Recently, I was in San Antonio for work, teaching a computer class at a community college just outside the gates of the Kelly Field Annex. This facility was Kelly Air Force Base prior to the military base re-alignment. Kelly AFB has been a part of aviation in the United States since 1917. During WWII, Kelly was an important maintenance depot for many of the big planes of the Army Air Corps, such as the B-17, B-25, and B-29 bombers, as well as the C-47 cargo planes. The Texas version of “Rosie the Riveter” worked at Kelly during the war:
By 1944, Kelly’s workforce had grown tremendously. In 1939, old Duncan Field had 1,100 civilian employees and only 10 military personnel. By 1945, over 15,000 civilians and 16,000 military worked at Kelly. During World War II, nearly 40 percent of the workers at the field were women. “Kelly Katies” were the Kelly counterparts to “Rosie the Riveters”, women everywhere who did non-traditional work, contributing greatly to the successful war effort. They worked in nearly every shop at Kelly, including engine overhaul.
After the war, when the USSR emerged as a perceived threat to US national security, Kelly continued to function as a big-plane maintenance depot for the USAF. That’s where the photo above (and my childhood memories) begin. The photo above is a B-58 “Hustler” supersonic bomber. It’s on display outside of the now-privatized portion of Kelly AFB. This sleek, delta-winged beauty set numerous supersonic speed records.
The B-58 also carried enough nuclear bombs to destroy a city.
The B-58 was, in many ways, one of the stars of the 1964 Sidney Lumet film, Fail-Safe, a cautionary tale of technology and nuclear destruction at the height of the Cold War.
That’s the world I grew up in as a small child. Too young to fully appreciate the Cuban Missile Crisis as it happened, I was typical of many pre-teen boys in the late 1960s/early-1970s who immersed themselves into the military hardware used to support the US side of “Mutually Assured Destruction.” The notion that the opposing sides of the Cold War were capable of destroying almost all life on the planet was pretty overwhelming; it was easier to wrap one’s head around NASA’s spacecraft and the technical specifications of planes such as the B-58.
Deployed from bases in Texas, Arkansas, and Indiana, the B-58 was a prominent part of the US strategic nuclear “triad” (bombers, missiles, submarines) during the Cold War. An expensive plane to manufacture and operate, the B-58 was superseded by the less expensive (and more effective) B-52, and eventually replaced by the FB-111.
The General Dynamics FB-111 “Aardvark” was the aircraft that replaced the B-58 in 1970. The mission of the FB-111 was described so vividly in one book about military aircraft in the 1970s that I remember it to this day. The FB-111 was deployed so that, in the event of war with the Soviet Bloc, it could “spin the mountains of Eastern Europe into glass.”
“Into glass.” Nuclear wasteland. Not only did we build these things, but we put bombs in them and threatened to end the game for everyone. If anyone under forty wonders why so many baby boomers decided to “turn on, tune in, drop out” during the Cold War, just take a look at these aircraft.
There were definitely some by-products of worrying that the world would come to an end in a nuclear fireball. The Space Race was a direct result of wanting to “beat” the USSR. The technology developments that produced planes like the B-58 led to all sorts of advances in civilian aviation. Human beings work well under pressure.
Still, I’m glad that my sons (now 23 and 17) grew up in a world with out Civil Defense air-raid sirens, fallout shelters, “duck-and-cover” drills, and bombers like the FB-111. They pick up the phone and call my mobile, and I answer from places like Bucharest, Romania, a city in the former Soviet Bloc. Yes, they still have to take off their shoes and belts to get on a plane, but the odds of something bad happening to them on that flight are nothing compared to the days of “Fail-Safe.”
For all we have to work on in terms of being stewards of this planet, we’ve at least managed to get past Mutually Assured Destruction.