Flying radar missions over North Sea was scary and boring ‘Cold War’ duty

George Burger (left) of Port Charlotte, Fla. wanted to be a Naval aviator, but ended up as a radar operator aboard a Super Constellation flying out of a base in Canada during the “Cold War.” He’s pictured with his buddy Don Fitzik shortly after they got out of boot camp at Great Lakes. Photo provided

George Burger of Rotonda, near Port Charlotte, Fla., was a radar operator aboard a four-engine Navy Super Constellation patrol plane flying out of Argentia Naval Air Station, Newfoundland in the mid 1950s during the “Cold War” searching for Soviet missiles and submarines as a member of Airborne Early Warning Squadron 13.

“It was hard to describe. It was a little rock island off the coast of Newfoundland about 10,000 feet long and 5,000 feet wide with no vegetation and no animals,” the 74-year-old former Petty Officer 3rd class explained. “It was a dreary, cold place where the wind never stopped blowing.

“We flew up there from Patuxent River Naval Air Station, outside Washington, D.C. in October. They opened the hatch of our plane and I stepped into dreariness,” Burger said. “The sky was gray, the water was gray and the land was gray. I thought to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

“Winter was just coming on and it came on with a vengeance. The snow didn’t melt, the wind blew at 50 to 60 mph all the time. It would be around zero most of the time. The winter time was tough up there.

“We had to contend with a lot of boredom. There wasn’t a lot for us to do,” Burger said. “It was scary as hell when we were flying, particularly when we were landing or taking off. Other than that it was boring.”

A normal patrol flight would last 12 to 16 hours. On occasion they might fly more than 20 hours during a single mission. That’s why the Super Constellations flew with 26 men aboard – two complete crews.

Burger said he never saw any Soviet fighters in the air during his missions over the North Sea. However, there were no shortage of Soviet trawlers wallowing around in the frigid water below them equipped with their own radar and radio communications.

This was Burger’s unit at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago. He’s the sailor in the front row far left. Photo provided

“The Russians were trying to figure out our radio frequency. Occasionally they would and they’d try and mess with our communications,” he said. “On one occasion the pilot of our Constellation swooped down and flew 40-feet above one of the Russian trawlers. The skipper of the boat filed a complaint with the American Embassy, but nothing came of it.

“Flying 2,500 feet above the ocean we’d get sea foam on our windshield. The water temperature was 28 to 30 degrees with 40-foot seas. It was really rough,” he said. “The wind would get up to 96 mph. Some of those flights were terrible.

“Flying out of Argentia toward the Azores one day I picked up something going 2,500 mph paralleling the United States,” Burger recalled. “I contacted NORAD, but we never found out what it was.

“Most of the time what we saw on our radar screens were whales and ice bergs. Flying at 2,500 feet they were easy to see on our scopes,” he said.

“On one flight we picked up so much ice we were afraid the airplane wouldn’t make it back to base. We could keep the leading edge of the wings and the vertical stabilizer clear of ice, but ice would build up on the props, nose, windshield and everywhere else it could get. When we landed the ice broke lose and banged up our tail pretty badly,” Burger said.

George Burger is pictured with his mother, father, and four brothers when he graduated from boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in 1955. Photo provided

“One time we landed back at base and one of the radar-men got off the plane and accidentally walked right into a turning props,” he said. “Oddly enough it didn’t kill him, but it chewed him up pretty bad. He spent months in the hospital and he never flew again.

“We lost an engine on one of our flights. We turned around and headed back to base,” he said. “Just before landing the flight engineer saw something he didn’t like on his gauges and shut down all four engines. We almost went in the water, but the pilot kept the plane airborne until we reached the runway. It was a heck of a landing. We hit the runway so hard it bent the wings.”

At the very end of his tour to Argentia, Burger hadn’t gotten his obligatory four hours monthly flight time in to qualify for fight pay, so he flew as an observer on a training flight which turned out to be a hair-raiser.

“We were out about an hour from the field and the airplane started shaking like crazy. Nobody could figure out what the problem was until the pilot saw something peculiar with one of the engines and shut it down,” he said. “What he discovered was one of the prop blades had come off without hitting the plane.

“The pilot turned the plane around and headed home. On the way he dumped most of the plane’s full load of fuel. We called in for an emergency landing and on our final approach two red flares went up. We were told our right landing gear wasn’t down and locked into position.

“We were circling around the base when the pilot suggested we all bail out,” Burger said. There was no good place to jump out of that airplane. If you went out the rear hatch you had the plane’s triple tail to contend with. If you went out the front hatch there were the engines and wings.

“So another guy and I got out the plane’s landing gear manual and started cranking down the gear by hand for about 40 minutes. Finally it released and dropped into place just about the time we landed,” he said.

Burger holds a large picture of a Super Constellation, four-engine patrol plane like the one he flew on taking off from Argentia Naval Air Station in Newfoundland. Sun photo by Don Moore

“When I got back to base I realized I only had two hours and 20 minutes of flying time and I needed more than an hour more. I had a friend in the office who scheduled me for a final flight I didn’t take.”

Burger was discharged from the Navy in 1958 on his 21st birthday. He went to college and then went to work for the U.S. Air Force. He worked as a procurement officer for 30 years until he returned and he and his wife, Lois, moved down to Rotonda West, Fla. in 2003. They have two children: Mark and Michelle.


Burger’s File

Name: George Michael Burger
D.O.B: 30 June 1937
Hometown: Pierre, S.D.
Currently: Rotonda West, Fla.
Entered Service: 25 May 1955
Discharged: 30 June 1958
Rank: Petty Officer 3rd Class
Unit: Airborne Early Warning Squadron 13


This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Feb. 20, 2012 and is republished with permission.

Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.

Click here to view Burger’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans’ History Project.

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