NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #35 – Doomsday Planes

Nightwatch – NOT the original Doomsday Plane

a buchman action-adventure technothrillerThe E-4B Nightwatch featured in Miranda Chase #12 was NOT the only Doomsday Plane lofted by the US military. There is a long history that is actually rather interesting. A fan (thanks Gaylord) reminded me of this when he told me about his experience as a kid on a class field trip to Ouffut Air Force Base in the 1970s to actually tour the Looking Glass plane.

“Looking Glass” will be a familiar name to fans of 1970s war movies, from Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe (which were mandatory viewing in our high school) to 1983’s War Games or Countdown to Looking Glass (1984), (though I haven’t seen that one yet). It is the plane that was always aloft to provide a secure command-and-control center in case of nuclear attack. Well, the plane wasn’t a work of fiction. There have been three aircraft commonly called Doomsday planes.

Doomsday Plane #1 – EC-135 “Looking Glass”

© Mike Freer – Touchdown Aviation

This is actually a very interesting plane. The EC-135 was designated by Boeing internally as the 717 (not to be confused with the commercial Boeing 717 that first flew in 1998). Slightly smaller than the 707, it was introduced in 1956 and first used as the KC-135 Stratotanker for mid-air refueling. Five of these were refitted in 1961 to make EC-135A planes until at least 11 more could be outfitted from scratch for the Looking Glass role. They were flown by Strategic Air Command (SAC).

Looking Glass aircraft were continuously aloft (as in at least one plane airborne 24 hours/day) from 1961 – 1990 (after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and shortly before the 1991 collapse of the USSR). After that, they remained on continuous ground or airborne alert until 1998. They always flew with a US general on-board to provide continuity of government and on-going existence of the USA. He flew with the full authority to launch and target the US’s nuclear arsenal in case of attack.

This partial standing-down, remaining on ready-alert rather than aloft, is due to the increasing capabilities of satellites. But they too are vulnerable and these “Doomsday” planes are kept at the ready.

Doomsday Plane #2 – E-6B “Mercury”

United States Navy Boeing E-6B Mercury. (U.S. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

“Looking Glass” isn’t actually the name of the airplane, it’s the name of the mission. In 1998, that mission was handed over to the US Navy who still runs it today. They’re still flying Boeing 707s, some of the very last off the production line which was closed in 1991. It flies with a general officer or admiral on board, with the same mission, command and control of the US nuclear arsenal in case of attack.

Doomsday Plane #3 – E-4B “Nightwatch”

E-4B Nightwatch undergoing EMP (Eletro-magnetic Pulse) testing. By USAF Sergeant Ernie Stone.

These 4 Boeing 747-200s entered service in 1974 with a slightly different mandate, but still definitely class as Doomsday planes. An extremely capable aircraft, it too can conduct command-and-control operations throughout the US military, including direct communication with deeply submerged submarines (which is much harder than it sounds, perhaps another NerdGuy).

The Nightwatch planes are the Air Force One for the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense when they go traveling. These are the military destroyers to the Air Force One luxury yacht. One of these is always parked within 100 miles of the President when he travels overseas in case of emergencies (a fact I used in Miranda Chase #8, White Top). They used to keep one permanently near the President, but these planes are so old that they’ve restricted their usage somewhat to preserve them. It’s only in 2022 that Congress finally authorized the budget to begin the replacement process of these 50-year-old aircraft.

But don’t underestimate their capabilities based on age. The internal electronics are continuously upgraded and fortified against almost every eventuality short of a direct hit. On 9/11, when all non-military planes had been grounded, spotters saw a 747 circling high over Washington, DC. It was an E-4B Nightwatch providing surveillance security to the nation’s capital.

Do I feel safer that they exist, or horrified that there is a need (perceived or imagined) for such aircraft to remain in our arsenal? That’s a question I leave for you to decide. (Click HERE to buy Nightwatch now.)

NerdGuy Fridays: Dispatches from a Writer's Brain - M. L. Buchman

NerdGuy #34: Watching the Little Guys

NerdGuy has been busy, but he’s working to make a comeback more regularly on Fridays. Thanks for all the nice emails asking for more NerdGuy Fridays. It truly helps.

a buchman action-adventure technothriller

No Spoilers

(There are no spoilers for Miranda Chase #12 Nightwatch here even though I’m talking about an excerpt from the final scene…it’s just really cool. And it’s something my wife, with a Masters in Marine Botany, insisted that I include. Once I studied them, I had to agree.)

The Excerpt (yep, hours of research to write this little bit)

The guide had been a font of information from the moment the group had met in the lobby of Thule Air Base Top of the World Club. It was the social center for the six hundred people who worked at this northernmost US military base.

See this poster on the wall. It’s actually a photo micrograph of Neodenticula seminae. It’s a species of plankton that hasn’t been seen in the Atlantic for eight hundred thousand years. Homo sapiens and Neanderthals both emerged less than three hundred years thousand ago. Because of the melting of the Northwest Passage, it has migrated over from the Pacific for the first time in all those years. This image is of a sample collected right here in the bay.

They had looked like curved stacks of golden glass blocks to make up a tube of warm color. Andi was glad that someone had made it safely through the Northwest Passage.

The Neodenticula seminae

It is one of my wife’s favorite plankton. She said it looks like lovely glass blocks under the microscope. Here’s an image from the 2010 research paper: “Morphological and phylogenetic comparisons of Neodenticula seminae (Bacillariophyta) populations between the subarctic Pacific and the Gulf of St. Lawrence” available at

Neodenticula seminae from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Northwest Atlantic, light microscopy. Fig. 1. Straight ribbon-shaped colonies. Fig. 2. Coiled ribbon-shaped colony. Fig. 3. Solitary and paired cells with chloroplasts.

The Cowl

Buchman Nightwatch Cowl
The Neodenticula seminae are the little white and gold bars floating in the upper layer of the ocean in the Nightwatch Cowl. Then the floating ice on the horizon and the Aurora Borealis above. (My wife knit this as part of a drawing for anyone who purchased Nightwatch through my webstore in the first month it was available. Congrats to Nancy!)

The Perspective

I’ve always been fascinated by the ice, in case you couldn’t tell (MC #11 Skibird and my Antarctic Ice Fliers both in Antarctica, and now MC #12 Nightwatch in the Arctic). I botched an option to go to Antarctica as a college-student intern and it remains a deep regret. I still hope to get there someday. But like astronomy (I ran the college planetarium for 4 years) and airplanes, it has always fascinated me.

The opening of the Northwest Passage (from the northwest Atlantic over Canada and Alaska to the Bering Sea and on to the Pacific) and the Northeast Passage (from Europe over Scandinavia and Russia also to the Pacific) is having enormous impact on both trade relations and the environment. The shipping routes from China to the US East Coast via the Northwest Passage and to Europe over the Northeast Passage is already effecting global economics.

As a kid I read every account I could find about the early explorers from the deeply misguided Sir John Franklin to the utterly brilliant Sir Ernest Shackleton. The single most gripping account I ever found was Hell on Ice written by Read Admiral Edward Ellsberg, one of my favorite authors (thankfully back in print after years OOP).

Ten years ago I recall a pair of men set out to do a trek across the North Pole. They said it would probably be the last time it could ever be done from landfall to landfall because of ice melt. The next year, someone tried, but fell through the ice and died. While looking for those articles, I stumbled on this one “The Untold Story of the Boldest Polar Expedition of Modern Times” (2020). They couldn’t reach the ice at either end by land, so they did it by boat, in fall (Sept to Dec), which means  they did their crossing in the dark!!! The last line particularly caught my eye: “Even if there were other explorers in this world willing to try, it’s unlikely ever to be repeated, due to the Arctic’s shrinking ice cap. Polar experts believe it’s likely that within the next 20 years Septembers in the Arctic Ocean will be entirely devoid of ice, even at the North Pole. Says Gamme, “The great modern polar exploration era ended with that trip.

Of course, plankton aren’t the only critters now making the crossing: “Gray Whales Ocean Hopping from the N. Pacific to the N. Atlantic Ocean!” (2021)

I watch the ice caps shrink and I can only wonder at what incredible opportunities and tragedies await us. I’m hoping for mostly the former, of course.

a buchman action-adventure technothriller

Nightwatch has taken off!

Launch Day is here! Read it now!

a buchman action-adventure technothriller
As the Arctic melts, the fabled Northwest and Northeast Passages are opening. But are they opening to war?

A Chinese freighter attacked. A sabotaged passenger jet crashed in Quebec. And high overhead an E-4B Nightwatch, America’s fortress-in-the-sky, sees all.

With nations shifting to high alert, Miranda Chase lands once more in the midst of the fray. But first she must fight battles of her own. Can she conquer the emotional chaos her autism unleashes amid the loss of her past? In time to save her team? —And avert the disaster playing out under the Northern Lights?

A tale of high adventure, airplanes, and espionage.

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