NOTE: The end of World War II brought with it the Cold War, a new threat to world peace. Nuclear arms technology advanced rapidly and fast long-range bombers were developed both in the Western countries and in the Soviet Union. It soon became apparent that the security of the North American continent depended on having the capability to detect a nuclear attack as far in advance as possible.
Beginning in the early 1950s the Pinetree Early Warning Line, the Mid-Canada Line, and the Distance Early Warning (DEW) Line were constructed across Canada, Alaska, and Greenland to give such a warning. They were supplemented by the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic and Pacific Barrier air and sea patrols, additional radar sites in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, England, and the Texas Towers off the east coast of the United States. Later as the threat of attack by ICBMs increased, the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) was added with sites in Alaska, Greenland, and England. In the late 1970s the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft came into USAF service.
For over 50 years thousands of air and ground personnel, both U.S. and Canadian, worked round the clock to insure that any threat to the North American continent would be detected. However, aging facilities, improved technology, and the ever-diminishing threat of attack from the former Soviet countries, have resulted in the dismantlement of most of the older Early Warning systems. The Texas Towers had a short life when one of them collapsed in a storm in 1961 with the loss of the entire crew. The Navy’s Atlantic and Pacific Barrier air patrols ended in 1965. Alaska’s Communication System (White Alice) was sold to a private company in 1970, and the NARS System (North Atlantic Radio System) was shut down in 1992. The DEW Line, the centerpiece of the Early Warning effort, has been replaced by the North Warning System, and the BMEWS has been upgraded to a new phase-array radar system. The AWACS aircraft continue in service with the United States, Saudi Arabia, NATO, France, and the United Kingdom.
An Early Warning Connection
The bus came to a stop and we all rushed to get inside the warm dry bay of Hangar #1. There was a cold damp rain falling from a very black night sk,y and the aircraft commander remarked that this was an awful night to go out on a flight. This was Argentia, Newfoundland, and we were a Navy Early Warning Squadron with the task of protecting North America from surprise attack from over the North Pole. This was the era of the Cold War.
We quickly set about the task of preparing the sleek, black Super Connie (VW -2) for a Barrier Flight, good flying weather or not. We were a crew of 31. I was the electrician/cook. We had an aircraft commander, two co-pilots, one navigator, two combat information center (CIC) officers, one crew chief, three flight engineers, one electrician, two radio operators, and three electronic technicians to service the radar and other electronic equipment. The remaining 15 crew members were radar operators and plotters.
Having completed my preflight duties as crew electrician, I began stowing the foodstuffs that were delivered from the mess hall. Steak tonight! With everything in its place and all the preflight work completed and the paper work signed off, the Super Connie and crew were ready to go flying. Just as we were taking our places to prepare for flight, the navigator remarked that it might be a long night and hoped we had enough coffee. I assured him we did as the number-two engine came to life, and we were under way. Another day at the office began.
As the aircraft commander and flight crew completed their preflight checklists, the Connie took its place at the end of the runway. Awaiting clearance to take the active, the rain continued to fall with the temperature hovering around freezing. Not a good sign for aviators. The clearance came, we took the runway, and the takeoff roll began for what would prove to be a long night. The giant Connie performed well as usual and soon we were airborne and into the clouds, climbing to Barrier altitude.
We never did break out of the clouds that night. With our radar now in full operation we felt safe or safe as could be expected under these very difficult flying conditions. At level off I would make my rounds to check the operation of the onboard electrical equipment. I would usually start in the cockpit and move aft to the galley, the radar compartment, and then on to the tail section. I checked the generators, alternators, flight instruments, and the auto pilot, joked a little with the flight engineer, and then moved to the cabin rechecking the lights. Then to the navigator’s station to check the compasses. Don’t want to get lost tonight. Found the radio compartment okay and then on to the plotting board lights in the CIC center. I then checked the baggage compartments for smoke and loose gear. Then I moved aft to check the radar cooling fan. All was okay at that time. I then checked the engines and the leading edge of the wing with the aid of two flood lights installed in the fuselage. All was okay there also. No ice build up, no draining fluids. With all checks completed, I returned to the flight station and reported the aircraft was okay. This flight was only 30 minutes old so it was too early to cook. Nothing to do but take it easy for an hour or so if I were lucky.
My luck ran out about 30 minutes later. The radar technicians came to me with the news that the APS 20 radar transmitter was overheating. Could I do anything to help? We made a few quick checks of the radar and, as we checked, the temperature was still rising. This big bird was of no use flying the Barrier that awful night if the radar had to be shut down. The cooling fan was checked about an hour before, during the preflight, and it was running smooth and cool. I suggested that the technicians contact the aircraft commander and inform him of the trouble while I checked the fan in the aft baggage compartment. After gaining access to the compartment, I noticed the odor of hot insulation and, in checking, I found the fan to be running rough, slow, and overheating. I quickly joined the technician and the aircraft commander on the flight deck. I suggested that we shut down the cooling fan for fear of a fire developing. The fan was shut down and the radar temperature began rising rapidly. We began to feel that this night might be a lot shorter than planned. Without our radar we were wasting our time. Going back to our base would have been great that night but it would have left a big hole in the radar picket line. We did not want to be the crew that caused this to happen. The technician and I suggested we go to maximum cooling on the aircraft air conditioning and see if this would keep the radar temperature cooler. The flight engineer went to max cooling and soon the temperature in the cabin dropped dramatically, and the temperature on the APS 20 slowed but did not cease rising. The aircraft was equipped with personal air-vent ducts. They provided additional cooling at the different stations throughout the aircraft. The technician and I decided that since the cabin was now running so cool we would disconnect these air vents and connect the output lines to the radar cooling ducts to see if there would be sufficient air flow to help keep the temperature under control. With this accomplished, we sat back to see the results. In a few minutes the temperature began to drop and the radar remained on.
We continued on for five or six hours. I fed the crew, cleaned the galley and the Barrier flight was starting to wind down. In thinking back over that night, it seemed so incredible that it was so cold outside and we were ready to abort a flight for an overheat.
Settling in for the ride home to Argentia, I noticed the sound of the engines was not right. The normal purr we all became used to was now starting to sound like a roar. The deck angle started to increase and the nose of the aircraft was going up! Time started to move slowly and the roar increased and so did the deck angle. I was called to the flight deck by the f1ight engineer. I was directed to check the outside of the aircraft. With the aid of the wing leading edge lights and the drift meter the engines could be seen from the inside of the aircraft. The lights were turned on and I was shocked to see spears of ice extending from the prop domes (spinners). Ice was collecting on the forward engine cowlings to the point that the props were knocking it loose. With the aid of the drift meter, I could see that the belly radome was covered with ice. We were encased in a large block of ice! Now the big question, can the airplane develop enough power and keep it long enough for us to reach our base? At METO power (highest power maintained continuously) the base lights came into view. I think we were all saying – Come on Super Connie, keep us in the air until we reach home. Moments seemed like hours as the flight crew struggled to keep us flying. The base was now in clear view. It sure looked good! Now could the airplane be controlled so as to make a safe landing? We were about to find out as we were cleared for a straight-in approach. With all hands strapped in, we waited for that squeal of rubber on the runway. Suddenly it was over. We were cleared to the hangar and after engine shutdown we quickly departed the aircraft. The hangar crew roped off the area to avoid injury from falling ice.
Chief Petty Officer Yerger was assigned to the Airborne Early Warning Squadron WV-2 at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland and was on temporary duty at Argentia, Newfoundland.
Editor and Recording Historian: Harry Heist