Operation Cannonball: The rest of the story

  • Published
  • By Jim O'Connell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
Four train cars sit forlornly across from the base's Heritage Airpark. Many have wondered why and how they ended up parked there.

These Strategic Air Command simulator cars arrived at Fairchild in 1962 and have remained a permanent fixture for more than 50 years.

Years ago, SAC officials decided it was cheaper to keep the cars at Fairchild and fly pilots here for training versus having them travel to the various locations. When the cars were declared excess property in 1990, base officials convinced the Air Force to let the base's Heritage Museum have them. The only problem was that the cars were nearly a mile away from the museum; that is where Operation Cannonball kicked in.

The train cars were specifically designed for Strategic Air Command to provide mobile classrooms on aircraft cockpit procedures for Air Force flight crews. The cars were 1911 to 1928 vintage Pullman passenger cars converted at Hill AFB, Utah, between 1959 and 1964, into bomber and tanker simulators. These 2,000-pound, 85-passenger cars were some of the longest on the rails.

The B-52 Stratofortress simulator consists of two cars. The first is named "Alpine Clover," and was built in 1917. It houses the bomber cockpit with its supporting computers. The number 2 car, named "Andrew Squires," was built in 1928 and contains computer benches, storage cabinets, and an administrative area. The KC-135 Stratotanker refueling tanker simulator also consists of two cars. The first is named "John M. Forbes," and was built in 1928. This car contained the tanker cockpit simulator and supporting computer systems. The second car had no name, so it was called "Little John." Little John was originally designed to transport U.S. Army personnel over commercial railroads. Little John was converted into a workshop and administrative area with "live aboard" facilities for Air Force simulator technicians when on the move.

Operation Cannonball moved the simulator trains from outside the former coal plant across from CBPO (now the home of the 92nd Comptroller Squadron) to outside the Fairchild Heritage Museum located on the southeast corner of Bong Street and Mitchell Drive (next to where Balfour Beatty is currently located). Beginning Nov. 1, 1990, Maj. Jerry Kolstee, the wing project officer, and Sgt. George Hledik helped coordinate the effort and led 20-person teams who worked in four-hour blocks to move the trains.

Fairchild AFB, built in 1941 as an Army Air Corp supply and repair depot, had plenty of spare tracks to be used for this project. In those days, most of the supplies came in by rail. Much of that track was scheduled to be removed. During the first two weeks of November 1990, volunteers built the railroad in 800-foot sections to facilitate the movement. As the track was laid, the train was advanced and the track behind the cars was lifted again and placed in front. The team pulled up that track and used it in the leap frog operation. The teams laid more than 2,000 feet of track across the base.

After traveling nearly one mile, six derailments, several road crossings, and 12 days, Operation Cannonball concluded when the cars reached their final resting place next to the museum. The site was dedicated on Nov. 16, 1940, when base and civilian dignitaries drove the final spike at 3 p.m. From 1990 until the Fairchild Heritage Museum closed in 2002, the cars were used as part of the museum. The cars housed museum displays and the B-52 simulator.