A Navy Pilot in Colorado Springs

As mentioned in a previous excerpt in “Personal Stories”, how did John Estes land orders to a land-locked Colorado Springs as a Navy Pilot?

But like Richard Easton’s accounts of his dad, Roger Easton and the Navy Research Laboratory, John’s story exemplifies the Navy’s foothold in the original militarized space story.  Before he began his tour of duty at the space mecca in Csprings characterized by the famed Cheyenne Mountain, John’s Navy career was similar to many other naval pilots during the Vietnam era—though historically documented as a conflict since the U.S. never officially declared war on Vietnam, day-to-day operations for a serviceman showed no differentiation between ‘war’ or ‘conflict’.  John and his peers served on aircraft carriers within a carrier battle group, comprised of an impressive fleet of frigates, destroyers and of course, a carrier at its core.  At one point early in his flying career, John flew early warning missions off the coast of Vietnam in the newly minted E2C Hawkeye—“it was like trying to land a falling elephant on a postage stamp,” John remarked when asked about landing his Hawkeye on a boat. He was on float for 9 months at a time; 9-10 months was typical for West Pac, sometimes extending up to a year.  He also recounted the story of his carrier, the USS Essex, going on mission to pluck Nasa’s Apollo 7 crew from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  But even before this usual 1970’s navy pilot path, John experienced a not-as-common event, after initial flight school and before his first (and only) space ops job.  I’ll digress into this story to illustrate the example of the type of service member brought into early space operations.

In 1960, John was sent to Corpus Christi, TX to fly the AD-6 Skyraider, later designated the A-1.  This was a single engine attack aircraft, or dive bomber; that’s right, an aircraft designed to nose dive towards the earth at top speeds with no redundancy to rescue the pilot should an emergency occur.  John ‘Jack’ Estes paid attention in training and was intimately familiar with the quirks of this temperamental flying death box.  There used to be a tradition for A-1 pilots to pay homage to their aircraft after the initial flight with a hearty steak and a grateful heart if it brought him back in one piece.  The Skyraider had the dubious distinction of having no room for an instructor seat, leaving the student alone even in a maiden flight. John barely raised an eyebrow when asked how he felt his first time up in the A-1, “Well, it was an interesting flight.” Another Skyraider memory evoked a two-eyebrow rise, however. Jack Estes recalls one particularly harrowing flight in his A-1 attack aircraft.  The day started as any other training day, two flights scheduled—1 in the morning, and 1 in the afternoon with a debrief and lunch in between.  He was conducting dive bombing runs at Padre Island, which is now an international resort destination for beach-goers. The morning run was fairly routine. Debriefing proved it to be a decent hit on targets.

After lunch, at 1230CST, John readied for his afternoon ride in the sky thinking “Man, I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” He taxied down to the runway in serpentine fashion so he could see where he was going.  The A-1’s nose sat higher than its tail with wheels on the ground, so the pilots were forced to zig-zag their way out to the field, keeping a fixed object in the distance in their sight with each zig-zag.  Once on the runway, John applied throttle, flaps up, and he was airborne.  Climbing about 5000 feet, he reviewed targets and the ordinance he would drop. Nearing the Padre Island coastal bombing field, he corrected course somewhat, throttled back, pushed the yoke forward to drop the nose and put the aircraft into a dive approaching 200 mph. A thousand feet of altitude flew by in moments—the earth was rushing toward him with what most would consider an uncomfortable rate of closure. The high angle dive for which the A-1 was designed also required deployment of the 2 feet by 4 feet air brakes affectionately known as the ‘barn doors’ to assist in dampening speed. Positioning on target, he readied the bombs at about 700 feet and was approaching max speed exceeding 300mph. Simultaneous to the leveling point, the Navy pilot dropped bombs when he noticed the familiar roar of the engine was replaced by an eery silence. His engine stalled at the low spot!  This presented a significant problem as the Skyraider rode on a single propeller engine.  The earth was rushing toward him—he made an attempt at a restart but the engine would not turn over!  It was a no-go—what now?  With no time to for sophisticated emergency maneuvers and the same time constraints demanding an instant decision, John thought “I’ve got some good momentum here,” so at just over 400 feet from getting up close and personal with the target that remained in sight, John violently pulled back on the yoke, forcing his Skyraider out of the dive and climbing silently towards the sun now.  He only had one try left before gravity would overtake his momentum and send him into a free fall.  With a quick prayer and another push of the engine switch, he heard the life-giving rumble and saw the tips of the propeller rise and fall over the crest of the nose.  There was no time to think about what had just happened as instructions came over the radio from ground control– “don’t come back to base with any ordinance” was the directive.  John regained his composure and flight pattern, entered another dive, blew up his target and returned to base. Upon alighting the runway, his heart beating a little faster, the pre-flight thought of the day changed to a sobering “I can’t believe I don’t get paid more for this…..”

All in a Day’s Work

“I didn’t believe in wasting time,” Terry leaned back with a chuckle. He readied himself for a noon graduation, lightly attended since it was a mid-year ceremony. Graduation was a welcomed conclusion ushering in a more important ceremony just one and a half hours later—his wedding to Barbara Ann. ‘No time for a nap,” he thought to himself; the thought only briefly interrupted the purposed day’s agenda. With the bakery shift in the past and diploma in hand, Terry made his way to the church for an on-time arrival. It was also a small and simple, yet momentous, occasion shared with immediate family and a few of their closest friends—a joyous reprieve in the middle of an otherwise unforgiving schedule. Was Terry even allowed to enjoy a glass of bubbly before moving on to the next order of business that day? I forgot to ask him, so I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Following the streamlined wedding ceremony, Terry and Barbara headed over to the ROTC building where four others were waiting for their Air Force commissioning. The February ’64 ROTC class started 200 strong due to the University’s requirement that all entering students serve two years in the ROTC program. Left standing that winter of 1964 at the University of Nebraska were five college seniors counted amongst the most dedicated to corps and country. It seemed to these five that their new career in the profession-of-arms was indeed commensurate with their own values and practices of sacrifice, service, discipline and defending freedoms for the pursuit of happiness. Go to our Historic Photos Gallery to see pictures of Terry’s graduation and commissioning. Among the five, 2nd Lt Miller, with Air Force orders to Colorado Springs and the 1st Aerospace Squadron, would go on to join, precede and follow some of the others we now know as pioneers of America’s space defense. Larry Cotter and Eric Nelson were first on the scene as part of the initial cadre at 1st Aero and had just moved on to other pursuits as Terry arrived to Ent AFB in Colorado. Ken Needham and John Estes would arrive a year later.


Cheyenne Mountain

During the middle of the night, November 9, 1979, the Philco computer displays lit up the Cheyenne Mountain combat operations center—issuing an urgent warning that hundreds of nuclear-tipped missiles had been launched and were on their way to the United States. Within seconds, the computer pinpointed the launch sites of these deadly missiles—the Soviet Union. But that wasn’t all. The Philco 2000, suddenly taking on the antagonistic persona of HAL 9000 in Space Odyssey, also identified numerous nukes launched by Russian submarines hiding underwater in the Bering Strait and near the North Pole—terrorizing the U.S. military console operators with threat fans and impact ellipses covering most of North America.

The United States was under massive nuclear attack, and the Cold War had instantly turned red hot.

In accordance with the missile warning protocol, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) notified Strategic Air Command (SAC) of the attack. In response, SAC put its nuclear-armed bombers on alert—with engines started in preparation for a counterattack—and sent at least 10 fighter aircraft into the air. In addition, Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch control centers were sent a preliminary warning that the U.S. was under nuclear attack. The Airborne Command Post (ABNCP) was also launched. ABNCP, pronounced “Ab-n-cap” by missile crew members, is launched immediately in situations such as these to allow the President to conduct nuclear war from a safe distance in the sky.

The only problem this time was that President Jimmy Carter was not on board. He had not yet been woken by his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been notified by NORAD of the Soviet attack and was trying to determine if it was real.

Procedure required the operators to take several steps to validate the threat—to determine whether the Soviets had actually launched an attack. First, the computer software had to match the missile profiles before they could be validated. The profiles were a perfect match. Additional steps were required before the ICBM missile launch crews in Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana would be ordered to turn their keys to begin a counterattack against the Soviet Union. Those steps were in progress at the same time as NORAD’s top brass frantically worked to determine exactly what was happening, and if we should launch our own massive fleet of nuclear weapons in response.

Minutes were all they had, and the seconds were quickly ticking by.

As all this was going on, crews contacted the early warning radar sites, which they did within seconds of the reported mass attack. The radar sites would have detected the missiles first and passed the threat data to Cheyenne Mountain, but the radar crews reported “all quiet.” In other words, they saw nothing—the radars were not picking up the missiles. The DSP early warning satellites, which used infrared sensors to detect the heat radiated by ICBM plumes, were also in an all-quiet status—no missile launches had been detected anywhere on the globe, much less from Soviet territory.

The crew commander immediately reported the findings to the General—it must be a mistake—a software glitch.

The General, with only a few minutes to react, and not completely believing or understanding the information he received at first, did not de-escalate right away. While the U.S.—in conjunction with Canadian forces—was beginning to mobilize its own nuclear arsenal, NORAD leadership turned their attention to the crew and system experts. The operations crew on duty confirmed not a single radar nor DSP satellite reported incoming missiles, and the system experts confirmed that would be an impossible scenario if we were truly under nuclear attack.

Based on these inputs, the General made a decision that changed history. He issued the order to stand down, narrowly averting WWIII.

Post-incident analysis revealed what went wrong: A training scenario had been loaded to the system which had been configured for testing, however, a computer chip malfunction allowed the mass nuclear attack training scenario to breach the operational system. To this day, missile warning units maintain two physically separated systems—one for training, and the other an operational system. There is now no way to accidentally connect the two.

While this close call highlighted the dangers of making life-or-death decisions based on the information we receive from the technologies we have created, it also clearly demonstrated the importance of having smart and highly trained people in the decision-making process. It also pointed out the very real need to have a streamlined chain of command for the nation’s military space operations—one that would provide the Commander-in-Chief, Department of Defense (DoD) generals and admirals with the accurate and timely information they need to make the best decisions possible to ensure the security of the United States of America.

All this and much more came to pass when, in 1982, the Air Force Space Command was created.

Introduction to Space Posts

This is the real  ‘never told’ story on Colorado’s doorstep—not only the big guys doing big things, but a huge story emanating from voices never heard on main street.    Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado Springs, CO, in 1985 boasted ground breaking news reported in the local newspapers, but not making front page headlines elsewhere.   Along the eastern side of the main road near the north gate, the once dry lot, overrun with wildflowers and weeds, became a construction site.  Bulldozers and cement trucks broke ground to lay the foundation for what would house the headquarters of a newly formed military Command.  Into this foundation is poured over two decades of stories telling of earnest and honest work, struggle, and remarkable innovation.   Though AFSPC was officially established in 1982, its headquarters, Building 1, as it is known today, would be set upon this quiet monument in the fall of 1985, testifying to the militarization of space, and taking its place as the pinnacle of space operations for the U.S. Air Force.  Does it symbolize the AF effort to reclaim its premier position in the control of militarized space arena after losing its stronghold over 20 years earlier?

I’ve had the distinct privilege of interviewing several of the AF’s space pioneers, and even a couple with Navy heritage, who started their work in the late 1950’s and early 60’s.    Their personal stories describe the events and times from the perspective of those who were there to help shape and influence early American space missions; and they represent the collective group who ‘has gone before’.   Most of these accounts have never been told in the public forum and have never been codified; only shared with friends or family, and sometimes not even then–these are the stories leading to the rise of Air Force Space Command as told by some of those who lived it.