October 17, 2002
Saturn's Prequel

My dad used to work on the Apollo space program. He has any number of stories, all of them funny. Some of them may actually be true. But this isn't one of them:

The thing about fighter pilots, especially fighter pilots in the gung-ho cold war 50s and 60s, was they knew everything about anything. Most particularly affected were Marine pilots, who had the additional liability of being a Marine added to that of being a fighter pilot.

One of the stranger things about Marine aviation was how often they ended up staying at Air Force bases. Every time a hurricane would blow into the Gulf of Mexico the Navy would scramble all the air stations on the coasts and send their aircraft inland. One of the places they ended up was Little Rock Air Force Base (LRAFB), in Jacksonville Arkansas, where my dad was stationed in the early sixties.

One night during one of these "sleepovers", while everyone was gathered at the Officer's Club, it was discovered the Marine Aviators considered themselves absolute experts on their brand new F-4B Phantom jets (at the time arguably the best interceptor in the world, and one of the most successful fighter designs in history). Without question, they opined in loud voices (after partaking rather generously of the O-Club's many fine distilled liquors), the F-4B was the fastest airplane in the world. It was just such a damned shame all these "low-slow" (Marinespeak for "bomber") pilots would never be able to experience the finer points of Mach-2 flight.

Eventually one of the bomber pilots got a little upset at these proclamations. "Fastest fighter in the world, huh?"

"Absolutely. World speed record and everything!"

"Faster than anything we got here, huh?"

"Yeah, damned shame too. Mach 2 is pretty spectacular!"

"Well, I think we got something here that'll probably come pretty close to that. In fact, I think it might even be a little faster than that."

"No way. You guys drive all these low-slows. All this plodding around hoping nobody notices ya and shoots ya down. You got nothing come even close."

"Want to put a wager on that?"

Well, of course they couldn't turn down a sure thing. So it was agreed: a timed race to 20,000 feet. Loser has to buy everyone drinks that night. The Marines went to bed with visions of free booze dancing in their heads.

What the Marines didn't seem to understand was LRAFB was one of just two places in the country where a wing of B-58 Hustler bombers was stationed. A medium-sized hotrod, and possibly one of the most gorgeous bombers ever built, it was ostensibly designed to penetrate enemy air defenses through raw speed alone. In reality, it was more an expression of Convair's political clout and the bomber community's desire for something a little more exciting than the ponderous B-52.

It really was a ridiculous aircraft. The wings were just big enough to hold the four General Electric J79 jet engines (the same engines found in the Phantom) that powered it, and the fuselage was only just big enough to hold the three crew and enough gas to perform the mission. The weapon was carried externally in a giant pod underneath the center fuselage that also held extra gas and electronics. It was easily the most sophisticated aircraft built up to that time, with early examples of electronics found on aircraft to this day.

And it was fast. Really fast. Eventually it would beat several world records for speed set by the Phantom itself, and was easily capable of sustained speeds over mach 2.

Not only were they fast in and of themselves, but this bomber pilot knew one of the planes had just come out of an extensive overhaul, and did not have the weapons pod or other armaments installed yet. Heavy, draggy armaments. In other words, at that particular point this specific B-58 was a hotrod above all the other hotrods.

So the big day arrived, a beautifully clear summer morning, with the final mugginess just wearing out of the air. The Marines, being gentlemen, decided to let the Air Force guys go first. What with how goofy and spindly that B-58 was, they wanted to make sure it at least got a chance. The pilot taxied all the way to the very end of the run way, carefully lining up so that by the time they took off they'd be right in front of the flight line and their small but growing audience. For fun, everyone was counting down. "3! 2! 1! GO!!!"

What the audience saw was a tiny metal dot against the dark green of the woods surrounding the base suddenly throwing blue and orange flame out the back. It started to accelerate as if a child had kicked a ball of aluminum really, really hard. The noise from four of the most powerful jet engines made rapidly went from a low rumble to a chest-thumping, ear-splitting, eye-tearing roar, 140 decibels of ripping canvas sound that simply filled the world. At precisely the right moment the pilot yanked the stick back, hard enough the engines briefly touched their skid plates, throwing a glittering rooster tail of titanium sparks. The engines were pushing so hard they promptly blew four shallow holes in the concrete runway. As everyone dodged flying bits of concrete the B-58 pilot barrel rolled up to 20,000 feet.

The Marines didn't even bother to take off.

My dad said the officer's club was more crowded than he had ever seen it that night.


Two reasons for this one. First, I'm out of NASA stories. Why not call the old man? Well, he's deaf as a post and can't hear anything through his cellphone even with his hearing aids (they switched off their "regular" phone... no, I don't understand it either).

Secondly, I always thought this story was the funniest but least believable story he ever told. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this, a story which in broad points matches my dad's very closely. There are, of course, still some problems, most notably the pilot's story happens in Texas and my dad's happens in Arkansas. But they're close enough I get the feeling someone is mis-remembering details (myself, my dad, or even perhaps the pilot), but damned if the story itself isn't true.

Anyway, apologies for it not quite being NASA related. Hopefully it's fun enough in and of itself.

Posted by scott at October 17, 2002 03:37 PM

eMail this entry!

Your dad was a "rocket man" head of one of the Titan Missle maintaince crews. All the pilots were the most arragant boys in the world and they were just kids. The top of the heap were the pilots who flew in the air shows. The famous Thunderbirds. Absolutely wild men.

A B-58 crashed and burned during take off while we were there killing the whole crew, but they were really something to see.

Posted by: Pat on October 17, 2002 05:06 PM

It was a very entertaining story. I'm glad you told it.

Posted by: Jessa June on October 18, 2002 01:23 PM
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