09.45 G.M.T.

Moscow: 12.45 p.m., Washington: 5.45 a.m.

THE CREW of Alabama Angel, fourteen hours out from a Strategic Air Command base just north of Sonora, Texas, were over the hump. They were approaching the last turning point, and the boring hours which had ground round the clock face with agonising slowness in the earlier stages of the mission, now seemed to be hurrying on, allowing them to anticipate hot food and a comfortable bed, at the British base where they would spend the next two months.

It had been a long flight, and a hard one. From Sonora they had struck due north, the hours and the miles slipping away from them until, over Baffin Island, they had made their first rendezvous with a tanker. Alabama Angel, a B-52 type inter-continental bomber, had drunk deeply from the tanker, then hastened on to a second rendezvous over the frozen wastes between the Northeast Foreland of Greenland, and Spitzbergen.

There again a KC-135 Stratotanker had been waiting patiently for them, ready to slake the thirst of the eight great engines. Now, as the bomber approached her final turning point, she was fully topped up with fuel. There was enough in the tanks to take her on to any target assigned to her inside Russia, and still leave enough to get back to a base in the States without further refuelling.

But that was on a war mission. Today was peace, and Alabama Angel would, merely reach her final turning point called in Strategic Air Command jargon the X pointand turn her sleek, arrow shape away from the vitals of Russia and towards the British base where the wing of which she formed a part was being rotated on normal overseas temporary duty.

In all, thirty-two bombers of the 843rd Wing had left Sonora fourteen hours before. Like Alabama Angel, all of them were now a hundred miles or so from their X points. In the case of Alabama Angel, the X point was Bear Island, a small dot in the Barents Sea roughly midway between the northern tip of Norway and Spitzbergen. The X points of the other bombers of the wing were as widely separated as Schmidt Island in the Arctic Sea, and Bahrein in the Persian Gulf. They had only one geographical factor in common. They were all approximately two hours flying time from a Russian target of prime importance.

As the bomber approached the X point the crew began to brighten up. For hours past, conversation had been confined to the technicalities strictly necessary between crew members to keep an eight jet bomber flying. Now it became more general. The navigator was busily plotting the final course. Soon they would be on the last leg, and the boredom of the preceding hours would be forgotten in the anticipation of what was to come. Their last visit to England was still fresh in their minds.

As a matter of policy, all SAC wings were regularly rotated between their own home base in the Continental United States and bases overseas. It accustomed the crews to operating in all kinds of climate and airfield conditions. It was tough on the married men, of course, but that was the price of belonging to an elite organisation. The single men were unanimous in thinking it a great idea.

Alabama Angel's crew were all single, and they were the youngest crew on the wing, with an average age of only twenty-three. In the States they were usually kept more than busy flying simulated missions, and participating in exercises which helped to illuminate weak points in various defence organisations. Then every three or four months the wing was rotated to a SAC base overseas. It didn't leave a lot of time for the serious business of courtship and marriage. The majority of Alabama Angel's crew, happy with their visits to European countries, and their vivid short passes to Fort Worth, and occasionally Dallas, were not too worried about it. Captain Clint Brown, the command pilot, saw it differently. He was heavily engaged.

Brown was the daddy of the crew, at the ripe old age of twenty-six. He was a tall, heavy-set man, fair-haired, slow in speech and movement, slow to anger. The steady type. Which explained why he had been given the command of a three-million-dollar, one-hundred-and-eighty-ton bomber at an age three years less than the average age of B-52 pilots. He came from Dothan, Alabama, but he had spent most of his life before joining the Air Force in Cincinnati, which accounted for his lack of Southern accent.

Brown glanced at his watch. Before take-off he had set it to Greenwich Mean Time. When you can travel one way about as fast as the world can rotate the other time becomeses confusing. Greenwich Mean Time, besides being vital for navigational purposes, gave an established central reference point against which you could deduct or add hours to give you local time. "Time to turn, Stan?" he asked.

Lieutenant Stanley F. Andersen, twenty-three years old and Alabama Angel's navigator, laid his pencil down on his chart. "Thirteen, minutes from now. New course will be two two zero. Estimate Lakenheath twelve thirty hours.

Give or take a few minutes, natch.

Brown said: "natch. Or a few hours maybe? How about that, men?"

"Nuts," Andersen broke in, before the chorus from crew that sometimes greeted his estimated times of arrival could howl derisively, through the intercom. "You guys tell me one time I slipped up more than five minutes." It was his invariable comeback, the one he knew they could not reasonably answer. But nevertheless they did. Earlier in the mission he would not have invited comment; earlier, the crew would not have made it. But always, just before the final turn, the holiday spirit came on them. Perhaps it was because right up to the time they reached the X point the awful fear was riding in the pressurised cabin along with them.

After X point things changed, and they were as near X point now as made no difference. Soon they would turn, and each pulse of power from the engines would be another few yards on the road to home. It made no difference whether home was North Africa, or Britain, or wherever else in the world SAC had decided to send them. Home was where they could touch down after a mission with the two unimaginable bombs that hung in the long bomb bay of the B-52 still safely in place.

To ride a few feet above an explosive power so potent that five or six B-52's could have settled World War Two decisively for either side, did not worry them. There was little risk of accidental detonation. But all of them, as part of their indoctrination, had seen the films of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of them had been shown the comparative strength of the puny twenty kiloton bomb dropped then, against the fifteen megaton monsters which they carried.

Sometimes they did not carry the actual bombs, but concrete replicas of the same size, shape, and weight. Then the pressure was off. The mission was a happy one. But when the wing rotated overseas, carrying of the actual weapons was mandatory which took the individual aircraft to their X points. And at those times fear was an inseparable companion on the flight. Not fear for themselves but for the world.

They felt it a little less perhaps because they were single men. But still they felt it. The Air Force was perfectly aware of this. A tighter individual check was kept on SAC aircrews than on any body of men in history. And when the strain became too much, when there were signs that the human spirit could endure no more of the hideous responsibility, men were quietly relieved and re-assigned to duty, where their minds could slowly come back to normal under the healing warmth of the knowledge that, for a time at least, they would not be called on to destroy upwards of five million human beings at the press of a button.

The SAC crews accepted these things as reality. They believed they guarded the peace of the world as surely as they knew the price they must pay within themselves to do it. If they had been ignorant, unintelligent men it would have been easier for them. But ignorant, unintelligent men could not have flown a jet bomber. The aircrew were highly trained men of good educational background. They could think for themselves. The Air Force preferred it that way, even if it put a limit on the number of missions and years a SAC crew might be expected to operate efficiently.

So now, as Andersen called, "Three minutes to run," and Brown set the new course on the gyro, the crew were happy. There is a peculiar intimacy which grows up between members of a bomber crew. After a few months together there is established between them an almost telepathic understanding. There was no need for anyone to ask Sergeant Garcia to break out two Thermos jugs of coffee. He knew as soon as they started on the home leg the rest of the boys, like himself, would want' coffee. He reached up to the rack, and took down two jugs and a set of disposable containers. H was whistling quietly.

In the same way Garcia knew about the coffee, Lieutenant Goldsmith, the gunnery officer, knew it was time to make the introductory remarks which would set the stage for his story. Goldsmith was the established comic of the crew. He was a small, lively, intelligent-eyed man, with a devastating gift of mimicry. His stories were invariably long, involved, amatory, and very funny. He rationed them strictly to one per mission. Now he said, "Say Captain, you remember the last time we hit London?"

Brown grinned. Whatever his reply, he knew that Goldsmith's story would not concern London. It would deal with the home town or home state of one of the crew. But Goldsmith always liked to approach his story obliquely, through a series of conversational gambits as formal and as meaningless as the introductory movements of a minuet. He said, "I remember we hit London. Guess I don't remember a heck of a lot of what we did there. Why?"

The crew listened attentively. They all recognised the preliminaries. Soon they would turn, Garcia would pass the coffee round, and Goldsmith would begin the story proper. "Well," he continued, "you remember we went to that joint called the Celebrité? Just off Bond Street?"

"Sure." This was a dialogue confined to Brown and Goldsmith the crew realised, which indicated that Brown would
be the target of the story. They relaxed as comfortably ably as they could in their seats.

"Well, you remember we met a dame there?"

"Lots of dames," Brown said affably.

"Yeah, but this particular dame. That figure, wow! That red hair, the real, deep, copper-red kind. That up from under look she kept giving me, Remember?

Sorry to break in, Anderson said "Thirty seconds to run."

"Roger." Brown stretched his left hand forward ready to select the turn control on the autopilot. "Well, I think I remember her."

"Reason I asked," Goldsmith said, but this time in an accent which was pure Alabama, the kind of accent the crew were always kidding Brown he should have, "was because she put me in mind of a little ole gal I encountered in Dothan, Alabama. You all know that place, Cap'n, Sir?"

The crew exchanged pleased grins. With an operator like Goldsmith to entertain them for the next fifteen minutes or so, the last leg of the mission wouldn't seem long. In a few minutes they'd be having coffee. And maybe this weekend there'd be a pass to London. Life in SAC was pretty good, all right.

So now they were almost at the X point, and once again nothing had, happened. They had been briefed to turn at the X, but even if their briefing had been to carry on in to the attack, they would have turned. That was the Failsafe procedure, the system SAC had dreamed up to prevent any accidental attack sparking off a third world war. Unless positive attack orders were received in the air, SAC aircrews were under the strictest orders to go no further than the X point. They were only too glad to obey those orders.

"Ten seconds," Andersen said. There would' be nothing for him to do for a while after they turned. He settled himself comfortably to enjoy Goldsmith's story.

"Well now, Herman, seems to me I heard of it some place." Brown's voice was carefree as he poised his finger over the turn control.

Garcia began to unscrew the top of a Thermos. Brown's finger started to move down. There was a short clatter of morse. It lasted only ten seconds or so. Brown delayed the movement of his finger until the message had finished. Sergeant Mellows, the radioman, said shortly, "Message from base, Captain. Wing to hold at X points."

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