We roared up mountainsides, then down the opposite slopes, just above the white pines' tops.
This B-52 flew out of the Griffiss Air Force Base, in Rome, New York, a practice bombing run over Maine—we hugged the ground to elude enemy radar.
A senior officer, evaluating the crew's performance, checked on me, too, strapped into a jump seat behind the pilot—was this wild ride making me sick? No, my real difficulty, as the plane gyrated, was trying to jot notes for the article I'd been assigned.
Then, ahead, a black-cloud wall, lit by lightning flashes—a massive unpredicted storm. It blocked our way back to Griffiss.
We diverted over the Great Lakes, to a B-52 base in Michigan.
Problem: not much fuel.
Fuel weighs a lot, and so does a B-52. It doesn't take off easily. So we'd lumbered into the air from Griffiss with only the fuel we needed to get airborne. A tanker plane refueled us in midair, just enough for our mission to Maine and back.
Distance to Michigan: much farther than to Griffiss.
To save fuel, we flew up into the stratosphere, where the thinner air offered less resistance, but we needed oxygen.
I'd had oxygen training in an evacuated chamber before the flight. I'd paid more attention to jotting article notes, though, than learning to turn the oxygen system's handles just so.
By sheer luck, I got the oxygen flowing into my mask.
Fuel nearly gone.
"We may ditch," the pilot announced over the intercom.
Below us, one of the Great Lakes.
I'd need to climb downstairs and drop from a belly hatch.
I'd had no parachute training. Above a certain altitude, I'd need to pull a certain handle. Below that altitude, pull a different handle. However the altimeter revolved crazily. I couldn't read it.
It didn't matter. I didn't know how to shed a parachute harness, especially in icy water.
Let's cut to the chase: we landed in Michigan on fumes.
Griffiss Air Force Base closed years ago, but two moments from that flight stick in my memory.
First, as the pilot made decision after decision, I heard him radio the home base—
"Our passenger's wife's at a motel," he said. "Somebody tell her we've been diverted, and don't know when we'll be back."
Late that night, as the copilot drove me to Joyce's motel in a Jeep, he struggled to say something, but the words wouldn't come. We stopped at the motel and he sat looking out the windshield, still struggling.
Suddenly, in a burst of emotion, he ripped off one of his uniform's service patches. He handed it to me.