Armorial Bearings granted to Robert Lord alias
Laward of London in 1510; College of Arms MS L10 folio 105b;
copyright of the College of Arms, London. Used by permission.

"Aircraft Flash, Aircraft Flash"

High flying aircraft.


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.

The aircraft identification manual.

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.

A Civil Defense poster from the 1950s.

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!

An original data pad from the 1950s.

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?

The image we all carried around in our heads in the 50s.

Links to other pages on this subject.

And here again, that theme of War keeps cropping up.


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