K.I. Sawyer was a U.S. Air force base, so it was reliant on the maintenance crews that kept it running. It was operational 24 hours a day for the many years it was open, so there were always some crews working no matter what. There were multiple cycles of inspections that were performed, with even the shortest inspection taking eight hours. Many specialists were needed to keep planes operational, including experts on hydraulics, electricians, engine mechanics, and avionics technicians.
Before a plane could take off, it had to undergo a pre-flight inspection. This took three people eight hours to complete in the summer, and ten hours to complete in the winter. This included refueling, checking hydraulics, and an overall inspection of the plane components. The extra time in the winter was allotted to clearing snow off the plane, and allowing it to warm up. Following the pre-flight, flight crews generally flew for 8 to 12 hours before landing. When arriving back at the base, a crew was waiting for them so that they could assist in getting the plane back into the correct parking spot, as well as debrief the flight crew and see if anything malfunctioned during the flight, such as electronics.
Every three accumulated flight-days, a more thorough inspection of the plane occurred. This inspection was called an Hourly Post Flight (HPO). This inspection was more in-depth, and included removing panels to make sure all components were functioning properly. After this inspection, it was put back onto the flight schedule. This cycle of pre-flight inspections, post-flight debriefs and hourly post-flight inspections repeated until the aircraft accumulated 200 flying hours.
When the aircraft accumulated 200 flying hours, an even more in-depth inspection called a phase inspection was performed. First, the plane was completely refueled to check for fuel leaks. If one was found, it was taken to the fuel cell dock for specialists to reseal the leak. Following this, the plane was rolled into a phase dock (a large hangar). This inspection was extremely in-depth, and generally took around a week. During this inspection, it was important to take note of how long certain parts were inside of an aircraft. Some parts had to be replaced if they were in the aircraft for a certain amount of time. After this meticulous inspection, it was taken out of the hangar, refueled if needed, looked at one final time and then it was subject to yet another pre-flight inspection. There were many aircraft which were all in need of these inspection cycles. Keep in mind that each of these inspections generally required a crew of multiple people and took a long period of time.
Operation Readiness and Ground Alert
One thing that all military personnel at K.I. Sawyer had to be prepared for was an Operation Readiness Inspection (ORI). This inspection happened every two years and was the most important inspection done. With this inspection, the inspectors were flown from Airforce headquarters to the base. Upon arrival, they told those at the base to get into a wartime footing. This meant getting everything on base set up as if they were going to war, including setting up and loading the planes needed. It had to be done within a set amount of time, and it had everyone on the base working extremely hard until it was done. Whether it was a howling blizzard or a clear summer night, everything had to be prepared. The inspectors looked into every aspect of the base, not just the aircraft hangars. This inspection was primarily a test to make sure that the base could transition from peacetime to war in a very short period of time.
After the first phase of this inspection, the second portion began. Following the preparation of the planes, they were unloaded and then the pilots got into their bombers. This portion of the inspection was a mock bombing run. They flew over locations given to them and simulated a bombing of the designated targets. After this, they flew back to the base and the Operation Readiness Inspection was completed.
However, it wasn’t just maintenance operations and inspections at K.I. Sawyer. As a strategic air force base, it had a commitment to 24-hour ground alert. Every day, some planes that had been pre-flighted were placed onto the alert pad designated for this ground alert. These planes were not just for show, in fact they were fully loaded as if they were about to go to war. No matter what time of year it was, rain or sun, clear skies or snowstorm, there were always planes on alert. Being located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, oftentimes there was a good amount of snow and visibility was low. This had to be accommodated for, and it was not a problem that bases in warmer climates had to endure. This alert duty was critical to K.I. Sawyer, and so it was pertinent to constantly run the inspections to ensure that every plane was operational. These bombers on alert were nuclear capable and served as a deterrent to any possible warfare that might occur during the time the base was operational.
Purpose of K.I. Sawyer
All of this raises some questions: why have an air force base in the middle of nowhere in the first place? Why was it built in 1944 and closed in 1995? Why have an entire community in the Upper Peninsula dedicated to essentially keeping a few hundred planes operational and ready to fly at all times? It is important to keep in mind what was occurring during this time period: The Cold War. In short, the main purpose of the base was to act as a deterrent to Russia. This base, and most other bases built during the Cold War, was set up in the north for a specific reason often overlooked: It’s faster to fly across the North pole to Russia from almost any point in America. This base was situated to be able to respond to any Russian threat, and fast. The planes on 24-hour ground alert weren’t just loaded with an average bomb – they had nuclear bombs. These nuclear weapons served as the ultimate deterrent to a war with Russia. Neither side wanted to fall into nuclear warfare, and K.I. Sawyer and other bases like it were built primarily as deterrents. Sure, they could go into action if need be, but the hope was that they never would have to. K.I. Sawyer and similar bases were called S.A.C. bases: short for Strategic Air Command.
According to the Air Force Historical Research Agency, the Strategic Air Command was created in December 1944 with the name Continental Air Forces and renamed to Strategic Air Command in 1946. The purpose of this command was to conduct aerial combat operations at long range, particularly bombing. However, as a result of the end of the Cold War, there was not seen as much need for this specific division. The Strategic Air Command was dissolved and as a result of this, many of the Strategic Air Command bases were shut down.
The main plane stationed at K.I. was the B-52. There were fighters and tankers to support them as well, but the most important plane was the one that would carry the bombs if needed. Specifically, the model of B-52 stationed at K.I. after its development was the B-52H, supported by the KC-135 Stratotanker. The main purpose of the base was to support these bombers and their crews. The fighters would, in the event of war, fly alongside the B-52 and provide protection from enemy fire and opposing fighters, while the tankers would refuel them.
Although K.I. Sawyer’s main purpose may have been acting as a deterrent, it did have other assignments as well. Some planes were assigned to temporary duty (TDY), meaning that their main base was K.I. Sawyer, but they were sent other locations around the world. There were always some planes on temporary duty off base during the lifetime of the base.
Community and Closure
This whole community was a well-oiled machine with the purpose of enabling these bombers to fly if necessary. The supporting planes, the maintenance crew, and even the local community all played in a role in supporting these few who would have to crew the planes holding nuclear weaponry. Sergeant Demmon, who was interviewed by the New York Times in 1996, said that “This whole thing in the middle of nowhere is really set up to support the 180 men who fly the bombers and their tankers.” The article containing this interview also describes the “Triad of Deterrence”, or the three-pronged nuclear deterrence program that included the nuclear bombers, the nuclear submarines, and the intercontinental missiles that were located all throughout the US.
With the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a need for the many bases that acted as nuclear deterrents. As a result, K.I. Sawyer and most other SAC bases were ordered to be closed by the Air Force. The closure of the base took a massive toll on the local community, and understandably so. The entire purpose of the town was no longer there, and soon people left in droves. If someone visits K.I. Sawyer today they will see a multitude of abandoned buildings, and these buildings were either a part of a now-closed base or the town that cropped up around it.
Maintenance crews were critical to a base on watch during all hours of the day. Just as the base was on watch nonstop, these crews were working ceaselessly, day by day and night by night performing a cyclical inspection routine daily for years. All of this had to be done exactly according to strict guidelines. Soon after the creation of the base, a small community cropped up including family members of those working at the base, and those just wanting to open a shop in this new community. Most people there had at least some connection to the base, and knew each other as well. This entire group was set up to support a small group of planes and their crew, who always had to be prepared. These crews did a lot of waiting, but they carried an extremely heavy burden: the knowledge that at any point during their time at the base, they may have to be the ones to drop an atomic bomb. If that ever were to happen, the world as they knew it would completely change.
- Gary Stevens in discussion with the author, October 2019
- “At a SAC Base, Living Centers on State of Alert.” The New York Times, February 21, 1984. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/21/us/at-a-sac-base-living-centers-on-state-of-alert.html.
- Data.census.gov, https://data.census.gov
- “USAF, Report, [Extract] Cold War Infrastructure for Strategic Air Command: The Bomb Mission, November 1999.” Weapons of Mass Destruction, doi:10.1163/9789004346673.wmdo-10_050.
- K.I. Sawyer AFB – SAC – 410th Bomb Wing – B-52, http://www.strategic-air-command.com
- Pierre, Andrew J., et al. “Strategic Command and Control: Redefining the Nuclear Threat.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 64, no. 1, 1985, p. 172., doi:10.2307/20042478.
- Wood, Archie L. “Modernizing the Strategic Bomber Force without Really Trying-a Case against the B-1.” International Security, vol. 1, no. 2, 1976, p. 98., doi:10.2307/2538501.