Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Not Minot?*

A B-52H Stratofortress taxis during an alert exercise at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Monday, March 6, 2006.
(U. S. Air Force Photo by SSgt. Jocelyn Rich)
Minot Air Force Base.

North Dakota.

Minot is what we called a "Northern Tier Base," with good reason. Where is Minot? (You might ask.)

Google Maps

Not far from Canada. That's where Minot is. Not far from Canada.

While it's not Way Up North (H/T to Rev Paul) it's north enough for my tastes. Thank you very much.

So what does Minot have to do with today's post? Well, sit back boys and girls, the Sarge is about to tell you a story. All of which is true, at least to the best of my recollection.

Which, truth be told, gets more tenuous every day.

Or so The Missus Herself informs me.

(To read a classic Minot story, perhaps apocryphal, go here. Gave me a chuckle it did.)

Anyhoo.

So there I was...**

It was June of 1989. I remember the year because of the events which were taking place in Beijing, Tienanmen Square to be precise. You can refresh your memory here. The powers-that-be had decided that my captain and I must travel to Minot AFB, ND to discern the needs of a potential customer.

I was a software dude by this time of my Air Force career, safely ensconced in my comfortable office overlooking the main runway at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, the home of Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters (HQ). (The headquarters was in Building 500, I worked in Building 40. My building was much nicer. Much nicer indeed.)

Google Maps
I had been working on a project to display information (tied to a database) on a big screen which had been requested by this particular lieutenant colonel at SAC. What I had not been informed of were the politics behind this tasking.

You would think that software to put stuff up on a big display screen would be pretty simple, even back in the '80s when we programmed with vacuum tubes, stone knives and bearskins, it was a little different because these displays were going to be used in SAC Command Posts. Think places where the people sitting in the room control B-52, B-1 and B-2 wings. Where the people in the room have control over missile silos buried out on the lone prairie.

Serious people. Real. Serious. People.

Now the requirements for the project I was tasked with were being dictated by the aforementioned light colonel (slang for lieutenant colonel, also known as a "half colonel" in British parlance). This fellow was (from what I was told) simply a pawn of some big shot over at the headquarters building.

Because, you see, most command posts already had such software. But the software was not written by a guy who had formal training in such things. No, heaven forfend, this software had been written by a SAC crew dog. What's worse, a semi-disgraced SAC crew dog!

Oh my Lord!

Okay, first off, a crew dog, in SAC parlance, is an airman*** who is a member of a crew, most particularly a flight crew. Folks who manned the nation's aerial leg of the nuclear triad. Folks who would be penetrating Soviet airspace should the balloon go up and we were engaged in "nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies" to quote Major T. J. "King" Kong from the movie Dr. Strangelove.

That's Major Kong on the right, holding a copy of "Wing Attack Plan R." (Don't look, it's Top Secret!) (Public Domain, the photo, not the attack plan.)

Now this particular crew dog (a major as I recall) was, what we like to say in New England, "wicked smaht." He had sat in on many command post exercises in his day and was very familiar with what would be useful. He was also "right handy" with a computer.

So why was he "disgraced"? (Only in the eyes of real serious people who don't actually have to fight wars was he disgraced. But those folks get to make all the "big" decisions. Because they are real serious people. You know. Assholes.)

Seems that during one long arduous SAC exercise he and his fellow crew dogs (a B-52 crew as I recall) decided to have a little fun. Seems that they decided to "attack" another crew for to better morale and make people laugh and be happy. (You can see where this is going, can't you?)

So the major and his fellows donned ski masks and equipped themselves with loaded water pistols and proceeded to "attack" a fellow crew. If memory serves, this incident actually occurred on the ramp. Where the aircraft live. It's also where these guys live...

USAF security forces guard USAF photo by SrA Kenny Holston

Now in my 24-year career, it was my experience that these chaps were not chosen for their acute sense of humor. They tended to see things in black and white. While on duty they tended to be real serious people.

So these guys see a group of fellows wearing ski masks and wielding what appear to be pistols engaging in what appears to be an assault on a SAC crew. I guess the thought that these chaps were also wearing flight suits and that their "weapons" were orange never crossed their minds. Oh well, heat of the moment and all that. I suppose the major and his cohorts should count themselves lucky that the beret-wearers didn't actually open fire.

Anyhoo.

They get hauled in before the SAC wing commander who is suitably unimpressed with their youthful hi-jinks. After all, "this is SAC, we are real serious people."

So while the major (and his fellow crew dogs) were taken off flight status for a while (for to punish them and reduce the load on their wallets) he wrote this software.

Apparently it wasn't good enough for the "real serious people" and this light colonel at Offutt was told off to find a software dude to re-work the software. I was chosen, I worked my magic, based on what the light colonel told me was desired.

I produced something which pleased the light colonel so my boss (Captain Gene Kelly - ISYN, we also had a Captain Phil Collins) and Your Humble Scribe were ordered to head for Minot and show off what we had done.

When we arrived at Minot we were issued a small pickup truck to get around in. We then discovered that my civilian driver's license had expired, so I could not drive said truck. That would be the good captain's responsibility. After signing for the truck, with the captain behind the wheel and me settled into the passenger's seat, I turned to look at my captain.

Before I could say anything, Capt Kelly said, "One word Sarge, just one word and I'll recommend that you get orders for Minot to really iron out this software."

"Certainly Sir. I wasn't going to say anything Sir."

With some grumbling (from the captain, I was smiling like nobody's business) we set off for the transient quarters and a meal.

The next day I sat down with the major who wrote the software currently in use. He showed me what it did, then he asked to see my software. I told him that he didn't really want to see it.

"Why not Sarge?"

"Well Sir. My software sucks. It does exactly what the light colonel asked for but it's obvious that the good colonel does not know shit from Shinola. Pardon my French."

"Let's see it anyway Sarge."

With a sigh I showed him what we had. He agreed with my assessment of the colonel's knowledge level of what was desired. 'Twas then that the major regaled me with the tale of the ski masks and his assumption that because he had done the software, it would never be good enough.

Ah ha, says I.

Then we sat through a command post exercise. We were told to sit quietly near the back of the room and only speak if spoken to. Seems the august personage of the Air Division commander was going to participate in the exercise. This fellow was a one star (brigadier) general and commanded the Air Division at Minot. Said Air Division comprised a B-52 wing (one each) and a Strategic Missile Wing (one each).

Yes, the fellow was in charge of some serious firepower. He was also a fairly serious person.

After the exercise the general himself asked for our assessment of the software they were using to display status and such on the "big board" and whether or not our software was better, the same or worse.

The captain looked at me.

I looked at the captain.

Captain Kelly (no doubt as payback for making him drive the truck) said, "What do you think Sarge?"

With the general looking intently at me, I sat up straight in my chair. Glanced at my captain, cleared my throat and said...


"Well Sir. Our software sucks and is so far from meeting your requirements that I should apologize for wasting your time. The software that you're using now is perfect. I would not change a thing. Maybe a faster computer would be nice, but that's it."

The room went silent. The general was staring at me and I was starting to wonder what job I would be doing there at Minot for the rest of my career. Then the general smiled.

"No son, I should be apologizing to you and the captain here. I suspected that this whole thing was just some headquarters bullshit and you've just confirmed that."

The general then stood (as did we) and shook our hands, thanking us for our honesty and wishing us a safe trip back to Offutt.

On the way to the airport, Captain Kelly said, "Jesus Sarge, but you scare me some times."

Frank and straightforward, that's me. Even with generals.

Of course, there's another story right there. I will tell it someday. Just not today.







*Freezin's the reason. (The standard Air Force riposte to "Why not Minot?")
** SJC
*** Airman is a generic term for a uniformed member of the United States Air Force. It's also a rank but we're using the former meaning here. (Much like "soldier" is a generic term for Army personnel.)

26 comments:

  1. Great story! Sure hope that particular General got promoted.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Okay Cap'n, you piqued my curiosity so I went and did a bit of research. Here's what I found:

      The 57th Air Division commander at Minot in 1989 was Major General Raymund E. O'Mara. The 57th Air Division comprised the 5th Bomb Wing (operating the B-52H) and the 91st Strategic Missile Wing (equipped with the Minuteman III). The General was a command pilot with 3,673 flight hours and during his career flew the FB-111, B-52D, B-52F, EC-135, KC-135A,T-33, F-111, F-15, F-16, Harrier, and the Jaguar (he did a tour with the RAF as an exchange officer). He flew more than 170 Arc Light missions in SE Asia. He did get promoted and retired as a Major General on 01 December 1994.

      A fine officer.

      Delete
    2. Thanks!! From what you say, sure wish he'd made 4 star--but he probably would not have liked where he had to work doing that.

      Delete
  2. That is a funny story. Must be your great skills in diplomacy. I did not have the same response during most of my career from the powers that be. My boss once told me that if I was made ambassador to Rome, we would end up at war with the Vatican..................

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm normally pretty blunt. In SAC that could be an asset. Also a liability. Depends on who you talk to.

      (...at war with the Vatican... Heh. Good line. I may borrow (steal) that some day.)

      Delete
  3. "Public Domain, the photo, not the attack plan."

    Genius! That so made me blow coffee on my chromebook! Great story, Sarge. You’re a master. Truth time can be awesome. It’s always scary though. Can go either way, and even both ways. Grownup sojer boys getting their second-grader on can be awesome too. Same set of caveats.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Shaun.

      Looking back on it, yeah there were a few times where I could have wound up counting seals in the Aleutians. Got lucky I guess. More likely it was the good officers I got to interact with. Honesty can be overdone but I've always been a straight shooter. Calls 'em as I sees 'em and all that...

      Delete
  4. "The room went silent. The general was staring at me and I was starting to wonder what job I would be doing there at Minot for the rest of my career. "

    I think that time interval is defined as Eternity! I've experienced it a few times myself.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eternity - yes! That's exactly the feeling. As soon as I read your comment, I had a flashback. Minot was not the only time but perhaps the most intense. I was, after all, bearding the lion in his den. And it was SAC, the land of real serious people.

      Then again, you did a tour at the Pentagon. Another land of real serious people.

      Delete
  5. Great story! Being under the scrutiny of the general would definitely push the pucker factor up to a level 10!!! Glad I never had the privilege.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. At SAC HQ I had to interact with more than one general in my time there.

      Our own commander was a brigadier. Loved that guy, down to earth, could swear like a gunner's mate and took care of us.

      Helps to be exposed to them I suppose.

      Delete
  6. I'm sure Minot has it's charms. What, I can't fathom. Been to the city but never the base.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There's a city?

      (Just kidding, we didn't get into town.)

      Delete
  7. A few funny stories about Minot, all second hand, but no less true for that:

    1) File under "it could always be worse" I remind all here that old Buck was for a time stationed at an isolated radar outpost north of Minot. He recounted they considered it as a "good deal" whenever they managed to get into the "big city" of Minot, lol

    2) A buddy of mine in my UPT class, a graduate of North Carolina State, was assigned to B-52s at Minot after graduation. He arrived at the beginning of winter. Six months later he called his girl-friend from college and said "I can;t take it any more, let's get married!" LOL!

    3) A buddy of mine that I was in the same squadron with both in DaNang and at RAF Bentwaters/Woodbridge got sideways with the Wing Co at Bentwaters, got his F-4 assignment at Tampa jerked and ended up flying T-29s as the personal pilot for the 4-star CinC of AFLC out of Wright-Patterson in Columbus. One dull, gray, snowy day they were making a long, slow straight-in approach to Minot on an inspection tour on a Sunday afternoon with no other traffic in the area. To enliven it for the airman in the tower whom Tom imagined was bored to tears he asked: "Well, now that we're in Viking country, when does all the pillaging, plundering and rapin' start?" Came the laconic reply: "I don't know about the pillaging and plundering, but I'm sure as hell ready for the rapin' to start." LOL! Then, once on the ground, all the taxi-ways be still blocked by snow, they had to send a snow-cat out to the ac on the active to off-load and take everyone back to the VOQ. As they were passing the tower, they observed two red foxes f**K^^g in the snow in front of the tower. The airman driving the snow-cat said casually; "That's the most sex I've seen since I've been here." LOL! My guy then said: "Are you sure you're not the same guy who I just talked to up in the tower?" LOL!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good reminder of Buck's stories about his adventures north of Minot.

      As for (2) and (3)? Bwaaaaaa-haaaaaaaaaaa-haaaaaaa!!!!

      Good stuff Virgil.

      Delete
  8. Two reasons... One, it's an Air Force base. Two, it's in the middle of nowhere and it's COLD up there!!! ;-P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Can't argue with that.

      But according to Virgil there's some interesting wildlife...

      Delete
    2. LOL, depends on 'your' definition of 'wild'...

      Delete

Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)