The Storm Before the Calm – October, 1962 Part 1: The Columbus Day Storm

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / Historian's Office

This series takes a look back at 142nd Wing history highlights from 60 years ago, in October, 1962.  Many will remember it as the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Part 3 of the series), arguably the closest the world has been to a nuclear war.  This was at the height of the Cold War, when even school children prepared for the ultimate conflict with duck and cover drills in school.  But at Portland Air Force Base (PAFB) there was another school underway, the F-89J Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) school (Part 2 of the series).

The Storm hits Oregon

Columbus Day, Friday, October 12, saw a two-week old storm, the former Typhoon/Hurricane Frieda from the South Pacific, make its way thousands of miles eastward to the Oregon Coast, and batter communities and woodlands in the Pacific Northwest with high winds.

At Cape Blanco on the southern Oregon coast, wind gusts of 145 mph were recorded.  The USAF’s 689th Radar Squadron atop Mt. Hebo on the north central Oregon coast recorded winds of 176 mph, then the wind gauge failed.  These winds knocked down the unit’s AN/MPS-11 search radar and wrecked the new AN/FPS-24 search radar being constructed.  (Personnel of the unit reportedly received a replacement antenna to make the MPS-11 operational again after three days, a feat for which the unit was awarded an Air Force Outstanding Unit Award).

Inland in the Willamette Valley, Salem saw a gust of up to 90 mph.  At Corvallis, average winds of a minute duration were up to 69 mph, with one gust measured at 127 mph before the weather station’s instruments were destroyed and the power failed.

In Downtown Portland, wind gusts reached a measured 116 mph at the Morrison Bridge.  Across the Columbia River from Portland AFB, Pearson Field recorded a peak gust of 92 mph.  Portland International Airport recorded winds at over 63 mph at 8:00 PM in the evening.

The storm inflicted 46 fatalities and many hundreds of injured.  It caused widespread power and telephone outages.  Heavy losses of trees, an estimated 11 billion board feet, were blown down in Oregon, Washington and Northern California. It inflicted $200 million in damage to Oregon and up to $280 million in all – more than 2.7 billion dollars today.

At Portland Air Force Base

Armand Martens was an Airman assigned to the 337th Fighter Group (Air Defense Command), the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor-equipped unit at PAFB, recalls:   “I wasn’t in the 142nd at that time, but I was just down the ramp with the USAF.  Radar shop (WCS) on the F-102s. Yes dear hearts, the same ones we got at (the) 142nd several years later.

I was working on the flight line that afternoon. We shut down maintenance because of “possible” high winds! We were in the shop watching it get darker and the winds (move) little stuff around. Then we noticed one of the 102s moving with nobody around. All the sudden all the crew chiefs ran out on the flight line, opening canopies, hooking up tow bars and turning the aircraft around to point south into the wind. They had been parked to northwest and the wind was rotating them. The big vertical stabilizer was acting just like a weather vane. All during the storm the crew chiefs sat in the cockpits to ride the brakes. Long evening for them. Lot of work cleaning out all the stuff that got blown into the intakes.

I heard that during the storm an airliner was blown off the runway and into the grass and mud. PDX asked for the unit to send the big crane, Tilly I think, to pick up the aircraft and put it back on the runway. Yeah, after the wind quits blowing!”

There were probably some similar flightline emergency actions on the Air National Guard ramp during the storm, though there isn’t much in the wing history archive to describe the event.  The twin-engine, two-seat F-89J Scorpion interceptors the Oregon ANG had at the time were a bit heavier than single-engine, single-seat F-102s; an F-89 weighed some 25,000-lbs empty, and maybe stood its ground on the ramp a little better in the wind as compared to a F-102 at some 19,000-lbs empty.  The storm hit the week after the inauguration of the Air National Guard’s F-89J Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) School, subject of Part 2 of this series.

What is described in the unit’s Air Scoop newsletter for November, 1962 is some activity beyond the flightline, as the Oregon National Guard was mobilized to assist the local community.  The Airmen of the 142nd’s Food Service Section were called to duty over radio and phone at 9 p.m. the night of the storm.  Within 90 minutes they were at work to prepare meals for Oregon National Guard troops helping in the initial recovery from the storm’s damage.

Due to the extensive power outages in the area, the Food Service staff had to prepare and serve food for the midnight meal by flashlight.  By morning, an hour before sunup, a portable generator provided electricity for lighting and power for making breakfast.  More than 330 hungry Army Guardsmen were fed in the effort before the Food Service Section stood down at 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 13.

Although the Columbus Day storm of 1962 inflicted widespread damage in the Pacific Northwest, both active duty and ANG flight operations at Portland AFB were only temporarily impacted.  As soon as the flight lines and the aircraft were cleaned up, operations resumed with no long-term impact from the storm.