It was my privilege to fly one of the great classics of aviation. One that is still around today and may still be around even after I'm gone.
I served as an aircraft commander on B-52Gs from 1989 - 1992. This was an interesting time. The Cold War was nearing its end, but the Soviet Union was still around and Strategic Air Command bombers still sat nuclear alert. Then there was that little spat in the Middle East.
New air defenses were making our lives tougher but B-1s were just becoming operational and the B-2 was still a dream. We were still the backbone of the bomber force in those days. We had to be good, damn good, because our planes were older than most of us flying them. We may have been best trained bomber force ever.
This is a pretty big topic, so I'll talk more about the mission later. In this diary I just want to introduce you to the airplane.
First off, it's not a "Stratofortress". Nobody called it a Stratofortress. It was, and will always be "The BUFF". If you don't know what that acronym means, I'll let you look it up. It's not a polite term.
I flew the B-52G, or the "G model". They're not around anymore. They were all retired around 1993. By treaty with the Russians they were all chopped into pieces so that they could never be put back into service. When I saw them being cut up on television I cried.
The G was built between 1957 and 1959. It was an interim model between the earlier "tall tail" models and the H model, which are the only ones still flying. The "new" ones were built in 1960 by the way.
So let's take a look at this thing.
By then the sleek lines of the late 1950s have given way to all kinds of bumps and bulges from camera pods and jamming antennas. A close look would reveal a veritable "antenna farm" along the belly of the plane.
Damn it's big. That wing is massive - 189 feet tip to tip. It's got eight engines. Nothing else has eight engines. Sure, they're crappy late 50s turbojets but there's eight of them. That's cool. Eight noisy, smoke belching, gas guzzling, water-injected turbojets. Nobody uses turbojets any more. Even fighters have turbofans in 1989.
Sure there are bigger planes but this thing just seems impressive. A hulking brute of an airplane. It can weigh in at 500,000 pounds. Most of that is fuel. A typical fuel load was 280,000 pounds. To put that in perspective, my entire 757 only weighs 200,000 pounds fully loaded. It takes a lot of fuel to fly to Russia. Another 50,000 pounds of that could be weapons, conventional or otherwise. More on that later.
It's also different. There's nothing normal about it. All Boeings have a lot in common, except for this one. I've flown the 707 (KC-135), 727 and 757 now. The B-52 is nothing like them. It's like the odd family member that everyone wonders if they were adopted.
Airplanes look the way they do for a reason. In this case the massive bomb-bay, the purpose for this plane's existence, is that reason. To make room for it they had to put a set of main "trucks" in front of it and another behind it. The front wheels are the same size as the backs. The narrow stance of the main gear required them to put small wheels out at the wingtips to keep the wings from touching the ground.
They then had to attach the wing at an upwards angle just so the thing could take off and land with that funky landing gear. If you ever see one take off, the wing starts to "fly" before the rest of the plane. That's also why they sometimes appear to be flying nose down - they are. It's just different.
Technology wise it runs the gamut from late 1940s to state of the art for the time. The bomb racks and release mechanism are right out of a B-17. The radar, however is the same unit as the B-1. It even had GPS and satellite communications when those were new technologies.
And it has guns! How cool is that? There are 4 fifty-caliber machine guns in the tail. Just like in all those old movies, except the gunner sits in the cockpit and controls them remotely. Mostly I just like the idea of having something to shoot back with.
Let's take a look inside. It's hard to get into. You climb up a small ladder under the belly of the plane. It's cramped in there. As big as it is they didn't leave much room for people. What space isn't taken up by fuel or weapons is taken up by electronics.
The cockpit has an upper and lower compartment with another ladder that goes between them. That ladder is the only place you have room to stand upright.
The two navigators sit downstairs, in the dark. No windows. They have ejection seats but the seats fire downwards. Not so good for low-level missions.
Upstairs the Gunner and Electronic Warfare Officer "E-Dub" sit facing backwards, in the dark. They don't have windows either. They at least have proper ejection seats that go up.
Myself and the Copilot sit up front of course. There is no flight engineer. Odd for something built in the 1950s. The plane was set up for the Aircraft Commander to fly and the Copilot to mostly act as the flight engineer.
Climbing into the Aircraft Commander's seat, it's reasonably comfortable for an ejection seat. After 12 hours not so much.
Human factors weren't a big deal in the late 50's and it shows in the cockpit. They pretty much stuck switches and gauges wherever they had room for them. Only I can reach the hydraulic systems, only the Copilot can reach the electrical systems. Flying this thing will be a serious team effort - the airlines call it "CRM", SAC called it "Crew Concept".
Still, it feels good sitting here. Feels tough. Feels powerful. Look back at those massive wings and those engine pods. Grab hold of those eight throttles. It may not be a sleek, pointy-nosed fighter but it's a warplane.
That's all for now. We'll go flying in the next diary.