My Friends, Victor and Zulu

During the Cold War, fighter pilots in Europe had one of two missions: ground attack/nuclear strike or air defense. Pilots with a nuclear strike mission took turns sitting alert on aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons and capable of launching in 15 minutes. That was called Victor Alert. Pilots tasked with air defense alert were assigned to aircraft loaded with air-to-air missiles and had to be able to be airborne in 5 minutes. That was called Zulu Alert.

I sat Victor Alert in the F-4 at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany in the early 70s and Zulu Alert 10 years later in the F-15 at Bitburg Air Base, Germany five miles away from Spangdahlem near the border with Luxembourg. Both missions were challenging and unique.


Bitburg and Spangdahlem Air Bases in the Eifel, Germany

Even after completing your transition to the F-4 there was an extensive set of training and tasks before you were qualified to sit nuclear alert. After your local area check out in Germany the next requirement was was bomb commander school where you not only learned the the mechanics of the B-43 and B-61 nuclear bombs you were also trained in the two-man concept of nuclear surety and the nuclear release procedures of the national command authority. While this academic training was taking place you were flying wartime profiles in the simulator and aircraft. In the simulator the instructor drilled you on procedures and you could fly profiles against actual targets. In the aircraft you flew low level profiles to bombing ranges in Germany, Holland, the Netherlands and France with actual releases of practice bombs. The next milestone was to fly a practice mission with a check pilot chasing you to the assigned range and target. Prior to takeoff the check pilot would assign a bomb impact time or time on target (TOT). You had to plan and fly the mission to deliver the bomb within plus or minus 30 seconds of the assigned TOT and less than 300 feet from the target. The final hurdle was called the line certification. In a line certification a paired crew (pilot and weapons system operator) had to brief a review board on an actual assigned target to include alert procedures, release procedures, mission profile for that specific target as well as safe passage recovery procedures.

B-61 Nuclear Weapon

B-61 Nuclear Weapon

Each base in Europe with a nuclear strike tasking had several targets assigned and had to have an aircraft and crew on 15 minute Victor Alert 24/7 365 days a year. The normal alert tour for each crew was for two days during the week and three days on the weekend. Change over for crews was in the morning on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The oncoming crew would check into the alert facility to get their target maps and release codes. Next they would go to the harden shelter where the aircraft was ready for a quick start and departure with the nuclear bomb. Once the oncoming crew inspected the aircraft and verified the condition of the bomb they accepted responsibility for the alert and the off going crew was officially relieved.

The alert facility consisted of both an operations center and maintenance center as well as a dining facility, lounge and sleeping quarters for the aircrews and maintenance personnel. This was a single story building in the middle of the alert area. The atmosphere in the alert facility was simultaneously tense and relaxed.

Victor Alert Area

Victor Alert Area at Spangdahlem

It was tense due to the extreme responsibility, security procedures and destructive power ready to be released. Each aircraft shelter with a nuclear weapon on the airplane was a no-lone zone and only the aircraft/bomb commander and weapons system operator (WSO) could authorize entrance into the shelter. The shelter was always protected by two armed guards authorized to use deadly force if the no-lone zone was violated. Normally, the guards had to verify the identity of the pilot and WSO using a special identification badge before they were allowed to enter the no-lone zone. There was a quick recognition code for rapid access during a scramble.

It was relaxed due to the 15 minute response time that allowed alert personnel to “expand” outside the alert facility to go to activities on base like the theater, gym and other dining facilities with their family as long as they were in constant contact with the command post and in an alert facility vehicle with sirens and warning lights. Crews were subject to practice scrambles and when the alarm sounded they had to get to and start their aircraft and check in with the command post to receive a coded message within the specified time limit. Because the aircraft were loaded with live nuclear weapons they never taxied and in fact the fire department blocked the taxi route to the runway with a fire engine to assure positive control of the nuclear weapons.

The path to Zulu Alert was similar but with a different paradigm. After completing F-15 transition and reporting to an operational squadron in Europe the pilot needed to get a local area check out and learn alert procedures again in the simulator and in the aircraft. Five minute scramble procedures and intercepts were practiced in the simulator and live intercepts were conducted in the aircraft. After passing a mission ready check ride the pilot was ready to sit 5 minute air defense alert.

A Zulu Alert tour was for 24 hours and pilots changed over every morning. Again, the alert facility consisted of both ops and maintenance control centers as well as a lounge, dining facility and sleeping quarters for pilots and maintenance personnel.

The alert facility consisted of four hangar stalls with the support facility in the middle and two stalls on either side. The support facility was a three story building with the maintenance center and dining facility on the first floor. The aircrew lounge and operations center were on the second floor and the sleeping quarters for pilots and crew chiefs were on the third floor. During a scramble, stairs were too slow and the solution was a pole like you see in fire stations. There was a pole from each level to the one below and using the pole was part of the fun of sitting alert.

Zulu Alert Facility

Zulu Alert Facility at Bitburg

With a 5 minute response time pilots and maintenance personnel were confined to the alert facility for their 24 hour tour of duty. There were always four aircraft on 5 minute alert and the good news was that you could usually expect two practice scrambles every day. When the alarm went off all four pilots would respond to their aircraft and start their engines. Orders from the command post would release two aircraft to launch for practice intercepts and the other two aircraft would shut down and resume 5 minute alert. After the first two aircraft returned they would refuel and go back on 5 minute alert. On the second scramble the two aircraft that didn’t fly on the first scramble would be cleared to launch and the remaining two aircraft would shut down and resume 5 minute alert.



About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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1 Response to My Friends, Victor and Zulu

  1. Armbruster says:

    Thanks so much for your insightful information. My Dad was stationed at Bittburg from 1966-69, flew the F-4, and participated in the Victor Alert program. He never told me of the specifics, but your description of this life helps me to respect and admire him even more.

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