“Like I said, I was a 24-year-old Marine lieutenant at the time, and I wasn’t afraid of anything” – Jay Velie, Dallas, Texas
What should you be afraid of? Well, try this on for size:
You're Breakeven Four Zero One – one man, one engine, and one plutonium bomb. The year is 1957, the month February, the hour 0200. You're sitting on your parachute in the tidy cockpit of a Douglas AD-6 Skyraider, better known as the Able Dog, checking its systems by the small gooseneck flashlight that hangs from a chain around your neck. A Wright R-3350 – the same engine that powered the mighty B-29 super-bomber of World War II – swings a four-bladed propeller through a circle almost 14 feet in diameter. Just behind the whirling blades, there hangs a slenderized version of the Fat Man atomic bomb that on August 9, 1945, laid waste to Nagasaki. Its “yield” could be anything from ten thousand tons of TNT (half the size of the Hiroshima bomb) to seventy thousand tons, depending on what core it contains.
The MK 7 weighs 1,700 pounds and measures 15 feet long by 30.5 inches in diameter. If you need to return to USS Forrestal with it still on the centerline – tires flat and oleo struts compressed – the nuke will clear the steel flight deck with only six inches to spare. You're sweating beneath your pressure suit, flight suit, survival vest, and inflatable life preserver.
On the carrier-deck “angle” to your left, the jet pukes in their A4D Skyhawks are being shot into the night like so many rockets. Breakeven Four Zero One doesn’t rate a catapult: you circle the flashlight, the flight-deck officer gives you the okay, and you push the throttle to the stop. With a bellowing growl, that R-3350 drags you toward a marker that's invisible until you're moving fast enough to pop the tail up. Then all you can see is the red light that glows on the far end of the flight deck, which first leaps toward you and then disappears beneath the nose. The oleos thump off the end of the deck, and you descend to your cruising altitude.
World War III has come, and Breakeven Four Zero One is at the pointy end of the spear, heading for Russia at a fuel-thrifty 140 knots....
The e-book and these web pages came out of an article I wrote for Foundation magazine of the Museum of Naval Aviation to answer the question: what would it be like to fly a prop-driven Douglas Skyraider carrying a nuclear bomb on the first day of World War III? By great good fortune, I struck up an email correspondence with a dozen "Spadguys." Over the course of four months, they answered my questions and tutored me in the arts of driving a World War II aircraft at an altitude of 50 feet, so as to sneak in beneath enemy radar, then to execute a high-G pullup and "loft" the bomb toward the target, meanwhile doubling back the way you'd come. "Crazy days," as one of them wrote.
At the end, I printed out the emails as a 100-page book for the editors to use for fact-checking. The emails were so fascinating that (with permission) I've posted them here for others to enjoy. Here they are:
And here's the story of a Spad on an entirely different mission, trying to rescue a downed pilot in the Vietnam War:
Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
Posted October 2015. Websites ©1997-2016 Daniel Ford. All rights reserved.