"Aircraft Flash, Aircraft Flash"
Watching the skies for jet contrails was the mission of every member of the observer corps.
Recently someone on a history listserv asked a question about the "Ground Observer Corps", and it brought back to mind an experience from my youth. Here is my reply:
If by the "Ground Observer Corps" you might mean those people recruited to sit in little shacks and watch for Russian bombers during the '50s, I was (and hate to admit I'm an historic resource) one of them.
I was, along with a few of my classmates, recruited out of, I think, the 5th grade. We signed up and were sent during the school day to spend an hour or so in a little shack set up in an open field next to the bus garage. My sense is that these little shacks were spaced all over the state, but I could not tell whether there was another one in my local district of Otsego County, or if there was one at every school.
The shack was just about 8 x 8 feet and made of 2x4s and covered with some very temporary siding. Inside was a table, chair and telephone. The telephone was a hot line to some sort of command control facility in Syracuse, NY.
On the table were two items: a log book where you recorded all your observations (many rows and columns - my first experience with government forms) and a rectangular book with a plastic cover.
This book was the best part of the assignment, because inside it were profiles and typologies of all the known aircraft we might observe flying overhead. I spent many an idle hour waiting for the attack and pouring over the section on Russian bombers.
Whenever a plane was seen or heard passing overhead, I had to run outside, note whether it was a prop or jet, how many engines it had and in which direction it was going. I do not recall how we knew the compass bearings, but there may have been something drawn on the floor of the shack or on the table.
Then I urgently had to fill in the data on the log sheet and then dial the phone (I think I just cranked it - no dialing involved), and when the Syracuse center answered, I was to say: "Aircraft Flash, Aircraft Flash" and give them my data on the observed flight.
Thinking back on it all it seems so bizarre; to think that in the middle of New York State a fifth grader would look up in the sky and be the first line of defense against flights of invading Russian bombers! But at that time this all made absolute sense. I remember the orientation speech each class got from a local Civil Defense representative, and we all firmly believed that we were in some small but meanginful way protecting the country - like some 1950s pre-adolescent Militia. This was the era of "duck and cover" drills in the school hallways and articles on how to build a bomb shelter in Mechanics Illustrated and charts on how well you could survive based on your distance from the target spot. I recall worrying about the time slots for which no one had signed up and whether the country was in jeopardy when the little observation shack stood empty.
I was so dedicated that one day on my way home from school, and months after my "tour of duty" had expired, I saw a high-flying multi-engine jet, one of our own bombers I think. And even though I was off duty, I went into the unmanned shack and called it in. I was sharply disappointed to be lectured by the command center operator at the other end of the line, as the observation post had apparently been de-activated. How embarrassing to be trying to save your country from nuclear attack without filling in the proper forms first!
But through this experience I did learn about aircraft typology and which way was north; got a little more confidence using the telephone on my own and (this is most important) how to fill out a government form.
And after all, we did prevent the Russians from bombing Otsego County, didn't we?
And here again, that theme of War keeps cropping up.