Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre

July 13th, 2014
Nestled in the heart of downtown Vancouver is the Vancouver Harbour Flight Centre. A hidden gem of aviation in the Canada. Home to Harbour Air, Seaair, Tofino Air, and SaltSpring Air, which all serve the coastal communities of the pacific northwest. I spent a few hours watching countless take offs and landings of the seaplanes from the shores of downtown Vancouver at the Flight Center and across the bay from Stanley Park. From a combination of local area flights by residents who use seaplanes to commute to and from home, to tourists who want to take in the local sights, the VHFC is a great place to see general aviation in action. [gallery link="file" columns="3" orderby="title"]

Summer of Stealth – Spirt #571

May 11th, 2014
Stay on the blue line. Deviate and that means detection and potentially failure of the mission, or worse, death.  When the $2.2 billion dollar B-2 Spirit is called upon to provide the president and combatant commanders with flexible and effective strategic deterrence and global strike options, it does exactly that. And with style. The sleek, sexy, ominous, dark and mysterious Stealth Bomber cuts through the skies like a hot knife through butter. "And on April 28th, 2014, I got a rare chance to sit right seat in the world's most technologically advanced bomber and fly along on a simulated "nuclear strike" and "wage war" against our enemies." The B-2, which can carry both nuclear and conventional payloads, plays a vital role in establishing air supremacy, and the members of Team Whiteman train constantly to be ready to carry out both unique missions should the president call upon them. Even with no real munitions on-board during my flight, I would soon gain an up-close and personal appreciation for the power and capability of the aircraft. While only a fictional strike was being executed, members of the 509th Bomb Wing based at Whiteman AFB, MO train like you fight, and fight like you train. And today, crews from the 393d Bomb Squadron "Tigers" were allowing me a seldom seen opportunity to fly along in a B-2 mission to degrade Country X by taking down their Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) for 48 hours. Three B-2 Spirits, flown by members of the 393d Bomb Squadron, 13th Bomb Squadron and reservists from the 131st Bomb Wing, were to participate in a multi-ship, multi-sortie mission to simulate an attack on a foreign country and bring down their air defense systems. "But in this case, for training purposes, that foreign country was represented in the simulation by St. Louis and Des Moines. America’s heartland." Our three ship sortie was sandwiched in the middle two other three ship sorties. An exercise that would have each of the B-2's flying three 11.0 hour missions in a row. A feat that not only requires an incredible amount of coordination and mission planning from the 509th Operations Group, but also an impressive ramp up in maintenance from the 509th Maintenance Group. As mentioned in the previous post, for every hour the B-2 Spirit flies, it spends on average of 50 hours undergoing maintenance. In fact, in the month of April, Whiteman AFB set a new record for most sorties and hours flown by 20 B-2s in a single month, completing 142 sorties for a record total 839.3 hours. 20 of those sorties were operational sorties. That is an impressive feat by the 509th BW and 131st BW. I was glad to say that I played a small role in that. In the early hours at Whiteman AFB, maintainers were busy preparing the three B-2's for their day of flying. Aircrews were busy putting final touches on their flight plans and coordinating last minute issues with Operations. The first wave of B-2's would take off at 1130 and return at 1630 for a 5 hour sortie. Then, with the engines running, the B-2's would stop on the hard stands, the new aircrew would hot swap, and then take off on the next mission. Our sortie with DEATH 21, DEATH 22, and my aircraft, DEATH 23, would then fly 3.0 and return for one last hot swap with the next crews in line. That final mission would last 3.0 hours before the planes finally shut down at 2330. This would be a long day for everyone involved, but effectively demonstrate the versatility of the aircraft and dedication of all those Airmen who support this weapon. My pilot Shredder (full name being withheld due to Operational Security), A B-2 Instructor Pilot with the 393d BS, and I met at 1100 for our 1630 take off. We had a full day of flying ahead and it was going to be a busy time before we even left the ground. I had been on base since 0700, and had already successfully finished a medical check out with the Flight Doc, Egress & Ejection training with the SERE folks, parachute and harness training, and a visit to Life Support to make sure I had all the safety equipment I would need and that my helmet and O2 mask fit properly. Shredder and I walked to the security gate just outside the 393d Bomb Wing. The security on this base is beyond impressive. And rightfully so when you are the sole base that is home to the entire USAF stealth bomber fleet.  I was already stripped of my cellphone, any recording devices and all of my camera equipment before we got to the first checkpoint. After several security verifications and both written and verbal "UODFA" messages, we crossed the concrete and barbed wire fences and walked towards the BS building. Another security checkpoint and I followed Shredder into the building.  You'd think that was it, but there was yet another checkpoint with a cypher lock, vault lock, and other security measures as I was about to enter the inner sanctum. The classified top secret mission planning room. There Shredder and I briefed our sortie. DEATH 23 was a "fully armed" B-2 Stealth Bomber that was the third airship in a simulated mission to knock out the air defenses of an unspecified enemy nation. We would do an ERCC (engine running crew change), follow DEATH 21 and DEATH 22 for a staggered formation take off from Whiteman AFB, head south as an element towards Aerial Refueling track 110E and rendezvous with HOIST 90 (a 305th AMW KC-10 from JRB McGuire) to take on 15,000 lbs of fuel, drop 16 conventional JDAMs, reset for a tactical nuke mission and take out targets with B-83 nuclear bombs, then finally return to Whiteman AFB, ERCC with the next crew, and call our mission finished. We briefed the Tactical Objectives: 100% DWE Against PRI 1 JDP1, 0 Withholds due to crew error, and a TOR +/- 60 seconds. Then we briefed our Administrative Objectives: Safe & Effective Sortie, Mission Reload, Formation Departure, and Formation A/R.  Weapons Strike cards were reviewed, Mission Maps consulted, and finally a minute by minute schedule of the sortie.
  • 1530 - Arrive at Hard Stand
  • 1630 - T/O
  • 1700 -  RDZ w/ HOIST 90
  • 1745 - Exit AR 110E
  • 2256Z - WR 7000
  • 2258Z - WR 7001
  • 2300Z - Nuke Mission Reload
  • 2322Z - B83 Release
  • 2324Z - Last B83 Release
  • 0030Z - Full Stop
Once our brief was over at 1230, we had about 30 min to go grab our dinner for the flight. While the B-2 runs on JP8, the aircrew runs on BX food. :) I opted to go with one of my favorite meals, Taco Bell. 2 Bean Burritos, no onions.  With long range B-2 flights lasting well over 30 hours, the second most valuable upgrade was the installation of a microwave. The first being a small cot next to the restroom. We then headed back to 393d at 1300. With only 30 minutes having elapsed, our mission was in jeopardy of being canceled. Our B-2 that we were scheduled to fly in was having mechanical difficulties. A closed door discussion with the Top 3 had me in the hallway nervously pacing with the fear that this would get cancelled.  In order for me to be able to get to fly in a B-2, no less then 6 Stars had to approve my flight. After initial approvals by the 509th Public Affairs department, Lt. Gen. Stephen W. "Seve" Wilson, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command (a 3 Star), Maj. Gen. Scott A. Vander Hamm, Commander, Eighth Air Force (a 2 Star), and finally Brig. Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, Commander, 509th Bomb Wing (1 Star) had to approve this flight.  Luckily Shredder walked out and said we were still a go, but instead of ERCCing, we would have to get AV-6, the Spirit of Mississippi, started and take her up. With the change in scheduling, we began the scramble to find a second pilot to help start the B-2. While I was full capable of running through the checklist, that would have eaten up valuable time in order to make our 1630 take off.  Top 3 would start making calls while Shredder and I went to Life Support to get our gear and start stepping to the aircraft. We grabbed our helmet bags and our ACES II harness from OSS. The crew van was already waiting to take us to the Dock where AV-6 was. As we left OSS, we got a call and picked up Dexter, the second B-2 pilot. We did our FOD checks and entered the flight line. Carefully dancing around crossing the red line of death, we entered via one of the ECP and headed towards the dock. But as we approached the dock, the doors were closed and no maintainers were in sight. Not a good sign. Usually, the Crew Chiefs were out there 3 hours before a sortie to prepare the jet for launch. We were looking to launch in less then 1 hour.  Luckily, this was just another opportunity for me to witness how versatile the Whiteman Warriors are. A few minutes later, with a shake of the hand, the Crew Chiefs arrived and leapt into action. Dexter jumped into the cockpit to start the preflight. And just like every other plane, Shredder and I did a walk around of the Spirit of Mississippi. We kicked the tires, inspected the bomb bays, and consulted with the Crew Chiefs for a go/no go. I grabbed my Taco Bell dinner and followed Shredder into the cockpit. Shredder and Dexter continued the checklist and I sat on the toilet and watched. The B-2 only had two seats, and no jump seat. So the only other place to sit, other then the ground, was the worlds most expensive toilet. As they finished the lists just in time, Dexter hopped out of the Mission Commander's seat, and I jumped in. He helped me connect my harness to the ejection seat, comm chord, oxygen, and helped me familiarize myself with some of the basic switches. And just like the scene of a homicide, Dexter was gone without a trace.  Comms were up and we were ready to run em up. The Crew Chiefs had done an incredible job! If this was actual war, and the B-2's had to get airborne immediately, I am proud to have these Airmen at the ready. With a flick of a switch, we told the computers to pull up the ladder and close the hatch. One by one, we ran up the four General Electric F118 turbofan engines. I was surprised to learn that the B-2 actually had 4 engines, and not two as it would appear. With oil temps and pressure rising, the Crew Chief pulled the fire bottle and we were ready to taxi on time. As if on queue, the ground controllers in KSZL Tower came to life. "DEATH 23, cleared to taxi via Echo, Foxtrot, Alpha to runway 19."   Shredder pushed the throttles forward and did a quick break check. The black beast lunged forward and jerked to a stop. We continued down the taxi way and quickly saw the other two B-2 Spirits taxing ahead of us. With little to no chatter on the radio, DEATH 21, DEATH 22, and DEATH 23 move in silence towards an impending departure.  Waiting for the exact minute for our formation take off with minimum delay. We held short of Runway 19 as the other B-2's in front of us rumbled down the runway. They jumped to the skies like a kite being pulled by a string in gusty winds. Then it was our turn. We released the brakes and pushed the throttles forward. In the our small windshield, I could see DEATH 22 just getting airborne and starting it's right turn. Shredder did a final check of the instruments and went full throttle. We roared down the runway. Not fast, but not slow. Having nearly the same wingspan as a 747, but only a third of the length, quickly rotated off the ground. And the moment that our wheels lifted off the ground, I became Spirit #571; the 571th person to fly in a B-2 Spirit since it's first flight almost 25 years ago on July 17, 1989. In that span, I became the 11th Civilian to have had the honor of flying in this famed aircraft. As we flew on our south westerly heading and broke through the clouds, I spotted the other two B-2's in front of us. It then hit me that this was actually happening. That after all these years of being persistent, I was witnessing something that no one gets a chance to see. Three of the nineteen flyable B-2's in formation slicing through the clouds. 15% of the Stealth Bomber fleet airborne and on it's way to do a formation aerial refueling. As we passed through 15,000 feet and finally had a few moments to take a breath, Shredder turned to me and presented me my very own Spirit Coin. "Welcome to the club Spirit 571!" I was smiling from ear to ear. Not that you could see under my oxygen mask, but trust me, I was! But now it was time to get back to business. Lead call in on the air to air frequency and had us check in. We were on track and passing through waypoint 8 at FL290 with a ground speed of 407 kts. "22 check. 23 check" We were approaching our first major check-point; waypoint 9, the trombone. It was a left 30 degree bank 180 for our B-2 formation to be able to to make up some time if need be before we hit the aerial refueling track 110E.  A pre-programmed timing maneuver so that we rendezvous with HOIST 90 without overshooting them. We stayed slightly high and to the right of DEATH 22, who was slightly high and to the right of DEATH 21 with about a 3 mile spread. It was then Shredder asked if I wanted to take the controls and fly for a bit. I hesitated and Shredder sensed it. He reassured me that he would be there to back me up. I had dreamed of logging my 0.1 flight hours in a B-2, but once I was up there knowing that if I screwed something up, that I could take out a tenth of the entire B-2 fleet. But I pressed on and took the stick. I was surprised at how easily the plane moved for it's size. It was nimble and responsive. Must be all that lift. But I still couldn't wrap my head around flying an aircraft with no rudder. Trippy. Elevons, Flaperons, and a little bit of pixi dust apparently. Jack Northrop would have been proud. Shredder was busy handling ATC vectors around large thunderstorms and an angry Controller that sounded like he needed a hug. So I put those 100 hours of Private Pilot time to good use and helped out as best as I could: Shut up and fly the plane. Shredder asked me to keep at FL260 and keep DEATH 22 at our 11 o'clock at 280 kts. Once I got the hang of the throttles sensitivity, easy peasy. But soon after we hit the trombone and I had my fill of dancing a B-2 through the sky, HOIST 90 came up on frequency and Lead was already trying to find him. Shredder and I had vectors of where HOIST should have been but we had no joy. The other thing adding complications to our flight was the giant storm cells that we were surrounded by. ATC had given DEATH flight a block altitude of FL25-26, which normally is enough room to be safe, but with storm clouds and the potential ice that hid inside, we tried our best to avoid them, much to ATC chagrin. But try as we might, we could not see HOIST 90.  Eventually Lead spotted them off in the distance and beelined for the McGuire plane, but the damage was done and we had lost precious refueling time. HOIST 90 informed us that they would be able to refuel only the first two B-2's before reaching the end of the aerial refueling track and my B-2 would only get 1 quick dry contact. Luckily for us, since we didn't take off in the plane that had already flown 1 sortie before ours, we had plenty of fuel to complete our mission. And to top it off, the Boom Operator's mic was not working, so all Boom commands would be routed through the Pilots. Awesome. 274 knots at 26,000 feet, two giant aircraft performed an aerial ballet of inching closer and closer to each other. We had the tanker in sight, and Shredder was trying his best to close in on the KC-10 without over-taking it and losing even more time. But ATC had traffic on a collision course and immediately ordered the KC-10 to do a right 360.  Normally the KC-10 would follow a large race track pattern, but instead, we reached our max bank angle of 30 degrees and tried to keep up. Unknown to ATC, a giant cumulonimbus lay directly in our circle in the sky. As Shredder exercised ever pilot skill he had to keep the other aircraft in sight, once we started flying in and out of the tops of the cloud, the dark grey KC-10 was visible and then invisible again. So to back up our visual cues, we turned on the radar to avoid a nasty mid air collision. Once we rolled out straight and level, Shredder easily moved in for a solid connection. It was beyond impressive to see him follow that tanker in a full 360 and then nail it on the first try. And because of a very awesome MSgt KH from the 2nd ARS, I was able to get this priceless image of DEATH 23 being refueled by HOIST 90! Once we hit the end of the aerial refueling track, Boom requested that we practice a procedure called an "Emergency Break Away". Yup, its as awesome as it sounds. To simulate something going wrong (ie the boom of the KC-10 is about to penetrate the top of the B-2 or that the two aircraft are about to collide), the Boom Operator call a break away and the KC-10 pilots go full throttle and climb, while the B-2 pushes the nose down to maximize separation between the aircraft. It was pretty intense. But we survived and the flight made a left turn to intersect waypoint 16 and start the conventional bomb run to take out key targets in the simulated mission plan. But unfortunately for us, the B-2 was accidentally loaded with a DV mission profile instead of the conventional and nuclear strike missions that we had briefed. With 100 miles to go before reaching Whiteman and just over an hour of flight time left, Shredder made an executive decision and made sure that I got the full experience, punched in some random coordinates and had me simulate the arming of our B-83 variable yield gravity nuclear bombs. As the Mission Commander, he had me enter the executive code from the President of the United States of America, and then flip the arm consent switch to arm our B-83 weapons. The computer took over and in an anti-climactic effort, simulated the release of a nuke. Somewhere below us, in a grass field a cow looked up and became instant steak. It was time to RTB. We checked in with RAPCON and they gave us vectors to the ILS for Runway 19 at KSZL. We were the third scheduled to land, just as we took off. As we turned base to final, we heard on the radio that DEATH 21 was having a faulty gear lock indicator. They made several low approaches and had folks in the Tower and the Top 3 visually check to make sure that the gear looked down and safe. While it was a distraction to me, Shredder was on the ball and got us on the ground with a very very stiff cross wind. The weather from the tornados over Indiana was still causing havoc over Whiteman. But He did it and got us on the ground. As we taxied back, DEATH 21 did another low fly by for a gear check. The crash trucks rolled and positioned along the runway. By the time we reached our hard stand for our ERCC, word had passed that DEATH 21 was on the ground with no issues. As I exited the plane, Shredder stayed behind until the next crew was ready to take over. Just because our sortie was over, that didn't mean the Spirit of Mississippi was done for the night. She still had a lot of flying to do!  But Farmer, the OG of the 131st BW, greeted me on the ramp to shake my hand and present me with his personal coin and a certificate honoring my flight in the B-2.   More importantly I was able to personally thank the ground crew who were preparing my jet to get back in the air. I was off to celebrate my accomplishment while they were just doing their job. If it wasn't for men and women all around Whiteman AFB, these planes would never take flight. And it was clear how proud they were of this airplane.

Summer of Stealth – Keep em flying

May 3rd, 2014
At $2.2 Billion dollars, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit is the worlds most expensive aircraft ever built. It has more computers onboard then most small Silicon Valley startups. These computers control everything from flight controls, advanced radar and GPS, telemetry, and precise calculations for bomb calculations. And two very intelligent pilots in the pointy end of the airplane. But what really keeps these aircraft flying are the Maintainers of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman AFB.

With the longest combat mission flown in a B-2 Stealth Bomber lasting 44.3 hours and only 19 active aircraft in the whole fleet, maintenance is a mission essential priority.  I'm told that on average that the B-2 Spirit undergoes 50 hours of maintenance for every one hour of flight. That's nearly a hour of maintenance for every minute the B-2 is in the air!

This aircraft is as complicated as it is unique in terms of controls and stability. With a non conventional design, a lot of the flying is handled by the computers. But add to it the fact that the aircraft needs to maintain it's stealthiness, even the most simple and routine maintenance becomes a daunting task.

That responsibility fall on the "Low Observability" team at Whiteman.  Using top secret techniques, the dark grey coating helps the B-2 maintain a very tiny radar cross section (RCS) and helps it stay invisible to prying eyes.

To access the inside of the aircraft, layers of special stealth coating must be removed. The item that needs to be repaired is then accessed, fixed or replaced if necessary. And then the painstaking effort to close the skin up, reinspect the stealth coating, and triple check that the area is back to meeting the tight specifications to keep the RCS in line.

Just like your car has to go through it's normal 3,000 mile oil changes, 10,000 mile minor maintenance, and major maintenance checks as time goes on; so does the B-2.  In airplane speak, it is called a "phase check."

Every X amount of flight hours that the B-2 Spirit flies (the exact number is classified), the aircraft is sent off to the LO dock and undergoes a major phase check.


While the average commercial aircraft would be out of service during a major phase check for a couple of weeks, the B-2's phase check can last a couple of months due to the sensitive nature of maintaining it's stealth profile.

The MXS team is a mix of many personnel. In the LO dock, it's not unusual to find members of the 131st National Guard working side by side to their active duty 509th counterparts, all the while maintaining full time jobs in the local community.  Here are a few members of the 131st Bomb Wing standing next to the Spirit of Missouri, which is the flagship of the National Guard at Whiteman AFB.

Another important asset to keep the B-2 flying are members of the 509th OSS Whiteman AFB Control Tower. Helping to coordinate aircraft in a 6 mile radius of Whiteman's Class D airspace, the ATC crew ensure that the B-2 are safe when moving around on the ramp and during take off and landing.

In addition to the outstanding Airmen in the tower, a B-2 Pilot is staffed up there during any and all operations to be the direct point person for the aircrew on the ground. The SOF (Supervisor of Flying) makes sure that if the aircrew needs a hand to go over any emergency checklists, track down any questions they may have, or just an extra set of eyes to inspect the aircraft should the crew feel something is wrong.

RAPCON is another integral part of getting the B-2 to and from Whiteman AFB. The Radar, Approach, Control (RAPCON) team is responsible to control the airspace in and around Whiteman AFB which extends up to 9,000 feet and 45 miles.

They help coordinate the B-2 handoff to other ATC agencies in the area and also can offer a safe route to the B-2 to deconflict with other aircraft once they leave the immediate KSZL airspace.

And prior to stepping to the aircraft, the folks in the 509th OSS/OSW Weather group makes sure that the pilots have the latest and updated WX information. From icing, to winds aloft and potential storms or tornados in the area, they make sure that the B-2 is safe along it's journey.

And once the aircrew is ready to go to the jet, they are driven out to the jet by the Transportation team.

Once at the jet, Crew Chiefs and Maintainers have already started the process to ensure that the aircraft is in the best possible conditions for the pilots to accomplish their missions.

They take immense pride in their jobs and that of their airplane.  They help the pilots trouble shoot any last minute issues and prepare the plane to launch.

The job of keeping the B-2 flying isn't only that of just two pilots. It takes an entire base to keep these planes mission capable of global strategic deterrence.  Rain or shine, each person on base participates to ensure that the B-2 is an effective asset.

Summer of Stealth – Protect at all costs

May 1st, 2014
When you have a plane that is a major asset to the nation's global power and strategic deterrence mission, you protect it. When it costs $2.2 billion dollars, you really protect it. And when you have 20 of these aircraft in one place, you protect it at all costs. One such security measure is Boris. He is a Military Working Dog with the 509th Security Forces Squadron / S3K at Whiteman AFB. Boris, along with his partner SSgt Grant Meyers, provides security to the fleet of B-2 Stealth Bombers, protecting them and the base from would-be vandals.   So when you see the signs “WARNING: Restricted Area…While on this installation all personnel and the property under their control are subject to search. Use of deadly force is authorized. This area is patrolled by military working dog teams,”  now you know exactly what that means.   TSgt Michael VanDeusen dons “The Suit” and give Boris a target.   Then SSgt Anthony Bellardino and MWK Bobi run the obstacle course. I got a chance recently to witness first-hand what it felt like to be on the receiving end of such a demonstration. Needless to say, this photographer will never again try to break red! Thank you for your service!

Summer of Stealth – Boom, Bang, Hang.

April 29th, 2014
Most people assume that in order to fly a USAF jet or bomber, that you need to be a great pilot, have an awesome moustache, or wear really cool aviator sunglasses. While all of that is 100% true, the very first qualification that you need to pass is to be able to fit in the jet. More specifically, the ejection seat. And if I was to fly in a B-2 Spirit, affectionally know as simply the Stealth Bomber, I would need to be able to fit in the ACES II ejection seat.  And by fit, I mean not be too tall nor have too long of a femur.  While that is the only part of the qualification that you don't have any control over, the rest of the basic training to fly an orientation flight in a Stealth Bomber is a lot more complicated. For three years, I tenaciously pursued a story that would bring me back to Whiteman AFB, home of the 509th Bomb Wing and the famed B-2. Back in 2009, I had the rare opportunity to spend a week at Whiteman and witness first hand the close knit community that helps provide our nations strategic deterrence and global power though the B-2. And with all the stars finally lining up, I was invited back to not only spend a week with the men and women of Whiteman, but to be able to strap into an ACES II and actually go up in a B-2 Stealth Bomber. But while the paperwork was approved, I still needed to meet all the safety regulations and training requirements: a medical checkout, egress, ejection, and parachute training. And the first stop was to the 509th Medical Group to make sure I was fit to fly! In addition to getting a clean bill of health, the Flight Doc needed to make sure that I fit safely in the B-2's ejection seat. With a maximum seating hight of 40 inches, and the length of my femur needing to be less then 29 inches, not everyone was able to fly in the bomber.   This was so that in case we ejected, my legs didn't get chopped off by the plane. Guess that's a good thing. Good looking out Doc! No major illnesses, good BP, normal breath sounds, and with that, I was cleared to fly. And since I have my altitude chamber training, Doc lifted the altitude restriction so I was cleared  to fly above 18,000 feet.   The next stop was the 509th's Operational Support Squadron where I would get fitted with all the equipment I would need in order to fly in a B-2 and a T-38, which I would be doing later in the week. While both airframes shared some common training and gear like a helmet, oxygen mask, and ejection harness, I would still need to be checked out both airplanes to become familiar with the differences. Step 1. Suit Up! A proper flight suit and boots for the plane. An instantaneous cool factor of x100! Then a seat harness that I would use to connect myself into the ACES II ejection seat of the B-2. A properly fitted flight helmet that I would use in both the B-2 and T-38.  Yup. Getting a B-2 flight did give me a big head.  But luckily it still fit inside the helmet. Next up was an oxygen mask. This would provide me with precious O2 during risky phases of flight such as take off and landings and sudden decompression in the cockpit. The OSS Airmen took the proper time to ensure that it was comfortable and that there were no leaks in the seal of the mask with my face. Then it was time for the G-Suit that I would use in the T-38. These "speed jeans" help keep blood from flowing into my legs during high G maneuvers and causing me to pass out. It gives you a chance to become very close with the OSS folks. Definitely a humbling experience.   Assume the position!   Once I had all my equipment fitted and checked out, it was time to learn how to use it. Egress and Bailing out. Two things you never hope to do in an airplane, but if you need to, you better know what you're doing. Your life depends on it and that of your crew. Lucky for me, that the basic principles of egress and ejection were the same for both airframes. The main difference was that in the T-38, you stepped to the aircraft with your parachute on your back, while in the B-2, the parachute was already in the seat where you simply attached your harness to.   The two key scenarios that we went over was an emergency on the ground where the aircraft was not yet airborne, otherwise known as an Egress. And an Ejection if there was an emergency and we were airborne.   And after going over the basics, it was time to simulate it in the cockpits. The OSS team had full mock ups of each cockpit to give you as realistic feel to going through each Egress and Ejection procedure. The B-2 Simulator with the ACES II ejection seats. Note the slightly angled back position of the seats. This is so that when the "Bailout! Bailout! Bailout!" call is received and you pull the yellow ejection handles, you will go up and back away from the plane. The B-2 has what's referred to as a 0-0 ejection capability. Meaning that it can be at a zero airspeed and at 0 feet in altitude (on the ground) and you can eject and still get a full canopy from your parachute before safely landing. The T-38 and it's Martin-Baker seat is a 0 feet/50 KIAS seat. You practice, practice, and practice till it becomes almost second nature. The more you practice on the ground, the more second nature it would be in the air.     After Egress and Ejection training, it was time for the last phase; parachutes. What if you have a failure once it opens, how to steer the parachute, what to do if you get caught in tree, etc.   And then most importantly, how to fall when the ground is rushing up to see you. With all the training signed off on, it was time to go to my locker and drop off my stuff until I fly the stealth bomber.      

9th Intelligence Squadron

April 4th, 2014
A computer is just a tool. A collection of 1's and 0's. A wealth of information in a canister, and unless interpreted in the right way, a useless mosaic of bits and bytes. A plane is just a tool. No matter how high it flies, or where it goes, it is just a vessel. It goes somewhere, performs a task, and brings home information. And unless that information is processed and interpreted, it is just a plane. The 9th Intelligence Squadron, based at Beale AFB, CA performs evaluation, interpretation, analysis and digitization of the U-2 Optical Bar Camera (OBC).  These men and women of the 9th IS help change the landscape of the fight. Below is a collection of images from the 9th IS and some of the tools that they use to help paint a picture and provide valuable resources to Commanders. [gallery columns="3" orderby="title"]

Welcome Home Warriors!

January 4th, 2014
After 3 full days at the Transit Center at Manas, it was time to head back to Fairchild, Washington. And not just for me, but for a dozen Airmen that were stationed at TC Manas with the 22nd EARS supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.  With just days before Christmas, this was the best present any of them could ask for.   As with each of my days at TC Manas, it was an early, early start. The past two days were spent flying on a KC-135 over Afghanistan, and now I was about to jump on yet another plane (my 4th one in 5 days) for a 30+ hour trip back to Fairchild AFB via RAF Mildenhall. Was I crazy? Yeah, probably. And truth be told, I was going to miss Manas. I was even getting used to the dark ride to the 376 Ops Building in the early hours of the morning. But this morning was just a little different. As if cold tears from the sky fell upon me, Kyrgyzstan decided to send me off in a blanket of white snow. No I was not a hero, but simple traveller trying to get home.   An as custom to the start of any USAF journey befitting a warrior such as myself, I was given the traditional plastic bag and allowed to make my own lunch in the DFac for the 10+ hour trip to the United Kingdom.   Then it was off to the flightline which was starting to get covered in snow. With the temperature dropping and the snow piling up, our crews were moving quickly as they could to get us airborne else risk being stuck at Manas until more favorable weather conditions existed. De-icing crews were already busy at work attacking the accumulation of white death on the plane.   Ice is the enemy. The buildup of ice on the surface of the wings would disrupt the flow of air over the surface of the wing.   This ice would adversely affect the lift the wings could produce and eventually cause the plane to fall out of the sky. Which is a bad thing. A very very bad thing. But today, the crews won the fight against Mother Nature and we were cleared to depart. As our plane was greeted upon arrival, the departing crew heading home was personally seen off by the Lt. Col in charge of the 376th AEW. With a firm handshake and the fondest wishes, he sent us off on our long journey home. With a familiar rumble we slowly lumbered down the taxiway towards the runway.  Pilot and Co reviewing the checklist and cross checking each other. And then it was time to take to the skies.     And with a steady left turn towards the north and somewhere over Kazakhstan our time at Manas was over and we had 2989 nm till RAF Mildenhall. Not that anyone was counting.   As we flew eastward we settled into our seats. The ice was behind us and we started racing the sun. Somewhere over the Caspian Sea I looked out the window, saw the land kiss the sea and realized it was a losing battle and my body gave in to the boredom. Like Groundhog Day, the monotonous drone of the engines, a cocktail of sleeping pills, and a muted effort to find a comfortable spot on the cold floor became routine. I shifted and tried to find comfort on a bed of steel. Eventually I settled between a thin sheet of metal and a pallet of cargo. This was the non glamorous part of the job. The part no one makes movies about or idolizes. An uncomfortable seat, the sound of four jet engines, but hours of boredom. Hours and several times tossing and turning later, we had arrived at RAF Mildenhall to a cold and wet ramp, much to the surprise of the local Customs folks. I'll spare you the narration of the three+ hour wait, but suffice it to say, showing up on a UK military base on a USAF aircraft as a US Citizen without any military travel orders causes a lot of confusion, even when the Aircraft Commander, entire air crew, and members of the USAF Public Affairs vouches for you.  Hours were spent looking at two pick up trucks trying to jump start one another and other ways to entertain oneself after a 8+ hour flight and 3 more sitting in purgatory. But the evening soon erased an afternoon of frustration with a friendly face and a cold pint of Guinness with new friends. In an unnecessary, but incredibly kind gesture unbeknownst to me, word of our journey from Manas to Mildenhall had arrived through the Chief's network. And with a simple email asking one Command Chief from another to take care of me, events were set in motion. I was greeted upon arrival in Mildenhall by the Chief of the 352nd Special Operations Group with a hearty and firm handshake; a stranger who I had never met nor knew existed. But he had simply been asked to take good care of me from a mutual friend, and that was enough for him. Arrangements for housing for me and my media companions had already been made by the Chief, and dinner plans at the Bird in Hand pub with some more friends was set. Patches and coins were appropriated and a personal tour of the 352nd's CV-22B Osprey as well. I was in a foreign country, far from home, but not alone thanks to the Chiefs. The next day continued with the final leg of our journey home. 10.4 hours and we crossed the dateline back into the United States.  Below the images speak for themselves. Loved ones gone for long and reunited at last. Girlfriends, boyfriends, wives, husbands, coworkers, friends, veterans, heroes.   A special thanks to the Men and Women of Transit Center at Manas, and Fairchild Air Force Base for a one in a lifetime trip. And a especially to Col. John C. Millard, Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Warren, Chief Master Sgt. William Markham, Chief Master Sgt. Paul Wallace, Chief Master Sgt. Steven Flax, and Chief Master Sgt. Luis Drummond. Oh and how can I forget the best PA crew ever: Lt Col Max Despain, 2nd Lt Rachelle Smith, TSgt Brian Bender, and SMSgt Angelique McDonald. :)

22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, Refueling the Fight

January 3rd, 2014
After 18 hours aboard a KC-135 to reach Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, I had my feet on the ground for exactly 38 hours before I would be back in the air once again. But this time it was different. This time, I would be on a combat mission over Afghanistan supporting the Operation Enduring Freedom by refueling US and Coalition fighter jets that were covering troops on the ground. In a span of 48 hours, I would fly two combat sorties with the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron in a KC-135 refueling tanker. During those two missions we would refuel 16 aircraft during our 17.6 hours aloft, offload 78,200 pounds of fuel to thirsty USAF and Dutch F-16s, and have travelled 8,600 nm across all of Afghanistan. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year, for the past 12 years, refueling tankers from Transit Center at Manas have flown over Afghanistan to ensure USAF and Coalition aircraft receive the fuel necessary to successfully complete their missions. Last year along the 22 EARS offloaded 20 million gallons of fuel to over 12,000 combat aircraft.  This allowed them to support 904 Troops-in-Contact events. What does all that mean? Basically troops on the ground have air support when they needed it. Typically, an F-16 loaded with bombs and missiles, as was the case with all of the aircraft I saw, has a range of about 300 nm, which would limit the aircraft to about 2-3 hours. If their target was an hour away from their home base, then the F-16 would take an hour to reach there, less then an hour on station, then an hour back before running out of fuel. But thanks to the crews of the KC-135, the F-16 can extend their range and time on station to over 8 hours! My morning for both flights started very, very early for me. I was still trying to adjust to the time and fight off the jet lag. But this was combat, and just another day for the dozen crews that called TC Manas home. As with any flight, there are several key checkpoints before a flight happens. The first is a "Show Time," which is when you show up to the Operations building to start your mission brief, get weather updates, check out your guns, grab your "Secrets" (a bag full of the daily tactical frequencies, callsigns, duress codes, and other stuff I probably shouldn't' know about) Next is the "Step Time," which is when you actually step to the KC-135. In our case that was when you go out to the crew van and drive down a bumpy Kyrgy road with several checkpoints onto the flightline. As we did this, I could see that ours was not the only mission that day. C-17's were getting loaded and flying off to Bagram AFB that day with cargo and troops being deployed downrange. Once we reached the aircraft, maintenance crews from the 376 EAMXS had already been out there ensuring our aircraft was in great flying condition, which it always was.  The Pilot did a quick walk around of the aircraft checking vital parts and one last verification. And inside, the Co-Pilot and Boom Operator were performing their mission essential checks. Finally there was the "Take Off Time," which is when the mission actually started.  Winds favored a runway 08 departure on both of our missions with a left upwind turn towards the amazing Kirghiz mountains. The benefit of flying out of Kyrgyzstan is that it is a short one hour flight over Tajikistan and you are immediately in Afghanistan.  This allows the USAF to immediately support any aircraft operation in the AOR. As this was a combat mission, the exact route of flight was classified. All I know is that on my first mission, we were supporting fighter jets in the North / Northwestern area of Afghanistan. I was told that the mountain ranges off in the distance was the Pakistan boarder, which we were not allowed to cross into. On my second sortie, we refueled fighter jets in Eastern Afghanistan along the Iranian boarder, which we were not allowed to cross into. Definitely do not want to cause any international incidents. But on our second flight, there was a transmission from an Iranian controller on Emergency Guard Frequency 121.5 that an aircraft has strayed into Iranian airspace and to turn around immediately else interceptors would be scrambled. I was told that the Iranian boarder was mobile depending on the controller. :) As we took off from Manas International airport, it was like we were any other aircraft flying that day. We spoke to Manas Tower to get our clearance to take off, and then were handed off to Center which guided us along our filed flight route into Afghanistan. Once we reached Afghanistan, we then went "Tactical." What that means is that we were no longer being controlled by Afghani ATC, but instead were being routed and watched over by a USAF AWACS aircraft. We switched over to encrypted  frequencies and started using codewords. Some real Tom Clancy stuff! The 376th EOSS Operations Group had lined up aircraft almost immediately upon entering Afghanistan. Typically there are several aerial refueling tracks that are scattered across Afghanistan. These tracks change frequently and are updated in the "Secrets" bag that are known to each "friendly" aircraft in the AOR. Our KC-135 would fly from one AR Track to another to another and then return back to TC Manas. As we orbited each track, we had scheduled F-16s that came up for fuel as they needed it. As we transitioned between refueling tracks, we all took a moment to take a break or grab a bite to eat. Here I am having a steel picnic at 23,000 feet over Afghanistan. This was a very intricate ballet that happened in the sky. Schedulers from across the region had to coordinate dozens of aerial assets so that each had adequate fuel and at the same time accomplished their mission of supporting the troops on the ground. The F-16 had to take off from it's home base, start its mission, then fly skyward to an aerial refueling track for it's life saving fuel. Then a KC-135 had to be in the area to give that much needed fuel. If it wasn't, then that F-16 had to scrub it's mission and fly off and land at an alternate base, thus ending the air cover that it was providing to troops on the ground. Sometimes it just didn't work out like it did on paper.  F-16s often fly as a pair. Wingmen. Someone to watch out for you and help you out along the way. One pair of F-16s from the 301st FW out of Texas, but temporarily deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan were such customers. A pair of these F-16s that provide close-air support and armed over watch for the Service members on the ground, were slated to get fuel from our tanker, SHELL 74, but were engaged in a heated close-air support mission. This changed the plans and the tempo onboard SHELL 74 increased dramatically.  VIPER 21 and his wingman VIPER 31 were below us somewhere doing something important. VIPER 31 came up as a solo aircraft to quickly get fuel as VIPER 31 provided air support to the troops on the ground. Normally aircraft receiving fuel fly a standard pattern around the refueling tanker. They hold off the left wing, drop down and aft of the tanker and approach the boom slowly. Then they finish and float gently to the right wing as the rest of their flight gets fuel. This did not happen for VIPER 21. I was in the rear boom pod of the KC-135 with the Boom Operator ("Boom"), laying on our bellies and looking backwards when I saw an F-16 flash by in the opposite direction less then a 1,000 feet below us. It pulled a hard left, high G turn and expertly was in the Pre-contact position and closing in towards the boom fast! Within seconds, VIPER 21 was receiving fuel as quickly as it could take it. Less then two minutes went by and VIPER 21 was off the boom and diving back down towards the fight. VIPER 21 informed the tanker that VIPER 31 was low on fuel and 35 miles northwest of the refueling track, requesting that the tanker go towards the F-16 vs it having to waste precious time to fly towards the tanker. Immediately we banked left and headed towards the F-16. We were deep in the middle of "Yo-Yo Operations" where one aircraft stays low to the ground to provide close-air support and his wingman flies up to the Tanker for fuel. Then the wingman returns to the fight and the other aircraft flies up to the tanker for it's turn at getting fueled.  This way there is continuous ground cover and the aircraft get fuel, albeit a little at a time vs one continuous fill up. You do all you can to get that fuel and get back in the fight! All in all, that one mission, SHELL 74 fueled 10 F-16s for 38,400 pounds of fuel over western Afghanistan; including 2 Dutch F-16s. The second day, SHELL 73 fueled 6 F-16s for 39,800 pounds of fuel over eastern Afghanistan. Inherently there is always risk in anything you do. Crossing a busy intersection, driving a car, waking up in the morning. Two planes flying at 300 mph at 23,000 feet over Afghanistan, flying less then 25 feet from one another and then trying to fly a stick into a hole of the other aircraft and force fuel into it isn't the most dangerous task in the world, but it isn't the easiest. When we were refueling the Dutch RNLAF F-16s, we experienced the worst turbulence I had ever been in. The planes were being tossed around the sky like a rag doll. Add in that the Boom Operators window was coated in de-icing fluid so his vision was obscured. Bad for photography, but even worse for trying to give fuel to an F-16 that would have to cancel his mission and leave the troops on the ground unsupported. They tried for 10 minutes before making a solid contact. On May 3rd, 2013, SHELL 77, a KC-135 from the 22nd EARS crashed Kyrgyzstan shortly after take off, killing all three crew members on board. The plane was from McConnell AFB, the crews were from Fairchild AFB, but the loss was felt across the base and the entire Air Force. A small memorial adorns the walls of the 376th AEW crew lounge. And with all the tankings safely accomplished it was time to sit back and RTB. After 17.6 over Afghanistan seeing the dedication and direct impact these crews have, I was impressed. Having flown only on local training missions and being both on the tankers and the receivers side of the boom, I now get it. Those long, boring, safe, training flights over the United States all come together so that crews from the 22nd EARS can refuel the fight where it counts and when it counts, no matter what the conditions. NKAWTG!

The Mission at Manas

January 2nd, 2014
Half a world away sits an airman on alert duty. He's waiting for the call so that within an hour, he's airborne to refuel the fight over Afghanistan. Elsewhere there sits a Marine listening to his music knowing that in a few hours he will finally be heading back home to the United States. The Transit Center at Manas is a small city situated on an airport near the town of Bishkek in northern Kyrgyzstan.  14 hours ahead of San Francisco, this former Soviet country serves as the transit hub to the war in Afghanistan. Established in December of 2001 and located at Manas International Airport, TCM has on average, 4,000+ personnel on base. The Transit Center at Manas has four missions that they expertly handle. Air Refueling, Onward Movement, Airlift, and Building Partnerships.  In the short time I was at TC Manas, I got a chance to see each and every aspect of these four missions. I never fully understood the intricacies of the "How" it happened. In my mind, half way around the world, people and stuff just got there, did it's thing, and came back. Planes flew, did their thing, and flew back. If you needed something, you had Amazon Prime, right? Not quite. All over the globe, members of our Armed Forces are in an intricate dance, playing chess, and juggling balls at the same time. People, assets, and cargo are being moved as needed, and as efficiently as possible. Chances are if it's going in and out of Afghanistan, it will come through Manas. 0800 came to early. Felt like just the night before I was hoisting a pint in a British pub. But that memory was quickly erased with the bite in the air and seeing nothing but concrete and military uniforms everywhere. I spent the night in my DV accommodations in one of the base's CLU's (Container Living Units).  Mobile housing constructed out of cargo shipping containers. Very reminiscent of my college dorm room, minus the alcohol and Top Gun poster.   The amazing Public Affairs staff at TC Manas had a wonderful itinerary for us in the short time that we were in Kyrgyzstan. With the loss of one full day due to the snafu in the UK, the PA staff rearranged our itinerary so that we didn't miss a thing. Every moment of our day was planned down to the minute.  Below is just the first half of the first day of our trip! And at 0800 I was already late to breakfast at the DFAC (Dining Facility). In case you haven't noticed, the Military loves their acronyms. :)   Once you enter the DFAC, you are immediately greeted by a row of sinks to wash your hands. While offputting at first, it makes total sense. With 1,400 permenent military folks at TC Manas, 700 local contractors, 300 DOD contrctors, and 1,000-2,500 transient military folks, germs can wreck havoc on a base. So scrub extra good!   Some low fat milk :)         And who says the Air Force doesn't have a sense of humor? A nice reminder of San Francisco. Our first stop of the morning was to visit the 304th Military Police Battalion. All members of the 304th are are trained U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agents. One of the major missions at TC Manas is getting the troops in and out of Afghanistan. "Welcome to Customs" is the one phase that each and every military member hears as they begin their journey home. The mission of the CBPA is to make sure that the troops all meet the proper guidelines when entering the United States.      From the yard, checked and cleared bags are moved to a secure storage facility where they await being loaded onto the aircraft.   Service members get a 15 minute "amnesty" period where they can throw out any restricted items.   Occasionally someone just doesn't want to throw out their stuff. Use or loose it I guess.       After clearing Customs, service men and women then proceed to the PAX Terminal where they finish their final paperwork and standby to board a government chartered aircraft back to the United States.  For many, this is the first time they truly can let their guard down.     Then once the moment arrives, it's time to head out to the airplane and head home. For those processing "downrange" or heading into Afghanistan, their first stop is the Transit Center's Expeditionary Theater Distribution Center (ETDC) where they will get outfitted with the necessary safety and survival gear.   I had an opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of an Airman deploying to Bagram AFB and collect all the gear that I would need.   I was escorted down each aisle to collect my personnel protective equipment and chemical protective gear. Body armor, chemical suits, filters, cold weather shoes, gloves, helmets, basically anything I wasn't given at my home station is available for me to be safe downrange.     As I walked those aisles, it reminded me of being in a giant costco. But rather then the glee of buying cart loads of fun stuff, I had a sense of trepidation and nervousness. I was going to go back to the comfort of my CLU that night and in a few days back to my own bed in SF. But to the serviceman who was just processed out a few minutes before me, there was no chance of that happening. He was off to a much more dangerous environment where his own life will be at risk, albeit a bit safer thanks to those at ETDC.     In the afternoon we got a chance to see the base a bit in the sunlight.   And yes, they do have a taste of home. I tried the Pizza, and it was well, not quite there. But in my head, it was amazing!   After lunch, we had a chance to meet the Vice Commander and the Command Chief Master Sergeant and learned even more about Transit Center Manas. One of the fun facts was that Kyrgyzstan is the only country that has both a USAF base and a Russian base. The Russian base, Kant Air Base, is just 23 miles from Manas. Unfortunately the Russians have not expressed interest in any relations with the USAF. But TC Manas has gone as far as creating a Russian version of their page to help answer any questions. I didn't realize that in addition to the four missions that they support, that the Base has infused over $700 million USD into the local economy over the past 6 years. This is even harder to comprehend given that the Kyrgyz parliament voted 91-5 in June to end the lease with the U.S. government after 12 years of partnerships.  The replacement site is still undetermined, but the effect TC Manas has is undeniable. The fleet of 12-17 KC-135s from offloaded over 20 million gallons of fuel, or about 30% of all aerial refuelings over Afghanistan. The Center averages moving 1,250 troops per day in and out of Afghanistan. And the Airlift group moves on average of 10 million lbs/month of cargo. On top of all that, the loss of the local relationships and economic impact will be devastating.     One thing that keep me feeling proud was the little notes of support from back home. I can't imagine how hard it must be to be away from your loved ones for so long, but these small moments brought a tear to my eye.   The Staff at TC Manas sure goes the extra distance to make being there as comfortable as possible. For those that are on base, evening entertainment is a bit of a challenge. You could go to the Gym. You could go to a small movie theater. There is the MWR Rec center. Or you go to Pete's Place, named in honor of Peter Ganci, the New York City Fire Department chief who died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack.  24x7 Corn hole, pool tables, 2 dart boards (one of which is always played by the CBPA guys and gals! Awesome folks!), music, entertainment, and beer!   Wait, what? Beer?!? This is the last place where troops heading downrange can get a cold beer. But no more then 2 in 20 hours.  Or if they are heading back home, this is the first beer they will be able to taste after serving their tour of duty.  The drink of choice? Baltika 9 (Krepkoe), an 8% Russian lager or a mean wine called Isabella, with a gut punching 18% alcohol. Yikes! But it's not all about the beer here. It's about having a place to go. Something to break up the monotony if you're based here or something different to do if you're just passing through. Bingo, dance offs, local entertainment, anything to let you have a moment of respite.     And when the day is all done, it's time to go back home.

Journey to Transit Center at Manas

January 1st, 2014
K...Y...R....wait what? Where is this place? Eastern Europe, Western Oh, near the Middle East...sorta. Yeah, guess the "Stan" part gave that away. Kyrgyzstan is a country nestled between some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, often compared to the majestic Rockies. And in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan lies a small airport with a large mission. The Transit Center at Manas. But my story doesn't start there, it starts on the other side of the world on a crowded BART train leaving San Francisco. Four days earlier, I had finally gotten an email from the 92nd ARW Public Affairs office at Fairchild AFB, WA confirming that our mission to Transit Center at Manas was officially a go! For the past 6 months, I had been in monthly back and forth with Colonels, Chiefs, Captains, Lieutenants, and several others from 4 different bases who were all rallying to get me out to witness first hand the important mission that was going on at Manas. But when Sequestration hit, the mission was in jeopardy. But luckily for me, I had some really dedicated folks who wanted this story told. So in four days, I bought an expensive last minute airline ticket to Spokane, not knowing when we were taking off or when I was coming back home, just the rough dates, packed for Asia in December and the cold winter of flying aboard a KC-135 and rolled my luggage onto a crowded train to the airport. Little did I know, that would be nothing compared to being in the confined spaces of a KC-135. A full flight to Spokane seemed to be my fate to start me on this holiday journey. Kids crying, families trying to get home to loved ones or kids traveling home for the winter break. And not an empty seat in sight. A luxury that one takes for granted as I can now reflect. Due to OpSec (Operational Security), the USAF could not tell me when exactly my flight would be departing the previous week, but finally 24 hours in advance, I had a schedule. 1030 - Be in place at Visitor's Center for escort onto base 1100 - Bag Drop near Flight Ops 1130 - Mission Brief 1200 - Lunch at Dining Facility 1300 - Flight Showtime No return time yet or any idea what I would be doing in Kyrgyzstan, but this was all a part of the adventure. So after a restless night sleep, I loaded up my gear and headed to the Visitor Center at Fairchild AFB. I had my medium sized bag with all my clothes. My well travelled Camera Bag with 50lbs of gear, a gym bag with my in flight essentials (aka hours of tv shows, movies, noise canceling headphones, sweaters, hand warmers, knit hat, wool sweater, and food), a sleeping bag and mattress pad. The last two would make or break the mission. It was at the Visitor Center that I met the other two media folks that I would be traveling with to Manas. Whitney is a television reporter for a local news station who was doing a story on "Treats for Troops" and Young is a great photojournalist for a local Spokane rag. I also met our PA Escorts that would be my shadow for the next 8 days.  Guess my reputation preceded me. :)   With three hours to go, I was starting to get excited. But unlike a traditional commercial flight, we had to do a lot of the stuff you take for granted on our own. Like load our own luggage. So we grabbed all our gear and loaded up whatever we were not going to need access to during the flight onto a wooden pallet. This pallet would be right there with us on the plane. Not underneath, but right there. Mission Brief time! Our mission was to ferry an replacement KC-135 to Manas along with a fresh set of Airmen who will replace a group returning home in a week. The KC-135s out of Manas support 30% of all aerial refueling over Afghanistan and the crews from Fairchild fly those missions. Yup! It was going to be COLD! Good thing I had my warm sleeping bag. But this is an ambitious plan. Fly, land, quickly refuel in Mildenhall, and then take off to make it to Manas. But that's for the crews to worry about. Time to grab our last meals in America. Luckily for me, I had a friend stop by to say hi during lunch. Thanks Opie! Then it was off to the Pax Lounge (aka a room with a table) and for some hurry up and wait. Apparently the aircraft's weight and balance was off, so there was a delay while they recalculated. Guess I shouldn't have packed that extra snuggie. And finally our chariot to the plane arrived. One thing that the USAF does like a commercial flight is a passenger briefing. You know, in case of emergency, little yellow masks fall down and provide oxygen. Well, in our case, it's slightly different. There is no ceiling with masks, so there is a bag with a little O2 bottle that we carry with us on the flight.   Traveling on a KC-135 isn't like anything you can imagine. Yet, thousands of troops all across the globe are expected to fly long hours to remote parts of the globe in these conditions. The plane is a 50+ year old relic that has been reinvented time and time again to accomplish its mission. Refuel aircraft in mid air and deliver cargo. I was the cargo and as such would be treated like so. The belly of the plane, like those you fly commercially, normally is used for carrying bags and cargo. But in the KC-135, it has been filled with extra fuel bladders, so the cargo has to go on top where the seats would normally be. But since you put cargo where the seats go, to make room, they took the seats out. Well, not completely. They have this nylon webbing for you to sit in. Did I mention it's a 12 hour flight? Imagine sitting in those folding chairs that you take to the park for 12 hours. Then put those chairs in a large refrigerator that is 40 degrees F and has no insulation and a loud continuous droning sound from 4 jet engines outside. Yup. That's what I am jumping onboard. A flying gas station that is freezing, loud, has no real chairs, and one bathroom.  A full flight on Southwest was looking really good about now. Now you know why I brought a mattress pad, warm sleeping bag and all those things to keep me warm. But as soon as we were airborne, sleeping pills were popped and people started to get comfortable as best as they could.   Sleeping was not as easy as I thought it would be. Between the cold, a bumpy flight, and uncomfortable metal box I was laying on (my air mattress sprung a leak), I only managed a couple hours at best.  So I had a snack from my bag (there is no beverage or meal service on this flight) and headed up to the cockpit. The crew up front was in the same situation as we were in the back, but welcomed the company. Being a pilot, I was fascinated how they navigated the route to the United Kingdom.  I knew the concept, but this was my first time seeing it in practice and have it explained. The 50 year old plane even has text messaging! Well, sorta. The pilots can send secure message back to AMC HQ for flight guidance and not have to use any voice connections. I thought that was very cool and a clear way to avoid confusion.       But up there I found out that the weather at RAF Mildenhall was not looking good. The Runway Visibility that we needed was just below the minimums to land safely. AMC HQ originally had us diverting to Shannon Airport in Ireland. The problem with that is that we only had 3 hours on the ground to get refueled, serviced, and back in the air to make it to Manas before our two aircrews hit their maximum flying hours. The original plan had us at 23.8 hours, and that was assuming all went perfectly as planned. Well, time to adapt to get the mission done. So while RAF Mildenhall was fogged in, RAF Lakenheath was just barely visible, but good enough to land and only 9 miles away! Much better then flying an hour North West to Shannon. The Crew made their decision with the Aircraft Commander and we got vectors to RAF Lakenheath. We actually had a chance to make our 3 hour window!   RVR looking good!!!   Touchdown!!! RAF Lakenheath is predominantly an F-15 base with a SAR wing. Basically small aircraft. So when a heavy KC-135 popped up, unannounced, it came as a giant surprise to the base. Opps. This would prove to be our downfall. And we were oh so close! The transient ramp for large aircraft is not directly accessible after exiting the runway, so we had to taxi at 10 mph all the way around the airport and cross back over the runway. But since our heavy KC-135 ran over the emergency arresting cables for the F-15s, we had to hold short Runway 11 /29 while Ops did a runway inspection....25 minutes down 2:35 left till we are stuck here.   Eventually we got to our parking spot V1.   So what do you mean you can't operate the air stairs? How are we going to get down and off this plane? Remember, they aren't used to large aircraft just randomly landing here. Tick tock, tick tock.   Eventually they found a maintenance stand that we climbed down. Grab some cash, a quick run to grab some food and use the restroom while the plane gets refueled and we could still pull this off... 1:45 left.   And this is where the universe decided that I should spend the night in the United Kingdom. Remember how I said that this base is used to small fighter jets? Well, the fuel trucks are small too. And we needed a lot of fuel to get to Manas. So they couldn't get a fuel truck large enough for us. Either use two or three small fuel trucks or drive one over from RAF Mildenhall. Once they decided on the small fuel truck option, it was missing some safety gear. That was eventually found. Then an F-15 had an emergency landing and shut down all movement on the airport, including refueling. Time had run out.  Time to grab our overnight bags and find a room. Wait, what overnight bag? $h!%   So since the base was unaccustomed to such a large group dropping in, the 5 of us Media/PA folks got rooms on base and the rest of the aircrew and pax had to go to some small town 30 min away.  We decided to make the most of our predicament and check out the sights. A quick shower, and it was off for a bite at The Bull Inn, Barton Mills where I got to toast and pour a traditional English pint. But our adventures were only starting and it was a $200 cab ride to Cambridge! I got to see the RAF Bar and the place where the discovery of DNA was announced. Oh and so many bikes!!! Then it was time to go back to the Base. Show time was 0330 GMT where we had to meet back in the lobby with all of our stuff  for a 0630 take off. And since it was early morning back in California, I figured I'd just stay awake all night and sleep on the plane. But it was a really really long spell till 0330. Then it was back on the bus to get our secrets, then our guns, and then finally get on the plane up those shaky air stairs.   Then it was back to hustling for a spot to pass out.   I slept for an hour or so and then wandered up to the cockpit in time to see the sunrise over Europe. Gotta say, it was very pretty. The pilots did their job and kept the pointy part of the plane heading East.     After a bit, I was able to pass out for a decent amount of sleep. Guess the body eventually gets tired and just passes out no matter how uncomfortable or cold it is. After 7.2 hours of flying, I was woken up and told we were approaching Transit Center at Manas. It was Thursday, 9pm local time in Bishkek, 3pm in the UK, and 7am in California. I had left Spokane on a Tuesday at 1pm, and have been traveling for XX hours. But I was here. And it was amazing!     While there were no airstairs to help us deplane, we just came down the ladder in the nose of the aircraft. Everyone jumped in to offload the carry on bags. Amongst the chaos of all the people swarming, one thing surprised me. I was handing bags down the human line and a Full Bird Colonel was there grabbing bags and helping out.   I later found out that this was one of the command staff. He wasn't there for some dog and pony show or just to be seen, he was there to lend a hand, greet his new crews and help welcome them to their new home away from home for the next few months. This was going to be a good trip.  

2013 Year-End Review

December 30th, 2013
With the end of the year on the doorstep, I'd like to share some of my favorite images over the past 12 months. I've been very lucky to have several unique adventures in 2013 and have made some great friends along the way. What a trip it has been! This year I visited 3 different continents, had 9 air-to-airs with everything from a 1944 B-17 to the latest USAF F-35, racked up over 84 hours in airplanes so I could take pics of more airplanes, seen the President of the United States twice, sat in Marine One, was apart of 3 Fini-Flights, slept 21 hours on the cold metal floor of a KC-135, had 2 MRE's (Veggie Lasagna & Cheese Tortellini), flew 15.2 combat hours over Afghanistan, and ultimately shot 33,683 images.  None of these image would have been possible with out the friends and pilots who have helped me along the way, the amazing USAF Public Affairs folks who supported me, and the countless men and women of the Armed Forces that went out of their way to help me capture these shots. Thank you for your continued support!  [gallery link="file" ids="3233,3273,3274,3275,3277,3230,3231,3232,3228,3234,3235,3236,3237,3238,3239,3240,3241,3242,3243,3244,3245,3246,3247,3248,3249,3250,3251,3252,3253,3254,3255,3256,3257,3258,3259,3260,3261,3229,3262,3263,3264,3265,3266,3267,3268,3269,3270,3272,3271,3276" orderby="time"]

San Francisco Muni Heritage Weekend

November 3rd, 2013
This weekend, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which operates the Municipal Railway (Muni), and Market Street Railways held their Muni Heritage Weekend. They rolled out their vintage motor buses and trolley buses for all the public to enjoy and to get a taste of what it was like to ride the golden rails of yesteryear. Muni is America’s first publicly owned transit system and has been around for over 100 years! The highlight for me was being able to ride Streetcar No. 1, Muni's very first streetcar. It was built in 1912 and was in immaculate condition. But the best part was the enthusiasm from the operators and volunteers. They clearly took pride in their work and enjoyed sharing the details of these fine machines with all of us. Highlights included being able to ride: Bus No. 776: A 1950 Marmon-Herrington trolley coach, which served virtually all of Muni’s trolley bus lines during its quarter-century of service. It is painted in its original green and cream “Wings” livery. Streetcar No. 1: Muni’s very first streetcar, which inaugurated Muni service on December 28, 1912, running out Geary Street from Market to 10th Avenue, with Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph at the controls. It wears Muni’s first paint scheme of gray and red, with gold trim. Streetcar No. 578: The oldest streetcar operated by a North American transit agency, built in 1896 for a Muni predecessor. Cable Car No. 42 is the last cable car bearing the markings of the O’Farrell, Jones & Hyde line, which was closed in 1954. Reacquired from a private party in the 1990s and subsequently restored to its 1906 appearance by Muni’s cable car maintenance team with assistance on cosmetic work by volunteers from Market Street Railway. [gallery link="file" orderby="title"]

The 2013 Reno Air Races – 50th Anniversary

September 17th, 2013
Celebrating it's 50th Anniversary, the Reno Air Races put on quite a show and did not disappoint. The Race had a bit of drama even before the race started with 4 time champion Steve Hinton, Jr switching teams and flying Voodoo. This left legendary Strega being flown by Matt Hill. With Strega suffering a nearly catastrophic canopy damage just a few days prior to the race and then nearly getting disqualified during the Friday qualifying heat, it was shaping up to be one of the best Unlimited Gold races in quite some time. As they say at the races: Fly low, fly fast, turn left! [gallery link="file" orderby="title"]

America’s Cup Ciao Bella

July 29th, 2013
I recently had the chance to go aboard one of the Course Security boats during a time trial for Luna Rossa, one of the massive AC72 sailboats that fly across the water. Small but formidable, we were tasked to marshal the area just north of the finish line and in front of the America's Cup Pavilion. As other boats attempted to enter the race course perimeter, we would rush full speed to intercept the aggressor and direct them back on course. This task ensured the safety of both the civillian vessel and the multi million dollar sailboats flying across the Bay at speeds upward of 40 mph. And in between intercepts I got to take some photos of a beautiful boat! Ciao Bella!!!   [gallery link="file" orderby="title"]

Where old planes go to die

July 6th, 2013
On my way to a photo shoot in SoCal, I stopped by Southern California Logistics Airport (KVCV) in Victorville, CA and was astounded by the heaps of scrapped airplanes.  These majestic planes once ruled the skies, but now they lay waste in the warm California desert.   I saw planes from the 1960's to the newest airliner, the Boeing 787 out there.  One can only imagine how many billions of miles combined these hundreds of airplanes flew. And what stories these releics could tell. But now, only the desert winds can be heard.   [gallery ids="3049,3048,3047,3046,3045,3044,3043,3042,3041,3040,3039,3038,3037,3036,3035,3034,3033,3032,3031,3030"]

Five Weeks of Flying

May 27th, 2013
Been offline for over a month now, but not because I've been sitting idle. I have been very fortunate to be able to have gone flying nearly every weekend and when I wasn't, it was an Airport-Funday. Because you know what they say, any day at an airport is a good day! And when you add to the fact that your roommate is an amazing formation qualified pilot who flies for the famous Patriots Jet Team. Well, a you get a chance to do some phenomenal air to airs! In those 5 weeks, I logged over 11 hours of flight time in a Cessna 182 (5.6 hours), North American Aviation P-51 Mustang (0.2 hours), and McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender (5.2 hours). On the weekend of April 20th, Cory and I had a chance to get some air to air with the B-17G (N3703G, Serial No 44-83546) "Memphis Bell The Movie" when the Liberty Foundation was in town. We met the crew of the B-17 at Hayward airport for a safety brief and then chased the B-17 around the SF Bay Area as it flew over Alcatraz and the East Bay. The following weekend (April 27-28th) was the historic Dream Machines fly-in at Half Moon Bay Airport. A local favorite for many a GA pilots, this Sunday was a rare blend of blue skies and unique aircraft. Cory and I once again got a chance to do not only 1, but 4 air to airs with some amazing airplanes. We shoot a 1948 Grumman G-73 Mallard (N2945) and a 1944 Grumman G44 Widgeon (N81062) as they flew on to San Carlos for Hiller Aviation Museum's Seaplane Adventure. We then followed that up with a quick air to air of Eddie Andreini’s newest toy, P-51D "Primo Branco" and it's one of a kind smoke generators!! Then we finished the Airport-Sunday-Funday with a Douglas DC-4 (N460WA) along the California coastline. So that would have been enough aviation for anyone, but the following weekend (May 4th), Cory flew us down to the famous Chino Airshow where we saw an amazing amount of warbirds flying in the skies; including 5 P-38 Lightnings! Up and down to SoCal and all those warbirds made for an amazing Saturday. May 11th was the Hayward Airport Day. While we didn't get to fly, I was still surrounded by a bunch of cool airplanes and even saw a high speed pass by the Goodyear Blimp! May 18th took us back to Half Moon Bay for a rare treat. I got a special invitation by Eddie Andreini to go up for a flight in his P-51D Mustang that I had shot a few weeks before. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity. This was my first ever time in the storied WWII airplane. It was cramped, loud and I wouldn't have traded that ride in the world for anything! 20 minutes of non-stop aerobatics was so much fun! Eddie flies that plane to it's limits and has been doing airshows for over 30 years! 5 G's and 300 kts! Priceless! And to round out week five, I had a chance to fly with the USAF's 60th & 349th AMW out of Travis AFB, CA on a very special mission. Two Fini Flights and a 10,000th Hour Flight for a CMSgt Boomer all on one plane. I got the chance to fly aboard the AFRC KC-10 who was working in collaboration with the Active duty KC-10 on this historic mission. We flew out of Travis AFB due east for some "10 on 10" refueling, hit the Nellis Ranges to refuel some 422nd TES F-16s and snap some shots of the F-35 Lightning II. Then back home to Travis with some more "10 on 10". Not a bad way to round off 5 weeks of flying! A HUGE thanks to Cory! Without him, all of this wouldn't have been possible.

Franz Ferdinand Secret Basement Concert

April 15th, 2013
  On an unassuming block in a gritty part of San Francisco's Tenderloin district, folks lined up outside Vacation based of a cryptic text tweeted by @Franz_Ferdinand for a surprise concert. For the cost of 5 lotto scratcher tickets, fans of Franz Ferdinand were treated to an intimate concert in the basement of Vacation. Fitting less then 50 people, the basement was hot, sweaty and loud. But Franz Ferdinand filled it with some sweet, sweet music. New songs, old song, it didn't matter, the crowd got a rare treat. And as if that wasn't cool enough, they did a second set just for the fans outside who didn't get a chance to make it in. Needless to say, this was a great moment in music.

[gallery link="file" orderby="title"]

Year of the B-52 – Day 3

December 23rd, 2012
The business end of the mighty B-52 is to deliver conventional and nuclear weapons. Sure it's got a great set of pilots, and an world class Electronic Warfare Officer But at the end of the day, the BUFF is there to drop bombs. Day 3 at Barksdale AFB was a chance to see the various munitions load teams and see how they meticulously load the B-52. It can carry approximately 70,000 pounds mixed ordnance -- bombs, mines and missiles, including up to 20 air-launched cruise missiles.   [gallery link="file" orderby="title"]

Year of the B-52 – Day 2 Part 2

December 18th, 2012
2058 Zulu “SKULL23 Flight, cleared for take off runway 33.” As the heavy B-52 Stratofortress in front of us released their breaks and lumbered onto Runway 33 at Barksdale AFB, LA, the Co-pilot of our B-52 started the 'hack' on the stopwatch. We would time our take off to be exactly 30 seconds behind the first B-52 so that we could be airborne as quick and safely as possible. "Breaks off, ready, now." the Co-pilot shouted out. Our pilot pushed the 8 throttle levers forward an the sleepy giant came to life as we slowly inched forward and taxied towards the runway. A few seconds later we lined up on the center-line of the runway and could see SKULL 23 lift-off right in front of us with a massive trail of exhaust coming out from it's 8 engines balls to the wall. During our intensive pre-take off brief, it was decided that we would simulate a MILCOM take off to best simulate a war time scenario since we were in the midst of "War Week" at Barksdale AFB. This way if enemy forces were monitoring our take off, which was likely, they would not be able to determine our planned route. And for our mission of penetrating enemy defenses, and destroying the enemy airfield, only the necessary communications would be broadcast over the airways. But since we were still in the good ol US of A, we still needed to communicate with ATC so other jets didn't hit us. Real World Communications:
  • Contact Ft Worth Center for range entrance/exit
  • Monitor Center Frequency
  • Contact SNYDER NLT 50NM from site
  • Coordinate IP time and "Music"
Scenario Communications:
  • 0045z - Check in with DARKSTAR (our AWACs Controller aircraft)
  • 0050z - Roll Call
  • 0051z - Lowdown
So just after take off we received vectors and clearance from Shreeveport Departure to climb up to FL270 (Flight Level 27,000 feet) and hit our Waypoint 3. Time to do the post take off checklists. Our route would take us across 4 states during this flight. We had 33 individual way points to guide us from take off (Waypoint 1), to a cruise at FL270 (Waypoint 3) west bound. And for those few hours of straight and level flight, it was a rare moment to stay hydrated and to eat my in-flight meal: 2 PB&J's, a bag of chips, muffin, small package of Oreos, and a can of Gatorade. 100% Pure O2 makes you hungry!! 2406 Zulu As we entered Texas to rendezvous with a COPPER 08, a KC-135 Refueling Tanker from the 161st ARW Arizona ANG (Waypoint 10), who would be in a long racetrack pattern expecting us at 2400z at FL240. First up was SKULL 23 to get fuel as we flew slightly above and behind providing air cover with our offensive countermeasures. Then it was our turn to fuel up before our bomb run. Things seemed NBD when you're a half mile away from the tanker like we were above. But once we were behind that -135, that boom looked REALLY close to us. One bad move and that boom was coming right through our window and going to make Sagar-shish kabobs, Check out how much maneuvering the pilot has to do to keep this BUFF in position. 0053 Zulu After an east bound jaunt down AR310E, SKULL Flight then would be cleared into the LANCER HI MOA where we would wage war from 0045z to 0145z in the altitude block FL360-FL400. Zig zag around "enemy" radar sites and surface to air missiles as our Electronic Warfare Officer does his best to jam their radars and avoid missiles being shot at us. Waypoint 20 would be the start of our bomb run to destroy our enemy targets. For today's simulation, the enemy airfield is Winston Airport, Texas. A small GA airport with two crossing runways was going to suffer the wrath of two fully loaded B-52 Bombers. This is where the defensive capabilities of the BUFF get their moment to shine. Just as the sun set over the war fields of Texas, a lone Electronic Warfare Officer in the back of the B-52 were now in command of both the airplane and it's top secret radars and jammers. We were up against a gluttony of enemy threats. On the ground we had reports of SA-2F Surface-to-air missiles (SAM) with a max range of 20 nm, the SA-10B SAM (range 45 nm), and the mighty SA-5 SAM with a lethal range of 100 nm. And as if that threat weren't enough to scare us away, there were also MiG-31s in the area salivating for a BUFF air to air kill.  But E-Dub armed with ALR-20 Trace 2 and 2xALQ-155 E/F gave us vectors, jammed frequencies and released chaffs and flares to along with 45 deg bank turns to avoid the threat and line us up for the bomb run. Now it was time for the bomb run with our arsenal of 12 GBU-31v1 GPS guided bombs loaded under both wings and 27 M-117 gravity bombs in the bomb bay. This is why we flew for hours and where streets get named after you. The plan for the two guys in the bottom was simple: Fly-to gravity target (D26) and bug heading - Hack Watch! Switch to SMO and fly to JDAM release point (D28) and switch to JDAM and have CF-62A ready if auto doesn't work. Release JDAM (should have approx 21 seconds until gravity bombs release). Switch to Gravity, center FCI, Pilot calls "Parameters", Nav calls "Parameters Check", connect RCD and ensure bomb bay doors open at 15 TC. Target #1 are the runways at Winston Field Airport, TX (SNK). We had a 500' x 500' area where our 11 GBU-31 bombs needed to hit from an altitude of 35,000 feet while we flew overhead at 460 kts. No big deal. Of course any slight deviation risked the bombs missing the target. Target #2 is the Fuel Tanks at SNK and will be hit with the M-117 gravity bombs. While on the bomb run, the pilots give up control to the Radar Nav at the bottom of the B-52. 0400 Zulu And just like that, the war was over. Well for tonight at least. Time to contact DARKSTAR with a mission update and RTB (return to base). The flight back was uneventful. I was drained. I didn't actually do anything, but this "short" 7 hour mission kicked my a$$. I have no idea how these men and women do it. The longest strike mission in the history of aerial warfare was a 35-hour, non-stop combat mission which was during the Gulf War when B-52s took off from Barksdale AFB, launched conventional air launched cruise missiles and returned to Barksdale. I don't know how many in flight refuelings that was, or how long they had to stay away, but I am glad that these men and women are being the stick of this plane and not me. 0445 Zulu But still, one task was still left to do. Land this 8 engine beast.

Year of the B-52 – Day 2 Part 1

December 14th, 2012
You would think that an airplane 159 feet long and 40 feet high would have plenty of space. After all, it has 8 massive engines, and is roughly the same size as a jumbo jet. But the answer is that it does not have a lot of space. Well, not for people at least. When Boeing built the B-52 Stratofortress over 60 years ago, they built it around a single mission, to carry as many bombs as possible. And in the latest variant of the giant aircraft, it carries over 70,000 lbs of missiles and bombs. And to get this job done, it takes a crew of 5 to fly this beast (aircraft commander, pilot, radar navigator, navigator and electronic warfare officer). Luckily for me on my flight today, it would squeeze in 10 crew members. Which basically means, 10 people would have to share a space the size of a small minivan. Oh, and did I mention that only 6 of those people get ejection seat? The rest? Well, at least we got parachutes. For today's mission, it's a simulated War Game. During the week of my visit to Barksdale AFB, the squadrons of the base were having a week long exercise where they had various mock scenarios to test the crews ability to work as a team, and our flight of two B-52s from the 20th Bomb Squadron callsign SKULL 23 & 24 was tasked to join up with an aerial refueling tanker to get fuel, penetrate enemy airspace, defend the BUFF against electronic and physical threats from the air and ground, and then to deliver a deadly weapons payload to destroy the targets and fly back home. 1645 Zulu I met the Aircraft Commander (AC) outside the 20th Bomb Squadron at an early 0945 for our 1000 (1600 Zulu) show time. And already I was running late! Apparently in the Air Force, if you're not 10 minutes early to the meeting, you're late. Opps! So the AC and I grabbed my gear and ran up to the Briefing room a couple of buildings over. Dump our bags in the hallway, quickly stow any cellphones & cameras in the locked storage (no recording devices or photos allowed in the Brief!), and get to our seats. Already the crews of SKULL 23 and 24, our call signs for the flight, were seated around the large conference table, and in order of roles they play on the B-52. SKULL 23 and 24 each had aboard an Aircraft Commander, Co-Pilot, Radar Navigator, Navigator, Electronic Warfare Officer. That is the minimum crew needed to fly the B-52. In addition to that, since this was a teaching and training mission, we had on board an extra Mission Qualified crew members: an Electronic Warfare Officer, Radar Navigator, Pilot, Co-Pilot, and an Instructor Radar Navigator, and one overwhelmed Photographer. I had figured that we would casually mill around for our 1400 (2000z) flight, shoot the breeze and just take things casual. But all off a sudden, I was in the midst of a flight of two fully loaded heavy bombers on a mission to attack an airfield. And this was as real as it got. The Mission Commander stood at the podium at 0959 and called out "Time Hack in 5-4-3-2-HACK! Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Day 2 of War Week. Slide!" Then began a 30 minute intense overview of our 7 hour two ship sortie. The mission was to go on a "short" 7 hour mission, rendevouz with COPPER 08,an aerial refueling tanker, penetrate enemy airspace, evade surface to air missiles, radar jamming, and enemy aircraft to destroy an airfield, fuel tanks, and other high value targets, delivering a devastating blow to the bad guys. To accomplish this, each of our B-52s were equipped with the latest weapons. On our left and right pylons under the wings were 12 x GBU-31v1 JDAM Guided air-to-surface weapon and inside the bomb bay was 27 x M-117 820 lb gravity bombs. And on board highly training pilots to get us to the target, E-Dubs to defend us against enemy threats, and Radar Navs to destroy the targets. An even though the mighty B-52 could accomplish the mission on it's own, like any war, we were working as a team with other AF assets. Command and Control was an E-3 AWACS XXX orbiting at FL350, call sign DARKSTAR. Air to Air support for the enemy MiG-31s in the area looking to score a juiciy air to air kill of a B-52 was provided by 8 F-15C's, EAGLEs were 4 F-15s defending the altitude block from FL320-330, while CYLON, the other 4 F-15C's were covering FL340-350.  We also had support from an RC-135 XXXX at FL310, call sign VACUUM and a U-2 Dragon Lady above FL600 (actual altitude was classified). For a moment there I forgot that we were just in a war game. And we had a very very intense schedule ahead of us:
  • Showtime for the Pre-Take Off Brief - 1000 Local (L)
  • Step Desk Brief - 1200L
  • Bus - 1220L
  • Take Off - 1400L/2000 Zulu (Z)
  • Aerial Refueling Initial Point - 2300Z
  • Aerial Refueling Exit - 2345Z
  • Lancer Entry - 0045Z
  • Lancer Exit - 0145Z
  • Land back at KBAD - 2105L/0305Z
After hearing from the Weather Rep & Intel Rep, the two aircrews did their own flight briefings where they clarified the finer details of the flight. After that was the Crew brief where they worked out the details of whom was flying what part, who was backing up whom, and discussing the minute by minute details of the bomb run, including key Go / No-Go checks. 1628 Zulu Once that was done, it was time to head to Life Support and get our weapons. Remember? It's a war, and during war, aircrews need weapons in case they are shot down behind enemy lines. While I didn't get an actual weapon for the flight, I did get to get a photo with it.

I was exhausted already at this point. My brain was trying to grasp onto times, frequencies, key checkpoints, and my own name. I have no idea how the pilots and crew were so focused. A few hours earlier and these guys were joking about how someone forgot to fill out a form, and now they were all business. And we were a whole 12 minutes ahead of schedule. Time to use the restroom, since there is only a honey bucket onboard. 1748 Zulu Then at 11:48am, after 1 hour 48 minutes of briefing and getting equipment, it was time for the Step Brief with Ops. All 16 crew members from both Flights gathered with the Ops folks for a last minute Crew currency validation and a Go / No-Go for the mission. 1816L At 12:16pm it was time to Step to the Crew Bus and head out to the B-52's for a pre-flight. We were 4 minutes ahead of schedule!!! Flying an aircraft that is over half a century old requires not only a good pilot, but a great team. As we were in two hours of briefings, an entire maintenance team was working well before dawn to get the two jets mission ready. Making sure that critical issues from the previous flights were fixed and that the plane was safe to fly. The great thing about this is that when the crew gets off those buses, they know that this plane has been thoroughly pre-flighted and is good to go. If this was a real war, the jets would be on alert status and the crews would simply have to jump in and run through the preflight checklists. As we got off our bus, the crew of SKULL 24 got to work each inspecting their areas of the plane with final checks. I went with Filer, another pilot who was on board to get some additional training, to do a walk around of the aircraft. We started with the nose in a methodical path counter clockwise, making sure that there were no glaring issues. Brakes looked good, tires had no major wear, engines had no missing fan blades, no birds had made nests in the numerous compartments, bomb bay looked good, tail had no damage, and then the same on the other side.

Photo Courtesy of USAF

Photo Courtesy of USAF

Photo Courtesy of USAF

1842 Zulu After a quick handshake with the maintainers who worked so hard to get this jet ready, it was time to climb in. There is a small ladder just aft of the cockpit that you need to climb in order to get into the aircraft. Then you get into the lower level, where the two Bombardier Navigators sit. These guys are responsible for releasing the weapons, or basically the offensive weapons of the BUFF. Then you climb another ladder to the main deck of the aircraft and facing aft are the two E-Dub, or the defensive weapons coordinator that jams any threats to the aircraft. A mere six feet down a very, very narrow crawl space leads you to the two pilots and a small "seat" in-between them, called the IP (Instructor Pilot) Seat. That would be my spot. And as you can see it doesn't even have any leg room for you to sit straight with a parachute strapped to your back. It's hard to imagine that these crews regularly go on 18+ hour mission in this tiny, tiny crew area. But if you're doing the math in your head, and realize that there are 10 people on board, but only seven actual chairs. The rest of the crew members have to squeeze in little spaces around the two floors in small nooks with seat belts. And it is worth mentioning that the B-52 only has 6 ejection seats on board. The rest of us (myself included) would have to manually bail out should an emergency happen. Awesome! The two main pilots had already begun the lengthy preflight checklist. In fact each crew member was contributing to their departments checklists. But even that, that took just over an hour to accomplish. With 8 engines, 10 wheels, and 300 feet of airplane, there was a lot to check and double check before we could fly. 1910 Zulu And at 1330, it was time to fire up the engines. From #8, to 7, to 6, one by one, they all came to life and RPMs were at 60%. Until we got to engine #1 that is. Try as we might, the left most engine just would not start. I could see two pilots nervously double checking their procedures. Then the space pilot, grabbed a more detailed manual and cross referenced the abbreviated checklists. The mission seemed in peril. 1922 Zulu Additional maintainers who specialized in engines were called by the ground crew and told to bus out to the jet immediately. Selfishly, I was looking at the clock knowing that if we slipped our 2000Z take off time much more, that our rendezvous with the KC-135 refueling tanker, and my photos of a B-52 being refueled in mid-air would be in jeopardy. Time ticked by very very slowly. I was told that the spare jet was being prepped by another maintenance team. Switching jets would eat up precious time and sunset was a mere few hours away. But just like that, the specialists got #1 going and we were ready to taxi. 1950 Zulu "SKULL24, Barksdale Ground, cleared to taxi runway 11 via Alpha. Follow SKULL23 in front of you." the radio blared. Brakes off, and we lurched forward. I wish I could describe the experience of taxing in a B-52. You are sitting 40 feet off the ground with your wheels 50 feet behind you. There is nothing smooth or gentle about turning, and to say it's an art would still undermine the skill needed to maneuver that massive beast. 1956 Zulu But with 4 minutes to spare, we were sitting on the hammerhead just short of the runway about ready to take off. A final comm's check and we would be good to go. One by one we checked in, including the additional crew members, Radio Nav1, Check. Radio Nav2, Check, E-Dub, Check, Comm…..Comm? We had another problem. Comm's headset was receiving, but not transmitting over the inter-plane channel. If there was an emergency, and we could not communicate with all crew members, that would be very bad. Even though the B-52 has a back up system of flashing red lights to communicate ejection/egress directions, and even bells, this was a primary Go / No-Go check. The Aircraft Commander notified SKULL Lead to let them know that we had a problem. This started a dance between the two aircraft, FORTRESS, and FOXTROT (the maintenance group). How quickly could we get maintenance out to the jet to identify and fix the issue? Would delay in take off make us miss our aerial refueling? Should SKULL23 take off and we try to form up later or do we scrub the mission all together? What other options did we have? So I sat and took pictures till they sorted it out. Luckily a delayed take off is one of the contingencies that the crews had briefed for. COPPER 08, our aerial refueling tanker from the 161st Arizona ANG, would be available to us for an hour after our scheduled arrival time. So we had 1 hour to figure this out. Communications were flying back and forth and more checklists were being consulted. The other crew members verified in their G0 / No-Go checklists that having a secondary Comm person on board was not necessary for the mission to proceed. So rather then gamble with the maintenance crews to arrive, SKULL 24 did what they would do during wartime, opened the bottom hatch, dumped the non-essential crew member out and got ready for take off. With an old airplane, issues creep up all the time. Sometimes big, sometimes small, but in the end, the 20th BS did what they needed to within the safety envelope stepped up to accomplish the mission. 2058 Zulu With just 2 minutes to spare before we would miss our rendezvous with the refueling tanker, the controllers at KBAD gave the order: "SKULL23 Flight, cleared for take off runway 33."

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