Dust on the rails of a glorious heritage

  • Published
  • By By Airman 1st Class Ryan Lackey
First arrivals to Fairchild Air Force Base cannot help but notice the imposing sight of a static B-52 Stratofortress aircraft looming over a small sea of smaller aircraft in Heritage Park. Yet few people notice the “odd-man-out” sitting way in the back with no path leading to it; a crisscross of four Strategic Air Command-marked rail cars.

“I wondered what these cars were for when I first saw them, it baffled me,” said Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Whitfield, 92nd Air Refueling Wing historic property custodian.

These unmarked rail cars give an air of abandonment, no sign illuminates a purpose largely forgotten in the years they have sat in the back of the park; an oddity on an airbase. These cars have been speculated to have been used for transporting World War II soldiers, to carry nuclear warheads or to have been a mobile headquarters like Air Force One.

“When I became the historic property custodian and was first shown the interiors of the cars … I was amazed,” Whitfield said. “Who knew that we were just sitting on something so cool like this?”

Hidden inside these gray train car shells is a unique historical treasure that shares a special bond with the B-52D, the KC-135 Stratotanker and Fairchild AFB. It is the last, complete original B-52D simulator in existence, code-name: Alpine Clover, with supporting cars named Little John, Andrew Squire and DFX-7 adjoining it.

“Everything is much more advanced since these were last used,” Whitfield said. “We can do in one room what several specialized cars full of computers and machines were needed to accomplish, but we needed it, so the Air Force made it happen.”

During the latter stages of B-52 production, it was found necessary to use a simulated environment for pilots and crews to practice the complicated procedures to fly the massive aircraft. It was deemed too expensive to build a facility at every B-52 capable base, so Air Force engineers called upon a bit of ingenuity.

“You had to ask yourself back then what the simplest solution was,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sure how they came to the decision to use train cars, but I imagine some genius had the idea to just put the trainer on wheels.”

18 sets of two converted Pullman passenger rail cars were modified and converted to be mobile B-52D and KC-135A simulators at Hill AFB, Utah. The problem of not being able to build a simulator at each base was solved, they would just roll a portable one where it was needed to train pilots.

“During the Cold War there were always KC-135s and B-52s in the air,” Whitfield said. “The Air Force had to maintain a ton of training to keep our pilots up in the air, ready to do their missions. With these simulators, they could hook-up a single train engine and haul them to wherever they were needed next.”

For several years these mobile training centers, like Alpine Clover, roamed across the country to give bomber and refueling pilots vital experience. The cars made Fairchild a permanent home in 1964, when it was decided that it was cheaper to simply fly pilots to where the simulators were stationed.

“You had to be in a simulator before you ever got into the cockpit of a real one,” Whitfield said. “Simulators were a cheaper way to get pilots trained on these complex aircraft than risking it in the air while on the job.”

Stateside training was vital to the Vietnam War effort, as the B-52D model was capable of holding the heaviest bomb payloads and saw considerable use between 1968 and 1975. Early B-52 models began to reach the end of their service life after the war, with the B-52D retiring between the years of 1978 to 1983.

“The train car simulators were officially retired in 1989,” Whitfield said. “Any update the aircraft received, so too did these simulators, as pilots had to train on the most current stuff. Newer and more accurate simulators finally rendered them obsolete.”

With over 30 years of service, the simulators were dismantled for parts to upkeep the remaining B-52 fleet, and only Alpine Clover and its sister cars remained after several years of retirement.

“They came to me and said that the simulator and train car were going to be surplused, and it would be nice to add them to the base museum,” said retired Col. Arnold Weinman, former 92nd Air Refueling Wing commander. “We could show the public what technology was like back then. Now remember that we had gone to the moon already, so we had pretty sophisticated technology and this was all transistors, solenoids and so forth. It would be a good thing to show the kids how we did it in the old days.”

Homeless and doomed to be scrapped without the museum, Weinman initiated Operation Cannonball on Nov. 1, 1990, a volunteer mission to move the cars to the Fairchild Heritage Museum and Park as a permanent display.

“It took a little hard work to move those cars,” Weinman said. “We laid these sections of salvaged track, moved the cars about 20 feet, then hopscotched another section of track from the back to the front and repeated that. It took a few weeks to accomplish the move. ”

The train cars completed their move and were dedicated to the base museum on Nov. 16, 1990, where they stayed open to the public until the museum closed down and the buildings removed by a federal order in 2002. Many of the museum's artifacts found a new home in 2016 at the Honor Point Military & Aerospace Museum in Spokane, but the train cars remained. Since the cessation of visitors to the rail-cars after the museum closed, they have slowly faded from memory over the past 15 years while remaining in plain sight.

Always there, but regarded as just a forgotten oddity.

“These cars are a living part of the base's history,” said Calistra Alba, 92nd ARW historian. “Early on when the base first hosted a bombardment wing of B-52s, these cars were likely the only simulator they had available. The base is 75 years old and these cars have been here for over 50 years, so they go hand in hand with the base's origins.

“Its important people remember them, respect and protect these artifacts for people in the future to enjoy,” Alba added.

Surely this hidden gem of the Air Force's and Fairchild's history deserves to be remembered and honored as the last of its kind, surviving to show us how then, same as now, we train like we fight, to deliver rapid global mobility … now.