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Last time we talked about air refueling.

Flying the B-52 - Part 3

Now it's time to get down and dirty. My favorite part of the bomber mission was low-level flying.

Better buckle up - it's liable to get bumpy.

First off, what idiot flies a huge airplane close to the ground? Oh, and we do it at night? Are you kidding me?

Keep in mind that this was the late 80's early 90's. We were still training to penetrate Soviet air defenses if, God forbid, it ever came to that.

USAF doctrine at that time, both for bombers and fighters was that low was the way to go. B-1s, F-111s, F-4s, F-16s, A-10s all had a low-level mission. Even some transports like C-130s and C-141s had special ops missions that called for low-level flying.

This is ancient history of course. I've been out of the bomber community for 20 years and I'm sure tactics today are quite different.

So, we're flying this thing that's as big as an apartment building and our main tactic is to hide. I'm imagining an elephant tiptoeing around and trying to be sneaky.....

What does being low get you? Back then at least it made it hard for air defense radars to find you. Especially if there was any kind of terrain. The Soviet fighters of the day would have a tough time picking you out of the ground clutter. I know, Mig-29s were around then but they were new and there weren't many of them. You were a lot more likely to run into a Mig-23 or Mig-21 even. A lot of the big surface-to-air missiles, the telephone-pole sized ones that could reach out and touch you a long ways off, couldn't engage you down low. The missiles that could were short ranged.

Ever seen the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels at an air show? They'll have one guy split off and while you're busy watching the others he'll come sneaking around low, right over your head from where you're not looking. Surprise! Kind of like that.

Not me. Wish it was.
So being low made you hard to find and hard to shoot if they did find you. Could you still get shot? Heck yeah. Nobody's invincible, nobody, we were just trying to even the odds.

How low could we go? At night our equipment would let us go down to 200 feet. Normally we bumped that up a few hundred feet to have a bigger safety margin. 200 feet is roughly equal to your wingspan. In the day? Well we weren't really supposed to go lower. Some other guys might have gone down to 50 feet once, so I heard. I'll deny everything. That's my story and I'm sticking with it.

Also not me.
So how do you fly 360 knots a few hundred feet off the ground, at night, in the mountains? Very carefully. You can get killed doing this. A B-1 crew was killed on a night low level around that time frame. A few years prior a B-52 crew skipped off a mesa and all but one got out. I knew the Navigator on that one. He had burns on the back of his neck from just beating the fireball out of the airplane as he ejected.

I had a good ejection seat, but the Navigator's seats fired downwards. If something happened down low my first instinct would be to trade our airspeed for altitude and give the Navs the 500 feet (or more hopefully) they needed to get out. Those guys had to brave. No windows, no controls and a seat that shoots you at the ground.

We had some special equipment on the plane to help us. The primary tool was the Terrain Avoidance Radar. Unlike an F-111 or B-1, the plane couldn't fly itself down low. I had a TV screen in front of me that would depict a "Trace". This was a cross-section of the terrain out ahead of us. We adjust how far ahead the system was looking. There was a little airplane symbol that I "flew" along the Trace. This would keep us at our preset terrain clearance. We also had a radar altimeter, which told us how high we were above what was directly beneath us.

You can see the terrain trace in front of me here.
Downstairs, the Radar Navigator had an excellent terrain mapping radar that gave him "the big picture". We worked together very closely. He would be looking out ahead with that radar and telling me where the best route through the terrain was.

We had a couple other tricks up our sleeve. The two "chins" you see under the nose of B-52 are cameras. One is a FLIR (pretty new stuff at the time) and the other is a Night Vision camera (also high tech in 1989). I could bring either of these up on my TV screen, along with some other navigational information.

Look close and you can see the ridge-line in the FLIR picture.
These were important because if we were actually in bad-guy country we might have to do this with our super-cool radar turned off. Nothing screams "Hey! There's a bomber coming your way!" than blaring away with a powerful radar than can be detected a long way off.

Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) were brand new then and we were just starting to use them as well. These were the heavy, first-generation, models. They clipped to the front of our helmet and a battery pack velcroed to the back of the helmet. If you needed to eject you would have to remember to take them off or the weight would snap your neck. Today you can buy better ones at a sporting goods store for a few hundred dollars. Back then this was cutting edge stuff.

A quick note about the pictures. These were taken on IR-144, a low-level training route that goes through the Big Bend region of Southwest Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The first time I flew this route was at night. When I flew it in the day I was amazed at how sheer some of the terrain was.

This route claimed the lives of a B-1 crew on a night training mission.

We normally flew low levels between 320 and 360 knots. Our top speed down low was 390, so we normally kept a little in reserve in case we got behind and had to make up time.
Not as much fun at night.
It could get very bumpy down there. Especially on a hot day. That huge wing was designed to fly at 50,000 feet. It would beat you up down low. I'd look out the window and watch that wing flex 18 feet at the tip and the engine pods shaking back and forth. After I while I stopped looking at it. What I can't see can't scare me. If the turbulence got so bad that we couldn't read the instruments we'd call it quits.

It also could get pretty hot. The air conditioning wasn't worth much down low.

Remember that everyone else on the plane is sitting in the dark. My Radar Navigator would get airsick and throw up on every low level. He was hard core. I couldn't have done it.

Most of the low level routes took around 3 to 4 hours to navigate. A lot of the training routes were up over the Dakotas where it's sparsely populated. The most fun ones were out over Utah and Nevada. My favorite route crossed Lake Powell - you could drop down into the canyon like Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star.

Tucking up alongside the ridge-line. This is called "Terrain Masking".

Normally there would be a practice bomb run at the end of the low level route.

We didn't usually get to drop real bombs in practice, maybe once a year during a big exercise. We would normally transmit a tone on the radio and a radar site would score where our imaginary bomb would have went. If we were simulating a nuke, close counts.

The site could also bring up pretend threats. For example, they could simulate various missile radars locking on to us. This would give the Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO or E-Dub) some practice with his jammers.

Once we did our thing we'd climb up to altitude and take a well deserved rest on the way back home. A night low level was hard work both mentally and physically. It took the most crew coordination of anything we did. We had to keep ourselves out of the rocks, make our time-over-target, evade the simulated threats and hit our simulated target(s).

Of course, they'd have 3 hours of touch-and-go landings scheduled for us when we got back. Seriously. "You gotta be tough to fly the heavies".

So would this stuff have worked? I think so. Around that time a Russian Mig-29 pilot defected and flew his plane to Turkey. The SAC tactics people asked him "Do you think you could intercept a B-52 flying 300 feet at night in the mountains?"

This guy was described to me as a very cocky, arrogant fighter pilot. He was flying the best plane his country had at the time. His answer?

"NO EFFING WAY!"
I also know it worked, because I did it for real the first night of the Gulf War. But that's going to be a long story.

Originally posted to Major Kong on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 10:32 AM PST.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (53+ / 0-)

    If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

    by Major Kong on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 10:32:01 AM PST

  •  These diaries are awesome. (16+ / 0-)

    I have been patiently waiting for this installment.

    Thanx.

  •  Now I know why (11+ / 0-)

    the B-52s coming in and out of Westover 45 years ago had a black and gray camouflage on their top sides.
    They needed it.

    There are very few subjects which do not interest or fascinate me.

    by NYFM on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 10:58:26 AM PST

  •  truly engaging stories. Thanks! (6+ / 0-)

    What we call god is merely a living creature with superior technology & understanding. If their fragile egos demand prayer, they lose that superiority.

    by agnostic on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:17:35 AM PST

  •  This is sort of off topic, but it is about a (13+ / 0-)

    B-52. As a boy, I lived about 70 miles southwest of Fort Worth. Carswell AFB was there then and at one time it had both B-36s and B-52s. I remember practically growing up with B-36s flying over our farm and they were usually high enough to leave contrails.

    I was a birdwatcher and one summer day I was trying to identify a small bird that was flitting from a post oak to the grass and then back to the tree. The tree was on a hillside that was mostly a large grassy field where we would sometimes graze our cows. I was engrossed in trying to find some identifying field marks on the bird when all of a sudden a B-52 roared up behind me. It scared me to death. I threw myself on the ground and looked up as that huge thing roared by. I don't know how low it was, but it seemed that I could almost touch it. I'll never forget it. I still can't understand how it got so close to me before I was aware of it. It was truly awesome to a little country hick. I'm glad that I never had to face one that was angry.

    Might and Right are always fighting, in our youth it seems exciting. Right is always nearly winning, Might can hardly keep from grinning. -- Clarence Day

    by hestal on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:21:54 AM PST

    •  Not off topic at all (6+ / 0-)

      In fact, I had a very similar experience in western Kansas.  I was standing on a tall hill in my neighbor's pasture when a B-52 came over a ridge 3 miles to the east--flying LOW.  I stood there dumbfounded, both because I had never seen a close-up B-52, and I couldn't believe one would be flying that low across Kansas.  The plane passed overhead and it made an impression that lasted a lifetime.  I was maybe 10 when it happened, so there are obviously a whole bunch of us here that will never forget B-52s.

  •  Can't imagine (8+ / 0-)

    the low level approach tactics have changed much in 20 yrs since you left?  You have flushed lots of memories in your series.  My father was career from USMA (and the AAF).  Flew fighters.  Started me in general aviation more than 40 yrs ago.  I remember a past dusk eve in Beavercreek. OH, 10 mi south of runway 23R at Wright-Patterson AFB on or about Oct 27, 1962.  Not one but several Buff's at tree-top. I lived most of my life in CA, and the best thing I can compare it to is an earthquake.  There is an unbelievable loud rumble and the ground shakes.  It will scare the living daylights out of you if you don't see it coming!  I know ...

    Those of you too young to remember the date ... think Cuban missile crisis.

  •  B-52 Crew Chief (17+ / 0-)

    A friend, Elliott, was on BUFFs flying out of Guam during the Vietnam War.  There was a Russian trawler that sat off the coast and would radio ahead every time a BUFF sortie left for 'nam.

    After one really nasty 14 hour mission that consisted of getting shot at by flying telephone poles, Migs, and really crappy weather, the aircraft commander had had it.

    Instead of landing he made a low level pass over the trawler.  He turned and, has they closed on the trawler, opened the bomb bay doors.  Elliott was able to look back and saw the entire crew jumping off the ship.

    Upon landing, the plane was met by the base commander who grounded the entire crew for three months.  During their down time they couldn't buy a drink as their tabs were always paid for by other crews.

    Most Republicans are against contraception because you can't get pregnant from anal sex. ---Chelsea Handler

    by hobie1616 on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:42:06 AM PST

  •  When does your book come out? (6+ / 0-)

    I'll definitely buy a copy.

    Happy little moron, Lucky little man.
    I wish I was a moron, MY GOD, Perhaps I am!
    —Spike Milligan

    by polecat on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 11:49:16 AM PST

  •  Brings back some smiles, (7+ / 0-)

    I spent the operational flying portion of my AF career in SAC.  I was one of those Radar Navs.  I started out as one and then moved on to the FB-111 from the B-52G.  I have spent many nights flying close to ground. In some of the worst weather imaginable, and often as fast as 540 knots. I loved to do it then, and I miss it now.  Thanks for the posts.  Oh yeah, I think I know the crew on the B-52 next to the flat top.  The Navy would ask us to shoot low approaches, when we were done, the flight deck would be full of observers.

  •  Enjoying the Diaries (5+ / 0-)

    The pictures of the nose down attitude over water are surreal.  I know you said that's how the thing flies, but seeing it is something else.

  •  Heh, heh. (5+ / 0-)

    "Someone else" did 50 feet AGL? I know how that statement works... ;)

    Great series, Major Kong. You fly-boys give me the willies just thinking about those maneuvers: I live in AZ, so those mesas et al are fairly serious rocks to avoid. I'm way down by the border, so we don't see much USAF here, except when they start bugging the Army west of me at Fort Huachuca.

  •  low-level anecdote (10+ / 0-)

    This was passed on by an online acquaintance.

    In 1990 I decided to ride my motorcycle (a BMW R80RT) from where I live in Colorado, back to my home town in Iowa, for a class reunion. Instead of wasting the unequaled vantage point of a motorcycle by simply pounding down the "shortest-path" on Interstate 80 through Nebraska, I opted to take two-lane roads through northeast Colorado, into northern Kansas, southeast Nebraska, and on into Iowa.

    Soon after crossing into northeast Kansas on Highway 36, I was cruising along on a beautiful stretch of road, not another car or truck in sight for many minutes at a time, enjoying the fresh early-summer air. It was about 10:30am - I had stayed overnight in St. Francis, KS, and so was traversing this part of Kansas in the AM hours. I was totally grooving on the long, rolling hills and vast vistas afforded by wheat country.

    Suddenly, something in my extreme right-side peripheral vision triggered some ancient animal-brain reaction, one effect of which was the often-reported sensation of time suddenly slowing down dramatically. All my neurons ramped up in unison into full fight-or-flight mode. It only took a quarter of a second for all that I have just described to take place. In the next one half to three quarters of a second, I turned my head to the right to see what it was that I had become aware of. There, poking up from behind a long, shallow hill that bordered the south side of the road, was an enormous black rectilinear shape, taller than it was wide, a wedge with its wide side on the bottom, tapering almost to a point at the top. In the next half second or so I realized that this shape was moving, in the same direction as my motorcycle but many times faster than my 65 mph. It was overtaking me at a fantastic speed. Time nearly stood still as I watched this apparition, which I estimated to be several stories tall, as it sliced through the morning air impossibly fast for something so large, going from my 3:00 o'clock position to my 1:00 o'clock in maybe two seconds. Then, it changed.

    In perhaps another second which seemed to take minutes, the object began a rapid ascent and simultaneously a hard turn to the left, which was going to bring it straight across my path not very damn far ahead of me. I gaped wordlessly as this completely unclassifiable visual stimulus resolved itself into - the vertical stabilizer of a B-52! A B-52 performing some of the most kick-ass, low-level, nape-of-the-earth flying I have ever witnessed! He could not have been more than 50 feet off the ground - far less than his wingspan - in order to remain hidden behind the small ridge to the south of the highway. He pulled that baby up and over in a high-g maneuver and must have been at a 60 or 70 degree bank angle when he crossed my path maybe half a mile up the road! He continued on around until he done almost a 180 and then vanished off my 6:00 o'clock. It took a few more seconds before I was able to scream joyous profanities inside my motorcycle helmet in celebration of what I had just seen!

    Major Kong (Slim Pickens) and General Turgidson (George C. Scott) would have approved: "...if we was flying any lower why we'd need sleigh bells on this thing... At this height why they might harpoon us but they dang sure ain't gonna spot us on no radar screen!"; "... if that pilot's good see, if he's reeeealy sharp why, you ought to see it, a big plane like a '52, he can barrel that baby in there - WHOOOM! - low enough to fry chickens in the barnyard!"

    That he included that last part is even funnier now.

    All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

    by subtropolis on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 01:04:43 PM PST

  •  100 feet above ground level, (7+ / 0-)

    during daytime, in the desert east of Nellis AFB, in a little unified forces exercise called Red Flag.  We went undetected until about 15 seconds before weapons release in the most highly instrumented practice range in the world. In actual combat it would have been an interesting duel between the gunner and the F-4 in a tail pursuit, but the bombs would have been on time, on target, whether we survived or not.

  •  I saw a low level B52 flyby (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Otteray Scribe, subtropolis, ER Doc

    at Oshkosh at least once. IIRC, he did a "low speed" flyby and a "high speed bombing run" (which I guess I didn't think seemed all that fast) and was too big to land there. (The newest NWA 747 also did a low level flyby with only the one outboard engine running - freaky)

    when I see a republican on tv, I always think of Monty Python: "Shut your festering gob you tit! Your type makes me puke!"

    by bunsk on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 01:46:44 PM PST

  •  There is a low level route parallelling I-81 (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NYFM, subtropolis, ER Doc

    in northeast Tennessee/southwest Virginia.  I don't know if it is still active or not.  A few years ago I was on I-81 near Bristol, TN/VA when I saw the Navy steaming up the valley, coming toward me. As they passed, they were lower than I was on the highway, and I could look down into the cockpit.  Both pilots had their heads down and locked.  200 feet AGL my ass.  

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Tue Dec 18, 2012 at 03:16:31 PM PST

  •  Thanks Kong (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BlackSheep1

    Almost missed this one.  Great stories.  IIRC one of the F-111 TFR patches showed a pine tree on a hill with the tip bent over.  They claimed to fly that low.

    One of the claims from "Combat Lancer" was that one of the F-111's had been flying so close to the ground that it got shot down by a 38 cal revolver.

    I worked with a B-36 driver (WWII B-24, B-29 also) who talked about missions taking off from Ft. Worth, bombing a range in Alaska, then turning south, and bombing Rio de Janeiro before returning to Ft. Worth, about 24 hours later.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 01:06:28 PM PST

    •  They flew some 36 hour missions (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      markdd, BlackSheep1

      out of Barksdale in 1991.

      They flew to the Middle East, launched conventional cruise missiles (classified at the time) and then went all the way back to Louisiana.

      The longest I ever did was 16 1/2 hours and that was painful enough.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 01:20:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I don't have any trouble believing that (0+ / 0-)

    I remember they used to leave BAFB and shoot touch-and-goes on the other side of the world in the late 1970s...

    LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

    by BlackSheep1 on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 04:44:31 PM PST

  •  Sorry I missed this earlier.... (0+ / 0-)

    Thanks for the look at what it takes to fly low.

    Sometime in the late 80s an F-111 just made it to Idaho Falls airport after taking a brown eagle into one of its engines while on a flight from Offutt to Mountain Home a mountainous area a hundred or more miles north of there. The resulting engine fire ate a considerable amount of the structure aft of the wing- you could see some pretty big holes in the skin back there. They took the wings off of it and trucked it out of there. I doubt it was repairable.

    I actually found a reference to this online (way down the very slow loading page). It happened Aug 2, 1982.

    I remember that somebody interviewed the crew, and I think they were not at a really low altitude, but low enough. I also think I remember that they were at about 400 knots. Fast enough that they saw a brown speck and the next thing they knew it was into the engine.

    Moderation in most things.

    by billmosby on Sat Dec 22, 2012 at 08:12:46 PM PST

    •  I knew someone who ejected from an F-111 (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      billmosby

      They hit a 4-pound seagull while on a low-level over Scotland. It tore through the radome and sent pieces down both engines.

      Now the F-111 didn't have traditional ejection seats. The whole cockpit would eject with both guys in it. Got you away from the airplane OK but the parachute landing was pretty rough on your back.

      He was in the hospital for a while with back injuries.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Sun Dec 23, 2012 at 03:49:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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