At 7:31 a.m. local time Tuesday, the countdown began in the rumbling belly of the U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber as it flew over the Beaufort Sea. “Sixty seconds—range is green,” announced Lieut. Steven McKay, the navigator, to tell his five fellow crew members that all systems were go. The airmen were tense as they approached the key moment in the flight—the launching of the first U.S. cruise missile to fly on its own over non-U.S. territory. McKay’s countdown continued. “Ten seconds... range is green... nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.
Missile away.” With that, two powerful ejector cartridges thrust the missile from its rack beneath the wing. As Maj. William Fitzpatrick, the B-52’s pilot, recalled later, “There was a thump and then it was gone.”
The crew that flew the mission named Global Cruise III was handpicked from the 46th Bombardment Squadron based at Grand Forks, N.D., where the mission originated. The six men were chosen because they had The Right Stuff—a combination of keen dedication to duty and the experience needed.
Four of the crew, copilot Michael Walker, radar navigator Roger Gustafson, aerial gunner William Pangborn and McKay, had been flying together for more than a year. They had known for two months that the test flight was
scheduled for the third week in February—although Canadians were given only two days’ warning—and practised as though they were preparing for a space adventure. Fitzpatrick and Mark Ashton, the electronic warfare officer on the flight, were added in January partly because they had both logged nearly 2,000 hours of flying time on B-52s. In air force terms they are an “integrated crew,” a closely knit squad whose members go on leave together and whose wives spend time together. For the men, the mission was both an honor and the highlight of their military careers. After years of training, Tuesday’s flight was the closest most of
them had come to a real military exercise over foreign territory. As Ashton put it, “This was our game.”
Tension: Cruise missile testing has a deadly ultimate purpose, but there is an almost eerie normality about the crew members’ everyday lives. Before the flight Fitzpatrick jogged at noon, then tried to sleep for eight hours—a requirement for all B-52 crew members before they fly. For his part, McKay went to a basketball court and “shot baskets to relieve the tension” on the evening before the flight. Gustafson’s wife, Jan, made her husband his favorite fried chicken to take on the mission. “She knew it was a big day for me,” explained Gustafson, “so she cooked me something I liked.”
Back in Grand Forks after the 121/2-
hour mission, the crew—hailed on the base as conquering heroes—was in a celebratory mood. Ashton, who comes from New Orleans, surprised his fellow crew members by producing a six-pack of Mardi Gras Beer to mark the opening of the annual festival in his home town. Then they filled out debriefing forms, went to the local bowling alley for a hamburger and returned to complete their debriefing. Next, they talked to the crews of the two air force electronic control and monitoring aircraft that took part in the mission. After that, the, men went home to sleep. When Ashton walked into his home, his wife treated him like any husband returning from a
day at work. “How’d it go?” she asked.
Before and during the flight the men were aware of the importance of the test to the American military, but they were also keenly aware of the controversy that cruise missile testing has created in Canada. At the mission briefing before the flight the crew was told that Greenpeace organizers might try to disrupt the test with balloons—an effort that ultimately had no effect on the cruise’s flight. Said Fitzpatrick of the protesters: “I don’t understand them. By doing our job, we’re defending the freedom they have to protest.” In the air, the crew dismissed political considerations and concentrated on completing a successful mission. In the end it went off without a hitch. Said Gustafson: “It was almost boring, it went so well.”
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