Who Shot J.R.?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Doug Schott, USAF (Ret.)
  • 92 ARW
You may have heard of the old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times." Well, for those of us assigned to the 92nd Bomb Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base, 1980 was about as interesting a time as you could imagine.

Although American involvement in Vietnam ended when Saigon fell in 1975, the Cold War with the Soviet Union was still ongoing. About a third of the 92nd's B-52 Stratofortress bombers and its KC-135A Stratotanker refuelers were still on "alert" status, ready to launch on a moment's notice as part of Strategic Air Command's (SAC's) nuclear strike force. As strange as it may seem now, pulling alert was pretty routine for SAC aircrews.

Things changed quickly in November of 1979 when a mob of Iranian protestors stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Fifty-two American hostages would endure 444 days of captivity before finally being released. In addition, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan Dec. 24, 1975, setting off a series of events that were anything but routine. 

President Jimmy Carter responded to the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan by imposing an embargo on all U.S. grain shipments to the Soviet Union. The president also canceled American participation in the 1980 summer Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Moscow. The Cold War was heating back up.

And then in the spring of 1980, three otherwise unrelated events occurred in rapid succession which would make our lives even more "interesting."

On March 21st, the CBS television network aired an episode of their hit show Dallas, in which one of the main characters, Texas business tycoon J.R. Ewing, was shot by one of nine possible suspects. America was kept in suspense for eight long months until the shooter was finally revealed in a Dallas episode the following November. As you will see, the outcome would surprise some of us who thought we had the "inside" scoop on "who done it." 

Then in April what became known as the Mariel Boatlift began when the first of 125,000 Cuban refugees in an armada of small, barely seaworthy, boats made their way to Florida. The exodus continued until the end of October, with repercussions as far away as Arkansas and, believe it or not, Washington state!

The final event in this sequence would have a much more lasting impact on Spokane than the first two. Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Mountains of western Washington had begun to rumble in March with a series of earthquakes, which quickly increased in both frequency and severity. Scientists placed sensors around the mountain, and they warned that it was becoming increasingly unstable and could experience a volcanic eruption. Government authorities cautioned nearby residents to evacuate the area, but some refused to leave, including widower Harry R. Truman (no relation to the former president), who stayed at his cabin on Spirit Lake.

On May 18th, I was on duty as the senior controller in the 92nd Bomb Wing command post. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and Fairchild AFB was completing preparations for its annual "open house." More than 6,000 Inland Empire area residents were expected to visit the base and tour the flight line to see a variety of military aircraft, which had flown in from all over the country. Planning for this community event had been ongoing for months, and all those plans went up in smoke (literally!) at 8:32am when the north slope of Mount St. Helens blew off in the largest volcanic eruption in U.S. history.  Fifty-seven people were killed (including Mr. Truman), and the mountain shed nearly 1,300 feet of its height as a plume of fine volcanic ash rose to over 80,000 feet.

We were not immediately aware of the explosion (this was way before the internet and cell phones), and it took a while for the authorities to begin implementing their notification protocols. The first call to the command post came about 10:00 a.m., and it was from a Washington State Patrol officer who informed me that Mount St. Helens had erupted and that a huge plume of ash was moving east across the state. I recall asking him if there had been any lava coming from the mountain, and he said no, just a lot of smoke and ash that was falling out of the sky like snow.  He said it was so bad that state troopers were changing the air filters in their cruisers every 30 minutes! He also said the ash cloud could reach the Spokane area in just a few hours.

I quickly got off the phone with the trooper and called Col. David Moore, the 92nd Bomb Wing commander, to inform him of the situation. He immediately cancelled the base open house and directed that our civilian visitors be asked to depart as soon as possible. In addition, he ordered the evacuation of all transient aircraft while they could still launch ahead of the expected ash cloud. We also began to move our own bombers and tankers into hangars to protect them from the ash. When we ran out of hangar space, our maintenance folks placed tape over the pitot static ports of planes that remained on the ramp to protect them from the ash.

About 4:00 p.m. the volcanic ash cloud came into view. It was huge and black, and strangely quiet as it moved steadily east. The cloud seemed to envelope everything, and we could see the falling ash start to accumulate on the ground. It took more than two days for the cloud to pass through the area, and when it was finally gone Spokane was covered in about two-and-a-half inches of fine, gray, powdery dust. We found out later that as much as four inches had been dumped in central Washington's Columbia Basin region. 

Although the ash seemed to have the consistency of talcum powder, it was actually pretty heavy and abrasive. A civilian airliner found out the hard way after flying through the ash cloud. The pilots could barely see through cockpit windows scoured by the ash, and after a challenging landing the airplane's engines were trashed from the volcanic grit and had to be replaced.

The situation on the ground was not much better. At first, even scientists were not sure what could be done to get rid of the ash. They initially warned the public not to use water to wash off their driveways, patios, or cars because of concern that mixing water with the ash could create corrosive sulfuric acid. Although this turned out not to be a problem, people hosing down their property quickly plugged up city storm drains with compacted ash sediment.

If you think it would be difficult to wash two-plus inches of volcanic ash off a driveway, try cleaning an airfield runway that is more than two miles long! Throw in additional miles of taxiways and acres of aircraft parking ramps, and the scale of the required cleanup was daunting indeed.

To meet this challenge, Col. Moore convened the base "Battle Staff," a group of key functional area managers (security, maintenance, operations, medical, transportation, etc.) who would be responsible for implementing the actions needed to get the base back up and running. Since the recovery operation required round-the-clock effort, there were actually two Battle Staff groups which would alternate shifts every 12 hours.

Their first priority was returning the airfield to operational status. Since washing the ash from the runway and taxiways was initially not an option, the first phase of this clean-up effort was done by a lot of airmen pushing brooms! Soon street sweepers and other heavy equipment were being used to speed things up. Everyone involved was directed to wear face masks to avoid breathing the stirred up ash dust.

Once the airfield was again operational, many of our aircraft were sent to other air bases in California where our aircrews could fly training missions and keep their combat edge. They were gone for weeks, and I can attest that the novelty of the situation quickly wore off as base personnel continued a recovery operation that would last for months. 

In fact, the summer of 1980 was downright tedious as the continuous 12-hour shifts took their toll on base personnel and their families. The cleanup operation involved thousands of labor hours of sheer drudge work. Everyone started to get a little testy, including the Battle Staff folks who were stuck in the Command Post conference room. Boredom was setting in, but things were about to get a little more interesting.

On the morning of Saturday, June 1st, I was on duty in the Command Post, and with no local flying activity to help coordinate, I was watching the CNN television channel. Suddenly the TV screen lit up with a "breaking news" alert about a riot at a refugee center at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. This facility housed more than 19,000 of the previously mentioned Cuban "Boatlift" refugees, and more than 2,000 of them with prior criminal records were now burning mattresses to protest being kept against their will.

As I watched the newscast I got an idea for a little practical joke to liven things up for our grumpy bunch of Battle Staff warriors. I decided to send a fake message from one of our old teletype machines to another one. The message would look like it came from SAC headquarters and was addressed to the 92nd Bomb Wing. As I recall, the message stated something like:

"Reference previous message (you know, the one we never got!). First contingent of 2,000 Cuban refugees to arrive your station at 1600 PDT tomorrow, July 2nd. C-141 aircraft will transport 50 refugees each and arrive at 30 minute intervals. Please confirm preparations (security, medical, housing, transportation, etc.) are in place."
I then took the fake message into the Battle Staff conference room where I gave it to Col. Moore.  He read it quickly and then he looked up at me with a puzzled expression. I just smiled, and he realized it was a prank.

And then the fun began. Col. Moore read the "message" to the assembled Battle Staff in a deadpan manner as if it was the real deal, and all the assembled colonels came unglued!

The Director of Operations, in particular, went ballistic: "Don't those idiots know we had a volcano erupt here!" He had a lot more to say on the subject that is not suitable for publication.

Colonel Moore had a lot of fun with this message for the next several hours. Every time someone new would come into the conference room he would show them the message and ask them how their preparations were going to host our expected 2,000 Cuban visitors.

Things got even more interesting when my Command Post controller assistant asked me what all the fuss was about in the conference room. When I told him that 2,000 Cubans were coming to Fairchild tomorrow his first question was: "Where are they going to put them?" To which I responded: "Base housing." 

"Holy cow," he said. "I live in base housing! They can't do that!"

"Sure they can" I replied. "All they have to do is declare martial law and they can put the Cubans wherever they want to."

He then said "But there are not enough housing units for 2,000 people."

I then told him that the solution was simple. When the busses arrived at base housing they would drop one Cuban off at each house in turn, and then repeat the cycle until they ran out of Cubans.  Things got a little more complicated after that conversation.

Before I could stop him, my assistant called his wife to tell her the news, and the whole story went viral on Fairchild in a matter of a few minutes. Within an hour there was a run on the base commissary, which quickly ran out of rice and beans.

Apparently word was quickly spreading off-base as well. Within a day the governor of Washington, Ms. Dixy Lee Ray, called a press conference to deny the rumor that 2,000 Cuban refugees were coming to the state of Washington!

In the following months life at Fairchild slowly returned to normal. The base was finally cleaned up, our planes and aircrews returned from California, and we all settled back into the routine of flying training sorties when we weren't pulling alert duty. 

But 1980 had one more twist to keep things interesting.

As the summer turned to fall, CBS began airing teaser TV promotions about their hit series, Dallas. Soon, everyone was asking, "Who shot J.R.?" 

Finally, after months of waiting, the long awaited secret was to be revealed in the Nov. 21 episode during "sweeps" week to bolster CBS ratings.

I was on duty again in the Command Post that evening when the phone rang about 6:30 p.m.  The person calling was at a party where people were placing bets on who shot J.R.  The caller had figured out that the Dallas episode to be shown in the Pacific time zone was actually a rebroadcast of the initial one for the Eastern time zone. Ah, ha!

He said that if I would call one of the SAC base Command Posts on the east coast, they would already know who shot J.R., and the caller would have a slam dunk on his wager.

There was only one little problem with his plan. He was not the only person with the idea. It turned out that several other SAC Command Posts on the west coast were calling their counterparts in the east. 

So when I made the call, it was my turn to be pranked. I was told, "Believe it or not, it was his mother."