Sunday, July 16, 2017

Service Trips, 1992

Excerpt from Draft Chapter 11.12
National War College 1991-1992

Every Service, as well as State and Coast Guard, was responsible for organizing a field trip for the class.  For its field trip, State classmates organized a trip to New York City and the United Nations, as well as a stay on Governor’s Island, which at the time was a Coast Guard base and perfectly positioned for a view of the Battery.  The State trip was reasonably interesting, but of course could not compare to the Service-sponsored trips.  For the Navy trip, we went to Norfolk, Virginia for a tour of a nuclear submarine and the Aircraft Carrier John F. Kennedy.  The Kennedy was an old super carrier, and I was amazed at how run down it was and how cramped the interior of the ship seemed to be, despite its huge size.  A tour of the submarine Sunfish (SSN-649) was similarly disappointing.  Approaching the end of its service life, this nuclear attack submarine reportedly had very modern weaponry, including the Harpoon anti-ship missile, but to me the interior of the submarine looked dingy and claustrophobic, and distinctly dated in its technology.  I could never have been a submariner.  The Army’s trip, perhaps the least interesting, and which I did not participate in, was to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  The highlight of that trip was jump school, where various out of shape classmates were invited to jump off the parachute training platform, with predictable results. 

As usual, the best trip by far was the one sponsored by the Air Force.  They had access to the very best toys, as it turned out.  The Air Force trip, for which free transportation on an Air Force C-9 was provided, was billed as a tour of Nellis AFB in Nevada and Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota.  Nellis conveniently had no on-base housing, so the 50 of us who went on the trip were required to stay at the nearest city, which happened to be Las Vegas.  Similarly, Ellsworth had no on-base housing available, so we stayed at Rapid City, South Dakota, the site of Mount Rushmore.  This is not to say that the Air Force trip was solely a tourist venture: it was not, but the locations for our familiarization tours were carefully chosen so we would have no problem enjoying ourselves when off duty.

We took off from Andrews AFB and a few hours later arrived in Las Vegas to check into our downtown hotel.  Just before we all retired to our rooms, we each contributed a couple of bucks and Lorraine Takahashi placed a bet on the roulette wheel.  She bet on red, the wheel came up black, and so did the fortunes of most of us who decided to use our off-hours gambling.  Except for me, that is:  I found the video poker games exceptionally easy to beat, once I realized that you could not use the same strategies that were successful in a Poker Game with live players.  For the two days we were in Las Vegas, we spent the mornings and afternoons on official business, and the evenings going to shows or big dinners.  It was thoroughly enjoyable.

Nellis AFB was one of the most interesting places I have ever been.  The tour started with a demonstration by the Thunderbirds, who flew in low over the runway, catching us all while we weren’t looking, and giving us quite a start.  Their formation flying was incredible.  Afterwards, we toured a standing aircraft exhibit on the tarmac, including an F-117 Nighthawk, which we were told we could look at, but not touch, as human sweat had a tendency to screw up the radar absorbent material coating the aircraft. 
Nellis AFB, March 1992.  Lorraine Takahashi, James Schumaker, F-117
We also took a turn in the Nellis bar, where the hottest fighter jocks hung out (but not on the night we were there), and topped off our day with a tour of the headquarters for the Red Flag exercises, watching on radar screens a real life engagement between Blue Force, which consisted of trainees in American fighters, and Red Force, which consisted of veteran pilots flying F-16s and F-15s simulating Soviet aircraft.  Despite the higher quality of the American aircraft, the Red Force easily won the day.  Experience tells, every time.  We heard rumors that the Red Force sometimes used actual Soviet fighter aircraft, but no one on base would confirm the report.  On our last day at Nellis, we toured a sizeable collection of Soviet-era military equipment that was maintained and exhibited on the base, including most varieties of Soviet armored vehicles and several Soviet-era fighter aircraft, none of which looked flyable.

After Las Vegas, we flew on for two days at Ellsworth AFB, with one long afternoon at Mount Rushmore.  Ellsworth, in contrast to Nellis, looked a little bit aged and rundown.  It had been one of the primary sites for the Strategic Air Command, and in the past had served as a base for B-17s, then B-29s, B-36s and later B-52s.  In 1986, the B-52 wing moved out and was replaced by a B-1B Air Wing.  The base also hosted a Strategic Missile Wing, which started out in the 1960s as Titan-1s, then Minuteman-I’s and finally Minuteman-II’s.  By the time we had arrived, however, the Minuteman wings were being deactivated under the terms of the START Treaty, and so no tours of the silos were possible. 

We were able, however, to tour the B-1B Air Wing, and it was quite impressive.  As part of the tour we went to a gigantic ordnance facility where the B-1’s weapons were prepared and loaded onto the aircraft by a system of lifts, conveyor belts and other strange-looking machines.  During the last portion of the tour, a couple of B-1 pilots gave us a guided tour of their aircraft, and we were even able, briefly, to sit in the cockpit.  The planes looked beautiful from a distance, but up close they just looked menacing.  On the inside, I was struck by the fact that despite the size of the plane, we were at extremely close quarters.  The interior was jammed with gunmetal grey equipment and hundreds of flashing lights and buttons that were absolutely incomprehensible to a non-flyer like me.  It was difficult to squeeze in and out of the aircraft, even for the skinnier persons in our group, and I found myself wondering how anyone could get out of a B-1 alive if it were about to crash.  It wouldn’t be my first choice of career, but it was obvious that the Air Force guys in our group were loving every minute of the tour.

On the last day we toured Mount Rushmore.  We walked around the grounds at the base of the cliff, and had lunch at the fifties modern stone and glass cafeteria located there.  The whole atmosphere reminded me of North by Northwest.  The next morning, we all piled into our C-9 and returned to Andrews.

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