When you say the words “Chrome Dome”, most people familiar with the term will tell you it was our B-52 force on constant 24 hour airborne alert
with live nuclear weapons onboard. However there is another side of this mission. One that would have sucked more than flying all those hours in a
bomber waiting to get the “go” call. It was the large force of KC-135 Stratotankers keeping those Buff’s in flight for all those hours.
Looking back at our history, it would seem that the stratobomber and stratotanker were made for each other. Popularized by movies like “Dr.
Strangelove”, air refueling with a B-52 was the easiest for a young Boom operator to accomplish. The Buff has a huge receptacle that a new boom
could “slam” the boom on and let it slide into the hole (not recommended!). If you couldn’t make a contact with a B-52, chances are you would
get washed out of boom school.
Running from 1960 to 1968, B-52’s would take off from bases like Sheppard AFB Texas, on their 24 hour mission, head towards New England, fly into
the Atlantic and get some gas from the KC-135 before turning north to Greenland. From there they would fly west across the northern tip of Canada
towards Alaska, refueling once again over the Pacific ocean, before turning south flying down the California coast and eastward back to Texas.
B-52 route in 1964
After a while, the Air Force must have realized that flying a bomber for that long of a duration probably had an effect on the crew members being able
to cope with situational awareness and started flying three distinct routes: A western route, a northern route, and a southern route. The western
route took off from the Pacific Northwest, flew over the Pacific Ocean, North through Alaska and up to the arctic before turning west towards Russia.
Eventually they turned south flying through Alaska’s airspace before heading back to their home base. 2 bombers a day flew this mission. The second
mission was the northern route flown by four B-52’s a day. This route started from Westover AFB, and flew north to Baffin Island. From there it went
south towards Michigan, west to the Minnesota/North Dakota border, before turning north again towards Baffin island and into Greenland. And the third
mission consisted of six B-52’s a day flying the southern route from Westover, across the Atlantic, into the Med, and back. One of Americas most
famous “broken arrows” occurred on this route in 1966 in Palomares, Spain.
For those who don’t know the term, broken arrow is a term used by the military when they lose a nuclear bomb. Paraphrasing this
on Jan 16, 1966, a B-52G with the call sign Tea
16 left Seymour Johnson AFB enroute to its orbit near Turkey. On the third air refueling of the mission, the bomber was moving too fast on the tanker
and the boom hit the buff’s longeron, consequently ripping the left wing off the aircraft.
Four nuclear weapons were released in the accident. Three were found with the wreckage of the B-52 near Palomares, Spain. The fourth was declared a
broken arrow. One of the first three released plutonium, and the USAF sent in teams to haul away the radioactive dirt that surround the area. The
forth bomb resulted in one of the greatest search and rescue operations for a nuclear weapon in the history of the country. Over thirty ships and
submersible vehicle Alvin search the sea floor for 11 weeks before finally bringing the bomb aboard the USS Petrel on April 7th. The Mk 28 bomb was
immediately sanitized for the media (covering up serial numbers and markings which was ordered by then SecDef Robert S. McNamara) before Spanish
officials inspected the bomb and the press took pictures.
Mk 28 Nuclear Bomb
Chrome Dome was more than just a nuclear airborne alert force. It was a deterrence. The missions were not a secret: we wanted the USSR to know we were
flying them. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crises, as many as 75 nuclear armed B-52s were airborne a day, about 20 percent of the bomber force. But
behind every flight a buff made were several tankers offloading hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel every flight.
Most boom operators like to have a so called checklist or bucket list of things they like to accomplish before leaving the career. For instance, on
these Chrome Dome flights, boom operators would knock out the 100,000 pound offload in one flight, or 100,000 pound offload in one contact (takes
around 20 minutes!). Another that happened on these flights was the 1 million pound total offload mark, which booms were hitting in about 10 flights.
Air refuelings on Chrome Dome were usually conducted by crews deployed to Eielson AFB, Alaska, Torrejon Air Base and Moron Air Base in Spain, and home
bases located along the north eastern US. Here’s an excerpt from “TOF” on his blog located
I supported Operation Chrome Dome from both Eielson AFB and from Torrejon AB. I also deployed once to Griffiss AFB in January 1962. The deployment
to Torrejon was a pleasure trip; the deployment to Eielson was, in the summer months, tolerable duty; however, winter flying from Eielson was a test
of men and equipment. During the winter months the air temperature routinely hovered around -25º F. Everything was cold soaked and it was hard to
warm the aircraft up after they had sat idle for more than a few hours. Hydraulic leaks were common as seals hardened and cracked. Windows,
especially cockpit windows often broke as the intense cold caused the aluminum window frames to contract and overstress the window panes.