The day the mountain roared and the base went dark

A look back at Fairchild and the Mt. St. Helens eruption


Last updated 5/20/2020 at 1:59pm

Contributed photos by Al Cole

Darkness descends over Fairchild Air Force Base mid-afternoon May 18, 1980 as the Mount St. Helens ash clouds moves over in a photo taken by former base public information officer Al Cole.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in March 2017 for the Cheney Free Press's special section commemorating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Fairchild Air Force Base.


Staff Reporter

FAIRCHILD AFB - There's not much that can bring a Strategic Air Command bomber and tanker base to its knees and as close to a shutdown as possible.

Except that is for the unknown fury of Mother Nature's wrath. That's not, mind you with cold, snow, ice or other weather, but a volcano that effectively shut down Fairchild Air Force Base's mission for weeks.

The devastating eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 would have been the prefect time for any rogues and other bad guys to take advantage of the U.S.

The B-52s, as well as the base's KC-135 tankers of the of the U.S. Air Force's 92nd bomb and refueling wing were grounded for days and days by an acrid dump of ash from an explosion out of the depths of the earth.

Different than many volcanoes across the world that ooze lava, Pacific Rim volcanoes often issue clouds of hot, fine ash - pyroclastic flows - and that day in May left most everyone perplexed as to just what it was they were dealing with.

Maj. Al Cole, the public information officer at the base, was on duty that day helping coordinate behind-the-scenes activities for the open house that regularly followed the Spokane Lilac Festival Armed Forces Parade.

For years, the gates at the base swung freely open on the Sunday following the parade and tens of thousands of residents of what was fondly referred to as "The Inland Empire," flocked to Fairchild. Inside they got to peek at aircraft and the airmen who operated them.

"We were sitting in the Officer's Club having brunch with the Lilac Festival and other visiting festival groups," Cole said. "We had all these people coming out to the base - we figure we had 60,000 - and cars were still lined up beyond Airway Heights waiting to get in."

The base commander, Col. John Shaud, had his old-fashioned "brick" mobile phone and got the word that St. Helens has just erupted. The most active of the region's volcanoes had come to life weeks before and had been burping small plumes of ash.

But few had any inkling of what was about to happen, despite an enormous bulge that had formed on the mountain's north side. At 8:32 a.m. all hell broke loose about 250 miles away as the jets fly.

Shaud's first question when he got the news was "What are the winds?" Cole recalled. "They were supposed to take it down south to Walla Walla," so the colonel decided to proceed with the open house.

As winds pushed the ash plume towards Spokane the decision was made to cancel the flying portion of the event.

"Then it starts getting awful dark to the west of us," Cole said, and it is now very apparent that Fairchild is going to be smack in the path of whatever is coming, because no one in this part of the world - that was still alive at least - had ever seen a volcano like this erupt.

The mission now was to figure out how to get those 10s of thousands of people off base in a panic-free manner.

Cole, separated from the service since May 1, 1984, and who now uses a smartphone with the best of them, headed to the Officers' Club, engaged the technology of the time and arranged a conference call with local media.

He told them the air show was being shut down and to have them try to get the message out to turn around and not come out to the base.

"Then it gets dark and stuff starts falling," Cole said. He had enough work to keep him on base as darkness equivalent to 10 p.m. had passed and it's light again - at about 5 p.m.

For the most part crews either put planes in hangers, or buttoned them up as best as possible, except for one visiting aircraft.

"We had the SR-71 here and we were worried about that thing" Cole said. The high-tech spy plane, known as "The Blackbird," remained on base, but was safely stowed away in a hanger.

According to some history written on the time by former wing commander, Col. Dan Simmons, the base remained closed for a month as cleanup took place.

"You know how we moved that stuff?" Cole asked. "With fire hoses and squeegees." Everyone on the base had to go out and push the ash to the side with a squeegee. "They would pick it up and move it out behind the bomber alert area." Cole said.

The ash was light, fluffy and powdery to begin with. "Then you got it wet and it was heavy, it's (like) concrete," he added.


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