Golden Gate Wing Guest Speaker Archive

Presentation Date: February 26, 2009

1LT Stu Eberhardt USAF

Speaker Photo

* This is PART II, a continuation of the talk Stu gave on October 23rd, 2008.

* First Lieutenant Stu Eberhardt was on alert in Europe with the Air Defense Command from 1957 to 1961 flying F-86s. His first assignment was to shoot down Russian Bears, but only if they got out of line of course! Later, he was on alert as a Nuclear Bomb Commander with a very specific target behind the Iron Curtain. Stu had a Top Secret clearance and was trained and ready to strike on a moments notice.

* He will share with us many stories from this crucial time period when the Soviet Union and the United States we only minutes away from total destruction! Stu has some fascinating stories to share! * This is PART II, a continuation of the talk Stu gave on October 23rd, 2008.

* First Lieutenant Stu Eberhardt was on alert in Europe with the Air Defense Command from 1957 to 1961 flying F-86s. His first assignment was to shoot down Russian Bears, but only if they got out of line of course! Later, he was on alert as a Nuclear Bomb Commander with a very specific target behind the Iron Curtain. Stu had a Top Secret clearance and was trained and ready to strike on a moments notice.

* He will share with us many stories from this crucial time period when the Soviet Union and the United States we only minutes away from total destruction! Stu has some fascinating stories to share!

Cold War Fighter Pilot

1st LT Stu Eberhardt

October 2008 & February 2009 Speaker

"I have never been in combat. I didn’t avoid it, maybe I even desired it. But I was never in a place where I got shot at." - - Stu Eberhardt


"My life has been a dream of aviation, ever since I was a little kid. I guess there’s not much I’d do differently."

Stu Eberhardt was born in 1936 in Chicago, and grew up with his family of German immigrants in a rural house. He says three generations of Eberhardts lived in that two-bedroom home.

"The one thing we had in the Eberhardt household was discipline. The kids didn’t talk at dinner…

"As early as I could remember, my brother Ronnie would buy little airplane "stick models", balsa wood stringers and bulkheads cut out with an X-acto knife or razor blade. I was probably too young to construct them myself, but with his help we had just about every WWII airplane that had been built and went to war, hanging in our room. I’d look at them and it was like a feast just to imagine flying them.

"Unfortunately my brother drowned in a river, and I was left on my own, and continued the interest."

Mr. Eberhardt was in the printing business in Chicago, and Stu says the family reached a point where they had enough money to move to the suburbs on the south of Chicago. At the edge of town was a grass airport.

"I had a bicycle and it wasn’t long before I was bicycling out there."

Stu says those were the days when airports, many of them Army Air Force bases in World War Two, were not fenced in. Taildragger aircraft abounded, as did opportunities for a little kid to become involved in aviation.

"I just got to hang around, and finally they let me wash airplanes, cut grass, wash windows. Eventually they let me fuel airplanes and things like that."

Eberhardt says his flight instructor was a former C-46 pilot who had become a drunk. But Stu was able to learn from him how to fly, and for free. Instrument and flight instructor ratings came quickly, and when Stu turned 18 years old, he saw in the Army Air Force the prospect of flying some of the real airplanes he’d built as scale models.

He took and passed a scholastic equivalency test, and was accepted as an Aviation Cadet in preflight school at Lackland AFB, San Antonio, Texas. Eberhardt says the most important aspect of this cadet experience was a test of discipline.

"Most of these guys had been in college and partied and were not interested in discipline. For me, discipline was easy, because I was raised in the Eberhardt household.

"Guys got eliminated from that pre-flight program by quitting (self-initiated elimination) or, they got kicked out."

Primary pilot training was easy, Stu recalls, for he had already been flying by then for about seven years. The T-34 trainers the cadets flew were so new their rudder pedals were still fully painted. And he liked the Link trainers because all the instruments in them worked and there was a uniformed, professional instructor to explain everything — a stark difference from the 20 hours of Link time he’d bought as a civilian.

Eberhardt then got an instructor recommendation to move to single-engine Basic Training, instead of the multi-engine route, which would have had him flying B-25s. The transition from propeller-driven aircraft to jets was the big step for Stu:

"We flew 120 hours in the T-33A, which was a two-seat trainer version of the earlier P-80. And of course it had a centrifugal compressor jet engine, the primitive version from the Whittle and early jet engines. They moaned and groaned and didn’t like to do their job. But it was a jet.

"Before you could solo the airplane, you had to do what was called ‘recovery from vertical flight,’ because a jet was particularly critical in the vertical movements. And if you get it going up and you get too slow, it’s going to fall out and possibly fall into a spin or inverted spin.

"I’ve always thought that in piston airplanes it was easier to do lateral maneuvers such as rolls, and easier to do ‘over the top,’ whereas in a jet, it reverses. In a jet, a roll is extremely easy, the airplane does it practically by itself. Just a flick of the wrist and it will roll. But vertical maneuvers require some planning. You have to get enough speed to get the airplane vertical and get it back to the horizon before it stalls out. "

Eberhardt says requirements called for a demonstration recovery from vertical flight before soloing. On the day he was to meet this requirement, he was in the briefing room realizing it would still be dark when he and the instructor took off. Indeed the sun had not risen by the time they’d flown to the practice area and the instructor took back the controls.

"He pours the coal to it, point the nose down… pulls it straight up and then says, ‘Okay, you’ve got it.’

"Just then, we go into the base of the clouds. This was not the plan. This was a visual maneuver, not to be done on instruments. The idea was you were supposed to come back with a little back pressure and a little aileron so that you roll toward the nearest horizon. We came out of the side of this thunderstorm looking at the morning twilight in the east. It was orange and pink. And I could hear him start to breathe again. He said, ‘If you can do that on instruments, I guess you could do that VFR. Let’s go back.’ "

Eberhardt was 19 years old when he graduated first in his Class of 57-P, He was an officer and he’d earned his wings, but he wasn’t old enough to buy a beer in public, though he could do so at the Officer’s Club.

He was also now flying the Republic F-84F fighter from Luke AFB. The F-84’s liftoff speed was 174 knots, and on a hot day, getting off of the 10,000 foot runway could be a challenge

Stu says the standing joke about the Republic fighter was that "if somebody would build a runway that went all the way around the world, Republic would build an airplane that would use it."

Training now had him over gunnery ranges dropping practice bombs in runs that duplicated napalm delivery (called skip bombing), dive-bombing, firing rockets or practicing air-to air gunnery with .50 cal machine guns. The other weapons delivery maneuver was called "over-the-shoulder", or LABS for "low angle bombing system".

From there, Eberhardt began logging time in the supersonic North American F-86D, a swept-wing jet with hydraulic-boosted flying controls. The D, K, and L versions of the aircraft were all-weather fighters, flown under virtually all conditions, and were well suited to the roles of interceptor and attack fighter.

"Nobody knew from which direction the Russians would come. All over the country there were fighter-interceptor units. I was part of it. It was five minute alert. It was clear in mind that if the Russians were coming it was going to be a nuclear war.

"That being established we knew we were going to shoot them down. We had 24 rockets on each airplane and we could fire them in groups of 6, 12 or 24. And our instructions were that if you ran out of rockets—it wasn’t a kamikaze—but we were to ram. And we had ejection seats, so we would survive, hopefully."

Stu was stationed at Chicago Orchard Field, what had been that sleepy airport of his childhood. In 1942, the airstrip became the site of a new air base and cargo plane manufacturing facility, Orchard Place Airport/Douglas Field. After the war, the city of Chicago bought the facility from government and converted it into a commercial airport, eventually becoming O’Hare Airport.

During the Korean War, O'Hare was reassigned to the Central Air Defense Force, and the 62d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was transferred there. Back on his home turf, Stu became a pilot in the frontlines of the nation’s Air Defense Command, and was headed for the days of 3-minute, 5-minute and 15-minute alerts.

Five-minute alerts

Flying defensive peacetime alerts involved two pilots and four aircraft, housed in a pair of two-story hangars. Each hangar held an F-86 armed with 24 rockets and ground level living quarters for two mechanics per plane, a power man and crew chief. A pilot was housed upstairs.

The routine, when reporting for the 24-hour day, was to open the hangar doors, run the F-86 engines and test the Hughes E-4 fire control systems. The E-4 used vacuum tube technology, and according to Stu, was not terribly reliable.

"The engine also had a computer, an electronic fuel control that also had vacuum tubes. A failure of a vacuum tube would cause a failure of the engine. So we had a back-up fuel control system, which was used frequently.

"We had four of airplanes in these bays, and we would pre-flight all four. They would all be run and tested. If there were any discrepancies, they would be fixed, within minutes. If the airplane was not fixable within minutes, it would be towed out and a new one put in. (53:28)

Living conditions while on alert were spartan. Pilots slept in their flight suits, only taking off their zipper-fastened jump boots when they went to bed. They ate TV dinners from the aluminum trays and had to be ready for the sound of the klaxons.

"We were on what was called ‘Five minute alert’. We were expected to be out of the bunk and airborne in five minutes. It took a lot of practice.

"We had one minute to come from upstairs to the airplane. There was a firehouse brass pole instead of a stairway. And the reason for that was not speed. If you try to run down stairs at full speed, you realize it’s dangerous.

"The power man and crew chief would already be at the airplane. The power man would be cranking up the APU because the airplane had to have two minutes of electrical power for the automatic fuel control to warm up. The crew chief would be pulling the pins out of the armament and landing gear.

"The pilot would go up the ladder— internal steps to the airplane—so that nobody had to remove the ladder. The pilot had pre-positioned his parachute and helmet in the cockpit when he reported for work, and would leave them there, all hooked up.

"The crew chief would help the pilot strap in, which is another minute. So the airplane has had power on it for two minutes. If the pilot is still strapping in, when the crew chief sees the electronic lockup light go out, he will then reach and hit the starter for the pilot so the pilot won’t have to do two things at once."

Eberhardt says the crew chief then closes the step to the airplane, the power man pulls the power cords (which are designed to automatically break-away); the plot closes the canopy, moves the throttle forward and starts taxiing at high speed. On alert, Eberhardt says, the tower did not have to issue takeoff clearance, knowing the fighters would be heading out, at speed, to takeoff.

"Most of our flights were identification flights. This was before the days before jet airliners. Piston airliners only went to 23,000 feet. If they had an airplane flying around at 41,000 feet, it was either the Strategic Air Command or the Russians. They want to know who it is and it was our job to go find out."

The scramble system was streamlined, so that when the klaxon went off, the pilot knew the heading he had to take to fly the ‘climb corridor’. He also knew the radio frequency for a ground control intercept facility, which would vector the fighter to the unidentified aircraft.

The apex of a scrambled flight most frequently brought the identification of a B-36. Eberhardt says the SAC bombers were common at 35,000 feet with no control, no instrument clearance, and their wandering for hours and hours.

"Our radar went out to 30 miles, and it was marginal at that range. But when a B-36 got within 30 miles on our radarscope, it was about the size of a half dollar. The B-36 has to have the most prominent radar return of any airplane ever built with all those propellers and stuff like that.

According to Eberhardt, the biggest challenge of alert duty was getting enough opportunities to fly.

"There isn’t anything more boring that spending 24 hours in a steel box," says Stu, "So we’d call the controller at the GCI site and say, ‘can you come up with an unidentified airplane?’

"And he’d say, ‘Yeah. When do want to do it?’

"And we’d say, ‘Give us 15 minutes and we’ll finish a Coke.’ And then the klaxon goes off and we’d go flying."

And Stu says that’s why they had four aircraft for two pilots; so two aircraft would always be ready to go.

Fifteen-minute alerts

After his stint with the Air Defense Command, Stu was retrained to fly the F-100 in the Tactical Air Command, which meant a change of flying operations.

"Instead of being an instrument type, fly-at-night, fly inside the clouds, shoot down airplanes if you have to (type of work) it became a visual operation, where we couldn’t shoot anything we didn’t see."

His missions were air-to-air combat with 20mm cannons; dropping napalm; dive-bombing and nuclear weapon delivery. Stu says had the United States gone to war, he probably would have been tasked with dive-bombing and nuclear bombing. A major reason why was due to the Warsaw Pact’s overwhelming superiority of numbers in conventional ground forces compared with those of NATO.

But because France’s Charles DeGaulle banned the storage of nuclear weapons in his country, Eberhardt’s unit operated from two bases.

"One was Bitburg, Germany, where we kept four airplanes on alert armed with nuclear bombs. The other place was Tulle, France, which had planes with 750-pound conventional bombs.

On August 13, 1961, East Germany took action that once again prevented the flow of goods from the West into Berlin.

"They didn’t actually block the autobahn with tanks pointed at the convoys. They were parking military vehicles so that a convoy had to weave its way through, maybe take an hour to find somebody to get the keys to move the vehicles."

"We didn’t want to start a war over this, but we had to assert our right to access Berlin by surface routes. At Tulle, we had conventional bombs. The obstructions were vehicles and troops. The weapons to use against vehicles and troops are rockets and 20mm cannons. The 20mm cannons use standard ammunition, and the bombs were intended for personnel out in the field.

"The bombs were basically cylinders filled with high explosives inside a steel case that explodes. The shrapnel from the bomb will injure personnel, demolish a building or something like that. The weight of the bomb is the gross weight, so the pilot can computer the weight of the airplane.

"A bomb is quite safe, shipped on the surface on trucks, railroad cars, boats, and the like to wherever they’re going, and then they are fused, which makes them somewhat dangerous. "

Eberhardt recalls an incident during an Operational Readiness Inspection (ORI) that demonstrated how safe bombs were, as long as their fuses were not set.

"The dirty rats came from headquarters Wiesbaden at two o’clock in the morning. Well, the bar hadn’t been closed for two hours, so we’re all in our beds snoring, hoping we didn’t have to get up before eight in the morning. And we get an ORI.


"We’ve got 24 airplanes in the squadron and that means 24 pilots in those airplanes, two bombs on each of them, and get ‘em taxiing out. It’s two o’clock in the morning and it’s snowing."

Stu says he got on the bus, went to flight operations to get his assigned airplane. Then he ran to the hard stand where the lights were on, the auxiliary power unit was running, and there were two bomb loaders.

"A bomb loader was kind of like a long hydraulic tractor that lifts the bomb. They put one under each wing and when they get them attached to the airplane, then simultaneously they lower the two bomb loaders.

"So, I get into the cockpit and I’m strapping in and all of a sudden the airplane tilts… and I look out to see that the bomb fell off the wing!"

Eberhardt says the ordnance crew picked up the bomb with a net and re-mounted it on the wing pylon, Not knowing how a bomb worked—that a fuse has to be set and a safety wire pulled before the bomb will detonate—he had a bit of a jolt while sitting in the cockpit.

Eberhardt says the bombs their F-86s carried were fused both fore and aft, and the pilot had a switch to choose between the nose or tail fuse.

"If you have, say on a battalion of troops in an open field, you want the nose fuse because it will set the bomb off on contact. If you have a hard target such as a building or bridge, you want the bomb to implant itself, so you set the tail fuse.

"The bomb then attaches to the airplane with two shackles, and there’s a wire that goes through a propeller on either end of the bomb. The wire stays on the airplane, preventing the propeller from turning aerodynamically until the wire is pulled.

"So when the bomb fell off, and tipped the airplane, it was still quite safe. If you’re still looking at the bomb, you’re okay!"

Hitting targets with conventional bombs dropped from the F-86 was accomplished with the help of an A4 gun sight. The A4 computed the required trajectory for bullets to hit a target at deflection or in a turn, but could also be used "caged", mechanically locked, and then depressed, for bombing.

"We depressed it 45 units, and that provided the angle for dive-bombing. Now, one of the problems with dive bombing is you have to have very good weather, about 10,000 feet of airspace, because our release altitude was about 7,000 feet.

Eberhardt says a typical mission during this period of East German autobahn blockade would involve a flight of four F-86s (Stu says he, as junior officer, always flew the #4 position, tasked with staying in formation) taking off toward Fulda, Germany. They would then patrol at 35,000 feet between that point and another near Hanover.

The flight would be under the control of a radar-equipped ground controller who was linked by radio to a forward air controller on the autobahn.

"We were not authorized to have the armament switches on at this point. We did not have the authority to make the decision to make the attack. That had to come over the radio. The flight leader had a decoder to receive messages from the ground controller, whether to go back to the base, stay in the pattern, or if worst came to worst, to attack."

During the winter, German skies at 35,000 feet offered little visibility of the ground. So if an attack had been called for, finding the target would have required radar vectoring from the GCI site.

"The plan then was to use our 20mms and our 750 pound bombs to blast the way through. We were prepared to do that, and were airborne, ready to do it."

Eberhardt says these flights were not unilateral. Occasionally, he says from the corner of an eye he’d catch sight of Warsaw Pact MiG-17 fighters in an opposing circuit on the East German side of the border.

"Because we were loaded with bombs and all that ammunition, we were vulnerable. We couldn’t have fought our way out of a paper bag even though our planes were superior. We would have had to jettison our bombs, get some speed up and get some altitude before we could have defended ourselves against the MiGs. We didn’t have that kind of time.

"We depended on the Canadians, who had Mark 6 Sabres and were at 52,000 feet, holding above us. They were our air cover. As long as they stayed above us, I knew everything was okay. If they headed for the MiGs, I knew which way I would go."

A further element in these border maneuvers was the fact that the USAF F-86s were not allowed to have their cannons armed, to avoid an errant index finger pulling the trigger on the control stick and accidentally discharge cannon rounds.

Eberhardt says that the East German autobahn blockade of Berlin ended without incident, and without notice. One day, the East German military vehicles just failed to appear on the concrete ribbon to the capital city.

Three-minute alerts

Bitburg, Germany was in many ways similar to Tulle, France. One very big difference was that Bitburg was a nuclear base, which meant that Eberhardt had three-minutes alerts. Broken down, that was one minute to start the engine, one minute to taxi to the runway, and one minute from releasing the brakes to being airborne.

"We had to sit in the cockpit. And that could be for eight hours. Quite frankly, after sitting in the cockpit for four or five hours, it would have been very difficult.

Eberhardt says the Tactical Air Command F-100s never flew with nuclear bombs. Only Strategic Air Command carried nuclear ordnance, but TAC remained prepared to do so through its three-minute alerts.

"The three-minute alert was torture. They feed you sandwiches in the cockpit. It’s tough to talk about bladders and bowels and stuff like that, but you had to stay in the airplane.

"We would normally eat in the Officer Open Mess, or something like that. And lunch would cost you 35 cents and it was decent food. But when you’re on three-minute alert, strapped in the cockpit, they send you out some kind of garbage, because they can’t collect your 35 cents. For instance, they’d send out sandwiches made of fat, just bread and fat. It wasn’t very good."

Eberhardt also spoke of the ‘culture’ of the Cold War nuclear weapons warrior. The pilot, family and neighbors were questioned by security officials mostly concerned about whether a pilot could be blackmailed. Gambling debts and sexual orientation were at the top of the list for potential blackmail.

Top Secret clearance meant not telling your wife what you did for a living. Stu says that even today he feels funny talking about what happened 50 years ago, and he related a story about visiting Prague a year after he’d retired from the service.

"Marilyn and I went to Prague as tourists, which was near… what my target was. I have difficulty saying what my target was, but it was Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, where there was a bridge across a gorge the Russians had to use to get to West Germany with their divisions. It was my job to blow up that bridge with a nuclear weapon."

The mission profile for delivering a nuclear bomb from a fighter was a strictly solo routine by the fighter pilot.

"You made your own charts out of World Aeronautical Charts, then drew a line for a 35,000 feet approach to the Iron Curtain, descending to 50 feet at an indicated airspeed of 500 knots. You had to do this visually, as there was no radio guidance. "Then there was an Initial Point (IP), usually about a mile from where your target was. You’d hit that IP at 500 knots, have some switches turned on and then run a checklist to get all this equipment working.

"I would approach my target, in a gorge, by going up the river. The bridge would be more visible that trying to find follow the road. They could camouflage the road, but not the bridge. Then as you see the bridge, you would have the switches in LABS- automatic. The Low Angle Bombing System was designed specifically to deliver a nuclear weapon from low altitude, visually."

Eberhardt says the target portfolio was memorized, so you wouldn’t have to minimize referring to the map. The pilot, spotting the target, would then pull the stick straight back, through four Gs. As the plane pulls through vertical, the bomb would automatically release from a gyro, and continue to go straight up, while the pilot finishes his Immelman, rolls level and then dives to the ground in an escape maneuver in the opposite direction from the approach. The pilot should be about ten miles away by the time the bomb goes off.

"The pilot wore normal flyer’s clothing. There was no special suit for him to wear, just the helmet, flight suit, jacket and g-suit. There was a hood that came up from the back that he could pull over himself and still see the instruments. The hood was made of a metalized fabric.

"You would experience quite a bit of the flash. The heat flash travels at the speed of light. You can’t get away from it. The blast itself travels at the speed of sound. By the time you finish this maneuver and get headed downhill you’re going over 500 knots already, you’re almost supersonic yourself. The blast barely catches up with you, and by the time it does, you hardly feel it."

Fortunately, Eberhardt never was put in the position to have that experience.

After his Air Force time, Eberhardt flew a wide range of aircraft from DC-3s to Boeing 747s with Pan American Airlines. In1991 he took a position with Delta Airlines, retiring in 1996. He had also spent six years flying A-4 Skyhawks from Alameda NAS as a reservist with the Marine Corps, reaching the rank of Major.

Having logged more than 30,000 air hours as a pilot, Stu flies in the Reno Air races and he is still current in the F-86.

November 22nd 2008 marked the 50th wedding anniversary of Stu and Marilyn.



((Sidebar – suggest this be a separate column))

The Cold War

The Cold War developed from the end of World War Two, when Russia, the United States of America, Great Britain and France couldn’t agree on how to govern occupied Germany. It was a war of ideology, fought with threats, budgets for military weapons and actions of provocation rather than fought with the nuclear weapons.

Geographically, the Cold War was iconized by a militarized border called the Iron Curtain that divided Germany and communist satellite states from the West, and by the Berlin Wall, which divided the German capital city located in East Germany. The forces East of the Iron Curtain became known as those of the Warsaw Pact, while those of the West were known as the forces of NATO, for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The year 1947 saw key technological development and intrigues of the Cold War. In that year, test pilot Chuck Yeager flew a rocket-powered airplane past the sound barrier, North American Aviation developed the YP-86 supersonic jet fighter, the U.S Army Air Force became an independent service in the US Air Force, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried on spying charges for the sales of nuclear weapons information to the Soviet Union, convicted, and executed the following year.

Air Force pilot Stu Eberhardt says the Soviets, emboldened by their possession of nuclear weapons capability, encouraged Communist North Korea in 1950 to attack the southern half of Korean, sparking the Korean War.

June 24, 1948 was one of the first major international crises of the Cold War. The Soviet Union completely blocked the West's railway, road, and waterway access to the western sectors of Berlin, an act aimed at forcing the western powers to allow Soviet supply of Berlin with food and fuel.

As a response, the U.S. Air Force formed the Berlin Airlift, to fly in as much as 4000 tons of supplies a day to the people of Berlin. By the next spring the airlift was working, and by April 1949 it was delivering more cargo than had previously reached the city by rail. The Soviets lifted the blockade on May 11, 1949.

Germany’s capital city of Berlin was also divided into Soviet and Western zones in 1948. Eberhardt notes, "East Germans were commuting into West Berlin on a daily basis for economic reasons, because there were jobs. But they preferred to live in East Germany. This was unsatisfactory to the East German government because a lot of people didn’t come back. They were losing 5000 people a day to defection.

"On day one it was like a rent-a-fence around a construction site. They put these fences up so people couldn’t cross, to keep the East Germans in. Most people commuted to work on foot or by bicycle and when they got to the fence, they just moved it out of the way and went through.

As time went on a 10-foot masonry fence replaced the chain link, and later the Russians used pre-cast concrete sections for construction. Under Soviet control, the wall included machine gun posts with guards who had orders to shoot anyone trying to leave East Berlin.

The Korean War of 1950-53, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 were two other key Cold War events.

The Cold War came to an end in 1989, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The United States had outspent the Soviets on military hardware and research, and the Warsaw Pact states virtually went broke. There was widespread unrest in Eastern Europe, and when some Warsaw pact countries cut their ties with Moscow, Gorbachev did not intervene. By 1990, East and West Germany had become one nation, and a few months later, the Warsaw Pact was no more.