FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- Behind a barbed-wire fence, maintenance workers were busy yesterday removing nuclear bombs from B-52s. For the first time in 40 years, the planes would sit with their bellies empty.
The "alert" facility here, home base for the men and women who were poised for war on a moment's notice, was a ghost town yesterday. Nearly everyone had gone home.
"It's kind of like winning the war," said Capt. Bruce Adams, a B-52 bomber aircraft commander who has served eight years at Fairchild, intermittently on alert. "It's just that you won it not through killing and through death, but you've won . . . through deterrence, basically."
When President Bush announced his dramatic nuclear arms reductionpackage Friday night, taking the crews of 280 nuclear bombers in the U.S. Strategic Air Command fleet off alert, the crews at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane first felt shock. Then denial.
Nobody really believed it, crewmen recalled yesterday, until Saturday morning, when wing commander Col. Michael G. Ruotsala told the 75 crew members housed round-the-clock at the facility for their seven-day shift that they could go home.
Then came the celebrations. The crews broke out champagne and beer to toast their "victory" before streaming home to surprise their families.
"These guys are at war and have been at war for 40 years," said Maj. Jeffrey Randall, a B-52 radar navigator who has been on alert duty off and on since 1981. "There's no doubt about it. Everything we did was in readiness for war, and now suddenly it's over."
For 10 years, Major Randall said, he has justified his career choice by maintaining a fatalistic world view based on Cold War and nuclear realities. "I'm sitting in a place that is dedicated at a moment's notice to go to war," he said. "Do I feel comfortable with that, having a family and everything else? My theory 10 years ago, because of the threat to the world, was that if I had to get into an airplane and go to war, the family that I love and care about wouldn't be here when I got back. So I could live with that."
His shock over the weekend's news was due in part to his sudden realization that the world is now a different place. And it had changed before he knew it, before he had time to adjust.
"Most people are like ostriches," he said. "We ignore the future. We don't prepare for it. I think most of us here live with the status quo. We didn't look at the possibility of it changing. But now the status quo has changed so drastically and so quick."
Everyone was expecting some changes in the Strategic Air Command tomorrow, the start of the fiscal year. Already it had been announced that B-52s would no longer have gunners manning their tails after that date, forcing 30 gunners here and a total of 325 at the nation's 10 SAC bases either to switch jobs or retire.
Some crew members had speculated that perhaps there would be smaller crews, or maybe they would go on "soft alert," with crew members allowed to go home at night instead of spending every on-duty hour on base. "But nobody thought no alert," said Lt. Dan Swain, a KC-135 Stratotanker co-pilot who had been on alert duty for 1 1/2 years.
"Some guys have spent years of their life out on alert, away from their families," said Captain Adams, enjoying his first full day of freedom yesterday with a mixture of elation and concern as he pondered the end of the Cold War and what that might mean for his job.
No reductions in alert personnel have been announced by the Strategic Air Command. Colonel Ruotsala said yesterday that although nuclear bombs will be dismantled and stored and regular base personnel will be permitted to use the health club and dining room previously restricted for use by the alert crews, other areas of the alert facility will remain at-ready.
Still, said Captain Adams, "I think everyone is concerned about their job, with all the changes going on in world affairs."
Right now, the biggest change locally is adjusting to a way of life that does not include regular long periods of virtual quarantine from family.
Life for members of the alert crews was, in some respects, a little like being in prison. They couldn't leave the base at all during their seven-day shifts, which occurred once a month.
During times of world crisis or inclement weather, when getting to their bombers from across the base might have been hazardous, they had even shorter leashes; they were restricted to the alert facility.
They could see their families while on alert duty only at the visitation center, a small building with a kitchen and playground and smaller dens for privacy that sits just outside the restricted alert area.
Red warning lights are situated along all the roads of the base. In the event of an alert -- an actual emergency or a test -- the lights went on and a siren sounded. Personnel on alert, who tooled around the base in small, easily identifiable blue trucks, got automatic right-of-way; all other vehicles pulled over as alert personnel raced to their planes.
That happened on Feb. 23, the day the ground war started in the Persian Gulf.
Major Randall said he was at the visitation center with his family when the siren sounded. It was a weekend, and the center was packed with family members enjoying one another's company. The routine was for bomber crews to scramble to their planes and start their engines.
Major Randall left his wife and children behind that day, not knowing whether he would ever see them again.
Moments like those, he said, he will not miss.