On May 23, 1967, on-duty officers at the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) were huddled in an underground command center outside Omaha. They had less than 30 minutes to determine if a sudden bout of radio and radar interference was a natural event or Soviet subterfuge masking a nuclear attack.
Al Buckles was the emergency action controller on duty that day at SAC. As soon as he got word of the apparent radio jam, he and the SAC Emergency Actions Team, which included senior officers, were on the phone with NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs, and the National Military Command Center at the Pentagon.
The U.S. radars that had gone on the fritz were part of the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, which was dedicated to scanning the skies for incoming Soviet missiles. Even if no missiles had been fired, intentionally jamming this early-warning system would have been seen as a potential act of war during the politically tense climate of the Cold War.
As the team dissected the information flowing in, airplanes used as mobile command and control centers and bombers loaded with nuclear weapons awaited their directive. The president was just a phone call away.
In short, if the team determined that the Soviets were to blame, their next actions might have sparked global devastation.
Thankfully, no call was placed on that day and the planes stayed grounded. After about ten minutes, Buckles and his colleagues determined that the radar jamming was a natural occurrence: A strong solar flare had bombarded our planet with a burst of charged particles, creating geomagnetic disturbances that disrupted radio communications.
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