Cuban Missile Crisis
John L. Piotrowski, General, USAF (Ret)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It is not well nor widely known that Air Commando AT-28s were tasked
to play a key roll in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the late days of October, President Kennedy and his advisors struggled with what to do about the build-up of Offensive Soviet Missiles in Cuba. As both preparation for what might come as well as political barter, Air Force and Navy/Marine air bases in Florida were undergoing a major buildup of tactical fighter forces. In addition, Navy Carrier Tack Forces cruised within easy striking distance of Cuba. This was a confrontation of Super Powers not suited to the antiquated aircraft flown by Air Commandos.
At that time the 1st Air Commando Wing was largely focused on preparing aircrews and support personnel for follow-on deployments to Vietnam. And the 1st Combat Applications Group, sister organization to the 1st ACW, was working all out to develop more effective munitions, better communications, and to test aircraft modifications that would improve Air Commando effectiveness in the Vietnam Counterinsurgency War.
I was working on a number of munitions and weapon delivery projects. One that had been completed and battle tested in Vietnam was the P-2 Bomblet dispenser. The P-2 concept was born out of work with Picatinney Arsenal to improve the effectiveness of Proximity Fuzes for bombs dropped from aircraft. Proximity Fuzes incorporated a radar transmitter/receiver that measured the distance from the bomb to the ground. When the bomb reached a height of fifty to seventy-five feet the fuze would detonate the bomb showering a large area with lethal fragments. However in Vietnam the fuze would sense the thick canopy and detonate the bomb above the canopy hundreds of feet above the jungle floor—significantly reducing fragmentation effectiveness. Picatinney scientists incorporated a delay in the Proximity Fuze that enabled the bomb to penetrate jungle canopies and detonate fifty to seventy-five feet above the jungle floor. Modified fuzes were successfully tested over Panama’s jungle canopy. Problem solved!
While at Picatinney Arsenal I was introduced to an ingenious, but small Bomblet, that was very effective against material and personnel targets. This Bomblet identified as the BLU-3 (Bomb Live Unit) was dispensed from a CBU-2 (Cluster Bomb Unit) designed for use on high-speed modern fighter aircraft. The BLU-3 was thoroughly tested and in production, but restricted from use in Vietnam at that juncture.
Armed with this knowledge I designed a spring-loaded eight-tube dispenser that could be carried on AT-28s and B-26s. Bomblets of any kind that were 2.75” in diameter could be dispensed from the P-2. Until the BLU-3 was approved for Counterinsurgency employment, a White Phosphorous (WP) Explosive Grenades were employed against personnel and material targets. A single P-2 would hold approximately 100 of these grenades and dispense them in a line about 50 feet wide and 400 feet long. A number of P-2 Dispensers were fabricated by the now shuttered Mobile Air Material Area.
The call from the 1st ACW came about 1400 hours on 26 October 1962, the Wing had been directed to load out all available P-2s with WP Grenades ASAP. They needed help and some supervision in the loading process. By 1600 hours the grenades were delivered, load crews briefed, and 55-gallon safety water filled barrels in place to dispose of any armed grenades that were dropped in the loading process. I can’t recall how many P-2s were loaded, but it was a bunch. We finished around midnight.
The next call was from Colonel Ben King, Commander 1st CAG. He wanted to know if I would volunteer for a classified mission. When the response was yes he told me to meet him at the Hurlburt AT-28 Squadron Briefing Room at 1500 hours. In the room were a number of AT-28 Vietnam combat tested crews. Our mission was to be pathfinders for the fast movers by marking the Soviet Offensive Missile Sites with WP Grenades. Ingress was fifty feet or lower over the water. Our time over target was five minutes prior to the jet fighters. We were all single ship, heading for individual targets. Recovery would be at Key West, FL, Homestead AFB, FL, or any other airfield we had fuel to reach. It was there I learned Colonel King had convinced someone up the line that he should fly one of the AT-28s. The only problem was that he wasn’t current in the AT-28 and needed an IP to accompany him. I was that IP.
Armed with maps, target photos, and expected AAA defenses we went to assigned aircraft loaded with P-2s. Crews were briefed to start engines at a specific time and then watch the tower for a green light. The first green light directed taxi to the run-up apron at the end of the active runway. A second green light from the tower would signal to take off—a red light would signal abort indicating that President Kennedy and Secretary General Khrushchev had reached an agreement.
I wasn’t worried about idling the engine for an extended period because the AT-28 had the range to reach our assigned target with plenty of fuel to spare. Every fifteen minutes or so I’d ask Colonel King to run up the engine and check the magnetos to be sure the spark plugs hadn’t loaded up. Eyeball strain from staring at the tower was setting in. Dusk was turning to deep black when the Tower light came on—it was RED, the mission was aborted!! We taxied in and put the safety pins in the P-2s and checked all the other mission aircraft to ensure they were safe. It wasn’t a munition the pilots and crew chiefs were familiar with.
Colonel King was a fighter pilot’s hero, flying combat in the Pacific and European Theaters, P-38s and P-51s respectively. He was an ACE with seven kills in the Pacific. His Pacific tour ended with a bailout over a deserted island, deserted except for a small group of survivors which he organized, led and got rescued. When the Korean War erupted he flew an extended tour in F-86s, and was the first Air Commando to fly Combat in South Vietnam after leading a gaggle of AT-28s across the Pacific to Bien Hoa. He was soon promoted to Brigadier General and assigned as Commander, Air Force Flight Safety Center. That position allowed him to return to Vietnam often and fly combat with the 1st ACW. If there was a war on his watch he wanted to be involved and to make a difference—that’s why he was sitting in the cockpit watching the tower for a green light on the night of 27 October 1962. I was honored to be his GIB.
(Editors note: Brig. Gen. King passed away in 2004. Gen. Piotrowski wanted to highlight that King was the first Commander of the Air Commandos under Project Jungle Jim in May 1961 and he led the first deployment to Vietnam in November 1961. After returning from that TDY he was selected to Command 1st CAG. During my correspondence with Gen. Piotrowski and Col. Robert Gleason, both emphasized what a great military leader he was and their stories would not be complete without King's contributions mentioned also.)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I know the aircraft doesn’t know dark and wet. But that's not a happy thought for a fighter pilot who dislikes night flying . . hates weather flying.
With a mild case of vertigo building, because my attention was diverted while ' hanging ' there on the IFR instruments . . I'd been slow in ' trimming off ' the radial's torque. (Note : THINK . . MANUAL ' trim wheels.' Think of NOT HAVING a handy little trim button to' flick ' with your thumb.)
While turning and climbing in the soup toward an Eglin AFB holding fix, the Engine Failure Light blinked . . RED.
Then . . S-T-E-A-D-Y R-E-D !
Instantly, my mental cobwebs vanished. And all of my senses came on full alert ! Steady red meant there were enough steel particles in the engine oil to ' short out ' two electrical contacts in the bottom of the engine's oil sump. The engine wasn't necessarily going to lock up. Right away. But you needed to get the airplane on the ground. Quick !
In a perverse way, because I'd been just droning around and waiting up there, it seemed to offer a tiny bonus for me. The red light emergency had jumped me to the front of the line. I declared an emergency, requesting a priority landing at Eglin. From the wet (Gulf) side of the Eglin's invisible beach front, I was vectored north. And where I planned to make a tight final turn on to the North/South runway.
When the AT-28 B's engine . . Q-U-I-T !
IT HAD FAILED COMPLETELY !
I was now somewhere over Fort Walton, Florida's downtown. If I go over the side,the aircraft would likely trash out homes. Probably kill a few people. Of course, the plane had no ejection seat. And going over the side—that close to the night dirt and Gulf—then pulling the chute's D ring—didn't look too good. On the other hand, you recall the drill : (1) canopy open (2) raise the seat (3) get the flaps out of your way by lowering them (4) unstrap and dive under the horizontal stabilizer (5) quickly pull the D ring after accommodating the dead-engine's downside vector and personal disorientation while tumbling in the black.
I attempted air start—after air start. But the airplane and I—just kept heading down.
After declaring a couple of Maydays, I had already told ATC my engine had quit and I'd asked them for a vector to the center of Eglin's north/south runway. Maybe I'd find a clear area, when I broke through the low overcast. ATC gave me the vector I'd asked for . .BUT they cleared me down to only 500 feet !
I thought : " Hey you idiots . . I'm able to do that . . with WHAT ? . . the airplane's engine is dead ! " So I shot back : " I’m coming all the way down to the ground ! Tell Tower to get the fire trucks ready. I'm carrying a full load of fuel."
THEN . . I busted out the bottom of the night scud . .
. . RIGHT OVER THE TAIL FIN OF A PARKED B-52 !
What fantastic luck !
I'd ' popped out ' of the night soup . . less than a football field's length above one of SAC's ALERT AIRCRAFT . . on Eglin's north end. After a quick gliding turn to the right . . I landed on a vacant taxiway. Soon after touchdown on the taxiway, the engine . . sputtered . . came to life. So, instead of getting towed—I taxied it in with the Control Tower people watching suspiciously.
Now for the rest of the story.
The next morning, maintenance personnel checked over the engine, replaced the contaminated oil and did some run-ups. And they couldn’t seem to find anything wrong with it. Question : If you'd been me, wouldn't you've just loved to hear it when the base's maintenance investigative finding was : CND ! (COULD NOT DUPLICATE.) They asked me lots of questions. But they were convinced I'd made up the red light story to get a preferential night IFR landing slot. And that I'd probably also faked having that engine failure. They scheduled a test hop.
And before the hop, the maintenance test pilot called me to check on what had really happened. Half-believing me, he planned to use ALL of Eglin's 15,000 feet of runway on take-off.
Good thing that he did.
Going airborne with 52 inches of full power . . the engine destroyed itself . . tore itself apart. His cautious phone call had paid off. With plenty of runway ahead of him, he was able to put the plane right back on the runway.
Glad he listened up.
- "Pete" Piotrowski
It’s not easy to become a four-star Air Force general, especially if you start as a basic airman. But Pete Piotrowski did it while giving thirty-seven years and eight months of his life to military service. Anyone who aspires to wearing even one star—or simply to becoming a better leader—should read Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership and Life by General Pete. The book is a chronological account of the author’s life. The General concludes each chapter with a short list of “Lessons Learned.” click on book cover to purchase from Amazon
Helen Murphy © 2009-2016 All Rights Reserved
GENERAL "PETE" PIOTROWSKI
Photographs courtesy of General "Pete" Piotrowski
First generation American John Piotrowski began as an enlisted radio repairman and became Air Force Vice Chief of Staff. In February 1987 he assumed command of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Space Command. He held these critical posts for three years before retiring in 1990. He lived the American dream.
T-28 ENGINE FAILURE, IFR - AT NIGHT
BY GENERAL "PETE" PIOTROWSKI
It was a nasty early winter day in the Florida Panhandle, with fog, drizzle. Occasional rain seemed to be the norm.
I had been directed to fly a North American AT-28B (Navy trainer converted to a fighter . . with near WW 2 fighter performance) from Hurlburt Field to Eglin AFB.
And get the aircraft there . . on that same day.
The ferry flight would allow Eglin maintenance people to modify it for flight tests with improved weaponry to be used in Viet Nam.
I was chosen for this mundane ferry because I was about to go non-proficient in that airplane. And I would avoid requiring a proficiency check-ride, when I completed this flight.
(Note : I had logged a thousand hours in the AT 28-B, to include a combat tour. But non-currency was not because of my not getting up in the air. I was otherwise involved in flight testing A-26 configurations and flying Lockheed T-Birds.)
So I drove out to Hurlburt and checked the weather.
The current cloud ceiling was BELOW IFR minimums. But the low ceiling was forecasted to improve. After sitting there for a boring hour or two, the ceiling improved to a take-off minimum of 200 feet.
The weather at Eglin AFB was identical . . forecasted to remain above minimums for the next hour. The nearest alternate was somewhere in East Texas.
I made sure the aircraft's gas tanks were topped off. But beyond that ? Well . . as ' Boots ' Blesse used to say : " No guts. No glory."
So I filed the IFR clearance, cranked, and taxied to the end of the run-way. ATC cleared me for take-off, then directed me to hold at 9,000 feet just north of Eglin AFB to await further clearance.
A lot of other aircraft were already stacked down below. I would be ' hanging ' up there for a long time while waiting for a GCA radar-assisted night weather landing.