NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #35 - Doomsday Planes

Nightwatch - NOT the original Doomsday Plane


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The E-4B Nightwatch featured in Miranda Chase #12 was NOT the only Doomsday Plane lofted by the US military. There is a long history that is actually rather interesting.

A fan (thanks Gaylord) reminded me of this when he told me about his experience as a kid on a class field trip to Ouffut Air Force Base in the 1970s to actually tour the Looking Glass plane.

"Looking Glass" will be a familiar name to fans of 1970s war movies, from Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe (which were mandatory viewing in our high school) to 1983's War Games or Countdown to Looking Glass (1984), (though I haven't seen that one yet). It is the plane that was always aloft to provide a secure command-and-control center in case of nuclear attack.

Well, the plane wasn't a work of fiction. There have been three aircraft commonly called Doomsday planes.

Doomsday Plane #1 - EC-135 "Looking Glass"

© Mike Freer - Touchdown Aviation

This is actually a very interesting plane. The EC-135 was designated by Boeing internally as the 717 (not to be confused with the commercial Boeing 717 that first flew in 1998). Slightly smaller than the 707, it was introduced in 1956 and first used as the KC-135 Stratotanker for mid-air refueling. Five of these were refitted in 1961 to make EC-135A planes until at least 11 more could be outfitted from scratch for the Looking Glass role. They were flown by Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Looking Glass aircraft were continuously aloft (as in at least one plane airborne 24 hours/day) from 1961 - 1990 (after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and shortly before the 1991 collapse of the USSR). After that, they remained on continuous ground or airborne alert until 1998. They always flew with a US general on-board to provide continuity of government and on-going existence of the USA. He flew with the full authority to launch and target the US's nuclear arsenal in case of attack.

This partial standing-down, remaining on ready-alert rather than aloft, is due to the increasing capabilities of satellites. But they too are vulnerable and these "Doomsday" planes are kept at the ready.

Doomsday Plane #2 - E-6B "Mercury"

United States Navy Boeing E-6B Mercury. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

"Looking Glass" isn't actually the name of the airplane, it's the name of the mission. In 1998, that mission was handed over to the US Navy who still runs it today. They're still flying Boeing 707s, some of the very last off the production line which was closed in 1991. It flies with a general officer or admiral on board, with the same mission, command and control of the US nuclear arsenal in case of attack.

Doomsday Plane #3 - E-4B "Nightwatch"

E-4B Nightwatch undergoing EMP (Eletro-magnetic Pulse) testing.
By USAF Sergeant Ernie Stone.

These 4 Boeing 747-200s entered service in 1974 with a slightly different mandate, but still definitely class as Doomsday planes. An extremely capable aircraft, it too can conduct command-and-control operations throughout the US military, including direct communication with deeply submerged submarines (which is much harder than it sounds, perhaps another NerdGuy).

The Nightwatch planes are the Air Force One for the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense when they go traveling. These are the military destroyers to the Air Force One luxury yacht. One of these is always parked within 100 miles of the President when he travels overseas in case of emergencies (a fact I used in Miranda Chase #8, White Top). They used to keep one permanently near the President, but these planes are so old that they've restricted their usage somewhat to preserve them. It's only in 2022 that Congress finally authorized the budget to begin the replacement process of these 50-year-old aircraft.

But don't underestimate their capabilities based on age. The internal electronics are continuously upgraded and fortified against almost every eventuality short of a direct hit. On 9/11, when all non-military planes had been grounded, spotters saw a 747 circling high over Washington, DC. It was an E-4B Nightwatch providing surveillance security to the nation's capital.

Do I feel safer that they exist, or horrified that there is a need (perceived or imagined) for such aircraft to remain in our arsenal? That's a question I leave for you to decide. (Click HERE to buy Nightwatch now.)

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4 comments

As far as I can tell, the oldest B-52 still in operation is from 1961 or 1962. Like the E-4B Nightwatch, they’ve gone through a lot of upgrades. One of the key differences though is that the B-52 sits on the ground except when there’s a training or mission flight…and there are 76 of them still in service. The 4 E-4B Nigtwatch planes were originally aloft a great deal, training, plus every time the President left DC (even for domestic travel), plus every time the SecDef or a Chief of Staff needed to fly. Because no replacements were in planning, these 4 planes were projected to run up against their lifetime airframe hours, so their duties were dialed back a fair bit. But they’re still aloft and working hard, and will be for a while.

Matt

Yep, the flag is never in retreat. Not on the right side of an aircraft, not on the right sleeve of a uniform. And yes, we always seem to be living in the worst of times geopolitically. I think a big chunk is the bewildering amount of change that keeps happening, but I often worry that it’s far more than that (hope I’m just being skittish and history proves me wrong).

Matt

The picture of the plane with the American flag sent me instantly to Google to see why the flag is “backwards”. Interesting explanation.

I believe we can feel safer and horrified at the same time. My great granddaughter was born February 21st and I do wonder what’s in store for her. I remember though when my children were born in the early 60’s my parents and grandparents thought the same.
Thank you so much for Miranda and the gang oops team.

Gretchen Root

Re: Aged aircraft
I’m relatively sure that there are B-52s manufactured in the 50’s that are still aloft.

Glen

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