Memories of being a B-36 crew member.
|A few years ago Roger Stigney contacted me via email asking if I knew the physical location of his enlisted men's barracks as it existed at Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico during the 1950s when the 60th Bomb Wing was stationed there. His experience occurred a decade prior to my arrival on the island, I couldn't provide the information he was seeking. However, I still had contacts, even though I left there 50 years ago this coming, I renewed some old friendships. A few weeks later a map arrived in my inbox with an "x" marking the location of his old quarters.
A series of email exchanges followed and I eventually learned that Roger had earned three different amateur radio call signs, and he furnished me with a list of them. After a period of time I was able to extract enough details to write the article that follows.
Memories Of A B-36 Radio Operator
by Scott B. Laughlin
Airborne radio communications aboard bombers has become more user-friendly during the last six or seven decades. The co-pilot now does the majority of the communications. But it wasn't always that way. Case in point involves Airman Roger Stigney, a radio operator who served aboard a RB-36 during the 1950s, assigned to the 60th Bomb Squadron Operations Headquartered in hanger #5 at Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico. Stigney was one of 22 men who crewed the aircraft when it was fully armed.
With several radios – ARC-27, ARC-13, BC-348, and a manually tuned trailing long-wire HF antenna - Stigney handled all communications, in addition to monitored Morse code frequencies sent from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters, Offutt AFB, Nebraska. For routine communications the Air Force relied on voice signals, but for sensitive, classified messages SAC used Morse (CW). Morse travels a greater distance, and is more accurately copied through heavy interference, both man-made and atmospheric (QRM and QRN, respectively). CW provided yet another layer of security. Not everyone receiving the signal could decipher the information carried therein.
Because so much vital information arrived at his airborne post by way of CW, Stigney's skills had to be up to snuff. He was required to pass a 20-wpm code test prior to each mission. In addition, he had more than one job while aloft. He also had to spend time training on a 20mm machine gun simulator. Stigney was also the electronic countermeasures (ECM) operator – used for jamming enemy radar and communications frequencies – as well as right-forward gunner.
As if he had not quenched his thirst for radio, he also earned his Novice ticket in 1951 and was issued the call sign WN9TP. In 1953, after transferring to Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico, he was issued KP4ABS. Later, he upgraded to Extra Class and changed his call sign to AJ0P. While putting the finishing touches on this article, Stigney told me he had let his license expire, but with a closet-full of radios, and he was considering giving amateur radio a yet another whirl.
The time spent aloft varied from 24 to 27 hours. However, he recalls one mission lasting almost 40 hours. Most of these sorties were long, uneventful hours. But he recalls a few exceptions.
Once, a landing gear failed to extend. Someone had to crawl out into the wing-stub and manually release it, allowing gravity to pull it down to the locked position. This emergency procedure did not allow for the opening of what was commonly called the “canoe door”, the last door to close after a gear are retracted. It was ripped from the airplane in the process.
Another time an engine fire occurred. Controlling it was unsuccessful. It burned so hot that the engine eventually fell from the aircraft.
Yet another time one of the blisters (convex window) burst at high altitude, causing rapid decompression. That is an event for which no one is ever prepared.
Stigney was a crew member on a B-36 that was on display at the Wright-Paterson AFB Museum until 1970. Originally, this aircraft was a YB-36 (tail number 42-13571). Later, prior to going to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, it was converted to a RB-36E model. It was later replaced by a B-36J model (52-2220) the aircraft that is currently on display at the museum.
Does he miss his radio operator job? Yes, but communications were changing, requiring less hands-on. The B-36 replacement, the B-52, had no need for his unique skills.