My wife’s good friend came to town for a wedding. Her husband is a retired airline pilot. We took them out to lunch and showed off Chicago. As we drove around, they oohed and ahhed at the architecture and the history. Eventually the two gal pals relived the old days in the back seat. And Ed and I were in the front. He was a really nice guy who liked opera and a good joke.
I’ve always had an interest in aviation, so I asked him about his career. He discussed the merits of various passenger planes and new computers that can override a pilot’s control of the plane. These days, not all pilots are ex military, but in this guy’s era, they all were.
I asked him what kinds of planes he flew and he mentioned several that I had scale models of when I was a kid. Then he said he flew the B-52, the biggest bomber in the US arsenal and the workhorse of the Air Force since 1953. These behemoths have been rebuilt so many times that even the experts are not sure how parts of them work.
He gave me an example. B-52s are so big that the wind will blow them off course on the ground, so that they can actually land and take off on a slight angle. To accommodate this phenomenon, the landing gear are actually steerable. After take off, the landing gear must be straightened out in order to be stowed in the underbelly. On a night flight over upstate New York, the gear wouldn’t straighten after takeoff. The wheels hanging below the plane would be a tremendous drag on the flight. They tried everything, nothing worked. They called the base, woke up the chief engineer, he suggested things they had already tried. They went all the way up the chain of command, nobody knew. These planes have been so jury rigged over the years, there was no set way to do the wiring. They couldn’t land with the gear stuck as it was because they might go off the runway. Finally it was decided they head for Edwards Air Force Base, clear across the country. Their dry lake bed runways meant that the plane could go off the runway without ill effect.
But before they did that, one of the patches the crew tried finally worked, they were able to stow the gear and complete the mission. He didn’t say what the mission was. But later he waxed poetic about a huge nuclear bomb he used to carry that was recently decommissioned. It was called the B-53 (coincidentally) and it was a 9 megaton bomb that weighed 10,000 pounds and was the size of a small car. By contrast, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan was .012 megatons. This big bomb could destroy a large city. And the guy who was to deliver it was sitting right next to me and he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to talk to. I’m glad for all of us that he never had to make that delivery.