HERITAGE SERIES: Standing Tall During the Cuban Missile Crisis
By TSgt. Dan Heaton, 127th Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 14, 2012
SEFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. --
(Part of an ongoing series of historic profiles on key Airmen & events in the early history of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.)
Pilots sat in cockpits, sometimes with the engine running. Maintenance crews ran 24-hour operations, even sleeping in the hangar between shifts, never more than an arm's length or two away from their aircraft. All leaves were cancelled and security at the front gate was beefed up. Fifty years ago this month, nuclear war seemed imminent and the Airmen of Selfridge stood ready to answer the call.
For two weeks in October 1962, the world held its collective breath as the U.S. and the Soviet Union engaged in an international showdown over the presence of Soviet missiles on the island nation of Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Airmen at Selfridge - along with the rest of the nation's military forces - went on the highest possible level of alert.
During the crisis, which is generally considered to have lasted Oct. 16-28, 1962, Selfridge was then known as Selfridge Air Force Base and was the home station of the 1st Fighter Wing of the former Air Defense Command. The wing's two squadrons, the 71st and the 94th Fighter Interceptor Squadrons were equipped with F-106 Delta Darts, the premier fighter-interceptor aircraft of the day.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy was notified on Oct. 16 that American U-2 aircraft had taken photographs that confirmed the presence of missiles that were not yet operational but were being installed on Cuba by the Soviet Union. Kennedy launched a series of diplomatic and military responses that eventually prompted Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to agree to remove the missiles. During the crisis, Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and moved most of the U.S. Air Force to "DEFCON 2" status, the second-highest level of nuclear war readiness -marking the only confirmed time in U.S. history that DEFCON 2 was so ordered.
At one time during the crisis, as much as one third of the Air Force's bomber fleet was believed to be armed and airborne, ready to respond to orders. Hundreds of fighter aircraft were placed on alert status around the country.
The mission of the Airmen at Selfridge during the crisis was to protect the homeland. For almost two weeks, pilots at the base sat on "runway alert" - their F-106s armed and loaded, connected to ground generators to help speed the aircraft through the launch process. The goal was to launch in no more than 15 minutes if the call came.
Within a day or two of the discovery of the missiles in Cuba, the Airmen of the 71st and 94th were scattered to several locations around the country, in addition to maintaining an alert at the home station.
Both the 94th and 71st sent a contingent of aircraft to Florida, while the 94th also sent a few to Alaska. Flying from Patrick Air Force Base on Florida's eastern coast, the 94th flew 620 mission sorties during a six-week stay - an average of about 15 sorties per day -- while maintaining an 80-percent mission-capable rating. It was record-setting levels of activity for the squadron.
While the two squadrons operated remotely, they also stood alert at Selfridge, assigned to guard the industrial might of the Motor City. Locally, one of the more frightening moments of the Crisis involved an F-106 from the 71st FIS. During the crisis, a flight of F-106s was launched from Selfridge - the reason for the launch is since lost to time - and was diverted to a landing in Terra Haute, Ind. One of the aircraft had a malfunction and made a hard landing in Indiana, crunching up the nose of the aircraft - while it had a full load of missiles. A crew from Selfridge was dispatched and was able to get a new nose for the aircraft from a maintenance depot and return it to flight status.
On Oct. 28, the U.S. and the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove missiles from Cuba (Soviets) and Turkey and Italy (U.S.) that led to a de-escalation of the tensions. As part of the negotiations, a special hotline phone system was installed between the U.S. president and the Soviet premier as a means to avoid such future confrontations. Many of the exact details of what happened during the Crisis did not become public until years later, but one thing was clear then, as now: faced with a threat to the security of the nation, the Airmen and other military personnel of Selfridge added another page to the book of honor that chronicles the history of the base and her Airmen.
Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marked its 95th year of continuous military air operations in 2012.