Air Transport Nuclear Navs

A Special Note before I tell my story. All of the information contained herein is declassified and in open source material. On a personal note: I am telling this story by a not so hot memory: sorry for that.

First, I journeyed to the USAF Air Force Historical Research Agency HQ at Maxwell AFB Alabama to do my initial Unit History research. There were no unit records of the "Air Transport Squadrons (Special) to be found. I then went to the USAF Air Force Museum and also talked to the now Air Force Materials Command Historian (AFMC/HQ/HO), the follow-on to Air Force Logistics Command (AFLC), follow-on to the old Air Material Command (AMC) and asked to be able to see the history of the ATS(S) squadrons and was told there was no such history. I called the USAF HQ History unit at Bolling Field Washington, DC. No such history there either, although there are HQ command staff records pertaining to the Kirtland AFB, NM, based "Aviation Depot Squadrons (Special)." Then I went to Kirtland AFB, NM. The Kirtland AFB/HO has created a great book on the history of Kirtland and in there are a number of references to the "Special Units" that came from that Nuclear Weapons Center such as the 509th Composite Group. So I will herein help establish a history as such of the ATS(S)s.

Corrections and/or additions are welcomed. E-mail me at

In the beginning there were no nuclear navs. Up until WW-II there were really no navs at all, as such. There were however pilots that were performing as navigators, like Major Curtis E. LeMay and Col. Billy Mitchell and Capt. Hilgenberger to name a few.

The story of the Air Transport Nuclear Navigators follows:

Somewhere between 1944 and 1964 there existed transport navigators whose duty it was to deliver nuclear weapons, nuclear components, nuclear devices, nuclear scientist and detonation test equipment for the US Government Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, now the politically correct Department of Energy) and the US Military as directed. (see Ref.1)

Historically: At the start of WW-II the US Army Air Corps and thereafter the Army Air Force created Aviation Cadets and they with limited officers were initially trained for example at Coral Gables, then Ellington Field as Navigators/Observers. Then Bombardiers were created and trained at Lowery, Barksdale and Ellington Fields. In all over 125,000 Navigator/Observers and Bombardiers were trained for WW-II. No nuclear navs,,, to a point.

Navigators crewed all multiplace aircraft types, but the single seat fighters, for obvious reasons. Bombardiers were additionally in the bomber fleet. In some cases, navigators and bombardiers were the same officer; just double rated. Pilots were and are now typed to specific aircraft that they can fly. In the navigator ranks, it was often that once a navigator was checked out; he was expected to be able to crew any-and-all aircraft that required a nav. Only in radar bombardment and radar intercept and now weapons systems was there anything like a type-rating for a navigator. This was because of the special electronics used on those aircraft. (see Ref. 2)

Near the end of WW-II the US began its nuclear weapons programs as a follow-on to the Manhattan Project.

The core flight unit was the 509th Composite Group of Wendover, Utah, then Roswell Field, NM which had come into existence in 1944. The 509th CG dropped both atomic bombs used to end WW-II, August, 1945. (see Ref. 1)

Manhattan Project Z-Division Los Alamos moved to Kirtland AFB, NM and became what we all call today: Sandia Base. Thereon the 2761st Engineer Battalion (Special) was created to manage the postwar nuclear weapon ordinance program for the AAF. The Kirtland Base History book, Year 1946 states, "Training begins in navigation, bombing, chemical warfare, physical training, and use of the gunnery range. The servicemen are being readied for Operation CROSSROADS." Thus began the nuclear navigator s saga. (see Ref. 3)

The first combat Nuclear Navigators and Nuclear Bombardiers were of course those that flew the two AAF 509th Composite Group s B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs, "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" on Japanese targets August, 1945. Captain Theodore J. "Dutch" Van Kirk was the first Nuclear Nav and Major Thomas Ferebee the first Nuclear Bombardier to actually drop an atomic bomb, nicknamed "Little Boy" from the B-29 named Enola Gay. (see Ref. 4)

The earliest transport Nuclear Navs were in a C-54 flying unit named the "Green Hornet Line." The Green Hornet Line flew as the Manhattan Project s (the atomic bomb project s official name during WW-II) New Mexico Y-site s private airline. The Green Hornet s C-54s were used to shuttle engineers, scientist, and technical personnel back and forth between the South Pacific atomic test site islands around Kwajalein, and Fairfield Suisun and Hamilton Field, in California. (see Ref. 5)

In the 509 CG there were two flying units: the 393rd Bomb Squadron (Very Heavy) B-29s and the 320th Troop Carrier Squadron, flying as the "Green Hornet Line." The Green Hornets began as a flying unit like the bomber crews, flying out of Wendover Field, Utah. Initially the 320th TCS flew C-47s and C-46s. The 320th received C-54s later. The 509th was called a composite group because of this mix of aircraft types. (see Ref. 6)

The Nuclear Navs were the best in the AAF as they flew long distant flights, with only basic nav aids, with the smallest of fuel reserves. They routinely encountered adversity like errant winds, thunder-storms due to the inter-tropical-convergence zone weather, and the constant engine problems of the old radial piston engines on the C-54. The C-54 was not a pressurized plane. Common flight altitudes were below 10,000 feet, which made for a bumpy ride for all on board. The so called passengers had it no better than the navs as they had to ride ten-hour-plus flights with no air conditioning, little cabin venting, a 5-gallon can toilet, and in troop seats along with the nuclear cargo parts. The normal pax load was 26 passengers.

Right after the "Crossroads" atomic test, atomic blast Able, July 1 and atomic blast Baker, July 25, in the South Pacific, on August 19, 1946 the 320th TCS was disbanded. (see Ref. 7)

Later in 1946 the Atomic Energy Act was passed and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was created. The AEC took over jurisdiction of nuclear research, development and custody from the military, of nuclear weapons. (see Ref. 8)

In 1947 the USAF was established as a separate branch of the Armed Forces and the six engined (later ten engined) B-36 was delivered to the Kirtland AFB, 3170th Special weapons Squadron to be modified to carry atomic weapons. The XB-47 arrived soon thereafter for early special weapons studies. Both planes required a long-range navigator. (see Ref. 9)

The B-47 was initially a conventional weapons bomber with a Norden M9N bombsight! Most unique about the B-47 was the fact that, the navigator was also the radar bombardier and the in-flight bombing systems repairman and this bomber could out perform any fighter of its day!

The first atomic USAF unit was to be the 58th Bomb Wing, 509th Bomb Group B-29(VH) in the newly formed Strategic Air Command (SAC), at Roswell, New Mexico. The special weapons capable B-29s were referred to as "Silverplates." Upon introduction of the bigger-29, the B-50, the B-50s were modified to carry special weapons as an interim measure. (see Ref. 10)

In 1949 the AF Special Weapons Command was established at Kirtland AFB. President Harry S. Truman approved of production of more atomic bombs and more atmospheric tests. SAC reintroduced the C-54, then the C-74, then the C-124 transports into its support units. Now there was more need than ever for air transport Nuclear Navs. SAC was starting to acquire B-47s at a rapid pace, heading up to 2,000 plus bombers! The Cold War was on! (see Ref. 11)

From 1946 through 1962, in the area of nuclear warhead/bomb development the US atomic scientist learned how to make ever bigger nuclear bangs with smaller nuclear bombs. General Curtis E. LeMay lead the development and deployment of the United State s greatest strategic nuclear force: SAC. The USAF, the Navy and the Army required lots of nuclear weapons. At one point in the 50s an atmospheric nuclear test a month was being conducted. At that time the US news stations broadcast the air-radiation-radioactivity (rad) changes as the remnants of the blast clouds passed over the mainland.

President Eisenhower, following President Truman s lead, approved of higher special weapons production rates. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that henceforth the nuclear doctrine of the US would be that of, "massive retaliation." (see Ref.12)

Thus in 1952 three Air Transport Squadrons (Special) (ATS)(S) C-124 units, the 7th at Robins AFB, Georgia, the 19th at Kelly AFB, Texas, and the 28th at Hill AFB, Utah, were created under the 3079th Aviation Depot Wing, HQ Air Material Command, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. AMC/HQ was in charge of the USAF special weapons effort. The three ATS(S)s had world wide missions. These ATS(S) supported both the AEC and the DOD, going back and forth between the military end-user unit to the Operational Storage Q-Sites (OSS), which also had the name: Operational Nuclear Sites, and the AEC production, and research test

sites like Johnson Island and Kwajalein. (see Ref. 13)

The peak year for production was 1962 under President Kennedy. The US was building a nuclear weapon a day in 1962. There were over 10,000 nuclear warheads and bombs in the US military forces. The logistics and maintenance of this ever increasing nuclear stockpile required a significant element of air transport support. (see Ref. 14)

A Note: Q and two man concept clearances were all required to be physically around the nuclear weapons and components, and in the 60s the weapons were upgraded access and safety wise, with the introduction of the Permissive Access Links-Lock (PAL) systems. The PAL systems were and are the safe-assurance methodologies that allow to this day, the safe handling of these weapons. (see Ref. 15)

All crewmembers were Top Secret and "two man reliability concept" cleared as well as the Navigators were crypto trained and both the navs and pilots were courier-duty cleared. All crewmembers on the planes, wore atomic-dosimeters, that were monitored monthly for radiation dosages. At times, the crew was armed with.45 caliber pistols. The standard nuclear air transport crew on a C-124 was two pilots, one navigator, two flight engineers, one loadmaster and often a flight mechanic. On special, special loads we also had security/guards and additional scientific personnel flying along with us.

The C-124 was the C-5 of the day. It could carry the giant 41,000 pound Mark-17 nuclear bomb as well as any number of the smaller weapons like the B-28 (2,340 pounds) all placed geometrically on the 124 s reinforced floor-cargo-deck. (see Ref. 16) An additional overhead-rail electrical crane was also put in to the ATS(S) C-124s so as to aid in the placement of the weapons so as to not create an incipient radiation problem amongst the weapon s radioactive materials. The Loadmasters were exceptionally well trained and had technical loading manuals to go by.

I was one of "Air Transport Squadron (Special)" nuclear navigators and flew in the 7th Air Transport Squadron (Special) of Air Material Command, later renamed the 7th Logistic Support Squadron of Air Logistics Command, HQ/AMC Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio. I flew some 3,000 hours plus in the 7th Logs C-124C for 4-years in the early sixties.

I received my Navigator wings by completing Undergraduate Navigator Training (UNT) as an Aviation Cadet from James Connally AFB, Texas in 1961. I was sent to nav upgrade training at Mather AFB, California to become a radar navigator-bombardier to fly SAC B-47s, and/or the brand new B-52, but ended up in C-124s at the 7th Log Squadron. This seemed dreadful at first but ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me in the USAF. I was well schooled on the MA/6A/7A radar-optical jet bombardment systems, so I knew the latest nav-bombing technologies that existed at the time. I also had had nuclear weapons training. However I was sent to a Douglas C-124, a vintage post WW-II large, slow, un pressurized, lumbering transport, noisy, with a global mission. The C-124 was called "Shakey" for a very good reason. The joke about the C-124 at that time was that it was a million rivets flying in loose formation.

In the C-124 I flew regularly over 100 hours a month for years! Saw the world from 8,000 feet altitude. The navigator s position was up on the flight deck, right behind the aircraft commander s seat on the left side. The nav seat faced forward. The nav station had a small table with all aids in front of the nav. It was an excellent layout. Even had a side window.

The C-124 nav-station featured: radio beacon khz band radio with indicator, APS-42 radar, Tacan Indicator, N-1 Mag-compass indicator, air speed indicator, pressure altimeter, SCR-718 radar altimeter, Loran APN-9, or Loran APN-70 and in the later sixties, the Doppler nav unit. Over and behind on the flight deck crown (top of the plane) was the D-1 Kollsman periscopic sextant mount/port. The only nav gear not on the flight deck was the B-3 driftmeter which was down on low-left side of the cargo bay. So to do anything with the drift meter required the nav to climb up and down the crew ladder, or the steps if they were deployed from the flight deck. The National Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson AFB has an excellent C-124 on display all opened up.

The usual mission outline was to do a classified pre-brief the day prior to launch of the mission. Missions were for the ease of it, called "West" or "East" missions just to give general direction as all else was classified. Missions were from a few days to weeks in length. A month on one mission was a really long one. No matter the max time off between missions was 72 hours. Because the C-124s were getting in to their final days, most missions had break-down delays. On one mission the 7th Log had a serious refueling fire, on the hot spot, at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Destroyed the C-124 and the nuclear goodies inside! Oh my! Lucky though, the aircraft commander (AC) was the Squadron Commander. So none of us Lieutenants took any heat for resultant Broken Arrow (the name given when a nuke load was involved in an accident). On another we took a small arms round through the wing forward spar (the wing was a wet wing), and it poured aviation gasoline down the crawlway, which puddled in the lower bay! Lucky, no fire, because we were full of flares! My last year of flying in the 7th Log was very eventful as every-other flight was terminated as an in-flight emergency. At the end of our missions, a debrief was conducted and nav logs filed. Needless to say we flew to all kinds of bases, and all over the world, meeting Cold War demands as they came up. Just now some of the missions are being declassified like Pot Pie I and Pot Pie II, which were the warhead retrieval missions, from Europe after Kennedy said, the Russians blinked during the Cuban Missile crisis. I can tell you the Commies may have blinked, and while their eyes were closed we rushed to remove many warheads from Europe! Hummm. (see Ref. 17)

I loved navigating the C-124 because it had all of the aids that allowed me to be a true navigator and to use, celestial-sextants, pressure pattern-geostrophic wind computations, ground speed by timing, radio fixing, PIREP weather watch, and interpretation of Loran sky and ground waves.

In late 1966 the 7th Log began transitioning in to the brand new Lockheed C-141. The early C-141 was small, reliable and fast. A few years later Lockheed added 67 feet to the fuselage and a new wing. So the C-141 we all now know, is a greatly modified plane. Now it too is gone. The Log units were closed down in the late 60s because the nuclear weapons had become so well developed and "PAL d" that is was simple to handle special weapons safely. And the smaller weapons fit in to the much more reliable C-141 jet using the 463 L palletized loading system. So the nuclear mission and crews migrated to Military Airlift Command and became known as PNM missions, Primary Nuclear Missions to this date.

And now no navigators, or very few to say the least, as they have been replaced by the more reliable GPS system. It was a great and important mission,,,, and the USAF has no history of the ATS(S)s / Log squadrons.

If you were in one of the nuclear/special weapons air transport units please get a hold of me and we will add to this history, for there is more to the story! We need to record it right away. Thanks

On my web, site I have a picture of the standard (for the B-52), quad-pack B-28 clip-in that was a common special weapons load in the days of the C-124 Log units.

Ronald P. Barrett, AFNOA Historian and 7th Log Nuclear navigator November 14, 2006


1) Winged Shield, Winged Sword, A History of the USAF, Vol. I, Bernard C. Nalty, pages 381 and 382

2) Training to Fly: Military Flight Training 19-07-1945 by Dr. Rebecca Hancock Cameron (Welch)

3) Kirtland AFB, History by Van Citters HistoricPreservation for 377th ABW, July 2004, 1946 page 129

4) The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, page 704

5) Operations Crossroads, Official Pictorial Record, The Office of the Historian, JTF One Year, page 44

6) Operations Group November 11, 2006

7) Operations Group November 11, 2006

8) Kirtland AFB, History by Van Citters Historic Preservation for 377th ABW, July 2004, 1946 page 130

9) Kirtland AFB, History by Van Citters Historic Preservation for 377th ABW, July 2004, 1947 page 131

10) Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment R. Cargill Hall, AF History and Museums Program, page 389

11) Boeings B-47 Stratojet by Alwyn T. Lloyd

12) Dark Sun:The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes, page 541

13) (This web site is the closest one can come to any reference to the existence and missions of the three ATS(S) transport squadrons: 7th Log at Robins AFB GA, 19th Log at Kelly AFB, TX, and 28th Log at Hill AFB, Utah.)

14) Discover, November 2005, End of the Plutonium Age by David Samuels, page 45

15) Dark Sun:The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes, page 568

16) Nuclear Weapons of the United States by James N. Gibson

17) Nuclear Weapons of the United States by James N. Gibson, page 171