So, we're an hour or so into our 12 hour B-52 training mission.
Now it's time to meet up with a tanker and practice some air refueling.
Air refueling is a big part of the bomber mission. During the Gulf War we would have to air refuel three times to get to the target and back. We practiced it on just about every training sortie.
I also found it to be the most difficult maneuver I ever had to learn.
In order to practice air refueling, we have a refueling "track" scheduled. This is a chunk of airspace roughly 100 miles long, 10 miles or so wide and a couple thousand feet of altitude.
There are refueling tracks scattered around the country. When the track is actually being used, Air Traffic Control will keep everyone else out of that airspace.
First we have to get there. The B-52 is pretty much a Navigator's airplane. It often seemed like I was just the voice-activated autopilot for the Navs. "Pilot fly heading 325. Pilot give me 290 knots indicated." There was very little navigational information available to the pilots. We just had to trust that the Navs were getting us where we needed to be when we needed to be there.
"Nav, where are we?"
"Well, we're lost but we're making good time."
There are two ways we can join up with the tanker(s). If we're all headed more or less in the same direction (maybe we took off from the same base) we'll just do an enroute rendezvous - meeting at a specific point at a specific time.
If the tanker is coming from another base, they might already be at the refueling track, in an orbit, waiting for us to get there. The tanker will make a turn as we come down track and, if everything works as advertised, they will roll out roughly 3 miles ahead and 1000 feet above us.
A quick word about tankers. The tanker is the least glamorous aircraft in the Air Force and the one that really makes us the force we are today. Everybody needs tanker support: bombers, fighters, transports, AWACS, the Navy, the Marines and even NATO.
The tanker guys (and I was one later in my career) liked to say "Nobody kicks ass without our gas".
To get that gas we need to close up the last 3 miles and get joined up with the tanker. We know the tanker is holding the refueling airspeed for our plane - 280 knots. We just go a bit faster than that and slowly climb towards his altitude as we close the gap. We do this in a very controlled manner, reducing our closure rate as we get closer. We don't want to "cowboy" it here. Screaming in with a bunch of airspeed and under-running the tanker would be extremely dangerous. Several bombers and tankers have been lost that way over the years.
We stop our closure about 100 feet behind and below the tanker in what's called the "precontact" position. The boom operator in the back of the tanker comes on the radio and clears me to "contact". Note that in wartime we might do this all without talking on the radios - we wouldn't want people to know we were coming.
Now the aerodynamics of two large airplanes flying in close formation are pretty complicated. I'm not an aero engineer so I'm not sure I could even fully explain it. In SAC we just simplified it to each airplane pushing a "bow wave" of air in front of it, kind of like a ship. Easy enough to imagine.
Closing in from precontact is a bit tricky. I have to move forwards and upwards to a position roughly 30 feet behind the tanker. At around 50 feet I'm going to pass through his bow wave, which will stop me if I don't have enough closure. If I use too much speed, however, I'll come in dangerously fast and the boom operator will call for a "breakaway" maneuver and we'll have to go back and start all over again.
As I close in I see the tip of the refueling boom pass over the cockpit. We can actually hear the sound of the airstream going past it. The refueling receptacle is roughly 10 feet behind where I'm sitting. Some boom operators will "reach" for us and plug us on the way in. Others will wait until I'm good and steady (hah!) in the contact position before connecting.
Once the boom operator is happy they will extend the boom into our receptacle and electric toggles will physically latch onto it. Two rows of lights on the belly of the tanker help me stay in position - one set for up/down and one set for fore/aft.
A B-52G is a fat, wallowing, sow of an aircraft behind the tanker. There are no ailerons so roll control is ever so slow. Move the yoke and one two three okay it's finally rolling. Center the yoke and one two three it's still rolling.....okay it's finally stopped.
If that wasn't bad enough, it also has what's called a "Dutch Roll", which isn't a type of pastry popular in the Netherlands. It means the nose of the plane is trying to make a little figure-8 all the time. That short tail, modified for low-level flying, just doesn't work as well as the old tall-tails did. Even with two yaw dampers and a pitch damper the nose of the plane is always hunting around. Not so much that you'd notice it - until you get up close behind the tanker.
So, just to keep my wings level I have to constantly saw back and forth on the yoke. And because the plane is so unresponsive I have to make my inputs before I actually need them. Very non-intuitive. It wasn't until my eighth checkout ride that I ever successfully got hooked up to the tanker. I'm sure I scared a few boom operators in the process.
Getting the left/right nailed down is the toughest part, but I also have to maintain my vertical position within a few feet and control my fore/aft position as well. Hopefully the tanker pilot is smooth. If he lets his airspeed drift then my job gets that much tougher. So in addition to sawing the yoke I'm also moving it forward and aft while constantly tweaking the throttles.
I'm trying to stay inside a 10-foot box of airspace relative to the tanker while both of us are moving along at 280 indicated, maybe at night, maybe in the weather, maybe in turbulence. One good flick of my wrist and I can kill 10 people - my crew plus 4 in the tanker. Tell me again why race car drivers make so much money?
If I move out of position, my bow-wave will actually push the tanker around. So the rougher I get, the rougher he gets and so on. It's easier if the tanker is on autopilot, but we also practice with the tanker pilot hand flying. If things get too wild the boom operator can disconnect us or I can push a button my yoke to disconnect us.
This whole time I'm just looking at that great big airplane filling my windscreen. My copilot meanwhile is directing the fuel where it needs to go to keep our center of gravity within limits. On a training mission we may only take on a token amount of fuel, just a few thousand pounds.
On a training sortie we might spend an hour or so on the refueling track, cycling back and forth between contact and pre-contact. The tanker crew needs the practice just as much as I do. The boom operator needs the practice as much as I do.
Finally it's time to call it quits. We'll finish up with a practice breakaway maneuver. We need to get separation between the two aircraft anyways.
We would do a breakaway for real if the bomber was coming in too fast on the tanker or any time things start getting out of hand. The boom operator calls "Breakaway! Breakaway! Breakaway!" over the radio, we both hit our disconnect switches, I chop my power to idle and call for the landing gear down(!). Meanwhile the tanker pilot goes to maximum power. We drop away quickly while the tanker accelerates away.
Somewhere in there the tanker's autopilot may decide it can't keep up with the trim changes and call it quits - then the tanker pilot suddenly finds himself with a handful of out-of-trim airplane pitching up while the boom operator gets a face full of B-52. Fun.
You "made your money" as an Aircraft Commander by getting the fuel. If you couldn't get the fuel you couldn't do your mission. You either wouldn't get to the target or you wouldn't get back.
I didn't get really good at air refueling until after the Gulf War. We spent a lot of time on the boom during that thing. I got to where I could pull 3 engines to idle on the same wing and still stay hooked up.
Whew! That was a lot of work. Next time we'll get to the really good stuff - low level flying.
Hey kids! You can make your very own B-52 air refueling simulator! Just sit at your desk while holding a 3-pound dumbbell in your left hand like it was an aircraft yoke. Now move it up and down six inches - for the next hour. Enjoy!