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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”