What does an F-15 supersonic flight, a visit to a nuclear missile bunker and a B-52 sortie have in common? For each of the three, I wore a trusty Bell & Ross watch.
Last summer, during a U.S. Air Force event at the Pentagon called Magazine Day, I was exposed to, and became interested in, the many workings of that branch of the military. Later, I was lucky enough to be offered a rare personal glimpse into some of those workings: flights in an F-15 and B-52, venerable USAF aircraft workhorses, and a visit to a live U.S. nuclear missile bunker, 70 feet underground. The experiences themselves, of course, were amazing, but my takeaway was more in the stellar airmen and airwomen I met. They were polite, capable, efficient and, most importantly, possess an old-fashioned virtue called character in carrying out their difficult defense responsibilities. I want to personally thank all who took care of me for three of the best experiences of my life.
The BR03-94 Black Matte Ceramic
The watch I wore for these amazing experiences was the BR03-94 Black Matte Ceramic. An incredibly light — thanks to the black matte ceramic — chronograph it fit in perfectly in all these environments, as its design is inspired by military gauges and meters.
I found the watch very comfortable to wear, and it received a lot of comments from the service men and women I interacted with. They all liked the clean look and inquired as to what watch it was, taking note when I told them.
The BR03-94 performed flawlessly as well, meeting the requirements of precision and performance that Bell & Ross has for its professional instruments. Their watches are built with performance in mind and every detail, case diameter, special functions, water-resistance, day and night readability, luminous indexes, oversized numerals, precision, autonomy, shock and temperature resistance, anti-magnetic cases and more are designed thoughtfully.
I felt confident going into each experience knowing that my Bell & Ross wouldn’t let me down and, unlike me, had every right to be there.
The F-15E Strike Eagle Experience
I am cruising near the speed of sound in an F-15E Strike Eagle over the Atlantic Ocean. My pilot, Capt. Michael “Thorny” Brewer, has just taken the aircraft into a tight circle, causing me to pull six G’s – or six times my body weight. My peripheral vision is graying out and I’m fighting for breath.
Welcome to the right stuff. I’m not sure that I have it.
The briefing the day before, with the Fourth Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson, a training and operations U.S. Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC, was thorough. First was a meticulous medical exam (I was terrified that I might not pass), then instruction on how to breathe with a G-pressure suit, how to egress in the event of a fire on the ground — and how to eject in the air should we have a major malfunction. The commands for the last two: “Egress, egress, egress,” and “Bail out, bail out, bail out.” Both have a very low probability of happening but, as I said, the U.S. Air Force is thorough, as it should be. These planes are no joke.
Brewer, 34, has flown the F-15E, the venerable air-to-ground and air-to-air fighter jet, more than 600 times. He was also a combat pilot in the Middle East in 2015, and a commercial pilot for Mesa Airlines prior to joining the Air Force. All told, the father of two (with another one on the way) has flown more than 50 different types of aircraft.
After some fitful sleep, it was back to the base on day two for the flight itself and interviews with Fourth Fighter Wing Vice Commander Col. Brian “Torch” Armstrong, and Lt. Col. Levi “Ratr” Hall, Brewer’s bosses. Armstrong is responsible for the 6,000 airmen and civilians at Seymour Johnson — plus $5.2 billion in base assets, including 94 F-15E aircraft. Says Armstrong, 46, about recruiting his fighter pilots: “We look for high-performing individuals who are able to take constructive criticism in order to improve.” My pilot certainly fit that profile.
After signing a standard liability release, I studied our flight route. The plan was to head to sea off of the North Carolina coast, perform some G-moves and rolls, go supersonic, then return over land to hook up with other F-15Es for combat exercises. The entire flight was to take one hour and 50 minutes and would cover around 1,000 miles. All of that was fine with me, but I was most interested in the supersonic part.
Before the flight, Brewer and I walked around the aircraft, which was built in 1989, checking that all systems were go. Then it was up a steep ladder to the cockpit to get strapped in, he in the front, me behind him. Just before we took off, I armed my ejection seat, turned the oxygen knob to full and strapped on my mask and helmet, which was equipped with a radio so Brewer and I could communicate. Oh yeah, then I said a little prayer.
After a 205-mph takeoff with after-burners, we climbed above 20,000 feet and headed toward the Atlantic. It was a smooth, beautiful ride. I scanned the blanket of puffy white clouds below. The wide vantage from the crystal-clear cockpit canopy glass enhanced the surrealism of it all.
Then it was time for business. First, Brewer took me to four G’s. It was more intense than I thought it was going to be. But I did perform the exercises I had learned earlier — a type of “hook” pressure breathing where I squeezed my lower extremities. It helped keep most of the blood in my head. The G-suit inflated around my legs, too, which helped.
After a minute to recover, Brewer then took me to six G’s. Wow. Some people will go all the way up to nine, but I told Brewer I was fine with six. Following that was a simple but disorienting roll, which further pushed me to the brink of nausea.
I perked up quickly, though. Our next maneuver was what I was most interested in — going supersonic, or faster than thunder. Brewer eased the nose of the plane up, and we rapidly climbed — to 31,000 feet. Then we leveled off and accelerated to Mach .95. I didn’t have a Mach meter on my dashboard screen, but Brewer called off the numbers: .97, .98, .99. I waited for the jolt when we passed Mach 1, but nothing happened. Outside of the plane, of course, was a loud sonic boom that any ships below would have heard.
As we continued to accelerate toMach 1.2, I still didn’t feel anything. The exhilarating ride was as smooth as glass. When we slowed to just below Mach 1, though, a noticeable air bump occurred, and a stunning pressure bubble cloud developed around the aircraft. Our shock wave was passing us!
We headed back to land to meet up with two F-15Es for war games. Our sortie name was “Actor,” theirs “Hoax.” While I appreciated the maneuvers (we came to within three feet of the other planes and were able to see each other wave) I was feeling a bit green, at one point removing the barf bag from my flight suit and preparing for the worst. I kept my breakfast down, though, but it wasn’t easy. After that, it was some low strafing-type passes 1,000 feet off the ground at close to Mach 1. The reduced altitude allowed me to judge just how fast we were traveling. The big trees below flew by like tiny bushes.
When we returned to base, Brewer told me that we had just burned 26,500 lbs. of the 31,500 lbs. of fuel we had carried on board. Whoa.
As a parting gesture, Brewer autographed my flight gloves. The gloves are now mounted squarely above my ticket for a future space ride on Virgin Galactic. That F-15E flight, it was damn good training.
Sleepy Minot, ND, population around 50,000, is all the rage right now. In the last few months, 60 Minutes Australia, Marie Claire magazine, NBC’s Today Show and other media have visited. General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, was even there in September.
Why all the fuss? The town is home to the U.S. Air Force 91st Missile Wing and the Fifth Bomb Wing. Tensions with North Korea, among other things, have propelled the nuclear base to front and center.
Buried in the ground are 150 nuclear-tipped missiles, which, if launched, could destroy a good chunk of the world’s population. Minot is just one of three land-based nuclear missile areas in the U.S. (the others being in Wyoming and Montana, each with its own 150-missile arsenal) ready to strike with the appropriate order from the President.
I’m here in Minot to visit the bowels of one of the 15 nuclear missile bunkers, each responsible for 10 missiles. Before we head out to the field (and I mean that literally), there is an interview with Colonel Bill Barrington, who oversees missile maintenance at the 91st, then a morning briefing with staff, including the two missileers who will take over from the two on duty now. Shifts are generally 24 hours in length. First Lieutenant Damion Proctor, 25, and Second Lieutenant Matthew Ernst, 28, are the replacements.
A van ride out to the bunker is next. There is no blindfold for me — the bunker capsules (where the men who launch the missiles are situated, 70 feet below ground), and the silos (where the actual underground missiles are housed and launch from) are located on public roads, but you would never know what they were unless you had been briefed.
After a 45-minute drive across mostly farmland, accompanied by Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Humphries, public affairs, and First Lieutenant Richard Credicott, another missileer, we arrive at the Juliett-01 bunker. Above ground are two nondescript tan buildings. Below ground, however, is the capsule where the two missileers sit, on constant alert in the event the U.S. needs to launch its nuclear weapons.
When we arrive at the locked fence gate on the outskirts, we are immediately met with an armed security guard asking for IDs even though they know we are coming. Once all the paperwork and checks are complete, and there are lots of them, we head into the above-ground facilities for a tour. There is a kitchen, complete with chef, which provides the missileers and security personnel with sustenance during their shifts. The food is cash only — for $2.95, I had a cola drink, burger and tater tots.
There is also a bathroom, a communal bedroom with simple bunk beds, a pool table and a small gym. Outside are satellite antennas so powerful we can only get to within five feet of them for fear of radiation.
To get below to the actual bunker capsule, there are more armed guards and two massive concrete/steel doors — 11 and eight tons each, respectively — which require nine vigorous turns of a handle to open. After several more checks of IDs, four of us pile into a freight elevator to head down. As we enter, the guards call off, “One in, two in, three in, four in.” The ride is a bit spooky. We are told that if the elevator, installed in the early sixties, gets stuck, and it sometimes does, we are to wait patiently. If they can’t get it going again, there is always an escape ladder we can use to return to the surface.
Once down and past another massive door, we are finally in the capsule itself. It is fairly tight quarters, with a green curtain walling off a small sleeping space for the two missileers. If a serious message comes across on the consoles, many are practice drills, the other is awakened immediately to do his duty.
And just what is that? A series of verifications on antiquated screens (the place looks like something out of Dr. Strangelove, but it works), an unlocking of simple padlocks which hold the actual missile launch keys (each missileer has his own separate key to prevent one from rogue launching), more code verifications, and, if deemed necessary, turning the launch keys to send the missiles. I can tell you that all of this requires massive information to each of the two missileers separately, and together, and incorporates several redundant safeguard techniques — it is impossible to just launch these things, even if a malcontent somehow gets into the capsule.
I am not allowed to bring any electronic devices down: my tape recorder and camera were verboten. The reporting has to be done the old-fashioned way — with pen and paper — and the photos are taken by an airwoman.
There is also some discussion about my Bell & Ross watch. They eye it suspiciously, as if it might be a smart watch or a secret spy gadget. I assure them it isn’t, that it is powered by a Swiss automatic movement of the highest quality, and they grudgingly allow me to wear it in the missile capsule.
I sit down with Proctor for an interview. Proctor, from Jackson, MS, tells me he just got engaged to another Minot missileer named Lena. Asked what he would do if he received a direct order from the President to launch his missiles, he replied, “I would have to follow the orders of our commander-in-chief.” Does Proctor feel any sense of heightened alert given the state of affairs with North Korea? “No. We are always ready and prepared, no matter what the situation.”
Ernst, from North Carolina and married with three kids, concurs with his missileer bunker peer. He is an ex-policeman and taught to follow orders. “There are no politics down here,” he says. “We don’t second guess.” In his spare time in the bunker, and there is plenty of it — none of the missiles have ever been launched in wartime — Ernst works on a Master’s Degree in homeland security via Liberty University.
After about an hour in the stuffy bunker capsule, it’s back to the surface for more paperwork and security checks. Once completed, we are off via van a few miles to the pièce de résistance for me — the silos where the actual missiles are housed; they are connected to the missileer’s capsule via miles of electric cable. Approaching the Juliett-05 silo, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. While we can’t get into the underground silo itself, I am no more than 100 yards from a complex nuclear device that, after traveling 15,000 mph into and out of space, could destroy a major city, if not several. Think about that. Just one Minuteman III missile.
I leave the silo with mixed feelings. I understand we need these things for deterrence, and I respect tremendously the servicemen who bear this huge responsibility. But, like everyone, I worry about ever using them. Hopefully we will never have to, making the missileers hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait — until eternity. Here, hurry up and wait is a good thing.
As we said, the 91st Missile Wing and the Fifth Bomb Wing are both located in Minot. At the Fifth are 27 B-52 aircraft, some of which are deployed now overseas. The only other active B-52 base is in Barksdale, LA, which controls 49 of the venerable planes. I am about to ride in one of the old bombers.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, 744 B-52s were produced by Boeing. For many years, 24 hours a day, the fleet handled the bulk of the air component of the U.S. nuclear triad — land, sea and air. Who doesn’t remember a yee-haw Slim Pickens in the 1964 flick Dr. Strangelove riding on a nuclear device unloaded from a B-52’s bomb bay?
In fact, the B-52 can carry 70,000 lbs of conventional and nuclear ordinance, 20 cruise missiles and is normally operated with five crew members. Range is 8,800 miles and maximum speed is just under Mach 1, or 650 mph at altitude, and the aircraft can refuel in the air.
Our B-52H was built in 1961, and naturally showed some signs of wear. No matter, with eight engines, the beast is capable of losing one without serious consequences. A massive bird strike, where we lost all four engines on one side upon takeoff, would be another story. Projections have the bomber in operation until 2040, with constant refurbishment and electronic upgrades.
Before my flight, like with the F-15, was a day of required training. First up was another medical exam, performed by Likita Guess, a U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant. Then, as with the F-15, it was a series of classes on how to egress the plane in the event of a fire on the ground. Ejection seat training was also mandatory in case of a major mishap in the air.
But, unlike the F-15, there was parachute training. First, we practiced jumping sideways from a small platform, bouncing and rolling on a pad to simulate a soft ground landing. Then was a drill used in the event of a tree or power-line encounter. To simulate this required hanging in a harness, then pulling two rings on the parachute to detach from it. Finally, it was a simple rappel down a leash to the ground. The procedure was awkward, but eventually I was able to do it.
To enter the plane, which has a wingspan of a whopping 185 feet, we come up through a small hatch under the front fuselage and climb two pair of narrow stairs to the top level where the cockpit is located. It is cramped and claustrophobic in there, not at all what you might expect for such a large plane. I was positioned in the third cockpit seat, just behind the pilot and copilot.
Our takeoff from Minot was scheduled for 5:30 p.m., but delayed because of a late parachute pack (the B-52 uses a rear chute to help it land), then a software glitch in the OES system. When we finally took off at 7:15 p.m., call sign “Chill 22,” the sun was low in the sky.
The plan was to fly south, via Deering, ND, to Dickinson, perform simulation GBU-54 LJDAM conventional guided weapons runs, then return to Minot for some circle patterns and a touch-and-go landing. The evening weather was not particularly cooperative, with intermittent heavy cloud cover. This would make the bomber’s exercises more difficult.
Mid-flight, aircraft commander Major Seth Spidahl and Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stayer, pilot and copilot respectively for this mission, directed me into the pilot’s seat for a look-see. What a view. Unexpectedly, they asked if I wanted to take control of the plane! I thought they were joking first, but they were dead serious. Sure, why not? When was the next time I’d be in a B-52?
Like you might expect, the plane handles heavy, like a bus (in fact, that’s what they call the plane). There was a lot of slack in the steering — if I turned left, at first there was no response. But grudgingly the plane wing did finally bank left. Same with a turn to the right. I probably “flew” for all of a minute, with the copilot’s hand close to his steering device in case I screwed up, but it seemed a lot longer.
During weapons simulations, Major Michael Hansen helped me down to the lower level to watch. From so high up in the air, it was amazing what you could see clearly in the radar’s sights — oil wells pumping, grain silos, vehicles on the roads. With the help of First Lieutenant Quadre McCollough, Captain Matthew May drew a bead on a moving car and fired. Had there been a real weapon in our plane, the vehicle would instantly have been incinerated.
When we headed back to Minot for a night landing, two rows of white airport runway lights sparkled in front of us. As we touched down between them, we immediately took off again! I guess I should have known we were going to do the stop-and-go — it was discussed in the preflight briefing — but the excitement of the day made me forget. I was just a little startled.
At our flight debrief after landing, I learned that we had just burned 27,000 lbs. of the 69,000 lbs. of fuel carried onboard during an hour-and-40-minute sortie. Our maximum altitude was 25,000 feet, and we had hit Mach 0.8 as we were light, having no real weapons aboard. It was truly an experience for the ages.