Remembering Operation Sky Shield II, October 14-15, 1961

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr. (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing

A L E R T ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

A series of sleep-interrupting phone calls roused drowsy Guardsmen for a Saturday morning alert at the still-dark hour of 3:38 a.m. The alert was held in connection with the nation-wide air defense exercise, Operation Sky Shield.  All commercial flights throughout the country were grounded for most of the day. Thousands of military aircraft participated in the exercise. (142nd Fighter Group Air Scoop, October, 1961)

And so began that Saturday, October 14, 1961.  Operation Sky Shield II was the largest air defense exercise ever held by western countries, involving some 1,800 fighter/interceptor aircraft, 250 bombers, 270 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries and numerous command and control centers.  (Of note, October 14 is the anniversary of the US Army Air Forces’ Second Schweinfurt Raid in 1943, an air defense nightmare for the B-17 Flying Fortress aircrews sent on that mission but a serious lesson in strategic bombardment put to some helpful use in Sky Shield II bomber operations).

The aim of the exercise was to conduct a full-scale operating test of the US-Canadian North American Air Defense system’s (NORAD), land, air and sea-based radar platforms, command and control centers and weapons systems, including aircraft and ground- based air defenses to defend against a large-scale enemy air attack using long-range bombers carrying nuclear weapons.   It was a good workout for the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense system, which was still in the deployment stage across North America. 

The “attackers” were simulated by bomber aircraft from the Strategic Air Command and the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Bomber Command, including B-47 Stratojet, B-52 Stratofortress, B-57 Canberra and RAF Vulcan bombers.  They flew in three assault waves at different altitudes and speeds, using chaff and radar jamming to assist in their penetration of the air defenses.  They flew with up to 2.5 hours between intervals and sought to deliver simulated nuclear weapons against such targets as military, industrial-economic and administrative-political centers.  

Defending fighter aircraft included  the F-89J Scorpion, F-101B Voodoo, F-102A Delta Dagger, F-104A Starfighter, F-106A Delta Dart, F4D Skyray, CL-13 Sabre, CF-100 Canuck) supported by airborne early-warning and control aircraft such as the Navy WV-2/USAF EC-121 Warning Star. Ground-based air defense units included Air Force Bomarc, Nike-Hercules and HAWK SAM units.

In order for full-scale offensive and defensive operations by military aircraft, nearly 1,900 civilian commercial aircraft were grounded in the US and Canada during the operation as were aircraft from 31 foreign airlines, which in turn caused 2,900 flight cancellations or delays.  The number of general aviation/private aircraft affected was around 70,000.  The cost of the inactivity was estimated at $1 million dollars, a value of over $8.7 million today.

The exercise too place for 12-hour period between 1 p.m. on 14 October and 1 a.m. Eastern Time the next day.  It covered an estimated 14 million square miles of air space covering North America.

The Oregon Air National Guard’s part was included within the 25th Air Division area of responsibility, within the Portland Air Defense Sector (POADS).  The POADS SAGE Direction Center (DC-13) at Adair Air Force Station, Oregon, became operational in 1 June 1960.  Various radar sites in the POADS area of responsibility fed air surveillance tracking data into the SAGE system for command-and-control decision-making along with weapons allocation and control. 

The POADS weapons consisted of the fighter-interceptors of the 142nd Fighter Group (Air Defense)/123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, equipped with F-89J Scorpion operating from Portland Air Force Base (AFB), and which served together with the Portland AFB-based 337th FG (AD)/460th FIS, equipped with F-102A Delta Dagger interceptors, as well as the 408th FG/322nd FIS at Kingsley Field with the F-101B Voodoo.

Details of the 142nd’s role in Sky Shield II have evaporated over time evaded and the wing’s History Office archives has little about it, aside from brief mentions in the unit’s Air Scoop newsletters as shared in the introduction and conclusion of this story. 

Even the official history for the last quarter of 1961 of the Portland-based F-102 unit, the regular Air Force 460th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, is slim on details:  “During this quarter this squadron participated in three tactical exercises originated by 25th Air Division or higher headquarters.  One of these exercises was Operation Sky Shield II, a NORAD wide exercise for which all civilian aircraft were grounded for a twelve hour period.  This highly realistic exercise proved again the superior combat capability of the 460th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.”

By the end of the exercise, over 50 fighter-interceptor squadrons (including 30 ANG squadrons) took part  in defending and flew nearly 6,000 individual sorties.  One Seymour-Johnson AFB-based B-52G bomber, Pogo 22 with eight crewmen aboard, was inexplicably lost over the Atlantic Ocean.   Some 150,000 airfield and flying personnel and 50,000 more in close support played a part in the operation, which included NORAD, the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Air and Army National Guards, and the Royal Canadian Air Force. In addition, Navy picket ships, aircraft and blimps participated off both east and west coasts.

NORAD Commander General Laurence S. Kuter called Sky Shield II "the greatest exercise in information analysis, decision-making, and action-taking in continental aerospace defense in all our history."

Although results were not released, later disclosures indicated that the defenders successfully intercepted and defeated about 25% of the attacking bombers.  Significant, but with room for improvement.


A bulletin from Col. Leon Gray, Commander of the Portland Air Defense Sector, to Col. Timm contained the following:

“Thanks for a job well done during Sky Shield II. The ANG’s participation was particularly commendable and again emphasized your effectiveness as a member of the POADS defense team. Keep up the good work!” (142nd Fighter Group Air Scoop, November, 1961)

On this 60th anniversary of the largest western air defense exercise ever, we salute the air warriors of that day, as well as those who serve now, standing alert and ready to scramble at the sound of the klaxon.  Lest we forget…