October 11th, 1964
In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy, the specter of nuclear war and the ensuing annihilation of the human race looms like a shadow over the globe. With a range of over 8,000 miles and the ability to carry up to 70,000 pounds of explosive ordinance, the B-52 bomber is the workhorse of the Strategic Air Command, one leg of the nuclear triad, whose mission is to maintain peace via the mad promise of Mutually Assured Destruction. Fleets of these aircraft, stationed at undisclosed locations surrounding the Soviet Union, are in flight every moment of every day, ready to penetrate Soviet airspace and deliver a pre-emptive strike. The fate of the entire world rests on the shoulders of a single human being, a modern-day Atlas, the President of the United States of America, who can — with a word — order them to strike. One slip up, one mistake, is all that separates us from continued peace and Judgement.
Mike sat alert in the cramped tail gunner compartment, watching the skies for bogies as the Mediterranean coast slipped by below. Over the past week BUFF crews had been reporting encounters with Soviet interceptors. It had started with tailing at a distance, then escalated to being buzzed at close range. One of Mike’s buddies said that one of the Su-9’s had even locked onto their bomber, but of course the brass was doing their best to keep that under wraps. Shit’s getting out of control, Mike thought. There’s no way this doesn’t end badly.
The speakers in his headset crackled into life. Captain Langhorne asked, “How’s it looking back there, Mikey?”
“Nothing but blue water and blue skies,” he said. “What’s our ETA?”
“Five hours, twenty-three minutes. Why, you got a hot date?”
O’Brien chimed in. “Oh boy, does he ever! Our boy’s got himself a Frenchie girlfriend waitin’ for him, don’tcha Mikey!”
“Can it, O’Brien,” Mike said.
“Hey, if my girl looked like yours, I’d be in a hurry to get my leave started, too! I don’t know what these French women are teaching their daughters, but God bless ’em, each and every one.” Their laughter mingled together over their collective headsets.
“Alright, knock it off you monkeys. We’ve got a — ” Electronic beeping cut him off. A red light began flashing on Mike’s console; he knew it would be the same for all the others as well. Langhorne barked, “Cafferty, report!”
“Two bogies at 4 o’clock, coming in hot!”
Mike swiveled his guns over as far as he could, searching the skies. A pair of contrails descended into his field of view. Su-9’s, he thought. They ripped through the air like a pair of angry hornets. The Soviet planes were faster and more maneuverable than their Big Ugly Fat Fucker, and armed with the latest air-to-air missiles. They would also know that there were nuclear weapons on board, deterring them from actually opening fire.
“Keep it cool, fellas,” said Langhorne. “They just wanna have a look-see, then they’ll be on their way. O’Brien, tell ’em to fuck off.”
Mike watched as the jets closed in on the bomber with impressive speed. “Eyes on, Cap,” he said, hands on the controls, ready to fire. They split up and reduced speed, coming up level with the bomber on both sides. Mike craned his head around to see one flying mere feet from their right wingtip. What are those commie bastards thinking?
O’ Brien, on the radio: “Unidentified aircraft, you are in violation of international airspace — ”
As Mike watched, the jet darted in toward them. The two wings overlapped for one heart stopping moment, then slipped harmlessly past each other.
Langhorne, on a different channel: “Command, this is Bravo Eight Three Niner, requesting an escort — ”
The Soviet fighter juked in again.
Command, on the return: “Bravo Eight Three Niner, this is — ”
The jet dipped in once again. At that moment, the bomber hit a patch of unsettled air, sending it dropping several feet. Mike’s eyes widened, knowing what would come next. The BUFF bounced back up. The colossal wing flexed and bent upward, striking the jet. It sent the smaller plane bouncing slightly away. The Soviet pilot over-corrected, sending it careening into their wing, shearing it in half.
“What the fuck was that?” O’Brien yelled.
“We’re hit, we’re hit!” Mike replied. His stomach lurched as the plane first laid over on its side, then started to drop. Panic seized him. Come on, get ahold of yourself, soldier, you’ve trained for this. The next few moments existed in his mind as a jumbled mass of screaming and unnatural gravitational forces. His instincts kicked in. With a smooth, practiced motion, he armed and deployed his ejector seat. Fire ripped into the cockpit under his legs, and his body was rudely thrown free from the plummeting aircraft.
Strapped into his chair, floating along under his parachute, the world was calm once again. Mike was not. He closed his eyes, taking huge panic breaths, trying to regain control. The fellas. With an effort of will, he forced himself to look toward the ground below. A trail of thick black smoke drifted up from the dying bomber. To his relief, four other parachutes were open and drifting in the calm air. A smile played at his lips for a moment.
Then he remembered the bombs. We’re all dead.
“Hand me the number five, would you?” Chief Engineer David Holly set his screwdriver in a tray next to him. It looked like a surgical tray, only instead of cutting into flesh and blood, he was busy taking apart a salvaged nuclear weapon. Winter was nearly upon them, but sweat beaded on his brow regardless. Every one of these weapons had layers of failsafes built in, but it still made him nervous every time. It was impossible to know what had been knocked loose in the crash, or had managed to get in after six weeks in the Mediterranean.
“Number five,” said Chief Engineer Randy Albrecht, his voice calm. Unlike his partner, Randy loved working on these things. There were very few people the United States government trusted to work on their nukes, and he took immense pride in his job. They’d just finished removing the primary housing panel, and were moving on to the inner workings of the sleeping world ender. “I still can’t believe the public went for the official story on this. ‘Faulty fuse in the fuel pump’, my ass! Do you know how long we’ve been designing and using electrical fuses? As if we don’t think of these things during the design phase and put in back up systems.”
“Well, not everyone’s an engineer, Rand — ” David dropped his screwdriver and stood bolt upright, taking several steps backward. His face had gone milk white. “Holy Jesus…” he whispered.
“What, what’s the problem?”
David pointed at the bomb, his hand shaking violently. “It’s it’s it’s…”
Randy leaned in to take a look inside. All three arming phases of the bomb had been triggered. By rights, there should be a crater three miles in diameter off the French coast, to say nothing of the loss of life due to the blast, ensuing fireball, and radioactivity. Randy poked around at the wires; the bomb was inert, for now, and they needed to know why. He traced the wires back to the circuitboard. “Dave, you’re not going to believe this.” There was a hint of laughter in his voice.
“What is it?” he asked, taking a tentative step forward, as if that extra foot would make a distance if things suddenly got hot.
Randy turned around. In his hand was an electrical fuse. The indicator was red; it had been blown. “The crash must have jostled this loose before it hit the ground.” He gave a little laugh. “This stupid little fuse saved our asses!” He doubled over, his laughter maniacal. “And they told everyone… ha!”
Dave’s knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor, letting out his held breath. “Can you imagine? Both sides pointing the finger at the other, escalating, retaliating…” A smile crept onto his face. The fate of the world was balanced on a knife’s edge, but for now, at least, they were going to be okay.
This story was inspired by the true stories of near misses recounted in Eric Schlosser’s book Command and Control, and is a fictionalized mishmash of the events recounted therein. Historical accuracy may be spotty, and is the fault of the author.