Carrying a Nuke to Sevastopol: One Pilot, One Engine, and One Plutonium Bomb by Daniel Ford - Read Online
Carrying a Nuke to Sevastopol
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This story began as a study of lofting or tossing nuclear weapons, known as"LABs," for Low Altitude Bombing system. I became fascinated with the notion of using the prop-driven Skyraider for this purpose, and the story evolved into an account of what it would have been like to drive this 1940s aircraft to Sevastopol on the first day of the Third World War. "Crazy days," as one pilot called the notion. The article was published in Foundation magazine of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola in its Fall 1999 issue, and is somewhat expanded here. I have included my email correspondents with the men who call themselves the "Spadguys," for the benefit of those who'd like to delve deeper into the sometimes desperate measures that were taken during the Cold War years. The book's frontispiece shows the pretty Pokrovsky cathedral in the center of Sevastopol, which I have chosen as the IP or Initial Point of my mythical sortie. From its spire, all other calculations would be based. Crazy days, indeed! -- Daniel Ford

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ISBN: 9781507059647
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Carrying a Nuke to Sevastopol - Daniel Ford

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Note from the Author

THIS STORY BEGAN as a study of lofting or tossing nuclear weapons, a method that the U.S. military called LABs for Low Altitude Bombing System. I became fascinated with the notion of using the prop-driven Skyraider for this purpose, and the story evolved into an account of what it would have been like to drive this 1940s aircraft to the Crimea on the first day of the Third World War. (This peninsula – almost an island – was then and still is the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It became part of Ukraine in 1954 but seized again just recently by a newly assertive Moscow.) I don’t know that Sevastopol was on U.S. Navy’s target list, but it almost certainly was. What more suitable destination for a piston-driven aircraft that came off the drawing board in 1945?

Crazy days, as one pilot called the notion. The article was published in Foundation magazine of the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola in its Fall 1999 issue, and is somewhat expanded here. I have included my email correspondence with the men who call themselves the Spadguys, for the benefit of those who’d like to delve deeper into the sometimes desperate measures that were taken during the Cold War years.

The frontispiece shows Pokrovsky cathedral in the center of Sevastopol, which I have chosen as the IP or Initial Point of my mythical sortie. From its spire, all other calculations would be based. Crazy days, indeed! – Daniel Ford, Durham, New Hampshire, May 2014

These AD-6 Skyraiders of Navy Attack Squadron 42 were capable of carrying a plutonium bomb with a ‘yield’ of 10,000 to 70,000 thousand tons of TNT

‘I Wasn’t Afraid of Anything’

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 center-line – 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. Instead, 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. Yes: you drop closer to the water.

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 (173 miles per hour). You switch from internal fuel to the 300-gallon drop tank beneath the port wing. Then you inflate the rubber doughnut that will cushion your butt, more or less, during the long hours of your flight. Every three minutes, by the red glow of your flashlight, you put a time tick on the chart, closing the distance from the island of Crete to the island of Rhodes, just off the coast of Turkey. Every fifteen minutes, you calculate the fuel you've burned. And you check your altitude! At fifty feet above the water, a moment’s inattention can send your and your aircraft cartwheeling across the waves, a maneuver from which there will be no escape.

In our squadron of 22 pilots, we lost three killed by flying into the ground or water during a 20-month period. I thought this was normal. – Tom Beard, Port Angeles, Washington

The clock on the instrument panel is set to Zulu – military-speak for Greenwich Mean Time. Here in the eastern Mediterranean, the day is two hours ahead of Greenwich, and by 0300 the sky has softened from black to gray. You turn north, threading between the islands, each more visible than the one before, meanwhile smoking a cigarette from the sleeve pocket of your flight suit. In 1957, smoking is a manly art, and almost every man does it.

At 0312 – right on schedule – the Turkish port of Bodrum appears before you, with its palms and fishing boats and a pretty castle on a point of land. Remembering the Naval aviators who splattered themselves onto the brown cliffs of Turkey, you advance the throttle, pull back on the joystick, and clear the castle at a cautionary 200 feet and 170 knots. Feet dry! You power the canopy open, lose a section of chart into the pines, and unroll the Turkish flight chart from the toilet-paper core that keeps the route organized. Your course lies northeast, threading between the mountains. Legalized flathatting!

At 0407 you leave the town of Usak to starboard, rewarding yourself with an apple from the box lunch supplied by Forrestal's galley. Just after 0500 – full daylight now, on a cloudy spring morning – it's feet wet and 50 feet again, across the Black Sea toward Sevastopol. If flying too low is dangerous, flying too high is even worse, for then the Russian radar will see you coming.

On your right-hand console is the Black Box. You toggle the switch that says INSERT - EXTRACT, whereupon a green light goes out and a yellow light comes on. This tells you that, in the guts of the MK 7 that’s slung from your center-line, a battery-driven screw gear is moving a ten-pound capsule of uranium 235 into a soccer ball of tamper and explosives. When detonated, the explosive compound will squeeze the capsule and cause the U-235 to go critical.

Long minutes later, the yellow light goes out and the red light comes