Helion author interview: “On ‘Chrome Dome’ missions we carried two to four nuclear weapons – each capable of destroying a city larger than London”

“An adult friend of my mother’s asked the usual: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered:  “Either a pilot or a priest.” He said I’d best shoot for priest because I wasn’t smart enough to become a pilot!”

As well as celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary in Las Vegas this month, Helion favourite Lt Col USAF (Ret.) Earl J. McGill is preparing for the launch of his latest title ‘Jet Age Man’. We caught up with him to discover what aircrew dedication in Strategic Air Command was able to accomplish during the Cold War.

How did your love affair with aviation begin and did you always aspire to be a pilot?

My father owned a small plane (my parents divorced when I was six) and my uncles were all active in aviation. A couple were even wing walkers! My step-father served as a B-17 waist gunner stationed in England. He was shot down on his eighth mission and spent the rest of the war in Stalag 17B.

When did you join the airforce and what are your early memories of the service?

I joined in 1947 straight out of high school – primarily because I was broke. The minimum age to enter pilot training was 20-and-a-half so I had to wait until 1950 to enter the Aviation Cadet program. In the interim I attended Air Force schools and served as both a Weather Observer and Forecaster. I had a terrible time soloing and was one bad landing away from washing out when the final check evaluator showed me a little trick with the elevator trim that saved my career.

What are some of your most vivid memories of your time piloting and instructing the B-47s and the B-52s?

My most vivid memories of instructing in the B-47 and B-52 are included in ‘Jet Age Man’. The two that are most vivid are the loss of my first B-47 crew – described in the opening of the book, and airborne alert known as ‘Chrome Dome’ during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Next month will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the crisis – something covered in extensive detail in ‘Jet Age Man’.

Your book ‘blurb’ states that you ‘held the fate of mankind within reach of a switch’. In what way do you feel you did this and how did you cope with this great responsibility? What were your greatest fears?

This is the hardest question because there really isn’t a satisfactory answer. On ‘Chrome Dome’ missions we carried two to four nuclear weapons – each capable of destroying a city larger than London. During the Cuban Missile Crisis dozens of B-52s were in the air at the same time which meant that if a “go-code” was transmitted they would all attack. The referenced “switch” was called the SWESS and insured that the bombs would detonate over the Soviet Union regardless of what happened to the B-52. The detonation of that many nuclear weapons would’ve ended civilization. We ‘coped’ by believing what actually turned out to be true – that no leader would risk such a catastrophe. We were therefore secure in the belief that the overwhelming nature of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) would prevent it from happening. My only “fear” was for my family. I know this sounds odd and perhaps insincere but after flying combat missions in the Korean I can’t remember ever being actually ‘afraid’.

What inspired you to write ‘Jet Age Man’ and what  can readers expect from the book?

I wouldn’t have written ‘Jet Age Man’ without Duncan’s invitation to do so. I’d written several short pieces that are included for example ‘Voices from the Sea’ but none had been published. I’d done some B-47 stuff on my website including a small portion of ‘The Sweetest Killer I Ever Flew’ and received really motivating feedback such as “This is the best (subject) I’ve ever read.”

Both of my military history books (‘Black Tuesday Over Namsi’ and ‘Jet Age Man’) were written, in part, to correct the overwhelming amount of published misinformation that has appeared in print and on the internet. While some errors are relatively minor, some that are grossly inaccurate have become accepted as historical “facts.” ‘Jet Age Man’ tells it the way it was.

This is particularly true of Strategic Air Command’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis which – thanks to television shows on the subject – has become accepted as being more like an episode out of Star Trek than what actually transpired! Readers will also learn a great deal about Strategic Air Command B-47 and B-52 operations that were highly classified until recently.

Most of all readers will experience what it was really like to be ‘in the trenches’ during the early Cold War – written in the fashion of ‘Fate is the Hunter’ and ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’. Finally, published for the first time ever, ‘Jet Age Man’ contains the shocking precise narrative accounts of each B-47 and B-52 loss during the period.

Is the book largely your own recollection or a combination of your experiences and supplementary research?

Most is from short personal writings and recollections that I cross-checked on the internet and with other publications and revised/added-to for accuracy. Additional information was gathered from eyewitnesses and participants plus news clippings. Most of my research was to confirm or expand on what I already had.

What, if anything, did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

That I could actually write a book after being contracted to do so! I was also surprised at the accuracy of my recollections when checked against other sources and my complete loss of memory for names!

Tell us about your first book ‘Black Tuesday Over Namsi’ and how that came about.

My grandson asking if grandpa was “ever in a war?” led me to establishing the ‘B-29s in the Korean War’ website. Prompted by hundreds of responses and contributions, I wrote an article for VFW Magazine which was published on the 50th anniversary of the Black Tuesday mission. In the process (and especially in the aftermath) I accumulated 180 pages of notes and decided to write the book – the first ever from the viewpoints of both the actual Russian and American combatants.

Do you have any aspirations to write any future books?

I’m presently writing ‘Frail Children of Dust’ – a crime-suspense novel. I have one previously published mystery ‘Immaculate in Black’ (St. Martin’s 1991) which – along with several of my shorter published stories and unpublished novels – is available on Kindle. Although I’ve been thinking about military/historical subjects, at the moment I haven’t anything in particular in mind.  If ‘Jet Age Man’ becomes the hit my wife believes it should become I’ll think harder!

Do you have any plans to celebrate the launch of ‘Jet Age Man’?

Vaguely, but your question has, however, stimulated ideas… maybe something here at home with friends and fellow writers. Age, unfortunately, has become a major factor in planning such things. By the way, I’m starting a crusade to do away with the terms ‘seniors’ and ‘senior citizens’. Having just returned from Las Vegas, I’m encouraging substituting ‘old sport’ and ‘old sports’!

Pre-order ‘Jet Age Man – SAC B-47 and B-52 Operations in the Cold War’ by Lt Col USAF (Ret.) Earl J. McGill here.

Photo credit: Clarke Jones, co-pilot; Joe Iwanoski, navigator: Earl McGill, A/C; and crew chief. (Official U.S. Air Force photo)

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