Vietnam Era B-52 Experiences
My time as a B-52 Gunner
By CMSgt Richard Lake, USAF (Ret)
When I first got to Ellsworth in 1972, there was an old, highly experienced IP in the training flight that always ended the crew briefing on mission planning day with: ďIn the event of an incident on takeoff, weíll all exit the aircraft, assemble upwind, and get our stories straightĒ. This is my story.
Iím from a small town in Western Massachusetts called Northampton, and grew up in the 1950s. Now it seems like we grew up in totally different country. WWII had only been over a few years, times were prosperous, and it was a good time to be a kid. Several important things though are vastly different from today. In grammar school, the day began with a Bible reading and prayer, and the pledge of allegiance. In all 12 grades, we were well versed in American history. Since we were in New England, we concentrated on the Revolution, and we began to appreciate how we got our freedoms. We often sang My Country Tis of Thee, and in 5th grade we had to memorize Longfellowís poem, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Later, when I was stationed in England, I sang My Country Tis of Thee at retreat while they were playing God Save the Queen before The Star Spangled Banner. Same tune. I strongly believe that one of the causes of the USAís problems today is our loss of our sense of history. Remember, Patrick Henry didnít say ďGive me ambiguity or give me something elseĒ.
My father, all my uncles except two who were too old, fought in the war. Most of my neighbors and teachers did also. Studs Turkel, in the title of his excellent book, called WWII, The Good War, because itís the one we won. That was President Rooseveltís objective from Pearl Harbor forward. I remember that many of these veterans wished they had stayed in. My then, they could have been retired. That stuck with me, and I began to think of the military as a career when it was my turn to serve.
There was no doubt the military would be part of my future. My father enlisted in 1938. I donít know if my grandfather kicked him out of the house or what. I imagine times were tough in his Iowa farm village. He went thru basic in Ft. Dix., was assigned to engineers, and went to the Canal Zone for his first duty station. He eventually became a First Sergeant, and landed at Omaha Beach at D-Day plus 2 or 3. He didnít see much combat, and got out in 1946 after 8 years.
I felt I owed the country something, at least one hitch anyway. I graduated from high school in 1966 and worked for about a year in a local factory. The draft was starting to call up some people in town as Vietnam was starting to heat up. I got my draft card when I turned 18 Ė except in my case it really was a draft card. We only lived 40 miles from New York State where the drinking age was 18, so we made frequent trips there, but made sure someone else drove back. This was also the time when LBJ had an income tax surcharge in place. He was trying to fight a war, and launch all his Great Society programs. Didnít work. If I worked a 40 hour week I took home $67.00. A 60 hour week gave me the same $67.00 so I told the plant manager I wasnít going to work overtime anymore. He said if I wasnít going to work overtime I could ďget the hell outĒ. So I took the hint.
I ended up taking most of the summer of Ď67 off, went on a canoe trip in Maine, and worked part time as a straw boss on a local shade tobacco farm that employed many local high school kids. On 1 Sep, I enlisted in the Air Force. I was in the CAP for a few years starting in Jr. High so I felt the AF was the choice for me. I even had two orientation flights on C-119s out of Bradley Field, CT.
In basic I burned my draft card. Many people leaving basic didnít go to Tech School then. I went DDA to Luke AFB, AZ and was assigned as a Fuel Specialist (POL). Supposedly, Petroleum, Oil, and Lubricants, it really was Painting, Odd Jobs, and Landscaping. When I got there, I was handed a paint brush and a tire iron. They were in the middle of a project to change the tires on all the refueling units from commercial to military treads. In those days, we didnít use air wrenches. We used manual shock wrenches. The ends that pivoted had heavy oval weights. We would slam that part to loosen the nuts and bolts to the tires. As an added bonus, on a dual rim, you always replaced the inside tire anyway.
Once that ended, I got sent on a short TDY to the gunnery range at Gila Bend. Luke was a major training base for F-100s pilots who were on their way to Vietnam. We had about three squadrons of F-100C/D/Fs (Two Seaters) that practiced strafing at night with the help of 2-million candlepower flares. We were there to pick up the flare chutes before noon when it got too hot. The base also trained the Luftwaffe, who was using, for reasons known only to them, F-104s as a ground attack aircraft. The F-104 was a J-79 engine with wings designed as a hot interceptor with a high stall speed. Back in Germany they had a lot of accidents. Luke was so busy around the clock I nicknamed it Afterburner Flats.
The first morning at Gila Bend, I walked into the chow hall at 0400, and the cooked asked how I wanted my eggs. I said scrambled, and the he said, how many? I remember thinking; this is my kind of chow hall, and said six!
Back at Luke, it rained for a solid week before Christmas. In the high desert ranch country up north, they got 3-4 feet of snow and couldnít feed their cattle. There was an AF Reserve wing of C-119s at March AFB, CA that flew in to fly missions dropping hay to those cattle. Base Ops had a list of volunteers for people willing to fly on those missions, and I was comfortable with the airplane. I signed up and got to fly on Christmas Day 1967. This is still the best Christmas ever. We got to stand in the aft side door, strapped in and with a parachute, and kick out a hay bale when the bell went off. What a hoot! The C-119 was a powerful aircraft with two Pratt & Whitney R-4360 28 cylinder engines with Hamilton Standard 4-bladed props. Thereís no better combination. And 4360 is the actual CID. It was the most powerful recip ever built that also powered the B-36 and a host of other big planes. These planes burned 115/145 grade avgas. It was purple and had a unique smell. The C-119 later went on to serve as the Shadow gunship in Vietnam.
Then I finally got to learn how to drive refueling units and start refueling aircraft. Most of our units were 5000 gallon semi-trailers, and we had a whole fleet of brand new 1967 International ten wheel tractors. Most of the time I was there I worked a 16/32 night shift, which was a great deal once you got used to it. We had an amazing variety of transient aircraft from all the services and had fun refueling them. Mostly we just worked because you couldnít do much with $44.00 a payday and a meal card. I made my third stripe in 1969 and was on my way to Clark AB, Philippines.
During our welcome briefing at the squadron, our first sergeant told us, ďI spend all my time chasing bad guys; do anything you want, you get caught, you get the maxĒ. I was stunned. Clark was a wide open place with many ways to get into trouble, but I found it hard to believe our shirt had given up on his people. This colored my opinion on 1st sergeants until I became one 12 years later. With an attitude like that, this guy should have stayed in personnel. There were others like him too that I met throughout my career, and it was always destructive. Anytime somebody goes on a crusade to only concentrate on troublemakers, it changes their entire focus, and they become useless.
Clark was also a busy airlift and transient base. We had a C-130 wing, and F-102s and F-4s. The last WB-47s in the Air Force were there until late 1969. There was a constant flow of C-141s, C-133s, and contract airliners. I even got to refuel the first C-5A at Clark. It took 33,000 gallons.
I made SSgt (E-5) in 1970 and sewed it on at 2yrs, 11 months under the first WAPS cycle, where people tested for promotion instead of records meeting a board. Then overseas tours started getting curtailed, so I left Clark 2 months early headed to Grissom AFB, IN. Also known as Bunker Stump Airplane Dump, from the town of Bunker Hill, it was home to the 305Th ARW. The base was renamed after the astronaut Gus Grissom was killed in a launch pad fire. This was Curtis Lemayís old bomb group from England in WWII. It became an ARW when its B-58s were retired in 1970.
During this time, the Air Force began looking for boom operators and gunners, and started a program called Palace Fly. I had wanted to fly for a while, and applied to become a boomer since I was at a tanker base. That was disapproved, but I did get accepted for gunnery training. I left Grissom in Feb í72 with an eventual assignment to Ellsworth. I had no clue where it was, but thought it was in the deep freeze. In the meantime, I had to drive my í64 Rambler to Homestead, FL for water survival, and then to Fairchild AFB, WA for basic survival school. I did stop at Ellsworth to meet my sponsor, who was to become my best man, and the wing gunner.
Fairchild was the first time I camped out in the winter. It turned out I was also the only guy who could start a fire thanks to my time in the Boy Scouts. During the night map orientation, a group of us got disoriented and asked some other guys for help. As we walked away to our objective, we heard them mumble, they must be pilots. Rank was covered up for this part of the course. That part was OK, but resistance training and the POW camp experience was a real eye opener. This was serious business, and they prepared us for what might happen should we be captured.
With that behind us, it was south to Castle AFB, CA to start gunnery school. This was a SAC school, and all the instructors were qualified gunners. It started out with three weeks of basic electronics. This helped clear out the cobwebs, and get the gears turning again. I had only taken one college course in the previous six years, so it was tough at first. I think they designed this part of the course to eliminate those who werenít up to it, and we did lose one class member. We had to learn how to operate and analyze what was then a complicated fire control system, and describe problems to maintenance. The instructors were top notch and taught us well. In the weapons class we had later in the course, we had to know the correct name of every part of the M-2 Browning machine gun. Failure was not an option, as I laid it on thick and heavy before I left Grissom. I ended up with the highest academic average, and then we headed to the flight line. The í72 flood hit Rapid City around that time but just from newspaper accounts we didnít fully understand the loss of life and the destruction.
We got an orientation flight in April to start our flight pay, and now we were glad to finally get to the real part of the course. I always loved airplanes. As a kid, the ceiling in my room looked like the skies over Europe during the war, as I built dozens of models. I read constantly, and was very impressed with Boeingís philosophy of strong conservative engineering. If they hadnít built the B-52, I may not have wanted to fly in it.
Castle conducted all B-52 initial training with the B-52F. This was a tall-tail aircraft with the gunner in the rear. There was no room for an instructor in the tail, but we were well briefed on what to expect. I t was the best seat in the house, and we loved being aft compartment commanders. With a 6 to 1 movement ratio, the ride was usually bumpy at low level, and you really had to hold on. Also, with its quadracycle gear, the B-52 was tricky to land. The pilots had to trim during the flare, and try to touch down the on aft trucks first. If a new pilot hit a nose gear first, the airplane would bounce and slam the aft gear on the runway. This happened to one of our trainee gunners, and the lenses popped out of his sunglasses. His crew chipped in to buy him a case of beer.
The earlier B-52s had a unique method of powering the hydraulics and the alternators. It had ten hydraulic packs and four 208 volt, 3-phase alternators; all driven by 850 degree bleed air taken from the sixteenth stage of the compressors on the engines. There were bleed air lines behind the aft spar of the wings running all thru the fuselage. A hydraulic pack was about the size of a 40 gallon oil drum. This was a cause for concern as the flight manual called an air bleed leak an impending disaster. Hydraulic packs 1 thru 4 ran the mail landing gear, the bomb doors, and the slipway doors. Five thru eight were in the wings and ran the ailerons and the tip gear. Nine and ten were just forward of the aft pressurized compartment and ran the stabilizer trim. The Gís and Hís had all engine driven accessories. I guess Boeing saw the light, even though those bleed air lines didnít give us any trouble in training or any time we flew the Dís later. The alternators gave the copilot fits as it was difficult to balance the loads.
Flight training included live fighter intercepts and a fire out. Those four Ma Deuceís firing at once could also be felt up front. Finally, by late July, we finished our 10 flights and a check ride and graduated. I arrived at Ellsworth on 23 July. I began the transition to the G model where the gunner flew up front with the rest of the crew, and by September I was on Guam, where most of the 77th bomb squadron already was. We soon began flying missions to Vietnam.
In May and June, 1972 the North Vietnamese began several offensive operations that resulted in about half of SACís bomber fleet being sent to Guam. This deployment was called Bullet Shot, or as the crews called it, The Herd Shot Round the World. Arc Lite had been going on since 1965, and was a B-52F operation at first, then the B-52Ds out of Guam and U-Tapau Thailand, on the Gulf of Siam. But Guam had the ramp space, and could easily hold about 300 bombers. It grew to about 12,000 TDY people to make it all happen, and we flew around the clock. There were 2 or 3 tent cities and other metal buildings where the maintenance people lived.
Our maintenance people were the unsung heroes of Arc Lite and Bullet Shot. They came from every SAC wing had repeated 179 day TDYs and worked 12 hour shifts in all kinds of tropical conditions to give us good airplanes. They always came through, and had good attitudes. Seeing the planes take off that they worked their butts off to get ready was a good morale builder.
None of these missions could have happened without the Iron Men of U-Tapau and Guam. These were the ammo guys who built up and loaded the bombs. SAC would have only been another unscheduled airline without skilled munitions people. The same is true today.
It was a 12 hour flight from Guam to Vietnam and back. The G carried 27 750 lb. bombs internally only and could do the whole mission without air refueling. In contrast, the Dís carried 42 500 lb. bombs internally and 12 750s on each wing. However, they needed about 100,000 lbs. of fuel from tankers we met around the Philippines. When I flew Ds later, I had a pilot that could get all that fuel in one gulp, and keep it stable so I had a smooth ride in the tail. Starting in Oct 72, SAC started something called the One Gulp Club for the Gs. To keep pilots current in air refueling, we would meet some tankers shortly after takeoff and take on 500 lbs., less than 100 gallons.
Most takeoffs were at max gross weight. For the G, that was 488,000 lbs. The runways on Guam had a big dip the middle, and the old D model really began to work when it hit that. The good news was you had 600 ft. of instant altitude when you cleared the cliff on the north end of the field. As the flaps came up, I could feel the D start to sink until they were fully retracted and we set climb power. Then we were good.
Whatever model we flew, we then charged the guns, and did range and azimuth checks in the climb. The fire control system could be used to drop the bombs if a following aircraft lost its BNS. This happened fairly often, and it was called a Bonus Deal. Once we gave range in yards and degrees left or right of centerline, the radar navigator would check those values against his system. If we were within tolerance, he could bomb with the FCS. I did that twice. Depending when the BMS failed, we might have to talk him all the way to the target, help him bomb, and then station keep him all way home. In weather, there might be zero visibility all the way to 40,000 ft. Then, you needed to let him know where he was every 30 seconds at least.
We didnít test fire the guns, but there were two cells that flew from Guam that were fireout cells. Straw was one of them. On the way home, the cell would spread out abreast over the Pacific, and do the fireouts. We had a permanent ALTRAV all the way across, so there was nobody in our airspace. The guns always worked; another tribute to the quality of our maintenance.
I had been a heavy drinker for a while, which fit right in with the military culture of the time. To us, alcohol abuse was spilling a drink. When I got to my first base, I found we were called permanent party. I kicked that up a notch and decided thatís what we were supposed to do. I never got caught driving drunk or got into any official trouble, but it made my personal life rather turbulent. However, one morning on Guam in Nov í72 I woke up with the worst hangover of my life. Once I got up, I said Iíve got to stop this. The second I said that a physical burden lifted off my shoulders and the desire was gone. I knew only God could have done that but didnít get reconciled with Him for another year and a half. This year Iíll be 40 years sober.
One evening, when we went out to fly, the crew chief hopped on the bus and handed the pilot the forms and said,Ē Sir, I wouldnít get out of electric chair to fly this airplaneĒ. Turns out that would have been a good choice. Once we got engines started, two problems came up at the same time. One was no cooling air on #1 generator. That was no sweat; we said we would start #1 engine on the hammerhead. The second was a leaky water spit valve on #1 nacelle. I donít know what it would have taken to fix that; but in all the chatter and crosstalk, the groundcrew heard we would take it as is. There was an Ellsworth MX Supt. there too but once he heard, or thought he did that we were going to take it, he said OK.
On takeoff, the navigator started timing at 70 knots. Once the preset time ran out, if we had the right airspeed, the pilot said; committed, your throttles to the copilot. At that point we had to get airborne.
So off we went. Started #1 before takeoff, put up the power, hit the toggle switch for water, and it came in. Everything was going great until one half second before S1, the point where we were committed and couldnít stop on the runway. Then everything got deathly silent, and it sounded like the engines quit. Aborting the takeoff was out of the question. We would never have stopped a half million lb. airplane on the runway. We had run out of water, and the G held 1200 gallons. Our pilot had a cool head and firewalled all eight throttles, over temping the engines. But we made it, and learned a good lesson.
Sometime in Oct 72, a typhoon was headed for Guam so all the aircraft that were airborne were directed to land at Kadena AB, Okinawa following their mission. They really got slammed with B-52s and the locals werenít too thrilled about it. Normally, if we landed at a non-SAC base with hot guns we were supposed to disarm them. It normally doesnít take too long. We would remove the turret cowling; pull the ammo belt from the extractors, and safety wire it to the ammo chutes. Then holding the bottom cowling under the ejection chutes, use a remote switch to cycle all four guns and catch the live rounds. But we couldnít get a stand or a power cart, so we had to just pull the fuses and leave the turret elevated. There were no incidents and we flew home when the weather cleared.
Most of our missions were in South Vietnam, with occasional sorties to the Plain of Jars in Laos. We were briefed that the targets were truck parks and storage areas. They didnít generate many secondary explosions, so I just felt we were more involved in the iron export and earthmoving business. All the missions in the South were milk runs. The Gs didnít have the most effective modulated jammers like the Ds did, and were mostly kept to non-threat targets until the 11-day war started on 18 Dec.
Despite the fact that the B-52 involvement went back to 1965, it still seems we hadnít made much progress, and the war was being unnecessarily prolonged. I remember thinking when I was in high school in 1965 that we should be bombing Hanoi. We used strategic bombers as interdictors, and sent fighter/bombers to high threat areas in North Vietnam. Even though many of our jungle raids were effective, and the Army loved the results, it seemed to be there had to be a better way. The North interpreted LBJís many bombing pauses as weakness, and the communists viewed our overtures with contempt and just built more SAM sites. And went we had to go back to bomb, we lost more planes and added to the already too large number of POWs. President Nixon, in his 1968 campaign, claimed to have a secret plan to end the war. I guess it was, because nothing really serious happened until 18 Dec 72.
I always believed in General MacArthurís philosophy. Listen to a short quote from his farewell address to Congress on 19 Apr 51. ďOnce war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there can be no substitute for victoryĒ. I believe the general is still correct.
Iím not going into detail on the bombing of Hanoi/Haiphong since Kim Morey is talking about that campaign in Dec. However, we were there for one mission. On Andersen, things began to look like something big was going on. Then we got to our briefing on 18 Dec and found out what our target was. We were glad and scared at the same time. Flying into the most heavily defended airspace in the world at the time would be very dangerous, but we were glad to bring an overdue application of force to the enemy. We got to our airplane, cranked it up and started to take off. Throttles went up, and the pilot hit the water switch, but by 90 knots nothing was happening and we had to abort. Unlike the Ds, the Gs couldnít prime the water system. It either worked or it didnít. We were not happy. The manned spare that took our place that night made it thru just fine, and we did go on the 20th. All we could do that night was watch BUFFs take off for two hours.
On the 20th, when we got to the Hanoi area, the air was full of chaff clouds and parachute beepers, and all kinds of radio chatter on Guard. The beepers meant friendly crews were getting shot down. The Gs didnít have the best ECM systems, and couldnít counter the SAM uplinks as well as the Ds. Regardless, when the bomb doors opened; all that iron really illuminated the bombers. We werenít supposed to maneuver until after bomb release; but this was the 3rd day with the same routes and headings. The enemy probably wondered how they got so lucky. Anyway, our pilot, and the rest of our cell did keep turning and banking; and only rolled out just before bomb release. When you see a SAM moving on the windscreen, itís not coming at you. However, a steady missile exhaust plume means it is. We were in the target area for 20 minutes and our three ship cell came out without being hit. Iíve never been so wired, and it took a while to get over that mission.
Our POWs had to know that only B-52s could shake the ground with such force. They had been there too long and suffered too much, but would soon be going home. No errant bomb ever hit where they were kept. One of my gunnery school classmates also became a POW.
I knew that if I got killed over Hanoi, I would be going straight to hell; but didnít know what to do about it then. Often, when someone would tell me to go to hell; I would say, ďMan, Iíve got reservationsĒ. You can imagine my surprise when I found out later I really did. Gradually the tension from that night faded away.
A word on our SAR forces. We had the utmost confidence that if we were shot down, they would stop the war to get us out, and often did. SARs motto is: That Others May Live and they mean it. Time and again, they proved their courage and determination and heroism. Pararescue is the toughest school in the Air Force, and that red beret commands the utmost respect.
Our target that night was a rail yard, and we found out later there was nothing left of it. After everything was over, we had briefing on the BDA in the Arc Lite Center. It was impressive. Best of all was a slide of the Cuban embassy showing no damage. The next slide was a crater in the same spot, and the room just went crazy.
Two gunners managed to shoot down MIGs during the 11-day war. The first one was Sam Turner, who later was assigned to Ellsworth. More about him later. We hoped that would get us a seat on the next manned bomber, but it was not to be. However, even the supersonic B-58 Hustler had a 20 MM Gatling gun in the tail. So why shouldnít any bomber have some lethal defense? The B-52H gunnery system was a dual radar version of the B-58ís system. One of my EWs had flown on the B-58, an aircraft just was just too advanced for its time. The Russians still have a gun on their TU-95 Bear bomber.
After that, The Gís started going home to a world of stateside training missions and alert. The B-52Hs stayed in the States on alert unless their crews could get an Arc Lite slot. Later in Janí73, we hopped in a G headed for the depot at Tinker AFB, OK for periodic maintenance. We were supposed to catch a tanker off California but they couldnít launch from Travis because of crosswinds. So we landed at Travis, went thru customs and refueled. Then on to Tinker. The B-52, though, has a system called crosswind crab and you can rotate the airplane into the wind while flying straight down the runway so crosswinds are not a problem.
Once we got to Tinker, we loaded all the parachutes and survival kits onto an Ellsworth tanker, and then flew home. It seemed we were up for about two days. That night when I literally fell asleep at the dinner table, I went to bed and slept for 15 hours.
One Ellsworth crew flying a D-model did get badly shot up over Hanoi. Crew E-05 commanded by then Capt. John Mize managed to stay airborne until they got close to Na Khan Phanom, Thailand, and then bailed out. They took three hits, and the crew nicknamed Capt. Mize ďMagnet AssĒ. His gunner decided he didnít want to fly after that, and since the crew was slated to go back to Guam, I volunteered. The next stop was Castle for RTU, and I was back in the tail again. I loved that airplane, and after getting shot at and not being able to see the SAMs, I believed the tail was the best seat in the house. It was like I never left; what a great feeling!
After we returned to Guam, we flew some training missions and then took a tanker to U-Tapau and spent most the summer flying missions over Cambodia. One day, there were four or five 3-ship cells getting ready to launch. One aircraft called Charlie tower and said, ďThis is Red1, I just lost #2 hydraulic pack; I want a new airplane. Before Charlie could answer, our EW chimed in, ďYou can have oursĒ. After that, everybody on the ramp was saying; take ours. Missions were only 2.5 Ė 3 hours and one time we flew 12 days in a row. One afternoon we ended up losing two alternators so we had to abort the mission and jettison our bombs. There was a designated drop zone in the Gulf of Siam so we headed there and did an emergency armed release. When The RN hit the EAR switch at 10,000 feet, the airplane lurched up as 108 bombs let go at once. A few minutes later we felt one horrendous shock wave. Iím sure we make the fishermen happy, and then we landed without incident. I ended up with 55 missions more that year for a total of 85 until hostilities ended there in Aug í73. We went back to Ellsworth in Oct. SAC was still SAC, so they stood up 16 lines of alert at Andersen, and kept that up thru our next tour there in 1974.
In March of í74, an EW whom I would later deploy with led me to accept Jesus Christ into my life and become a Christian. I always knew the Gospel was true, but didnít want anything to do with it. God was patient and I finally came around with my friends help. That also relieved a gnawing fear I had of flying in old aircraft. Good thing; I still had a lot of D time left to fly. Heís still here in town and we remain close.
Later that spring, I went back to Castle for instructor school. When another D tour came up for May, I jumped on that. This time it was all training flights and alert. On one flight from U-Tapau to Andersen, we had a bunch of wicker furniture on board. I had a Papa-San chair tied securely in the bomb bay. When we did a practice radar bomb run over the Philippines, the RN bumped the emergency bomb door open switch, and we couldnít get the doors closed. No biggie; thereís no turbulence in the bomb bay, and the chair wasnít going anywhere. However, the pilot got on the HF and told the world what happened. So when we landed, everybody with time on their hands came out to look at our chair.
The gunners also had to monitor the drag chute after landing. On the D, it was right below the gunnerís compartment, and so had a much lower pivot point that the G, which deployed from where the gunner used to be. We had to make sure it stayed straight behind the airplane, and didnít blow over on to the horizontal stabilizer. While taxiing, we usually called for additional thrust, and then told the co-pilot to cut the air just before we cleared him to jettison the chute. There was a baht bus at UT that flashed its lights when they wanted it released. This time, the co-pilot just cut it loose when the lights flashed while the engines were running high. That chute flew 200 ft. from where it should have landed. Believe me, he heard about that.
The Air Force seems to transition from war to peace overnight. No sooner did all combat operations stop when the haircut, shoeshine and uniform monitors appeared from nowhere. Everything took more paperwork, and the staff started bugging the crews again. At least in combat, all that mattered was to take a 108, and donít be late; and get the iron on the primary. The best times we ever had were when the basic 6-man crew flew together. It wasnít: the Kick the tires, light the fires, brief on Guard mentality, but we just enjoyed the camaraderie of being together. Whatever the crew did on our off time, we were always all business when we went to fly. When we were done, I had completed 522 TDY days in my first two years at Ellsworth.
As our tour winded down, I got asked to be on the Ellsworth Bomb Comp crew. SAC ran this competition every year. We went back in Oct í74, and began to train for that. The gunner had to help the Nav team change components on the BNS, and help change offsets. Bear in mind, our electronics were still full of tubes, and all values were analog. An offset is a point on the ground that stands out on radar.
The RN would tell the BNS to release at a given distance from the offset. This type of release is called synchronous. Once the RN positioned the crosshairs on the offset, the BNS did the rest. Problem was with analog, there was a 6Ē by 6Ē box full of gears that drove the numbers. It got sporty changing offsets in a hurry.
We flew our mission on the way to Barksdale AFB in Nov, and then went to the awards ceremony. This involved bombing and ECM from every SAC wing. Ellsworth didnít win but it was a good time.
Then it was back to the crew dog routine for a while. In Jan í75, I got asked to join Stan/Eval. These are the crews that give their counterparts annual and no-notice check rides. I had a reputation for always using the checklist on combat missions and even in the Ds, where itís easy to get complacent if thereís nobody to observe you. My addition duty was wing manuals control. I managed all the B-52 crew flight manuals, and made sure the squadron (77th) received them before they flew. All the crew members had to sign for and use current TOs when they flew. Everybody carried a 1000-page basic flight manual plus checklists and their systems manuals. Woe to the guy whose manuals werenít current!
I also got a line number for TSgt that year. I think itís still the hardest stripe to make; kind of like making major. I got carried over on the promotion cycle though and didnít put it on until Feb í76.
In the summer of 1975, we were on alert when the 28CGC/CC came in to talk to us. We didnít know Col John McKoneís background, but be proceeded, over the next three hours, to tell us about his experience in an RB-47. He was flying in international waters over the Barents Sea in the early Ď60s when his aircraft was jumped by MIGs that began firing on them. The copilot shot down one of the MIGs, but the RB-47 went down, with the loss of at four crewmembers. When the Russians picked them up, they had clothes to fit all of them. It seemed they knew who they were.
He ended up spending 108 days in the Lubiyanka, the KGBs most notorious prison in Moscow. He was interrogated daily, and the light was left on in his cell. The KGB often put glass fragments in his food. The Colonel went on in great detail, and gave us a stark look into the face of tyranny. We knew for certain whom our adversary really was. There is a book called The Little Toy Dog, which covers his experience. He eventually was released on a prisoner exchange.
I was also chasing a local girl. I told my EW, and he said ďDid she catch you yet?Ē In May of 1976, she did.
We had a military wedding at the base chapel with an honor guard of crossed swords, and honey mooned in Denver. My squadron commander was the First Captain of Cadets while he was at West Point. He loaned me his sword and helped round up the others we needed.
In Sep í76, I was at the NCO academy when Victor Belenko flew his MIG-25 to Japan. The MIG-25 Foxbat was designed to shoot down the SR-71, bit neither it nor anything else ever touched it. When I got back, our intel people gave us a thorough briefing. Later that year or in early 1977, all available crewmembers were rounded up for a briefing in BLDG 1007, where all the flying squadrons were at the time. And who should walk in but Victor Belenko himself. He gave us a good talk in heavily accented English. Most surprising was his belief that the grocery stores and marinas he was shown were only built for his benefit. He just couldnít understand freedom and the prosperity it brings.
In the spring of í77, the Air Force decided the 28th Bomb Wing would transition to B-52Hs, and pick up a second squadron. We ended up getting our planes from K.I. Sawyer (AKA K.I.Siberia) and Wurtsmith AFBs, both in Michigan. The wing did a bunch of TDYs training on the new planes, and eventually everything was in place. I also had to order a boatload of new flight manuals.
Now, I donít know if the next problem was an oversight or they just tried to keep it quiet until they could find a solution. The B-52H uses eight TF-33 turbofan engines that can put out 17,000 lbs. of thrust each. However, Ellsworth is at 3200 ft. above MSL, and the thrust curve drops off dramatically when the air temp gets into the 90s. A 488,000 lb. alert bird would not get off the ground in those temps. Well, the ADO had my pilot working on the takeoff data. There didnít seem to be a way to solve this until he realized that thereís always a 5 knot headwind at Ellsworth. Well, the Hís stayed until the summer before the B-1s came in, and we didnít hear any more about it. Heavyweight takeoffs on hot days still used almost all 12,000 ft. of the runway though. In the winter they practically jumped off the ground, and could climb out of low level at 6000 ft. a minute.
One morning at the alert briefing, somebody put up a series of takeoff data slides. There was 8 and 7 engine data; but the six engine data slide just said: wait for the bang! It was correct.
Anyway, on 1 Jul 77, the 37th BMS was activated; the first time since after WWI. We were the second crew, S-52. I had completed 5 years in the 77th, and would stay here until Dec í79. The old 77th patch was designed by the Disney studios, and showed an Indian with a golden bomb in his bow. I always wondered what it meant and decided it stood for ďWhen You Care Enough to Drop the Very BestĒ.
In 1979, three of us got a line number for MSgt, which meant we had to move. I told our rep at MPC that I wanted to go back to Guam. By then, we had a gunner at MPC who handled our assignments. Perhaps you are familiar with John Masefieldís poem Sea Fever. With apologies to the author, I felt; I must get back to the Ds again. I didnít think they would be around much longer, and it was still the best combat airplane. I only wanted to fly Ds or Hs after that.
Also in 1979, the Air Force began to convert the most critical components of all the B-52 fire control systems to solid state. Vacuum tubes had outlived their usefulness, and we couldnít depend on these systems. It made a tremendous difference, especially on the H.
The ORI hit in Dec í79, and this time, SAC did something unique. With no notice, and nobody suspecting anything of the sort, half the 37th and the 77th squadrons deployed to Guam with their airplanes. Other B-52H wings followed, and there were soon regular deployments to Guam. Since I had orders there, I hoped I could have loaded my stuff and climbed aboard. No deal; I flew the ORI here on 12 Dec while Jackie got stuck packing out the house. I always hated moving even when all the hard work was done for us. Then we left town on the 15th, headed for Carswell and D difference training. My best man was stationed there so we had a good time catching up.
I walked into the chow hall one day and saw both the 9th and 20th BMS squadron gunners eating lunch and wearing diamonds! The squadron gunner also had the first sergeant duties, but I had never seen any of them wear a diamond. At that time, AF regulations allowed it. Most old time gunners didnít have any use for first sergeants.
Anyway, it was on to Guam again. I got checked out in the airplane, and was on a crew until I joined the training flight. And, wouldnít you know it; I was next in line to become squadron gunner. It really was the best job in the career field. Also, I was the encouraged to put on a diamond by the guy before me who didnít want to wear one. I was reluctant at first; but after talking to the first sergeants group and the wing SEA, I agreed.
It was an eye opener. I had to bone up on the UCMJ and personnel policies, and take care of discipline problems. There werenít many, bit one had to know what he was doing. Eventually, I got to enjoy it so much I decided to crosstrain. I met and passed a base board, and MPC said they would release me if I didnít make SMSgt. I even was the AMS 1st Sgt. for three months. But I did make SMSgt the first time up. I called our gunner rep at MPC and he said I was going to be the wing gunner at Loring, a G base. I said Iíd rather go to Hs, thinking I might get Minot; but he saidĒ Youíre going to LoringĒ. Actually, most of the people who left Guam went to the school house or north. And I always wanted to stay in an operational unit.
However, there was much more to do before Oct í82. In Oct í80, we headed on a contingency training mission with a bunch of students. Before we could even get to the airplane, the mission changed to a real world intel gathering, and we sent the students home. The 43rd Strat. Wing also had a conventional mission and we practiced sea surveillance. We would cruise over the ocean and fly low level photo passes over freighters and take pictures.
This time, a Russian aircraft carrier, the Minsk, was about to exit Vietnamese waters on its way north. SAC wanted to intercept it and get some pictures. So we took off, charged the guns, and headed for Vietnam. There were two B-52s, and the gunners, co-pilots, and observers all had cameras. It was only a partly cloudy day, and I saw the Minsk below leaving an oil slick. We got down on the deck, and started making passes and getting pictures. Meanwhile, the Russians scrambled their fighters to check us out. The Minsk had YAK-36 Forgers and helicopters. The Forger was a copy of the Harrier, a VTOL fighter. We didnít really expect the Russians to get hostile, but I pulled the pin from the ready/safe switch and left the guns on safe. In the end, they had as much fun as we did.
We got some great pictures of Forgers and helicopters taking off and landing. At one time, two Forgers crossed within 50 ft. of my compartment and just above the tail. I got some stunning pictures of that too.
Everybody was pumped on the way home, and when we got back, SAC was thrilled with the pictures we took. They may still be in the old SAC HQ building at Offutt. My EW gave me a great set of pictures and negatives, but somebody at Loring decided they needed them more than me. Too bad.
We also had a good working relationship the South Korean Combat Air Command. We flew training missions to Korea twice a week. It was a 12 hour mission, but it was the only place we could do low level training. Every quarter, they would send a cadre of pilots to fly with us. Then, we would hop on a tanker after an alert tour and fly to Osan AB. We went in Oct í81. Wives came along too, and we got a briefing at Osan,tours of some of the local US Army posts via CH-47, a Korean folk village, and Panmunjom. The Joint Security Area (JSA) was a very interesting place. We got a tour where the tree chopping incident took place in 1976. An Army crew was doing some brush clearing on the Allied side when a squad from the north charged across a bridge and killed an Army captain. Those people are nuts and totally unpredictable.
Inside the negotiation building there is a table where both sides hold periodic talks. There is a microphone cord on the table that marks the border between the North and South. We did get to walk around the table so I can truthfully say Iíve been in North Korea. However, that was close enough. Their guards were outside the building, and everywhere on their side of the border of the JSA.
South Korea is still a nation at war. Seoul is within easy artillery range of the North. The roads in the mountain passes have concrete monoliths built over them, so they can be blown at a momentís notice to block the traditional invasion routes. Roads are ready to be used as runways, and there is fuel and ammo pre-stored at certain points. When we were there, there still was a curfew.
In Oct í82, we left Guam for the last time, and headed to Maine. The Ds were retired by Oct í83; right after the Air Force upgraded the BNS. We did stop in Rapid City to pick up a new car we had ordered overseas, and deer hunt in the Hills with my father-in-law. We had good traveling weather, and got to Loring on 30 Nov. Now Loring is so far north, itís really occupied Canada.
The first thing I learned is that none of the horror stories were true. Loring was about to go thru a continuous upgrade that lasted all thru the Ď80s. New roads, base housing, a new hospital, a runway upgrade and finally garages. Most of the people there were Maniacs who wanted to be there. SAC had a 5-year controlled tour program, and it had a lot of takers. Me included, later. All the wing gunners in SAC breathed a sigh of relief when my 5-year tour got approved. Everybodyís attitude was exceptional, and there was nothing you couldnít get done. To this day, we still have friends up there. If I could find the time, I would love to get back up there and grouse hunt.
The wing training program was in good shape, and I built up more contacts with regional fighter units, including several Canadian wings. They usually flew CF-101s. Fighter intercepts were vital to a gunnerís training. Crews needed a live intercept at least every 180 days so the gunner could still pull alert. We also did a lot of missions on the STRC out this way because there were more low level routes and not so much competition for airspace.
In Dec í84, I was on leave visiting my parents in MA when a B-52 crashed on takeoff. I was a weird accident that ultimately showed how important small details can be. Had I been there, thereís a good chance I would have been in the seat. There is a panel for the emergency gear extension/retraction switches. They are spring loaded neutral and are have a plastic guards over them. Somebody replaced two guards but failed to notice two of the switches were pushed into the retract position. It was to be a local sortie so the aircraft didnít have a heavy fuel load. As the airspeed increased, the struts began to extend and the forward gear started to retract. The airplane started to slide on its nose down the runway until it skidded to a stop. The staff gunner in the seat had the presence of mind to realize what had happened and rotated an arming lever on his ejection seat, thus blowing his hatch and giving the rest of the crew a good escape route. If the airframe had twisted, the upper deck hatches could have jammed, thus forcing the crew out the pilotís windows. Thankfully, there was no fuel leak or fire and nobody got hurt. Thanks to Boeing again. The best IP in the squadron was also in command.
Later, they requested those guards from supply and still got the wrong ones. It took over a month to remove that aircraft but it did fly again.
In Sep í85, we deployed at least four bombers to RAF Fairford, UK. It was an old WWII RAF long range bomber base, and it still has the longest runway in the UK. We were staying about 40 miles away in Oxford. Once we got used to right hand drive cars and roundabouts; it wasnít too bad. I ended up having to fly more often than normal to cover for gunners who were temporally grounded.
We also had a sub-deployment to an old B-47 reflex alert base in Morocco, called Sidi-Salime. We were going to fly some intercept exercises with the Moroccan Air Force, and see how B-52 operations would work at a bare base. Even the 8th AF/CC came out for a few days. I had met him when he was a Maj. Gen. and the commander of MPC; he came to Guam on a field trip.
We stayed in a city called Meknes, about 90 minutes away by bus. The hotel didnít serve the evening meal until 2000 because of the imbedded French culture. When you have to get up at 0ídark 30, it was tough to get enough rest. To make things worse, the minarets would start to sound off at 0515; then it was the bus ride. Breakfast was MREs, and then we went to fly. Again the problem with sufficient crew rest, and flying for DNIF gunners. I started to get worn down. The unofficial definition of crew rest is 12 hours of frenetic activity occasionally interrupted by sleep. I started to have severe coughing fits which later turned out to be asthma attacks. I didnít know it at the time but my right lung had collapsed. I didnít have any pain and seemed to get around OK; so I blew it off and kept flying. We had a flight surgeon deployed with us, but I stayed out of his way. I did not want to get grounded stuck in a third world country. At Loring, I would run two miles every day it was above zero. Later they said the asthma was exercise and cold air induced. I flew at least five sorties with a collapsed lung but no pain. If we had had an explosive decompression, it would have killed me. BY the time we flew back to England, I was really dragging. That morning, I snuck past the flight surgeon again, put a junior gunner in the seat and slept most of the way back.
After arriving back in England, and getting a good 10 hours of Zs, I felt pretty good. Then the DO noticed my color had changed, and sent me to see the flight surgeon. He listened to my chest, took an X-Ray, and said ďWhatís this shriveled up thing in your chest?Ē Then If you can believe it, they had me drive myself 40 miles to the hospital at Upper Heyford, where they put in a chest tube. I stayed there for a week, and my flying days were over after 3850 hours.
I always said when it came time for my last flight, I want to find out I had already flown it. Over the years, I saw too many crashes on scheduled last flights that were the last thing they did on earth.
I had to fly back to Loring on a C-5, and even though I never flew again on the B-52, it took until June of í86 until I was officially grounded.
Once the paperwork went thru, I had five days to pick a new job. I couldnít retire as I was a few months under 19 years. There werenít many attractive jobs available. I tried to get into finance, but the officer in charge thought it was too much responsibility for me. After all I had done, that really torqued me off.
In my career, I seemed to end up doing things I thought Iíd hate. I didnít want much to do with the 1st sergeant field until I became one a few years earlier. I tried again under a commanderís option program as a SMSgt, but wasnít accepted. So the only other field open was supply. I never wanted to do that either, even though as a POL troop we were part of supply. But I figured: itís a big field, and thereís a better chance for promotion; so thatís what I did.
When I showed up at the supply orderly room, they had no idea what to do with me. I eventually got classified as a warehouse guy, materiel storage and distribution. As a one-level, I had no useful skills yet but rotated around the branch; they werenít using flights yet. I had to take 3 CDC courses, and scored in the 90ís on all of them. Once that was done, I became a branch superintendent. The civilian branch chief had all the supply knowledge, and while I was still learning I took care of the people issues. Later on, the Air Force changed the criteria for cross training into the supply field. It was only open to Staff sergeants and below. Thereís just too much you need to know. The supply manuals would make a vertical stack seven or eight feet tall. One could get by using the self-inspection checklist. However, my commander was happy with my progress, and I was getting more confident.
Before the Chief promotion cutoff in 1988, I finished my first CCAF degree. I had been taking some college courses and saving the worst for last (math). I did get a line number that year, and became a Chief in Feb í89. Guess what? ; Time to move again. RAF Fairford was on the list so I picked it, and Jackie loved our four years in England. I had to go to work, and she was determined to visit every castle on the island.
We bought a Mazda 626 right hand drive car with low mileage which did us well all the time we were there. Jackie wanted to live in an English village, so we found a nice house to rent in Kempsford, a few miles away. No sooner did we get settled in than rumors started that Fairford was about to close. That proved very destructive, as people didnít know what was coming next. It was officially denied until it happened. By the next year, Fairford did start to close and we moved to RAF Alconbury near Cambridge just after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. We got into some prime base housing units and stayed there until we returned Stateside in Jun í93. Personnel considered this move a consecutive overseas tour so we were allowed a free trip back home in Oct í89. I mainly hunted with my father-in-law.
Peace began to break out in Europe at least, and the Berlin wall came down that fall; something I never thought we would see. In the meantime, we began to send troops and materiel to support what became Desert Storm. We saw that unfold on the BBC in 1991.
Jackieís folks came over to visit us in each of the three years we had left on our tour. We got to do some traveling, and even took a bus tour to Scotland. That was fun. We also brought my mother over one time.
Winston Churchill said we are two peoples divided by a common language. Check this out: An articulated lorry, whilst driving on the anticlockwise carriageway of the M-25 crossed the central reservation and caused a ten mile tailback. Anybody know what that means?
The rest of our tour was fairly routine. On 15 Sep í91, the Air Force announced that on 1 Oct, SAC would stand down from alert, and that the gunnery career would go away. We old SAC weenies were stunned. This has been SACs main reason for existence since 1957. Another day we never thought we would see.
To compound the insult, Gen. McPeak, the chief of staff, announced that SAC would be deactivated on 1 Jun 92. At least they waited until Gen Lemay died. Then they announced the closure of Alconbury, so the U-2s and the A-10s would need to find a new home. Eventually, the bases in the UK dwindled from 10 to 2, and thatís all thatís open today.
By Feb í93, it was time to think about getting back to the States. The Chiefís Group sent out a message with the available assignments. Loring was on the list, and it was slated to close in í94. So I decided to go back, since I knew I would have to move again and I really wanted Ellsworth.
ACC had been looking for a supply CEM (Chief Enlisted Manager) to go to Loring for some time to help in the closure. Surprise! No takers. However, they so glad to see me volunteer for Loring that they sent me back to Ellsworth. I had heard of another chief retiring here and called ACC about it . Back at Loring it was old home week. Most of the people were still there from my last tour. I even shot a 225 lb. deer in the North Woods in Nov í93.
We did have some serious challenges though. Supply had two main specialties (AFSCs) with different classifications. There were the warehouse people (Box Kickers), and desk jockeys (Inventory Management), and they usually were at odds. However, the Air Force decided to combine these two AFSCs into one. The computer people kept their own AFSC. We had to find a way to cross train everyone and we didnít have a training detachment to get it done. Thereís a document called an STS (Specialty Training Standard) that shows the required tasks for a given specialty with references. So we got everybody working on those and the supervisors gave classes to help people get familiar with their new tasks. The next promotion cycle would test for this knowledge. With our airplanes gone, we had the time.
There was talk of the so-called peace dividend, and funding and personnel cuts. For a time, the AF offered a 15 year retirement or a lump sum to people who wanted to get out. My idea of a peace dividend is the war you donít have to fight because the nation stays strong and ready. Weakness is a real underlying cause of most wars. I invented something I call: The Law of Inverse Readiness because bad things tend to happen when youíre not prepared for them.
It was sad to see a glorious old base with so much potential and new facilities go out of business. The 42nd Bomb Wing was the only conventional wing on the east coast that could do sea surveillance and reach Europe easily. Its Gs were retired by Oct í93. There are now no active duty bases in all of New England.
My last commander at Loring was a B-52 pilot so we were on the same wavelength. We got things wrapped up by May í94 and were on our way west again.
We were excited to be back at Ellsworth, and always wanted to retire here. As a plus, there was a squadron of R-model tankers we thought would be our ticket to RAF Mildenhall. The Rs are the re-engined version with greatly increased thrust and practically no noise that finally replaced the 1950ís vintage J-57s. Jackie got to fly on an R-model at Fairford, while I had many trips and far too many heavyweight takeoffs on the old A-model water wagons. But with SAC gone, the tankers now belonged to AMC, who moved them out in the summer of í94. One of the boomers I served with in Stan/Eval in the Ď70s flew on the last tanker to leave Ellsworth. Then the 44th Missile Wing deactivated on 4 Jul 94.
Once we got settled here, I eventually became the superintendent of the Ops Support Flight. That consisted of repair cycle, mobility, MICAP, and the aircraft parts store. I made sure I had great people working for me, and things usually went well. The flight chief was a captain who had been prior enlisted.
We had a very good Chiefs group, and I got to be their rep to the leadership school. The commandant was a former supply troop, MSgt, now Command Chief Kari Kent. We hit it off well, and since the school was in the old alert pad, I felt right at home. When I saw whey they were teaching for Air Force history, I was shocked. Their lesson was so sketchy and lacking substance that I volunteered to come out once a month and teach the class for them. When I first went in, the Air Force was only 20 years old as a separate service so I had plenty of material and personal experience. Kari said OK, and this lasted for two years. Then, the training command decided they couldnít let an instructor they didnít bless teach a core course.
In the late summer ofí95, the wing commander put us thru a series of exercises to prepare for the Apr í96 ORI. We hit it hard and people really began to pull together. There was one block of time with an extra week between exercises, and I also had to get the Aircraft Parts Store moved to Dock 63, I think. The Air Force has a team dedicated to this type of work, and the RADS teams (Rapid Area Distribution Service) are complete pros. They move all the racks, supplies, computers, and everything in the warehouse to a new location in short order as a turnkey operation. So at the end of one of our Chiefs meetings with the wing commander I walked up to then Colonel Barnage and asked him for $10,000 to do this project. I did this because I could, and because of the rapport we Chiefs had with the wing commander. Besides,esides, the clock was ticking. I informed the LG and my commander later, and never got one word of criticism. We got the team in and the parts store was moved before the next exercise.
The wing did superbly; the best ever in my 30 years, and our wing king made general the next cycle. Most Ellsworth wing commanders did.
After the ORI was over, I was talking to Kari about the school. She wanted to dedicate it to somebody that was meaningful to the people they were training and developing. After a bit of reflection, we had it! MSgt Sam Turner was perfect.
He was stationed at Ellsworth in the mid Ď70s, and was part of the 37th. He was a man of integrity and humility who never mentioned his MIG kill. We had to ask him about it. He had some health issues and retired in the early 80s. I believe he died in 1985. We got permission from AETC channels, and from Samís widow Greta.
Then we set up a dedication ceremony on 18 Dec í96, the 24th anniversary of the 11 day war, which we did do, and made a tape for Greta. The original plan was to bring Greta up here for the dedication, but that Georgia peach wasnít going to do it in Dec. We did get her up here in May í97 and gave her a tour of the school and the base, and we even got a ride in the B-1 simulator. Man, what a mochine! I then spoke at the ALS graduation in May. I used the speech I was going to give in Dec í96, and covered the history of aerial gunnery, as well as some advice for the class. I may still hold the record for the longest speech because gunners had been around for 75 years. That was my last official function, and I started terminal leave that June.
Just to illustrate how times have changed, in WWII, there were 16 million men in uniform, and 300,000 of them were aerial gunners. That was about the FY 96 year-end strength for the entire enlisted force.
No matter where I was, I always believed that the 28th was the premier bomb wing in SAC, and I see that same commitment to excellence has continued under ACC. Just recently, the latest ORI got waived due to the wingís stellar performance. Ellsworth has compiled a magnificent combat record that will stand for generations to come. Just remember it takes everybody working together with dedication to the mission.
Let me conclude with a short note that describes some of the frustrations with dealing with higher headquarters. Iím sure weíve all been there at one time or another, and hereís a typical answer from them.
We have not succeeded in answering all of your questions. In fact, we have not completely
answered any of them. The answers we have, however, do serve to raise a whole new set of
questions about problems we have not thought of previously. In some ways we are as confused
as you are, but we believe our confusion is on a higher plane and about more important