James was an older man born into an age who used slide rulers and pencils to do the math. I ran a helpdesk for an Internet Service Provider, and James was having problems getting onto the Internet.
He lived in some senior housing not far from the college, and since I
couldn’t fix it remotely, I told him I’d drop by after work and take a look. His apartment was fairly modest. A small one bedroom place I’d have thought was a palace back in my college days. It had a small kitchen, bath, and bedroom. His computer sat on a “bought at K-Mart desk” in the living room, next to his television and VCR.
What caught my eye was some of the decorations. Framed on the wall was a chart showing the north coast of what was then the Soviet Union. It had penciled in what appeared to be a course that skirted the coast, but still was in international air space.
A navigational slide rule was pinned next to it, and a picture of what looked like a B-29 bomber.
“No, it’s not a B-29,” he said. “Ever heard of the B-50?”
I had. The B-50 was an attempt to keep a production line going. Boeing, the same company that had built the much-vaunted B-29, was always doing upgrades on the plane. What they’d done was to take the B-29, given it a higher tail surface, better metal, more powerful engines, and produced what they said was a whole new bomber. Needing something to carry the Atom Bomb into Russia if needed, the Air Force bought it.
It would be the last, fully piston-powered bomber in the Air Force inventory, and it was soon eclipsed by larger, more powerful aircraft such as the B-36, the B-47, and ultimately, the B-52. This left the aircraft to perform roles, not as a bomber, but as recon and weather.
“I was a navigator on a WB-50,” he said. “The W stands for Weather.”
“That’s the Russian coast,” I said, looking at the chart.
He explained that they flew the B-50 up and over the pole to collect weather data. “It was important work for a couple of reasons. This was in the days before weather satellites, and if things kicked off between us and the Russians, we had to know what the weather was for our bombers going in. Some of our work helped make the U-2 flights possible, you know, like the one Gary Powers flew.”
I was familiar with Gary Powers and his disastrous U-2 flight.
“We also sniffed the air, looking for evidence of atomic testing. If we saw an increase in fallout, it was a sure bet that the Russians had tested a bomb.”
“Some of the B-50s were fitted out to monitor radar transmissions and to listen in on radio transmissions. Some had high-resolution cameras and would look at things. But we were all about the weather.
“My job was pretty ticklish. We had to fly an exact course right along the edge of international airspace. Off a little, and we’d be in Russian airspace and legal prey for their fighters. Too far out, and we wouldn’t exactly know what the weather looked like. It could get a little tense.”
“I’m sure the Russians didn’t like your being there.”
“No, they didn’t. While technically not a direct threat, and I’m sure they knew we were just a weather plane, we were also designated as a bomber. We could be carrying bombs just as easily as weather gear, and so they kept a close eye on us. They were just letting us know that they cared.
“We were flying over the pole during the middle of the day, and I remember the sky was amazingly clear. There wasn’t even a hint of a cloud, and we were flying along at about twenty-five thousand feet. The B-50 was pressurized, so we didn’t have to wear masks, and while it was warmed, it was still cool, and we wore our jackets.
“I could look out one side of the plane and down and see this vast expanse of ice. Sometimes lines crossed it, and from here they looked like roads. They were in reality, pressure ridges, the place where ice comes together and buckles. Off to the other side was Russia. I could look in and see snow, and mountains, and in places, even the glint of sunlight off glass or metal.
“It had been a routine flight without problems. The engines were a steady drone, and we’d been doing our job, talking back and forth. I kept checking our position constantly. As I said, we were just inside international air space. A mistake could easily put us over.
“That there had been flights into Russia was known within the flying community. Some had ended in disaster. Our job was collect weather data, not spy, and we were cautious about it.
“I remember the pilot saying over the intercom, ‘We’ve got company.’
“I got up to look out a small porthole. Off to one side of us, parked maybe a hundred yards beyond our wing, was a MiG-19. I could see the red star painted on it, and the pilot, his face hidden behind goggles and a mask looking at us. I bet he was thinking, ‘My, My. What a big inviting target.’
“‘We got another one on the other side,’ a voice said in my intercom.
“I went to another window, and sure enough, another MiG was off the other wing.
“We flew on like that for several minutes. I kept looking out at the fighter off our right wing, and it appeared to be slowly getting closer. I reported that, and the pilot said, ‘I’ve been watching him. He is starting to crowd us just a little.’
“The instinctive thing to do would be to try to maintain our distance. The trouble is, that would have meant turning a bit, and that would have taken us into Soviet airspace in minutes. The plane kept getting closer and closer. Our pilot maintained his course, not moving an inch to the right or left.
“Finally, maybe ten meters away, the MiG stopped its approach. It flew like that with us for a few minutes. I could clearly see the pilot now and I imagine he was talking to his wingman or his ground station. We were so close, a tiny mistake on his part or ours could have frightening consequences.
“I felt like I had to do something, so I did the only thing I could. I held up my hand with the time-honored middle finger extended. Being out in the bright sunlight and it being darker in the plane, he’d never see my gesture, but it sure made me feel better.
“He maintained his position for about another five minutes but that seemed like five hours, and then with a wave, he flipped his fighter over, and dived away.
“The rest of our flight was uneventful. We saw MiGs often after that. Sometimes they paced us at a distance. Other times they got up close and personal. While there was nothing routine about it, you got used to them. I guess it was little like a shark following a sailboat. As long as no one does anything stupid, it would all be OK in the end.”
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