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Rotary Report: Cold War memories

Gene Ross was the featured speaker at a recent meeting of the Martinez Rotary Club. (PAUL CRAIG / Courtesy)
Gene Ross was the featured speaker at a recent meeting of the Martinez Rotary Club. (PAUL CRAIG / Courtesy)

By PAUL CRAIG
Special to the Tribune

NOTE: Rotary Report is an update about featured speakers at Martinez Rotary Club meetings. Rotary meets once a week at Grace Episcopal Church, 130 Muir Station Road. For meeting times and other inquiries, visit www.martinezrotary.org.

Gene Ross loved planes as a child. He loves them now! He learned to fly early on. During the Cold War in the 1950s he served in the U.S. Air Force. His main job was driving gasoline tankers to refuel bombers. His first fuel tanker was a KC97, designed before WWII. Among other factoids, he told us its four engines had a total of 224 spark plugs, all of which had to be regularly changed in the Alaskan cold.

Later he flew KC135s, which are based on the Boeing 707. These giant four-engined aircraft weighed in at 100,000 pounds empty. When fully loaded with jet fuel, their weight hit 300,000 pounds – 150 tons. Heavy! The fuel weighed about twice the empty plane.

Taking off with a full load of fuel was always an adventure. The planes were loaded to the limit, and barely made it using the full length of three-mile-long runways.

Sometimes a senior officer – who’d long forgotten how to fly well – would come along. This put Gene into a junior position. He told some hair-raising stories. One time the senior guy pilot started the plane in a turn that would have taken them off the runway. Gene grabbed the controls from him. The guy tried to turn Gene in for insubordination. Gene’s crew vouched for him.

Gene's KC135. The photo is signed by his crew. (COURTESY / On File)
Gene’s KC135. The photo is signed by his crew. (COURTESY / On File)

Gene supported B52 bombers which were part of “Operation Chrome Dome.” Hydrogen bombs were kept on-station just outside the Soviet Union, 24 hours a day. Scary times! (Check out Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr Strangelove” to see how scary those days were! They were sure scary for me.)

At first Gene was stationed in Alaska. Later, with faster planes, he was stationed in the States next to long-range missiles. They were on the front lines of the Cold War – thankfully long over. Gene and his wife Marge lived an exciting life!

Later Gene served as a flight instructor, teaching Air Force pilots how to fly on instruments. What a life!

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