PHOTOMAPPER SUPPORT OF NUCLEAR TESTING
The following article was written by AFPMA member Gordon Barnes with major inputs from members Joe McGuire and Dennis Davis.
I read with interest the article in the December 1998 "The Photomapper" concerning the heavily photographed A-bomb test of July 1946 near Bikini Atoll. While the event was impressive, the challenge to the photomappers orbiting some 15 miles from the blast pales in comparison to that presented three later crews of photomappers assigned to support nuclear development events.
With the enactment of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, severe restrictions were placed in the paths of those responsible for developing our nuclear capabilities. One provision of this treaty prohibited the detonation of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. However, the requirement still existed within the Department of Defense to obtain nuclear weapon effects data on equipment, structures, personnel, etc. for both offensive and defensive considerations. The logical alternative was to determine those effects by conducting large nuclear simulations using conventional high explosives (HE).
During the time immediately leading up to the test ban treaty anti-nuclear sentiment was high almost everywhere in the world and the budgets of nuclear development agencies were being cut, causing spending to be tightly controlled. So that the available funds could be spent most effectively and so all the best minds could be kept focused on planning and carrying out the optimal tests, the United States, Canada, United Kingdom and Australia entered into a weapons effects agreement with the innocuous title of The Technical Co-operation Program (TTCP).
The first HE event conducted under this program was a 5-Ton shot in Canada in 1959. Canada was chosen because large tracts of land were available and anti-nuclear sentiment was relatively low. This event was followed by more and larger events until in 1964 a 500-Ton shot nicknamed Operation SNOWBALL was conducted, also in Canada. Although much useful data came out of these events, it seemed as many new questions concerning air-blast, ground shock and thermal considerations were raised as were answered. It was felt an even more focused series of tests was needed to address the most serious problems. These tests were designated the MIDDLE NORTH Series. Again, early shots under this series were smaller and were meant to obtain data on basic blast and shock phenomena, target response, and to develop new nuclear simulation techniques. By 1968 the need for another really big event was apparent so that good scaling relationships could be established between various sized yields and for verification and improvement of computer models and techniques. So in that year Operation PRAIRIE FLAT, another 500-Ton HE event was staged. The location was the Defence Research Establishment Suffield (DRES)- an isolated, 1000 square mile area in Alberta, Canada consisting entirely of barren prairie.
From the first two, large 500-Ton events it became clear that there were anomalies to the predictions in both the expanding shockwave and in the fireball development. These made data obtained at many of the hundreds of experiment locations by the thousands of sensors somewhat questionable and difficult to impossible to correlate. Of course many, if not most of the individual experiment locations were individually photographed as a part of their sensor packages; but it was difficult to correlate these individual photo packages in any meaningful way to a common time line so that an overall picture of what was going on with the shockwave and fireball could be determined. Canadian military forces had attempted to overfly several of the earlier smaller shots but with disappointing results. They. either couldn't get directly over the HE charge at the exact time of detonation or the shots were of such low yields that the anomalies were not apparent.
As a result, the Technical Directors of the three countries (U.S., U.K. and Canada) participating in the next very large event in the series decided it was imperative to obtain vertical, aerial photography from directly over the point of detonation at exactly the instant of detonation. Such photography was to be an integral requirement of three major Canadian programs, three major U.S. programs, and would be used by several other projects of all three nations involved. Responsibility for obtaining this photography was assigned to the U.S. Technical Director who was J.H. Keefer of the Ballistics Research Lab, under contract to the Defense Atomic Support Agency (DASA), the sponsoring U.S. agency.
DASA identified the specific aerial photo requirements with input from the Project Scientists involved. The requirements included metric quality still photography, high speed still photography between the metric frames, and motion picture photography. Film types included both color and high resolution black and white. The official requirement statement was sent to HQ. USAF by DASA and it identified the event to which the requirements were tied. It was another 500-Ton event called DIAL PACK and it was scheduled for 23 July 1970 at DRES in Canada.
The requirement was validated by HQ. USAF and assigned through channels to the Photomapping organization of that time - the Aerospace Cartographic and Geodetic Service (ACGS) at Forbes AFB, Kansas. The assignment advised ACGS to contact the U.S. Technical Director to obtain and coordinate specifics. I was appointed project officer so I called Mr. Keefer. He invited me to attend a DIAL PACK planning meeting at DRES scheduled for the 14th & 15th of May 1970. When I asked him the best way to get to DRES he laughed and told me there was no good way as it was in the "Middle of nowhere"; but probably the best way was to fly into Calgary and then take the train east to a little "town" called Ralston. I could call from there and someone would drive the few miles south to pick me up and take me to the meeting.
Early on 13 May I flew commercially into Calgary and caught a cab to the train station. It was a great day and I was eager to visit DRES and see what it was all about. But at the train station I was in for a shock. The National train system of Canada had just gone on strike. There would be no trains running in the immediate future! I asked their spokesman how he suggested I get to DRES. He recommended I take a bus east along the Trans-Canada Highway as it was the only alternative he knew. So, off to the bus station. Good news!! I could get to Ralston by bus! Bad news. The next one didn't leave until 2300 hours! It was about three hours by bus to Ralston so that would put me there about 0200 on the morning of the 14th! I tried to call Mr. Keefer at the DRES number he had given me but got no answer. I finally got their security people and outlined my problem. They said if I'd call from Ralston and they weren't too busy at that hour they'd come down and get me.
When I boarded the bus shortly after 11:00 that night I was already tired. I told the driver I needed to get off at Ralston so if I were asleep, would he please wake me? He assured me he would. The next thing- I remember was being shaken awake by the driver. He said we were in Ralston. I stumbled groggily off the bus and stood by its side while he retrieved my bag from the luggage bay in the side of the bus. It was after 2:00 in the morning and pitch black as I walked behind the bus expecting to see the "town" of Ralston. It consisted of a combination gas station/convenience store and one house, both on the far side of the Trans-Canada Highway. Both buildings were dark and there was not an outside phone to be seen! Endless flat, black prairie stretched for as far as I could see in all directions. My instincts told me this was not the place for me at that hour, so I dropped my bag and sprinted back to the bus. The driver had just finished closing the baggage compartment and was reboarding. I told him I didn't care where he was headed, I was going along!(1) I retrieved my bag, got back on the bus and rode an additional 30 miles or so into the town of Medicine Hat, Alberta. The kind bus driver dropped me off at a dark and closed motel where I proceeded to bang on the door of the office/residence combination of the owner until he let me in and gave me a room. I called Security at DRES. They said they ran a bus from Medicine Hat to DRES every morning at 0830 for employees who lived there. That I should get on that. They'd clear my doing so with all concerned. About 0400 I fell into bed dead tired.
At the planning meeting I mainly played catch-up and grew to appreciate just what complex, large scale, yet beautifully coordinated happenings these large yield "Events" were. In my mind I'd pictured our plane being the only one in the area; yet I learned there were eight others involved. I'd pondered from where to stage, thinking probably Calgary would be logical; yet officers from nearby Cold Lake Canadian Forces Base were on hand offering the use of their facility. I'd wondered about film processing arrangements, only to be told that the Canadians had a lab at Cold Lake that could handle that task for practice and dry run days and would be pleased to do so. Also that they would deliver the film to the Project Scientists at DRES if we desired. When I wondered aloud about the source of the cameras to take the aerial, rapid cycle still and motion picture photography, I was told by the U.S. Aerospace Audio-Visual Service (AAVS) representative present that they had done both technical and documentary photo of these events for years. Also, that they had not only the equipment but the photographers to do the aerial mission if asked. The AAVS was, like ACGS, one of the Technical Services of the Military Airlift Command. It seemed that most of the hundreds of people involved had worked on these events together for some time. They were all "can-do" people and eager to do anything they could to contribute to overall mission success.
When it came time to discuss project specifics, I learned that in order for our mission to be successful we'd have to have our aircraft precisely over the HE stack and within plus or minus two seconds of the time of detonation. The Project Scientists for the several programs involved had considered all the error sources involved in doing precise measurements on photo products and had concluded the two second tolerance to be the maximum acceptable. I was told that once the arming procedure for the stack of HE was begun at blast minus 2 hours, no active electronic equipment was to be used within 15 miles of the Ground Zero (GZ) to prevent possible premature explosion. This limited the potential navigation options available to the crew. Then I was asked what I needed in the way of support to assure success.
I could think of only two things. One, we would need a series of precisely surveyed and visible check points along a known azimuth inbound to the GZ. The number of these was subjective but the more the merrier! And two, any delays due to cloud cover over the GZ, excessive surface winds, excessive static charge in the atmosphere or other problems must allow time for our aircraft to get back into position to start another run. I requested that the inbound track to be at right angles to the prevailing winds for the season so we'd have maximum flexibility in controlling groundspeed on the inbound leg. We agreed 10 markers at precisely one nautical mile intervals from GZ would be sufficient - all along an exact azimuth from the GZ. We also agreed that any delays to the planned zero hour ("H" hour) would be in 30 minute intervals. The Canadians at DRES responsible for fielding the event agreed to do the geodetic surveying of the mile markers or to have it contracted and completed by 10 July so they would be available for practice. I accepted the Canadian offer of using Cold Lake CFB for staging and their offer to develop and deliver practice and dry-run day film. I also told the AAVS rep that I would request their camera equipment and personnel as offered.
Upon returning to Forbes AFB, I was asked by the ACGS Commander, Col. Tatum, to brief him on the mission. He seemed satisfied with all arrangements but wanted to be assured our crew would be flying at an altitude that would be safe for them and their aircraft. I told him altitude assignments would be determined at an Air Ops meeting at Sandia Base in June, but according to the Military Combat Aircraft limitation of 0.5 psi overpressure, we could fly as low as 7,000 ft. above GZ on a 0.5 KT nuclear shot. However, because of focusing, etc. connected with a surface burst, this event simulated a 1 KT (1,000 Tons of HE, equivalent) nuclear event; therefore, we should probably fly higher. He reasoned that if the anticipated shock was to be twice that nominally expected, we should fly at least twice as high as calculated. He asked that I have the safe altitude reconfirmed by outside experts. I did that at the Air Ops meeting. All agreed 15,000 AGL was a safe altitude and that's what we were assigned. This equated to 22,000 MSL for the DRES location.
Other aircraft assigned to the event were a T-29 taking side-looking radar imagery while standing-off 15 nm from the GZ; a Cessna belonging to the U.S. Geological Survey which took back-up photography of the detonation from an orbit around the GZ and then later took low level mapping photo of the crater and its ejecta; a Canadian balloon used primarily for weather observations in the area; two helicopters used for Range safety and from which AAVS took documentary photography; another Cessna and an OV-2, both of which flew low level penetrations of the dust cloud in order to obtain samples; and two RB-57's which took high altitude post-shot dust measurements and samples. The entire Air Operations was controlled by a Mobile Air Operations Center with an associated mobile radar operated by the AF Special Weapons Center.
Shortly after the June Air Ops meeting I wrote the Ops Plan/Order covering Event DIAL PACK and formally assigned it to the 2nd Aerospace Cartographic & Geodetic Squadron to be flown by one of their RC-130A aircraft. By this time AAVS support had been approved so they sent one of their photographers and associated equipment to Forbes so that ACGS's Ray Elder could design and have built special camera mounts to accommodate their two 16mm motion picture cameras, two 35mm movie cameras, and two rapid cycle 70mm still cameras. These were in addition to the two KC-1B metric mapping cameras of the ACGS.
Also, the crew was selected to fly the mission. There are many opinions regarding on what basis the crew was selected. Joe McGuire is firmly convinced he was chosen as Aircraft Commander because he had orders to leave ACGS. In fact, the DIAL PACK related flights were his last with the organization. He said when Col. Tatum called him in to tell him he'd been selected to lead the effort, he was told, "You're either going to leave ACGS as a hero or a goat. With only a two second tolerance, there can be no middle ground!" Others selected for the crew were Ed Knapp, Co-Pilot; Gene Nelson, Navigator; Dennis Davis, Navigator; James Hill, Flight Engineer; Harold Smith, Photographer; William Dodson, Photographer; and Navois Bearden, Crew Chief.
The overall Trial Director, Dr. R.B. Harvey, required each program to have a dedicated Liaison Officer in residence at DRES while that program had people at work at the site. This was so he could be given daily (and often hourly) updates on how each program was progressing toward being ready for the Event. Though we weren't a program as such, he requested ACGS have a Liaison Officer present while the crew was at Cold Lake CFB so he could be apprised of their progress and problems. It was easy for me to pick myself to serve that role. I'd been involved from the beginning and by this time knew many of the people involved.
Now all that remained in the way of preparation was for the crew to figure out how to do it; and then tell me how much practice time they would need so I could have DRES and Cold Lake ready when we appeared for practice. I'm not sure anyone ever did know exactly how this mission could be best accomplished until the crew got up there and started practicing. We finally decided that if we allowed a week of daily flights for practice that should be more than enough. That schedule could accommodate a couple days lost to weather or aircraft problems and still allow procedures to be adequately refined and practiced. We decided to deploy on 15 July '70, begin daily practice flights on 16 July, and be ready for the Event on 23 July. A formal all systems up "Full-Power, Full-Frequency" test was scheduled for all participants on 17 July and the formal Dry-Run was scheduled for the 20th. All these activities were scheduled around the exact H-hour of 1100 hours local or 1800 Zulu.
The decision to allow extra days for practice proved to be a good one. Two of the seven days allocated were lost due to weather. On the other five practice days a total of 20.1 hours of flying time was logged. For my part I welcomed the two down days. On one I got a tour of much of the huge DRES facility. The most interesting thing I remember seeing was a large herd of wild horses that had lived on the facility for as long as anyone can remember. The strange thing about them was that some you wouldn't recognize as horses. Many had extraordinary long necks, small heads and short bodies. Others had short, stubby legs way out of proportion to their body size. And there were many other variants. Among the local employees of DRES, some thought these were normal variations to be expected from many generations of in-breeding. Others thought they were the results of gene alterations from years of chemical and biological testing done at DRES since it was established in 1941 by Canada and Britain specifically to host chemical warfare trials. Possibly both causes contributed to these abnormalities.
On the other down day I got caught between Medicine Hat and DRES in the worst hail I've ever encountered. My rental car was badly damaged by hail stones much larger than golf balls but smaller than baseballs. They only lasted a few minutes but that was too long! When I got to DRES they'd gotten it even worse, with eight inches to a foot of hail covering the ground. Fortunately there was no serious damage to the HE stack. On flying days I spent every spare minute out in the field watching the crew fly over and being amazed at the scope of the event. Buildings, aircraft and other weapon systems, towers, antennae, bunkers and just about everything else imaginable were being built or placed for several miles around the GZ. Some were at ground level, some well above and some below. Hundreds of miles of cable were being laid to support the many sensors associated with the many projects. It was a beehive of activity and the degree of cooperation between projects was simply amazing. As soon as one project was ready its scientists, engineers and technicians would jump to another although they had absolutely no requirement to do so. Often the projects would be in an entirely different program or even belong to another country. Among the targets being tested for Weapon Effects were a pen of sheep well within the lethal range and Canadian troops well beyond that range! Probably the most impressive single item in the field was the stack of HE comprising the charge directly over the GZ. It was a completely spherical ball of 32.6 pound blocks of cast TNT. The sphere was nearly 27 feet in diameter or almost as tall as a four story building. The lower third was encased in styrofoam to support it and it was sitting tangent to the ground on four, one inch sheets of plywood. What an awesome sight of destructive power!!
On mission day at exactly 1800Z this huge stack was detonated. I sat in the VIP stands with the many dignitaries invited and most of the astronauts then in that NASA program. They had been invited to witness the event and then spend a couple days in and around the resultant crater. There they received training from U.S. Geological Survey personnel and others on what to expect and to note regarding craters in preparation for what they might find on the lunar surface should they ever be selected to go there. I recall we were about three miles from GZ on top of a hill overlooking it. What I remember best was the clearly visible, rapidly approaching shock wave immediately after detonation. It was like an enormous diaphanous curtain coming at me at the speed of sound. My reaction was to want to get out of its way by running or ducking, but there was nowhere to go. When it hit me I was much more aware of the loud bang than I was of any pressure or shock. It was there and gone in an instant.
I looked up and saw our RC-130 in a left turn away from the GZ. From my location I could tell they had been close certainly, but I had no way of knowing if they were exactly over the target within two seconds of H-hour or if their cameras had functioned properly.
About two hours after H-hour all Program Directors met with Dr. Harvey to brief him on what they could see from their early data. Most experiments appeared to be successful but even then it was clear that anomalies had again resulted in the shock wave and fireball. The Program Directors anxiously questioned if we'd gotten good photography documenting these anomalies and on which they could perform their measurements. I could only tell them that by phone the crew had reported meeting the two second tolerance and that the cameras appeared to be working fine. Also, that the quick look photos should be developed shortly. When the quick look photos arrived, the Trial Director and his entire technical staff were amazed and delighted! For the first time they had exactly vertical photography over a 500-ton Event, and it clearly showed the fireball and shockwave development. They were like the proverbial kids in a candy store!!
If the technical people were happy then, they were even more happy as their raw data was adjusted and then correlated, by using our photography, to yield the simulated nuclear effects data they were after. Thanks and appreciation for the crew's effort and results poured in. A two page spread complete with 13 photos on the effort was featured in the Forbes AFB paper of 31 July 1970. The story was picked up by several other base papers, and the civilian print media and appeared in papers as far away as Delaware and California. The significance of the achievement was more formally recognized when the crew members mentioned earlier along with aircraft maintenance personnel Joe Tillage, Roger Dodds, Frank Marohn, George Wolf and Arthur Kaucher were awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for Outstanding Achievement for their work in support of DIAL PACK.
So far you've gotten a very "Wing Weenie" view of a very interesting and challenging mission. As might be expected, if you want the "real" story behind the success you've got to go to the guys who did it. Let's listen to Dennis Davis, one of the navigators, tell how he viewed the whole thing:
Project DIAL PACK remains fresh in my mind today because of the unusual requirements for mission success and it was also my last meaningful Photo Mapping TDY of any consequence.
Our job was to take a picture of the blast of 500-Tons of TNT stacked on the ground in central Alberta, Canada. The Canadians could not do it because they had recently disbanded their aerial photo unit and decommissioned their photo aircraft. This should be totally routine stuff and absolutely no hurdle for high steppers like us. There was one "minor" detail. The geologists, mathematicians and sundry other Ph.D.'s wanted the photos taken dead solid perfect vertically overhead at blast time. Based on expected C-130 airspeed at 15,000 feet they will allow us plus or minus 2 seconds of tolerance.
Well now. Hmmmm..... If we are more than 2 seconds early or late over target at blast time, then the mission is a failure and our data is useless. The Canadians had tried this for the last seven years and their success rate was only three out of seven tries. Of course, there weren't any written procedures on how to accomplish this little feat and it was left to "aircrew discretion" on how to get it done. Well, Well, Well now. What say we take two navigators and two photographers on this one and we'll make it up as we go along.
The crew was chosen in the normal ACGS way. "Well, Captain. You don't look too busy. How'd you like to go to Canada for 10 days? The weather is nice and the fishing is great." "Well, Colonel I um, ah, ahem, yada, yada, yada....... would be glad to go."
We load a fly away maintenance kit, a few maintenance types and off for Cold Lake, RCAFB, for a little fishing and maybe a little flying. We barely hit level-off before discovering that several of our number have no fishing gear. What to do? We declare an "in-flight emergency" and dive into the air base at Great Falls, Montana for a quick BX run. We were met on the parking apron by several spiffy staff cars with their Colonel's flags all snapping in the breeze. It seems it was a SAC base and they thought we were a no-notice inspector general team dropping in for a visit and a look-see. When they found out who we were, they were all gone in a flash. We ended up walking to and from the BX for our fishing items.
We found Cold Lake RCAFB to be a very nice place surrounded by miles and miles of absolutely nothing. It was primarily an F-104 air base with a few support aircraft. Must be lots of water there because flight crews all wore Mae West life vests even though the ocean was 1000 miles away. Our initial briefing by the crowd of Ph.D. this or that was a sure fire cure for insomnia.
Our first training mission on the range was somewhat comforting. The target was well marked as was the flight path up to the target. Think of a well defined, 10 miles long east-west runway with a huge archery target at one end. "Runway" markers were extended across the runway every mile for 10 miles and the numbers were clearly visible. No Photomapper has ever had a more easily followed photo flight line than that. The "target" (the huge pile of TNT) was also clearly marked. Less clear and very much an item of interphone debate were the aircrew procedures needed to get our RC-130 over the target on time. We carried two Canadian observers on this initial training flight and we could tell they were underwhelmed with our efforts. That evening in the Officers Club Stag Bar the "Yanks" were installed as a 2 to 1 betting favorite to fail by the locals. Quickly we drop all that rah-rah stuff about flying for God, Country and Photo Mapping. Personal pride is now at stake. We don't know how yet but we are absolutely going to get it done.
This is what we came up with. We are going to fly a standard traffic pattern 15,000 feet in the air. The "runway" is exactly 10 miles long. Go around starts exactly over target. Turns are standard rate left turns. The "downwind leg" is 10 miles long plus enough for a turn back to the 10 mile marker. Airspeed is a middle of the road number that gives us latitude to add or subtract speed during the last 10 miles. We fly 3 runs down the track to come up with an average time from the 10 mile point to target. The driftmeter is set at zero and we use it to reference the aircraft over the mile markers. Both navigators are using two watches and are keeping track of minutes and seconds to do each segment of the flight pattern. We determine that the time over the 10 mile marker is very critical. During the last 10 miles a near maximum increase or reduction in airspeed would only change the ETA over target by about 12 seconds. From the 10 mile marker to the target, one navigator uses the driftmeter to keep the aircraft on track and also calls off the passing of each mile marker. The second navigator is concerned with time to target. "Three seconds behind, increase airspeed 8 knots; two seconds ahead, reduce airspeed 5 knots, etc." Strange commands for a Photomapper. The AC concentrates on handling the throttles while the Co-Pilot keeps the aircraft on heading. The Flight Engineer changes flap settings if major airspeed adjustments are required. The Photos use navigator provided timing to assure all cameras are on and that an exposure is taken exactly at blast time. By the end of our second training flight, all crew members are gaining confidence. On the third training flight we're consistently under 10 seconds. The fourth training flight is routine and boring. You know the crew is ready when on the last few runs down the range, the interphone chatter is all about catching a few muskie, walleye or northern pike.
Our two Canadian observers and two AAVS photographers with their high speed cameras join us for the big day. We're in the area well ahead of zero hour and have plenty of time to get into our routine. Unless something goes badly awry, it should be a piece of cake. Before the last practice run, everybody has one last nervous wee and here we go. There were no surprises or errors and the hot run went off without a hitch. The two navigators carefully checked all four watches and our best estimate was we were a little over one second early. We run in our film for processing and await the official word. A little nervous waiting and then it's official. Hurrah! That evening at the Officers Club Stag Bar there was a glorious impromptu celebration.
The next day station time was at a civilized hour and the flight home was kinda quiet. Upon landing, my wife was most effusive and thankful for this wonderful gift of fresh smoked northern pike from Cold Lake, Canada. She respectfully waited three months or so before discretely pitching those hideous things out of the freezer and into the trash. I never missed them. How we caught them is indeed a splendid war story, which will have to wait for another day.
If you can remember that far back, at the beginning of this article I said three crews flew challenging missions in support of nuclear development events. That's true. I've concentrated on DIAL PACK on the theory that the first time at any task is the hardest and most interesting. Plus, I had more info available on that Event. The other two similar missions shouldn't be ignored, however, so I'll discuss each briefly.
Given the success of DIAL PACK, the nuclear people decided they had milked DRES for all the effects data it could yield. They next wanted large scale HE testing on different soil types, over different subsurface geology, and over different terrain features. Large isolated areas meeting those criteria are not easily found. They settled for a area in the U.S. about 15 miles west of Grand Junction, Colorado and dubbed it the Colorado Test Site. It was a completely undeveloped site which would make the staging of an event there much more challenging than at DRES. Nevertheless, the third 500-Ton event in the MIDDLE NORTH Series under the four nation TTCP was scheduled for that location in November 1972. It was called Event MIXED COMPANY. Once again the charge was to be spherically stacked TNT placed tangent to the ground. And once again the Photomappers were tasked with obtaining the same types of photo as on DIAL PACK and to the same specs. This event was originally scheduled for 9 Nov. 1972. However, poor weather delayed site preparation and anti-nuclear protestors and environmentalists further complicated preparations for the event. It was eventually postponed until 20 Nov. '72.
In the two plus years since DIAL PACK several organizational changes had occurred. DASA was inactivated and a new DOD agency formed called the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA). They were the sponsors of MIXED COMPANY. On the Photomapping side, ACGS had been deactivated and the remaining photo resources placed under the 9th Weather Reconnaissance Wing (9WRW) at McClellan AFB, CA. The RC-130's were physically relocated to Keesler AFB, MS. Because I was the only one in the 9WRW at the time with any background in this type mission I again assumed the Project and Liaison Officers' roles.
The thing I remember best about the preparation phase was a group of environmentalists convincing a Federal Judge to put the detonation on hold until the Court could be convinced that a "balanced rock" located about 5.5 miles from GZ wouldn't be toppled by the explosion. When the Trial Director learned of this he was livid but tackled the problem with typical urgency and zest. Overnight he assembled five of the top geologists and geophysicists from universities across the country. By the next morning, they and his explosives experts had designed a scaled down model of the actual event. They surrounded the rock with seismic sensors and detonated just a few pounds of TNT only a few hundred yards from the rock. That same day they made a presentation to the Judge. Using profiles from topographic maps they showed that the earth's curvature and intervening terrain would make airblast a non-factor. Using geologic maps and the results of their scaled down test they also convinced the Judge that ground shock wouldn't be a problem. The Judge asked that the rock be shielded just in case, and on that condition let the event proceed. Project carpenters quickly built a ramp shaped shield of plywood protecting the rock's face and balanced base, and the show went on - with only about a day's delay. The rock didn't fall.
The Photomapper's challenge on this mission was in some ways easier but in other ways harder than on DIAL PACK. It was easier in that some procedures were known and experience had shown it could be done. It was harder in that due to weather, time, and land access constraints only five mile markers were surveyed vice the ten available at DRES. Also, practice time was reduced and it was a whole new crew flying the mission. With these added pressures the crew performed equally as well as the crew on DIAL PACK. They were directly over the MIXED COMPANY GZ well within the two seconds allowed. Project Scientists were again overjoyed with the photo obtained and put it all to good use. However, this time it was more like an expected input rather than a pleasant surprise.
PRE-MINE THROW IV
The last nuclear simulation supported was an August 1974, 100-Ton event named PRE-MINE THROW IV at the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) Nevada Test Site, located about 90 miles north of Las Vegas. This well developed facility was established in the mid-1950's and has been used for various types of nuclear related testing ever since.
The Nevada Test Site abuts the super-secret and infamous "Area 51". Area 51 is one of the few areas in the U.S. where overflight is prohibited at any altitude; and the activities conducted there are so secret that our government even refuses to acknowledge its existence. It was established in 1955, but since it doesn't officially exist, it has no official designation. Through the years it and subsets of it have been referred to by a variety of unofficial names. In addition to "Area 51" it has been called "The Groom Lake Facility", "The Ranch", "Paradise Ranch", "Watertown Strip", "The Skunk Works", "Red Square", and "Dreamland".
The day before the Photomapping crew supporting PRE-MINE THROW IV was to begin its practice flights, the Director of Area 51 learned that an aircraft full of cameras would be orbiting his facility's boundary for hours at a time over the next few days. In fact, GZ for PRE-MINE THROW IV was located within two miles of their boundary and our aircraft's surveyed inbound track was North to South, exactly parallel to their border. Our left hand orbit would take the aircraft right along the boundary when headed north. When the Director of that facility learned of this, he contacted the Director of the Nevada Test Site and requested termination of our RC-130's participation in the Event. The AEC site Director refused, saying our support was critical to the success of the Event. Area 51 wouldn't buy that and elevated the problem to their higher authority for resolution as did the AEC site Director. He told me to alert our crew to the fact that they may lose their first practice day. As the story was relayed to me, the higher authorities couldn't agree either. Since both agencies represented efforts absolutely essential to our Country's defense and since there was no other intermediate authority common to both agencies, the problem went to the President of the U.S. for a decision.
I was told his words were , "Resolve It!"
That was interpreted to mean get it done under agreeable terms but get it done.
Area 51's terms were:
(1) No overflight of their area (O.K.)
(2) No photographic imagery to be taken of their area (Well, maybe a little will be on the six inch focal length photos, but we'll say O.K.)
(3) No one aboard the aircraft is to look into Area 51 (Huh?).
After I notified the crew of those restrictions the next thing I said was, "Wait for me. I'm going with you on the first training flight!" I just had to see what it was we weren't supposed to see!! My guess is that the windows of that old RC-130 still bear the nose imprints of all 10 people on board as we strained to see that which was forbidden. I, of course, can't tell you what we saw, but contrary to what you might expect it wasn't flying saucers nor aliens!
The whole flight path issue had been resolved in less than 24 hours and the practices went off without a hitch. The Event itself was nearly identical to DIAL PACK and MIXED COMPANY as far as we were concerned. The explosive charge was different in that this time it was only 100-Tons and it was a liquid explosive in a cylindrical container. I believe the liquid was an Ammonium Nitrate/Fuel Oil mixture.
By this third event crew procedures had been defined and refined. The success of this mission relied more on precise execution of those procedures. Well, the execution was perfect. For the third time in three tries the Photomappers were over the GZ within the two second tolerance! It did then and still does amaze me! Heck, I can't walk out my backdoor and get to my car within two seconds of a given time!!
To paraphrase what Col. Tatum pointed out to Joe McGuire when preparing to support DIAL PACK: With only two seconds tolerance, you'll come back either a hero or a goat; there'll be no in-between. On all three occasions the aircrews involved came back heroes; and that speaks well for the ingenuity and "can-do" attitude of Photomapping crews in general.
In 1975 the Air Force inactivated the last dedicated, Photomapping flying unit. The nuclear guys were sorry to see it go. We had served them well and greatly contributed to the science of predicting nuclear weapon effects.
May 22, 2005
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would have liked to acknowledge the crews of MIXED COMPANY & PRE-MINE THROW IV by name. Unfortunately, my memory and the material available to me wouldn't allow it. If anyone can help, send any info you have to "The Photomapper" at the Association's address or e-mail Jimbo, and we'll acknowledge them in a future issue.)
(1)“In March 2009 reader Veda McLaren, a resident of Ralston during the period being discussed, notified me by message that where the bus driver tried to let me off wasn’t the village of Ralston at all but the bus stop for Ralston on the TransCanada highway. It is at the hamlet of Suffield and it lies about 3-4 miles thru the prairie south of Ralston. Knowing this, I’m happier than ever that I got back on that bus!!”
(2)In August 2010, Roger Baskett notified me that he was the Co-Pilot on the PRE-MINE THROW IV mission. He also recalled that Tom Auburn was the Aircraft Commander and Bill Gibbons and Gino Della Libera were the Navigators. We would still like the names of the other crew members and support personnel on that mission and of all who flew on or supported MIXED COMPANY.