Memories of A B-36 Radio Operator


A B-36, 52-2220, On Display At the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Museum

photo by Chris Talkington

Radio communications has become simplified during the last sixty years, or so. The co-pilot now does the majority of the communications. But it wasn’t always that way. Case in point involves Airman Roger Stigney, a radio operator who served aboard a RB-36 during the 1950s, attached to the 60th Bomb Squadron Operations headquartered in hanger #5 at Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico. Stigney was one of 22 crew members aboard the aircraft when it was fully armed.

With several radios – ARC-27, ARC-13, BC-348, and a manually tuned long-wire HF antenna – Stigney handled all communications, in addition to monitored CW frequencies sent from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters at Offutt AFB, Nebraska. For routine communications the Air Force relied on AM (voice) signals, but for sensitive, classified messages SAC relied on encoded CW (Morse code). Morse travels a greater distance, and is accurately copied through heavy interference, both man made and atmospheric (QRM and QRN, respectively). CW provided yet another layer of security, not everyone receiving the signal could decipher the information carried therein.

Because so much vital information arrived at his airborne post by way of CW, Stigney’s skills had to be up to snuff. In order to be prepared he was required to pass a 20-wpm code test prior to each mission. In addition, since he had more than one job, he also had to spend time on a 20mm machine gun simulator.

Stigney was also the electronic countermeasures (ECM) operator – jamming enemy radar – as well as right-forward gunner.

As if he had not quenched his thirst for radio, he also earned his Novice ticket in 1951 and was issued the call sign WN9TP. In 1953, after transferring to Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico he was issued KP4ABS. Later, he upgraded to Extra Class with AJ0P. While putting the finishing touches on this article, Stigney told me he has a closet-full of radios, and he’s considering giving amateur a third whirl.

The time spent aloft varied from 24 to 27 hours. However, he recalls one mission lasting 40 hours. Most of these sorties were routine, long, uneventful hours spent in the sky. But there were exceptions.

Once, a landing gear failed to extend. Someone had to crawl out into the wing-stub and manually release it, allowing gravity to pull it down to the locked position. This emergency procedure did not allow for the opening of what was commonly called the “canoe door”, the last door to close after a gear are retracted. It was ripped from the airplane in the process.

Another time an engine fire occurred. Controlling it was unsuccessful. It burned so hot that the engine eventually fell from the aircraft.

Yet another time one of the blisters (window) burst at altitude, causing rapid decompression. That is an event for which no one is ever prepared.

Last, but certainly not least, Stigney was a flight crew member on a B-36 on display at the Wright-Paterson AFB Museum until 1970. Originally, this aircraft was a YB-36 (42-13571). Later, prior to going to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, it was converted to a RB-36E model It was later replaced by a B-36J model (52-2220) the aircraft that is currently on display at the museum.

Does he miss his radio operator job? Yes, but communications were changing, requiring less hands-on. The B-36 replacement, the B-52, had no need for his unique skills.