The Coyotes’ role in the Cold War

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt Bill Gilliland
  • 190th ARW Historian
Late in 1961, after only four years as a military unit, the 117th Tactical Reconnaissance
Squadron (TRS) would play a vital role in the Cold War, America's standoff with the Soviet Union. The U.S. and the Soviets had an earlier agreement to limit testing of nuclear devices, but the Soviets', at least partly in response to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, began to resume atmospheric testing of their nuclear weapons during the summer of 1961. 

The Kennedy Administration responded to this expansion of the Cold War by authorizing the largest nuclear weapons testing program ever conducted by the United States. By midyear, the USAF was beginning to organize a new squadron of High Altitude Nuclear Sampling aircraft and the people and resources to support "Operation Dominic I," the United States' answer to the Soviet threat. This new squadron would be known as the 1211th Test Squadron and was based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. 

Because of the B-57's ability to climb high enough, it would become the primary
aircraft of the unit. The squadron's mission was to take samples of the cloud of the Atomic blast. It was initially made up of regular Air Force personnel, but the USAF soon found that it didn't have enough B-57 qualified people, so the Air National Guard was called on to provide support to the new unit. Units from Kansas, Arkansas and Nevada were flying B-57's and could provide flight and ground personnel quickly. 

For the 117th, the Cold War was about to become pretty hot. It all began late in the summer of 1961, when Lt. Col. Boggs called all of his flight crews and maintenance personnel together for a meeting to ask for volunteers for a top secret mission on foreign soil. After many questions, most of which were answered with the words, "I can't tell you that," a group of men volunteered for the extra duty, from which Boggs and his staff handpicked a group of 21 for the initial phase of the operation. 

In October 1961, the volunteers reported to Kirtland and began the preparations
for the journey. Flight crews received extra training, and the maintenance people made sure that everything else was ready for the long trip. About the middle of December, the group was released with the provision that they would be called when needed. 

In January 1962 the call came, and this time 14 members of the 117th, including 4 aircrew and 10 maintenance troops, reported back to Kirtland to make final preparations, and soon found themselves on their way to Hickam AFB in Hawaii. The aircrews flew B-57's they had picked up at Kirtland, and the maintenance crews flew out on a Navy C-118. 

Upon arrival at Hickam, one of the B-57's declared Low Fuel, and actually dead sticked a landing after a glide of about 80 miles. After spending several days at Hickam, it was on to a place called Christmas Island. Christmas Island, which at the time was under British control, is actually an atoll, a circular island surrounding a central lagoon, and is the largest atoll in the world. It comprised about 250 square miles with the lagoon making up about half of that. It had previously been used by the British for the testing of their nuclear program, and as such was a natural for the project. 

It would be the job of the aircrew and their B-57's to fly through the cloud left by the blast and collect air samples to determine the kinds and amounts of radiation. They had instruments mounted to the jets to tell them if the cloud got "too hot," along with personal dosimeters on a chain around their necks and another that they swallowed in the form of the pill, the recovery of which no one looked forward to. 

Upon landing, the jet taxied to a decontamination area, the crew was extracted in a way that they would not have to touch the exterior of the jet, and then they proceeded to a shower area where their flight suits were shed and they showered until a Geiger counter confirmed they were clear of radiation. It was not uncommon for aircrew members
to take multiple showers to remove the radiation. For the men left on the ground, some had the unenviable job of cleaning the jets of the aftereffects of the flight through the cloud, others acted as observers and all experienced some of the effects of the blast. 

According to Retired Col. Bill Crow (then A1C Crow), the first test the 117th participated in immediately got their attention. They were mustered in a hanger with no doors and little protection from old style flying goggles with black lenses for extra eye protection. The men were told to face away from the direction of the detonation and were warned to not turn around until told to do so to avoid painful eye damage. 

Following the detonation, but prior to the fireball dissipating, the first of two shock waves collided with the hanger, which screeched and shook from the shock wave and from flying debris. They were told to abandon the structure fearing it may collapse. 

During subsequent detonations, the crew was mustered on the parking
ramp with their backs to the blast. They were also instructed to keep their mouths open to equalize the pressure in their lungs and the ambient increased atmospheric pressure to prevent their lungs from collapsing. 

During a typical detonation, the initial blast would immediately change the demographics of the ambient conditions surrounding the detonation area. The tests were almost always conducted at night, but at the moment of the detonation the sky would immediately light to a noon-day level. In seconds, the temperature would rise to near 120 degrees. Seconds later the heat wave would penetrate the area and increase the temperature another 10-20 degrees and then quickly return to the previous ambient temperature or slightly above. 

Most of the initial shock waves the crew experienced contained enough power to knock anybody standing to the ground and roll them across the ramp. Many of the detonations had multiple shock waves, decreasing in power with each shock wave cycle. The light from the dissipating fireball was so intense that observers could see the bone structure through the pink tissue of their hands. 

The 117th was released in early July 1962, concluding one of the most interesting chapters of 190th history.