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Kincheloe Air Force Base SAC Time – Tales of a Mechanic

B-52H Bomber which is the update to the B-52G which were assigned to Kincheloe AFB. 

Kincheloe Air Force Base was heavily involved in providing B-52 Bombers to patrol the world over to protect the US from enemies abroad by projecting military influence.  The mechanics who worked on these flying fortresses had the incredible task of taking a self-damaging piece of flight-ware and repairing it to flight capacity within a turnaround that could range to limits as small as twenty-four hours.  These turn-around times were utilized to allow continuous flights of B-52 Bombers around the globe to function as a deterrence for foreign aggression, primarily in this instance from Russia due to the Cold War.

Kinross Air Force Base was reactivated as a United States Air Force controlled station on July 1st 1952 when the outbreak of the Cold War began in earnest.  Kinross AFB was located in Chippewa County, south of Sault St. Marie which has the honor of having the Soo Locks located within the immediate vicinity.  During World War II the Soo Locks were considered essential to the war efforts which drove selection of the Kinross Auxiliary Airfield in 1941 as a strategic location in the defense of the United States borders and assets.  The airfield at that time was controlled by the United States Army.  After which in 1945 it was lent to civilian aviation interests after WWII ended.  After the return of control to the United States Air Force in 1952, the base was built up to provide a fighter-interceptor base of operations.  In 1959 the base was renamed to Kinchloe Air Force Base for Captain Ivan Kinchloe who was the first pilot to exceed 100,000ft up to 126,200ft.  Captain Kinchloe was born in Cassopolis, Michigan [4].

A Debate For The Decades

A notable occurrence during the deterrence effort was on the date of November 22, 1963.  The date John F. Kennedy died.  His death was no mere accident, he was assassinated by a lone gunman who, firing his three shots, places two within the body of President Kennedy and a single round within Governor Connally.  This took place in Dallas, Texas where the late President was conducting a campaign trip for the upcoming 1964 election.  This day lived on in infamy, having burned its way into many Americans hearts.  A common discussion topic living to this day is a question of what you were doing during those tragic hours’ post-assassination when you found out Kennedy was shot.  A striking parallel to both today’s common question along the same thread for 9/11, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was during Kennedy’s assassination that Robert J. Lackey was hunting in the forest, only to return to Kincheloe to find the base placed on lockdown and in high alert.  During the subsequent seven-day period the B-52G Bombers were kept with one engine running, this method allowing for the other engines to start with hot oil rather than cold oil, which decreased the time taken for engine start up.  Along with the engines the flight chief was kept on board while the crew slept and lived in the mole holes (officially termed Readiness Crew Buildings) on the edge of the alert ramp.  To paraphrase Robert Lackey, if another country would have so much as sneezed in those days, they would have ceased to exist.

Robert Lackey joined the United States Air Force in January of 1963 just ten months before the assassination.  This was Lackey’s first military experience; he would eventually go on to enlist into to Army where he would serve additional time in the military.  After an eight-week experience at Lackland Air Force Base located in Bexar County, Texas, Lackey would head to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois for his Advanced Individual Training on the topic of instrumentation for aircraft.  He spent the months of March through May at Chanute, in total a term of eleven weeks for AIT.  Armed with his new knowledge of aviation instrumentation Lackey was sent back north to a location very near his home town of Newberry Michigan, which is approximately 60 miles away from Kincheloe Air Force Base, the location of station for Lackey before, during and after the assassination.

The B-52 Mechanics Life

The maintenance required by a B-52G consists of refitting nearly every engine once touchdown occurs.  It was not unheard of for multiple engines on the eight engine platform to go out mid-flight due to vibrations disconnecting or breaking necessary internal parts which would have to be repaired by a ground crew.  Engines would be removed from the plane and replaced by a refitted engine from short term storage.  The plane would then be sent back up and flown for another twenty-four hours, return for twenty-four to be repaired, then the cycle would repeat.  The main problem with the engine design during this time was for an oil pressure sensor located directly on the engine frame.  The threading of the measurement tool onto the mounting point was designed exceedingly poorly to handle the vibrational strain caused by the average use of the airframe.  The cyclical strain pattern on the part caused metal fatigue to build up within the connection point to where the component would break off and allow for the oil it was directly measuring to flow out of the engine.  This would force the pilot to shut down the engine and shunt oil around the damage and forcing the crew to handle the aircraft with one less engine.  This process could be seen multiple times during regularly scheduled flights of the B-52G leading to many crews coming back to base with two, three, or even four engines non-operational.

Overhead image of Kincheloe AFB in April 1997.

November 22 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a time of year where the snow begins to fly as the weather turns to its winter habits.  It is during the winter that snow crews begin to take to the runways to clear them for the day’s operations.  These crews would go out with snow plow vehicles to begin scraping runways clean for the aircraft.  However, it was not the most cherished job and many times when the blades where broken or the plow suffered debilitating damage the crews would be allowed to go back to their barracks for the interim time of repair.  Needless to say a crew member caught on to this phenomenon and began to puzzle out ways to exploit this fact.  Leading to a number of extra blade breakages occurring in the winter of 1963 to 1964 where he would drop his blades at high speeds leading to damage to the plow allowing him to go home for the rest of the night.  This was put to an end by the Commanding Officer at Kinchloe Air Force Base by requiring plow crew members to remain with a damaged vehicle until the repairs were completed.  Rapidly a turnaround was seen the crewmans blade care and his plows were making it through a work day without mishap after that.

The First Hours After The Assassination

The personnel of Kinchloe Air Force Base did take their jobs seriously when called on as demonstrated when Kennedy was assassinated.  As stated, the base went into a lockdown while Lackey was away with the actual shots being fired by Lee Harvey Oswald on President Kennedy at 1:30 p.m. Eastern standard time.  The base itself did not assume a posture of lockdown and heightened security until one to two hours after the assassination was carried out.  This document, written by White House Naval Assistant Oliver Hallett to Bromley Smith the National Security Council Executive Secretary, indicates the military response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy [3].  It reveals that only the Commander in Chief of the Pacific region and the Southern Regions of the United States reacted with heightened levels of DEFCON, which stands for Defense Condition.  DEFCON has five levels, five being the lowest level of threat ranging up to imminent threat of attack.  Levels were raised by the Pacific region to DEFCON three unless such actions would have heightened tensions in their regions, this directive was sent out at 3:13 p.m. November 22nd.  The DEFCON was raised to level four by the Southern Commander in Chief at 2:50 p.m. on the 22nd and returned to level five on the 24th at 12:20 p.m [3].

It was in the afternoon when Lackey returned to Kinchloe AFB after having been off base to go hunting in the Upper Peninsula woodland area surrounding the base.  When he arrived back to base he was confronted by heightened security who demanded to see his credentials and to be made aware of why he had left the base, how long he had been away, why he was returning, and other intensive lines of questioning.  His reason for returning was due to a duty shift he was assigned to, which he had already been cutting close when he had anticipated a regular inspection upon moving into the base.  With the intense scrutiny he suffered that day, it put him far behind schedule.  At this point he was still unaware of the happenings earlier that day in Dallas.  From his entering onto the base and movement to his lodgings to dress for his shift, he noted the heightened level of alert but still was not told the reasoning.  From his barracks Lackey went to the mechanics’ garage for his duty shift.  It was here that he was confronted by an airman he knew at an acquaintance level.  When Lackey attempted to enter the building the guard demanded that he be presented with proper identification.  By now Lackey was very much behind schedule for reaching his duty station on time, as such he laughed off the demand and tried to push through into the building.  The guard, who was fully armed with an M-16, thumped Lackey in the chest with the heels of both hands and again demanded identification.  Upon its’ presentation Lackey was let into the mechanics’ work shop and then, and only then, found out that the assassination of John F. Kennedy had taken place and that the base had been placed on high alert in response.

Kincheloe Air Force Base was not seen as raising their DEFCON level, however, according to Robert Lackey the base kept their fleet of B-52 Bombers ready and lined up on the Christmas Tree with an engine running.  The engines were a main concern with getting the B-52 off of the ground.  The engine, when started cold would take a long time to warm up, additionally this process would require the starting of a single engine which would then provide the power from its’ alternator to start the other engines.  This would later be solved with modifications to the B-52H model.  This significant lag time between an order and liftoff was of large concern in the event of an attack on the United States in the form of a nuclear strike where timing is essential.  As such the Kinchloe Bombers were kept running to allow for a quick reaction to be launched should the command be given.  Each bomber had at least ten warheads for its nuclear capability.  There were a total of fifteen B-52Gs stationed at the Base, which made up the 93rd Bombardment Squadron which was a part of the 4239th Strategic Wing of the Strategic Air Command assigned in November of 1961, but had not been declared operational until May 1st, 1962.

With tensions high and a base on lock-down, the Kincheloe Air Force Base endured a week of standing at the brink of total war.  The mood on the base was such that if even a whiff of a plot by another country had come our way the sentiment would have been extreme retaliation.  The airmen on Kincheloe Air Force Base were ready to retaliate with all of the force held within their power.  The sentiment was held across the base, across the nation in some ways.  Kennedy was a well-loved president, the depth of morning given to him after his death was seen in three hundred thousand citizens paying their final respects while braving freezing temperatures and creating a line in the Capitol that stretched over nine miles.  During the funeral itself representatives from over ninety countries attended, totaling in the hundreds [2].  Needless to say, when Kennedy was shot, the world stood still.

  Primary Sources

  1. Air, F. T. (2002). LETTERS. Air Force Times, 52.
  2. Waldron, Lamar, and Thom Hartmann. “12.” Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009. 166. Print.
  3. USA. Changes in Defense Readiness Conditions as a Result of the Assassination of President Kennedy. By O. S. Hallett. Washington: White House, 1963. Print. Published 4 December

    Secondary Sources

  4. Broyhill, Marvin T. “Kincheloe AFB.” Kincheloe AFB. Marvin T. Broyhill, n.d. Web.
  5. Chiles, Jim. “DEFCON Diaries: List of Alerts and Close Calls.” Blogspot:Disaster-wise. Jim Chiles, 8 Feb. 2014. Web.
  6. Maurer (1992). World War II Combat Squadrons of the United States Air Force: The Official Military Record of Every Active Squadron.  Smithmark Publishers 1992.
  7. Muller, Robert (1982). Air Force Bases: Active Air Force Bases within the United States of America on 17 September 1982, Volume 1. Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force, 1989

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