, you know, was.. (interviewer laughs) it was something that.. we did to relieve some stress...
INT: Last two questions then. What was the worst moment of the Cold War for you?
OP: Worst moment of the Cold War I believe was the Cuban crisis because we really were very concerned and we thought that, well, this was it because you know Khrushchev was a very determined person and in those days the Russians were ..(inaudible)... recall him taking his shoe off in the United Nations and of course Kennedy was a young President at that time and felt that Khrushchev was gonna get Kennedy to blink and we didn't blink and I recall those months that we pulled alert one week on, one week off in a week.. and that week off, we flew airborne alert and we literally had airplanes strung fifteen minutes apart from the States all the way into the Med, all the way to the North Pole. They were just streamed one right behind another and rather than Kennedy blinking, we believe Khrushchev blinked and from then on, I believe that really was a I believe a major turning point to when you were just a few years that it finally crumbled. Because they knew that we meant business and we were ready.
INT: A final question then. Was the Cold War necessary?
OP: Was the Cold War necessary? It certainly wasn't that we don't believe it was necessary on our part. I believe the Cold War was such that the reaction to it was necessary. fortunately we had some generals or we had some forward-thinking people and I think we give most of the credit to Curtis LeMay who had a lot of success you know, in England and in his bombing and his strategy of heavy bombing and how that really took its.. finally took its toll on Germany in World War II and he carried those same concepts forward into the nuclear age, and so we believe that you know, the role that the B-52 played in that Cold War was very significant, and did we.. want to do that or have a role in that? No, I don't think we ever thought of it that way. It was something that had to be done and we did it.
INT: Colonel Pugnale, well, actually...
INT: Final question. Did you regard yourselves on the front line of a real war?
OP: Did we regard ourselves on the front line as a real war? That's a difficult concept. We had a mission to perform, there was a real threat there, we believed there was a threat, but I don't think we looked at it as a war in one that if you looked at a classic war like World War II that lasted some five years, we perceived that this was going to be some action that was a matter of days, maybe a week long then it would be all over because of such massive destructive power that that those who were left would say 'look at what we've done. This is ludicrous. It's over.' So it was something if it was gonna happen would happen very fast and not last very long and there would be tremendous destruction and we didn't know who the survivors would be. And it you know, probably in retrospect it scares me more than it did when I was twenty five years old. You know, when you're twenty five years old, you're pretty fearless, you know? As you get older, you begin to.. inject some sanity into your thinking process but, ] you survived it all.
INT: Marvelous, thank you very much indeed.
END OF INTERVIEW