In 1947, the year before George Kalaf’s freshman year, at the University of Florida, the school’s Gator football team lost every game. Some 8,000 students attended the university in those days.
“The next year the Gators lost their first three games. On their fourth they finally beat North Carolina State by one point,” the 78-year-old Port Charlotte , Fla.man recalled. “The campus went crazy and about tore up Gainesville.”
In 1950, when he graduated from the engineering school at UF, the Korean War was just getting started.
“I was A-1 in the draft and all my job offers were canceled. I went into the Air Force in March 1951 and eventually wound up flying the backseat in an F-94C “Starfire,” all-weather interceptor fighter plane. We flew out of Elmendorf Air Force Base at Anchorage, Alaska.
“I was in the 66th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Alaskan Air Command. Our job was to intercept the Russian TU-104 bomber armed with nuclear missiles. It was a replica of our World War II B-29, ‘Superfortress,’ that decimated Japan at the end of the war,” he explained.
The “Starfire” wasn’t much of an interceptor. It was armed only with four, .50-caliber machine guns in the nose. Its top speed was 640 mph.
“The odds of us being successful taking down a TU-104 weren’t very good. Our daylight kill ratio was probably four of our fighters to one of their bombers,” Kalaf said. “At night and during lousy weather, our kill ratio probably went up to 2 to 1 in favor of the Russians.”
Like other wars in other places, most of their time was spent sitting in a “scramble shack” at the end of the runway waiting for something to happen. When the word came down from headquarters to “scramble,” they had a maximum of five minutes to get their interceptors into the air headed for the target.
Kalaf was a lieutenant and the radio man/navigator aboard the “Starfire” interceptor.
“The Russians were playing games with us. Quite often they’d send a bomber or two over the Bering Straits to see how many planes we sent up and how fast. Just before entering our airspace they’d turn around and go home and so would we,” he said. “The purpose of a TU-104 loaded with a nuclear bomb flying into American airspace was to knock out our air defense system. We’d have to visually identify them and then do whatever we could to get them out of the air.”
Fortunately for Kalaf and the rest of the country, he and his squadron were never called on to shoot down a Russian bomber.
The closest they came was one time when they scrambled to check out an unidentified multi-engine airplane.
“Every time we’d get close enough to the plane to make a visual identification, the pilot would duck into a cloud bank and we’d lose him. This went on for 20 or 30 minutes,” he said. “What we were concerned about, if the Russians were going to attack us, they would try to bring in their bomber and make it look like a commercial airline flying off course.
Finally they were told by ground control, “You have to identify him. If you can’t give us a positive identification we can’t give you an order to shoot him down.
“That was the last thing I wanted on my conscience,” Kalaf recalled more than half a century later.
“The pilot wasn’t answering any radio calls because he was flying off course. He knew he would be fined if caught by us,” he said. “We had to find him and read his tail numbers.
“What we ended up doing was synchronizing our air speed and coming in behind him. Then we dropped or landing gear and flaps and put on our landing lights. We almost sat down on his tail as we read his numbers,” Kalaf said.
They passed the tail numbers to ground control. A short time later, they were informed it was a four-engine Northwest Orient Airliner. The pilot must have gotten into real trouble for trying to dodge them, he said.
In 1955, Kalaf’s first and only hitch in the Air Force was over. He got out and immediately joined the staff of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory located just outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland. It was his industrial engineering degree from Florida that got him in the door.
“For the next 31 years, I was involved with design work with torpedoes. I was brought in to work on the Mark-48 Torpedo,” he said. “In those days, these torpedoes were fast enough that if they were fired on the interstate they would be given a ticket. Today, some of our torpedoes reach speeds of 150 mph.”
When Kalaf began his torpedo-design work, the Russian Akula Class attack submarine could outrun and outdive our torpedoes. Furthermore, if we hit one of these subs with one of our torpedoes, we weren’t capable of doing much damage to their submarines, he said.
The scary part about the Russian navy, Kalaf said, was “A Russian admiral in charge of the sub fleet was quoted as saying, ‘Each skipper of a nuclear attack submarine has the authority to release his missiles without anyone else’s approval.’ They could launch a nuclear attack on the decision of one sailor.”
“I was teamed with Clevite Ordinance out of Cleveland, Ohio. Gould Ocean Systems bought them out,” he said. “It got down to the point we had two fully developed torpedoes — one built by Gould and the other by Westinghouse.”
In 1970, they had a shootout between the two torpedoes. The Gould torpedo won because it was the better torpedo. Westinghouse ended up buying out Gould and taking over its torpedo system.
In 1985 he got a chance, after more than three decades of working with the navy, to go to work in the private sector. He was hired by Martin Marietta to do the same thing — develop torpedoes.
Kalaf kept on building torpedoes for the next eight years, until he retired in 1994 and he and his wife, Peggy, moved to Port Charlotte.
Looking back on his life in the military and the role he played in building torpedoes for this country’s submarine fleet, Kalaf said a few days ago, “I think the work we did on the torpedo was one of the paramount reasons we won the Cold War. The Russian submarine threat was so great we had to counter it, and when we did, they couldn’t keep up. It bankrupted their country.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, July 22, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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